Imani Jacqueline Brown
To: The pigeons on my balcony
A Love Letter
As a young girl, I had a pet bird. I didn’t ask for her; she was a Christmas gift from a friend of my mother. I called her Orion. We hated the idea of keeping birds in cages, so we let her fly around our screened-in porch. A bigger cage. She would never survive freedom, we told ourselves. My love for her was a cruelty.
On clear nights, I search for her constellation.
During the days, I ask for her forgiveness, through you.
You might not have noticed, but the world as we humans have known it, as we built it, is coming to an end. As the world burns, we despair and rejoice. Other worlds await.
I have found one such world in a forgotten space of time,
here with you on my balcony.
Some humans (the lucky ones?) have been given two choices for what we can do with the excess of time we call “lockdown” – time at home, which we feel as a cage (it’s not): I can either stretch my consciousness away from my body, grasping at reflections and analytics and predictions of the world in those black mirrors we all carry, or I can sit within my body, sit with existence. Among my kind, it is a privilege to simply exist.
I’ve missed existence.
So, out of the long hours of lockdown, I’ve woven a bit of time with you. You come for the offering of birdseed and water, of course. But then you stay, settling down in a patch of sun, stretching out one wing at a time. Warm rays reach that cold spot on your back that’s usually folded behind your wing joint. Your eyelids heavy as your partner preens the tiniest feathers on your cheek.
For the moment, I’ve lost much of what we humans think of as freedom, but there’s some eternal freedom to be found in the sun, isn’t there?
You’re teaching me something about life.
Feelings come on strong as of late.
Sometimes, I’m swollen with grief.
I look into your eyes and weep.
Sometimes, I’m overcome with joy.
I look into your eyes and weep.
I like that you’ve made my balcony home. I don’t mind cleaning up after you.
I’m grateful for your company.
There’s a lot of death among humankind these days.
There’s a lot of death among all kinds these days.
Our war against existence is lonely.
Did you know that your ancestors once fought in our wars?
They were bred by our ancestors for thousands of years before the current era. They were immortalized in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. They carried messages across distances of up to 1,000 km at speeds of up to 150 kph. They learned to recognize the Roman alphabet.
And during our “Great War,” we strapped tiny cameras to their soft bellies, using the brilliance of their internal compass and map senses to track our enemies’ movements. Some humans even offered them medals of honor. (We are a silly species.)
And then we invented the telegraph. Having extracted all the labor we needed from your bodies, we cast you out. Now, we line our buildings with spikes. We let our children kick at you. We poison your nests. An exile from both domestication and nature, you are at best insignificant, at worst a pest, the enemy, ranked among the lowest of Earth’s creatures.
We resent your freedom.
I am chilled by this story.
It nags at the dark matter that holds me together,
that holds existence together.
We humans also cast out members of our own kind.
Humankind’s segregation into “my kind” and “their kind” is one facet of the war that divides existence into kinds with and without care, with and without a right to exist. My kind – we are called “the Blacks”– are relegated to the bottom of the human hierarchy. We were once enslaved by the group at the top. They call themselves “the Whites.” Some of them resent our freedom, too.
There is a human named J. Drew Lanham who has written for Orion about the entangled 19th century destinies of African maroons fleeing enslavement and Carolina parakeets fleeing extinction.1 They each found refuge from death on plantations by living in swamps – ecosystems with a vital function to protect life, yet at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.
Lanham is a “Black birder”, meaning that he is an admirer of birds and also Black. According to Enlightened human reason, to be Black and a lover of nature is unnatural, a contradiction, because, being at the bottom of humanity, we exist at the edge of the so-called “state of nature.” We cannot love nature because we are supposed to hate ourselves. And we cannot share in nature because we must leave ourselves behind if we are to be welcomed among humanity. Of course we are nature, just like everything and everyone else, but to admit as much would be a surrender. (Or a coup?)
Human reason is a contradiction.
No human lives will matter until Black lives matter.
But what of the rest of matter?
In his guide for Black birders,2 Lanham suggests that the blackbird, “family Icteridae,” and the crow, “family Covidae,” be adopted (figuratively speaking) by Black birders as our bird-kin because they are black in color and often disparaged and disregarded. But what of you, the common pigeon, “family Columbidae?”
The very name humankind has offered to yours carries echoes of our war.)
Sitting with you, I’ve thought a lot about kinship.
Not as a metaphor,
not as a myth,
but as a truth.
As a fact:
That all matter is shared.
The shared condition of existence is one of
bodies within bodies,
houses within houses.
Our bodies are homes to microscopic bodies.
Our bodies strive to be at home within the greater body of the world,
which the human has reshaped into a hostile environment.
I want you to be at home in the world. I want to be at home in the world.
The folktales of my ancestors tell us that birds are messengers of the spirit world, and that Black humans can fly. My body is the voice; yours, the message:
Kinship is the dark matter that connects each and every body.
Kinship is the dark wisdom that teaches humanity how to end this war:
One cannot love existence and disparage you.
Loving you is a politics of reparation.
Some saw in the Black [human] the salt of the earth, the vein of life through which the dream of a humanity reconciled with nature, and even with the totality of existence, would find its new face, voice, and movement.
–Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason
About the artist
Imani Jacqueline Brown is an artist, activist, researcher and writer. Her work investigates extractive environmental and economic practices and policies in order to expose the layers of violence and resistance that comprise the crumbling foundations of US American society. Brown orients her practice towards ecological justice, knowing that the world cannot find balance until reparations are won. She holds a MA in Research Architecture from Goldsmiths, University of London.