Cassius September 2020 Cover

Source: Mariano Henestrosa / Mariano Henestrosa For iOne

We think we know who we are when left to our own devices.

In a world of increasingly polarizing perspectives, where we are even complex to our own grandmothers, we hold onto the illusion that when the rain pours, we would know what to do with an umbrella. But in quarantine 2020, the limits of our imagination are overburdened, and most often, we fail these genius things we thought we crafted to fit any predicament. 

I believe a lot of people told themselves that they were better than the chaos they saw on TV when crisis breaks out. We tend to look at the pandemic with a sense of spectacle and fantasy that we aren’t facing a reality that is a matter of ‘when’ and not a matter of ‘if.’ And yet, when the quarantine began, Americans dedicated themselves to the spectacle of excess and lust the global stage has committed to memory. People bought mountains of toilet paper for three-person households and perishable goods rather than the canned foods, which could realistically last the families in the case of an actual emergency.

It only took my mother 48 hours under quarantine to start discussing what she was capable of doing in case things got too bad. And yet, we find ourselves in the limitations of our imagination outside of the hard law of gun smoke and bullet.

I like to think it had something to do with the Philly in her to take before she found another way. However, there was something heightened about the quarantine that pushed folk to operate in a way that betrayed the well-cultivated mask they put on to receive a pat on the head from the government and the people who’ve already succeeded in shaving their wealth off the top while leaving us to pick at its hardened bottom.

Perhaps that’s what led us to the revolutionary flame that was the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. The memory of these Black deaths is at the foundation of where I find myself in investigating our “New Normal.” It was still fresh in me when we later also lost Oluwatoyin Salau. 

These deaths have been the breathable air of almost every pop-cultural moment since the civil unrest in Minneapolis and the necessarily aggressive demand for accountability across all platforms that followed. What started as a sincere demand has bled into something akin to pandering and a mill for content for the sake of digestible outrage and distraction.

From brands deciding to put forth diversity initiatives, the NBA has Black Lives Matter across its courts, allowing players in the bubble to wearing social justice messages on the back of their jerseys to products getting pulled from shelves for being racially insensitive.

And yet, I cannot say any of it is new.

When I think of a “New Normal,” I think about sitting at my computer attending a digital MFA that I am now woefully cognizant I am learning nothing in. I am paying more in tuition than I ever have, and I am frustrated by the fact there are even more roadblocks between me and my success as a creator than there have ever been before.

The “New Normal” is students being held accountable for a University’s decision to make classes in-person, rather than remote to collect on-campus residential living at the expense of their student body, as we see across the country. Though the power is entirely in the hands of the University administration who make it their mission to drain students of their finances for the “college experience” of social interaction during a time defined by social distancing.

In a movie, we’ve painted ourselves as the savior or hero who will remind everyone to come together in an hour of need. That race doesn’t matter at a time like this, or that wealth doesn’t matter at a time like this. And then, not only are Black people are being gunned down by the police, but Black people are being disproportionately harmed by the pandemic both financially and within the actual impact of the virus. We’re establishing more and more billionaires (and an eventual Trillionaire) throughout a pandemic-induced recession;  And that’s not including celebrities who’ve marketed themselves as supportive or down with the culture, just to about-face. 

These people aren’t for us, but in the end, we have never really suspected they were. Otherwise, we would never wonder if people are as nice as they are on TV. All of it has just been a very distracting fantasy, but what is the New Normal other than finding the story unappealing when you finally sit down to look at it?

We even criticize the award seasons in entertainment now, but nothing is different than before. Everyone has the same hairstylist. Everyone has the same make-up and costumes. The MTV VMAs have always taken place in a weird warehouse with a red carpet done outside in a spruced up, weird back alley. We just thought the lights were prettier back then.

The truth of the New Normal we’ve come to dread has never been about the experiences we’ve had. There’s nothing new to the spectrum of emotions other than the depths of boredom and fear. I think instead, we’re finding ourselves troubled by a conversation of spaces. We sit indoors in a space we’re not satisfied with, with a mind-frame that had been troubling us since before we were confined to just four walls. We never realized we ran away from huge aspects of ourselves or lived in denial of what should’ve been so easy to admit. 

The same colleges punishing students for violating the social distancing practices they regulate for student loans have always been built on the bedrock of exploiting its student body. From Residential Advisors sacrificing time and, in some cases, grade point average for housing to Work Study employees burdened both with their financial status and the added pressures of American exceptionalism.  

At some points in our lives, we thought we were the greater man overcoming all obstacles thrown before us when really, we are just as desperate as the children our grandparents were. We thought we were beyond the same tiring chants and demands we were repeating for decades, but we are precisely that. Celebrities might have been deluded that they were beyond the touch of their old lives, just to come crashing back down to earth when there was no luxury to enjoy.

We as a planet no longer have a place to escape to that satisfies the delusion that we were doing much with ourselves. The only thing that is real for us now is the realizations we make alone because what else is there? When we reach out, we find our limitations in our immediate surroundings. These limitations are saddening: we’re not entertained by distractions anymore, and the known unknown is a frightening depth. We can’t count our lifetime in hours when we hear the seconds once more slipping by. 

I’ve found myself counting my contacts and progress with a level of sadness because of the unshackling from my delusions. I’ve had to confront the facets of my family life that reflected something ugly. All the same, I think I’m better for it, and I’m more honest for it. When I look at the tools in my disposal in the space I can actually impact — with the things I actually care to manipulate for the better — there is an opportunity to make growth that I actually care about.

 The “New Normal” is not something that exists to petrify ourselves in a state of inaction, but is supposed to be sobering meditation. Everything we’ve been bombarded with throughout the pandemic has happened before, but we allowed ourselves the safety of distraction. We knew that in the end, the structure of our society didn’t cater to the vulnerability of the masses, but the convenience of the powerful. If we want to go outside again, I think we’ve realized the genius of truth is it makes you uncomfortable enough to change.