by Michelle Moyd, 8 September 2020
… the idea of devotion, is not the same as what we have been asked to do as workers. A radical ethic of care compels us to build new things to compensate for the inability of capitalism to care. To seek coalition with colleagues, families, friends, strangers. To be honest with our students, our colleagues, families, friends that we are working while at home under remote emergency conditions. We teach, working to brighten the dark for our students, for our families, for our colleagues. Devotion causes us to ask who we have overlooked because we never had to look before.
Blessed are the children
Praise the teacher
That brings true love to many
I am a huge fan of the soul band Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF). I grew up with their music, and listening to it as a fifty-something still sends me back to my childhood, when I learned the words to their songs first by listening to mixtapes my father recorded to play in our car’s tape deck. Then he made some just for me, to play in my room, lovingly selecting his favorite songs, turning them into my favorite songs.
Of these, “Devotion,” on the 1974 EWF album Open Our Eyes, is bedrock. Its soaring falsetto vocal melody, performed by lead singer Philip Bailey, is surrounded by the rich harmonies for which the band is well-known. The song glories in its spirituality, its lyrics and sounds gesturing to cosmologies rooted in an ethic of care, with hints of Afrocentric Egyptology referencing the power of light to destroy evil. As a Rolling Stone article described it in 2016, “Awash in shimmering chords, fusion-rich keys and a lusciously sinuous bass line, the song’s hooks are as subtle as they are unshakeable. It’s a tender song for a time when America felt anything but…”
Blessed are the children. Praise the teacher.
A tender song for a tough time. I have been reminded of this song countless times in the months since my university closed down due to the pandemic. I had always found it compelling in personal terms for its ethical core, its message of hope, its beauty. The lyrics and sonic abundance gave me reasons for keeping my head to the sky, as another gorgeous inspirational song sung by Bailey advised. But in March, as the mother of a six year old kindergartener and a university professor with teaching responsibilities, I found myself reckoning with motherhood and professional life in entirely new ways. The forced merger of office and home life required new thinking about the meaning of being a working mom. It exposed new cracks in the façade of having it all, having it all together, having it not fall apart.
And once exposed, it became impossible to deny the precarity of it all. We worked at home, competing for quiet and bandwidth. Or alone, distanced from networks, kin, connection. We stocked up on non-perishable food and pledged not to shop unnecessarily. We kept our children away from playmates despite their broken hearts. We argued about whether or not masks mattered, and if so, in what ways. Handmade masks began to pile up as a new kind of gift, artful, more or less comfortable, wire over the nosebridge or not, pleated, flat, other. School kids learned at home, or at least tried. We began to feel strange asking each other “how are you,” the absurdity of this question in everyday life, the standard uncomplicated greeting in the United States suddenly glaringly inadequate to pandemic conditions. We found ways to help each other and also saw all the need, in all its dimensions. That’s what happened between the shutdown and now.
University administrators have sometimes used the language of devotion or sacrifice to describe the “miracle” that faculty and staff performed in switching from “face-to-face” classroom instruction to “online” instruction in a matter of weeks. Rather than calling it what it was – a rapid transition (not a “pivot”) to remote emergency learning, we were asked to proceed as if nothing had changed except the mode of “delivery” for instruction. Five months later, we prepared to “restart,” with extensive new protocols in place for managing the viral threat that encompasses everyday life, as well as how we are to teach and how students are to learn in the age of COVID-19. At no point in the six months that have elapsed since the shutdown has the home/work remix attracted institutional solution-seeking. This past six months has been our home problem. And so it remains.
That brings true love to many.
From the institutional perspective, all of this has happened as if these responsibilities do not exist. As if the university is not dependent on the labor of women and men with caregiving responsibilities that continue regardless of the university’s priorities.
Your devotion opens all life’s treasures, yeah.
But devotion? The official narrative of the March miracle narrates a story of devoted faculty doing their level best to keep things going in the face of unprecedented crisis. Doing their damnedest not to succumb to the anger, grief, and frustration resulting from yet another exacerbation of the notion that we have endless wells of energy to devote to our surround of constant labor at home and in the ether. Defining our labor as heroic offers no solution to an interminable new set of labor conditions that threaten the mental, emotional, and physical health of so many, whether caregivers or not.
And deliverance from the fruits of evil.
What choice did anyone have? Failing to change our instruction or adapt to the pandemic’s conditions was not an option if we wanted to keep our jobs. Many of us are dedicated teachers and professionals doing our best, doing our part, to provide students opportunities to learn, to keep all the processes going, to get ready for the next round. To believe that this is a beginning, not the end.
The conflation of devotion and sacrifice with the increased and often unmanageable labor demands the pandemic has unmasked for faculty and staff leaves us reeling. Much of this has to do with how the pandemic has drawn back the curtain on the labor required, visible and invisible, to run a university. And this in turn also has led to fuller realizations of the precarity of so much that seemed permanent, including our university system. Much like militaries, for every pilot flying an inestimably expensive jet, or every combat unit deployed to the front lines, there are vast networks of workers doing unseen, unheralded, and poorly compensated labor to keep them going. This labor includes equipment maintenance, supply, medical care, food preparation, and so on.
Once you see it, it is the most obvious thing.
But what the pandemic has also revealed is this country’s single-minded focus on continuing the money-making enterprises that have built the capitalist structures that now confine us. This means that the US is not at all focused on the enterprises that might make it possible to disrupt the usual work arrangements in order to do the work of containing the virus. As many others have noted, child care is foundational to this dream, as is some form of income that will allow people to stay home as much as possible until the pandemic is contained. And for those who have the ability, the privilege, to work while at home (not from home), there is the jarring, but necessary, experience of glimpsing—merely glimpsing–the strains faced by millions of essential workers, what they have faced, what they will face, not just as long as the pandemic lasts, but as long as a dehumanizing capitalist system reliant on labor inequity and abuses lasts.
In some places, faculty members have had to fight to be able to stay home this fall. In some places, they have fought to keep their children home, even though it means their work lives will be disrupted for an indefinite time frame. And even though it will cause hardship for other caregivers who must have care in order to go to their jobs. Yet some faculty and some of their children will be in classrooms this fall, and in this, we see the necessity of wide and deep mobilizations that overcome the falsity of essential workers versus any other category of worker, including those of us whose intellectual labor makes universities function alongside the work of others who make universities function.
Opens all life’s treasures, yeah
And deliverance from the fruits of evil
As I listen more closely to EWF’s “Devotion” and allow its sonic heft to fill in the gaps where the words aren’t, I reflect on what “deliverance from the fruits of evil” means as we prepare to go back into classrooms, virtual and physical, as we prepare to send our children back into classrooms, as we ask teachers to educate them at all costs so that we can work.
There is the evil of COVID-19, most identifiably. Capitalist evil at the root. And our labor situation is the fruit.
So our mission
To bring a melody
Ringin’ voices (woo hoo-ooo)
Sing sweet harmony
What is our mission in this pandemic world? In this world of pitiless capitalism exposed, again, for its extractive violence, with many seeing it for the first time because it has finally engulfed them in the ways that essential workers have long been engulfed?
For you here’s a song
To make your day brighter
One that will last you long
Through troubled days
EWF’s recommendation is a song. Devotion. The words are simple, crystalline.
Giving your heart
The light to brighten
All of the dark
That falls in your way
What this song offers, the idea of devotion, is not the same as what we have been asked to do as workers. A radical ethic of care compels us to build new things to compensate for the inability of capitalism to care. To seek coalition with colleagues, families, friends, strangers. To be honest with our students, our colleagues, families, friends that we are working while at home under remote emergency conditions. We teach, working to brighten the dark for our students, for our families, for our colleagues. Devotion causes us to ask who we have overlooked because we never had to look before. Because we looked away before. Because we have so much more darkness falling in our way. The pandemic and the assertion of illiberal necro-politics that wishes us dead.
Open your heart
Feel the touch of devotion
Maybe this song
Uplift your day
Make a better way
Make a better way. This is what is required. Revolutionary mothering. Through devotion, understood as a commitment to connecting with others in order to build alternatives that serve all who labor under impossible conditions. A prayer for workers whoever, wherever they are, an appeal to that which ties us all together. Our need for health and sustenance, company, and care across generations.
You need devotion
Bless the children
From the fruits of evil
The last part of the song repeats the opening, but with a subtle shift. Where the opening is passive – through devotion – the closing is directive. You need devotion. Bless the children. Deliverance. From the fruits of evil.
As I start a new semester in which I will not see any of my 150 students in person, as I take another run at figuring out how my daughter will learn at home, I chart a path through each day that cannot tarry too long in despair. Devotion is not what drives my work. Devotion is the unending work of care. And it is a political project of utmost urgency.
Bless the children. Praise the teacher.
Make a better way.
I am grateful to Heather Blair, Manling Luo, Anya Royce, and Sarah van der Laan for their devotion to the craft of writing, and their care in providing critical comments that helped me sharpen the first draft.
 Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, Mai’a Williams, eds. Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016). With thanks to Monica Johnson for drawing my attention to this concept.