Longreads Best of 2020: Essays

A small sampling of standout essays published this year.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors picked and featured hundreds of beautifully written and poignant essays published on the web. Because of the wide range of writing across many topics and themes, it was a challenge to sift through them all over the past several weeks to compile a definitive Best of Essays list. As I shortlisted stories, I realized there could be many different versions of this list, but, in the end, these eight reads really spoke to me.

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Mississippi: A Poem, in Days (Kiese Makeba Laymon, Vanity Fair)

Kiese Makeba Laymon was on a book tour when the pandemic hit in the U.S. In this stunner of a piece that unfolds over 14 days, the author writes on fear, racism, death, and home amid a moment of awakening. We follow along on the journey, from event to event in Ohio and West Virginia, with Laymon’s observations and thoughts interspersed with daily COVID-19 death counts and the latest words or orders from Donald Trump and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves. It’s a powerful meditation, one that will stop you in your tracks.

We are awakened, I want to believe.

75 miles from the armed confederate statue in Oxford, Emmett Till’s childish body was destroyed. 70 miles from that armed confederate statue, Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death. 160 miles from that armed confederate statue, Medgar Evers was murdered as he enters his home. 80 miles from that armed confederate statue, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis.

It took way too much Black death to get here.

I am wandering around the spiritual consequences of materially progressing at the expense of Black death. I want to be courageous. I wonder, though, when courage becomes contagious—when courage is credentialized, subsidized, and incentivized—if it is still courage at all.

Today, as I prepare to push send, and I lather my hands in sanitizer, it feels a bit too much like cowardice.

Maybe I’ll wait to send tomorrow. Maybe I won’t send at all.

The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, a group of white men, unanimously vote to keep the armed confederate monument in the middle of Oxford, the town where I live, teach, and write.

Humiliation, agony, and death, are what I feel.

It could all be so much worse, is what the worst of white folks want us to recite.

Molly (Blake Butler, The Volta)

December’s special issue of The Volta is dedicated to the late poet Molly Brodak, and Brodak’s husband, Blake Butler, writes an incredibly moving essay to remember and honor her. In “Molly,” he weaves an intimate portrait of his late wife — and the details, textures, and expanse of their relationship –with so much love and care. Grab a tissue before sitting down to read it.

Making her laugh made me feel alive, like I’d really accomplished something. She wanted to laugh, I think, despite a widening parcel in her telling her that laughter in a world like ours was for fools. When I think the sound of it now, it reminds me of a bird trapped in a ballroom, looking for anywhere to land.

But there was always something still there underneath that, shredding its pasture—parts of her so dark and displaced I cannot find them anywhere touching the rest of how she was. The story, like all stories, holds no true shape. And that’s exactly what it wants—the pain—it wants more blank to feed the pain with, to fill the space up. It wants us all.

Then, in her poem, “Horse and Cart,” one of the last she ever wrote: “I can’t even imagine a horse / anymore. / That we sat on their spines / and yanked their mouths around.” The gears of her mind, as she grew tired, wore down even these good times, seeking further ways to break them up, send her away.

I Cry for the Mountains: A Legacy Lost (Dave Daley, Chico Enterprise-Record)

California experienced another unprecedented wildfire season this year; a number of fire complexes burned throughout the state, including the massive North Complex Fire that started in August and burned in Northern California’s Plumas and Butte counties. Rancher Dave Daley offers a devastating account of the destruction of his family’s cattle range in Plumas National Forest, and a passionate plea to legislators and regulators to ultimately listen to the land and the locals when it comes to forest management. Daley originally posted this account on Facebook; his followers recommended that the Chico Enterprise-Record reprint it for a wider audience.

I cry for the forest, the trees and streams, and the horrible deaths suffered by the wildlife and our cattle. The suffering was unimaginable.

When you find groups of cows and their baby calves tumbled in a ravine trying to escape, burned almost beyond recognition or a fawn and small calf side by side as if hoping to protect one another, you try not to wretch. You only pray death was swift. Worse, in searing memory, cows with their hooves, udder and even legs burned off still alive who had to be euthanized. A doe lying in the ashes with three fawns, not all hers I bet. And you are glad they can stand and move, even with a limp, because you really cannot imagine any more death today.

For those of you on the right blaming the left and California, these are National Forest lands that are “managed” by the feds. They have failed miserably over the past 50 years. Smokey the Bear was the cruelest joke ever played on the western landscape, a decades long campaign to prevent forest fires has resulted in mega-fires of a scope we’ve never seen. Thanks, Smokey.

I get frustrated with experts and consultants who drive by and “know just what to do.” For 35 years I have attended conferences, given presentations and listened. What I have learned is solutions are local and specific. What happens in one watershed in Plumas or Butte County may be entirely different in the Lassen National Forest just next door. But experts of all kinds are glad to tell you how to do it. “Let’s prescribe graze, use virtual fences, change your timing, change your genetics.” Prescribe graze the forest and canyons? Yea. Right. They don’t know what they don’t know but they will take the honorarium anyway and have a great dinner on your dime. The locals and land rarely benefit.

How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda (Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker)

Jiayang Fan pens a masterful piece of personal history, on her mother and their relationship, identity, family, propaganda and social media, and chronic illness (her mother has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS). Fan recounts her struggle to help her mother get hospital care during New York’s COVID-19 crisis, all while going viral and facing threats on social media, calling her a criminal and a traitor to China. She tells a complicated and very personal story, one of loyalty and love, with strength and eloquence.

My mother has always knelt at the altar of mianzi, an aspiration of which A.L.S. makes a spectacular mockery. You may think it’s embarrassing to slur your speech and limp, but wait until you are being spoon-fed and pushed around in a wheelchair—all of which will seem trivial once you can no longer wash or wipe yourself. The progress of the disease is a forced march toward the vanishing point of mianzi. When my mother was first given her diagnosis, she became obsessed with the idea of why—why her, why now, and, above all, why an illness that would subject her to the kind of public humiliation she feared more than death itself. When she could still operate her first-generation iPad, my mother gave me a contact list of everyone she was still in touch with in China, and told me that, except for her siblings, no one must know of her affliction. Such self-imposed isolation seemed like madness to me, but she preferred to cut friends out of her life rather than admit to the indignity of her compromised state. Her body’s insurrection, my mother believes, is her punishment for her prideful strivings in America.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had read that a virus is neither dead nor alive, and replicates only in the shelter of a host organism. I began to think of “Jiayang Fan” as viral not in a social-media sense but in a biological one; the calamitous state of the world and certain random mutations in the story had made it unexpectedly contagious. My original posts had served their purpose; now they were serving the purposes of others. I had unwittingly bred a potent piece of propaganda.

The Promise That Tested My Parents Until the End (Christopher Solomon, GQ)

Don’t you ever put me in one of those places, she said.
Don’t put me in one of those places, my father replied.

Christopher Solomon’s parents made a pledge to one another. But what did that actually look like over time, especially when his father became sick? What does unconditional love and devotion look like in our own lives? Solomon writes an honest and heartbreaking essay on love, aging, and marriage — in sickness and in health.

In time what was imperceptible in him became noticeable, and then what was noticeable became something worse. The landscape of my father changed, the coastline eroded. There was less of him, until the old map of my father no longer fit the man before us. It has been 20 years now since he was diagnosed, and sometimes it is hard to remember a time that he was not sick. His speech became a gargle of consonants. The dementia took most of his mind. His body curled in on itself—shrinking, reducing, as if he were becoming an infant again. Despite this, for years he still played the piano, every day, and nearly as well as ever—the mysteryland of the brain permitting this freedom even as body, and mind, crumbled around him. My mother would sing along from the kitchen, as she always had.

And then one day, after I arrive home, my mother sounds more concerned than usual. He has stopped playing the piano, she says. This seems to worry her more than anything else.

Finally, exhausted, she relents. She drives to visit a nearby nursing home. Afterward she cries in the parking lot. She cries for what she sees there. She cries at the prospect of breaking the Promise. She cries because even though almost nothing remains of her husband—even though he is the cause of her sleepless nights and her tendinitis and her bruises and her anger—in 55 years she rarely has been apart from him. She loves even the scrap of him that remains. He is half of the story they share, of the red VW Beetle and the sunstruck Italian patios and the singalongs and the three towheaded children. As long as he is here, their story, however unlikely, is not yet over. She cries because the end of him is the end of a possibility. And I think, not for the first time, how little I still know about love.

Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine)

“The prosecutor’s job, unlike the defense attorney’s or judge’s, is to do justice. What does that mean when you are asked by some to dole out retribution measured in years served, but blamed by others for the damage incarceration can do?” In this nuanced reported essay about mass incarceration in the U.S., Reginald Dwayne Betts reveals “our contradictory impulses” around crime, punishment, and the justice system. And he knows these impulses well, as both a felon and a son to a woman who was raped by a Black man.

But I know that on the other end of our prison sentences was always someone weeping. During the middle of Harris’s presidential campaign, a friend referred me to a woman with a story about Senator Harris that she felt I needed to hear. Years ago, this woman’s sister had been missing for days, and the police had done little. Happenstance gave this woman an audience with then-Attorney General Harris. A coordinated multicity search followed. The sister had been murdered; her body was found in a ravine. The woman told me that “Kamala understands the politics of victimization as well as anyone who has been in the system, which is that this kind of case — a 50-year-old Black woman gone missing or found dead — ordinarily does not get any resources put toward it.” They caught the man who murdered her sister, and he was sentenced to 131 years. I think about the man who assaulted my mother, a serial rapist, because his case makes me struggle with questions of violence and vengeance and justice. And I stop thinking about it. I am inconsistent. I want my friends out, but I know there is no one who can convince me that this man shouldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison.

Safe at Home in Los Angeles (Lynell George, High Country News)

Lynell George’s beautiful read exemplifies what I love about writing on place and home. A native of Los Angeles, George builds and shapes a complex L.A. in her piece: a “city of contradictions,” an elusive, ever-shifting place “built on either impermanence or illusion.” It’s a sensory and richly textured portrait of a vast place, looking at Los Angeles through a sort of kaleidoscope lens of gentrification, nature, and the pandemic lockdown.

Los Angeles has long been a contested domain — both as territory (from the Indigenous Tongva onward) and as emblem. Boosters, speculators and swindlers have had their way not just with the land but with the very image of Los Angeles. The city grew, like an opportunistic vine. It couldn’t just be. It had to be bigger than life, better than perfect. Even within my lifetime, popular culture has conjured a vision of Los Angeles that is sleight-of-hand, a trick of light, brutally at odds with the lived experience. Los Angeles, by its sprawling nature, absolutely resists oversimplification. This, despite its frustrations, irritants and absurdities, is precisely why I remain here.

Those stories of place, the Los Angeles of my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s — couldn’t be told until we began to tell them. Until we steadied and raised our voices. Until we made our way through gatekeepers, and most significantly until we were of age and of mind to turn our attention to a shifting definition of the West (or El Norte), one that included stories of migration and immigration, of protest, of underemployment, of struggle, and of love and resilience despite disappointment, and in the ways in which we tend to the physical environment, to conserve against drought or be mindful of energy use and emissions. We must tend to the region’s various topographies in narrative. It’s imperative. Or they will be lost. As a chronicler, my responsibility is to try and tell an honest story. True to its roots. Even now, even in this quiet moment in the city, we must remember its cacophony, its music.

My Mustache, My Self (Wesley Morris, The New York Times Magazine)

This essay from Wesley Morris on growing a mustache during the pandemic is about so much more than quarantine-grown facial hair — it’s a brilliant and vulnerable piece on masculinity and race, one in which Morris reflects on becoming himself and considers and celebrates his Blackness.

The mustache had certainly conjoined me to a past I was flattered to be associated with, however superficially. But there were implications. During the later stages of the movement, a mustached man opened himself up to charges of white appeasement and Uncle Tom-ism. Not because of the mustache, obviously, but because of the approach of the sort of person who would choose to wear one. Such a person might not have been considered radical enough, down enough, Black enough. The civil rights mustache was strategically tolerant. It didn’t advocate burning anything down. It ran for office — and sometimes it won. It was establishmentarian, compromising and eventually, come the infernos at the close of the 1960s, it fell out of fashion, in part because it felt out of step with the urgency of the moment.

The Black-power salute is not a casual gesture. It’s weaponry. You aim that arm and fire. I aimed mine in solidarity — with white people instead of at a system they personify. And that didn’t feel quite right. But how would I know? I had never done a Black-power salute. It always seemed like more Blackness than I’ve needed, maybe more than I had. I’m not Black-power Black. I’ve always been milder, more apprehensive than that. I was practically born with a mustache.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.