Books for changing the world
After Life
A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America
After Life is a collective history of how Americans experienced, navigated, commemorated, and ignored mass death and loss during the global COVID-19 pandemic, mass uprisings for racial justice, and the near presidential coup in 2021 following the 2020 election. Inspired by the writers who documented American life during the Great Depression and World War II for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the editors asked twenty-first-century historians and legal experts to focus on the parallels, convergences, and differences between the exceptional "long 2020", while it unfolds, and earlier eras in U.S. History.

Providing context for the entire volume, After Life’s Introduction explains how COVID-19 and America's long history of inequality, combined with a corrupt and unconcerned federal government, produced one of the darkest times in our nation’s history. Discussing the rise of the COVID-19 death toll in the United States, eventually exceeding the 1918 flu, the AIDS epidemic, and the Civil War, it ties public health, immigration, white supremacy, elections history, and epidemics together, and provides a short history of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the beginnings of a Third Reconstruction.

After Life documents how Americans have dealt with grief, pain, and loss, both individually and communally, and how we endure and thrive. The title is an affirmation that even in our suspended half-living during lockdowns and quarantines, we are a nation of survivors—with an unprecedented chance to rebuild society in a more equitable way.

Contributors include: Gwendolyn Hall, Heather Ann Thompson, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Keith Ellison, Keri Leigh Merritt, Martha Hodes, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Mary L. Dudziak, Monica Muñoz Martinez, Peniel E. Joseph, Philip J. Deloria, Rhae Lynn Barnes, Robert L. Tsai, Robin D. G. Kelley, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Stephen Berry, Tera W. Hunter, Ula Y. Taylor, and, Yohuru Williams.
  • “In this moment, when plague reality continues to underscore how under-cared-for we all are, reading After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America has been a balm. It soothed like the first in-person funeral after so much death: gathering together people and their stories and different and overlapping memories and giving me permission to grieve, to cry into my mask, for the friend who was gone but also for the millions of others, for all the lost moments of our lives….  Grief for America is uncomfortable, messy, at times hard to see. But part of grieving is letting go of the pretty illusions that we cling to; it is exactly in the refusing to tell the easy lies that we allow ourselves to truly mourn. It is in this way, I think, that After Life can help us process the pain of the last two and a half years of death and isolation. It attempts, through an honest accounting of harm done, to leave us with the hope that there’s something worth reconstructing out of the ashes of pandemic America.” —Sarah Jaffe, The New Republic

    “So much grief. So many gone. We need an account—one that is deeply personal and objective.  Some way to make sense of what has happened and what is happening to us. After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America is that accounting.  Read every page. Absorb its lessons. Feel this book in these challenging times and experience something, at once, powerfully healing and insightful.” —Eddie S Glaude Jr., author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lesson for Our Own

    “Breathtakingly refreshing in scope and content, After Life is history the way history should be written. Bringing together an incredibly diverse group of scholars, this book walks us through the worst days of the pandemic but offers us tools to create a better future." —Ibram X. Kendi

    "Sometimes, you don’t know what you really need until you read it. In After Life, some of America’s most searching minds sift through the wreckage of the pandemic to provide us precious shards of light, so that the unfathomable loss of life—more than all the Americans who died in the Civil War or in World War II—will not be in vain." —Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

    "These essays seek to understand how we got here, document the pandemic’s impact on the lives of regular Americans, and write early drafts of the history of such cataclysmic pandemic-era events as June 2020’s Black Lives Matter rallies and January 2021’s white nationalist uprising at the U.S. Capitol. After Life is timely, compassionate, and necessary." Booklist

    "Do nations have souls?  Has America lost its soul?  Loss and redemption are two deeply human and American ideas; generally we like the second one better.  In this amazing collection of perspectives, loss takes its proper place as genuine tragedy.  Largely by tapping historians, Barnes, Merritt and Williams have found a gold mine of reflection on the moral, medical, racial, and political condition of the American experiment.  These pieces show, darkly but beautifully, how thoughtful people have been hurt, or destroyed, past and present; but they also inspire paths forward not to a promised land, but to a functional, honest society and a new republic." —David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Pulitzer-prize winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

    “Rhae Lynn Barnes, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Yohuru Williams have ring-mastered an excellent book of powerful thinkers mourning all the unnecessary losses of the past few years—and pointing, possibly, toward American redemption." —Brad DeLong, author of Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Long 20th Century, 1870-2010

    "How do we make sense of the senseless? This remarkable collection begins to answer that question for the tragedy that was America's politicized response to a lethal pandemic and everything that happened alongside it, including an attempted coup. As daring in scope as it is diverse in voice, After Life can help us heal with a fuller understanding of the reach of this formative and often disastrous time. The editors tell us that the early 2020s will define our lives --the sooner we understand that time, the sooner we'll understand ourselves. This book is an indispensable guide." Andrew L. Seidel, author of The Founding Myth and American Crusade