Remembering Niki Massey

Josiah Mannion/Biblename Photo

‘The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’
—Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

‘It’s not just unqualified will, as Schopenhauer
would have it, that makes us what we are; nor
is it the will to power, […] but something deeper,
of which the will to power is merely a manifestation.
We want power because we want to matter.’

—Rebecca Goldstein, ‘The Mattering Map’

Most of a year ago, half a dozen of us decided to set up this site. When the time came to discuss who we wanted here, Niki Massey’s name came up immediately. I didn’t know Niki that well, but we’d tweeted, and I was one of the people who spoke to her about blogging with us. If I had any doubts about the need for a network like ours, that conversation changed my mind. Like many of the godless people you don’t hear about, Niki, who had multiple disabilities and was cut off from family, lived without much social support. As she put it: ‘I’m poor, I’m black, I’m an atheist. I exist.’

In her spare time, Niki escorted patients outside abortion clinics, where the religious right did their best to obstruct access. Last November, a man in Colorado killed three people at a Planned Parenthood branch: a day later, Niki went back to work. In a talk at Skepticon the same month, she’d spoken about volunteering and how others could get into it. ‘People say thank you,’ she said at the end. ‘They say “You’re super brave for doing this.” But to me it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like something a decent person does.’

Niki died yesterday. None of us know quite how or why—several conditions she had could have been life-threatening, and her circumstances left her at risk in other ways. What I know is that the friend I last spoke to on Thursday is silent now, and that someone here yesterday is gone today.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote that the art of losing wasn’t hard. Before last night, I never quite got her last line, ‘Write it’ intruding suddenly on the sentence. Today I’m trying to write, and the violent grammar of death is all too real. In her life and her work, Niki fought cruelty in all its guises: without her every fight feels harder, and the art of losing is much too hard.

Next time someone calls atheists small minded Philistines, tell them who Niki Massey was. Niki didn’t expect an afterlife, nor do I think we’ll meet again—to my relief, I realise I don’t wish I did—but I suppose she’d like the thought of resting in power. After the deaths of Jamar Clark and Tamir Rice, she posted about black lives mattering. It’s safe to say part of what cut hers short was that Niki was many things deemed insignificant—not only black, but fat, disabled, queer and proudly, unabashedly unchurched.

If the will to matter is at the centre of what humans do, Niki devoted her own life to making other people’s mean something. She’ll be remembered for that fight, and for the work—write it—she leaves the rest of us.

Bye, Niki. You mattered.

Remembering Niki Massey