Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
There are moments in your life that are so overwhelming that they take your breath away. Moments that when you look back, you remember every detail like it just happened. My mother remembers the day that Dr. King was assassinated. She had just made dinner and was feeling hot and exhausted. She was six months pregnant, and since we did not have central air, my mother was sitting out on the front porch drinking a glass of my Nana’s lemonade and eating a small slice of pound cake. She remembers that lemonade was sour and that she was contemplating getting up and adding more sugar. She was moving a little slow because her ankles were swollen, and she wondered if it had anything to do with the fatback she had eaten for dinner the night before.
It had been, she said, a beautiful day: quiet and still. My father was sitting in the living room, listening to the radio. He had come home a little early because they were planning to attend choir practice. She heard my father scream and she jumped up, faster than she thought she could move, and ran inside. She said her heart was beating so loud that she could hear it. My father was crying and pacing the floor, and when he told her, she said that time stood still, and she could not breathe. I remember 9-11 the same way: the sounds, the smells, the temperature. I remember what I was wearing, what I ate that morning for breakfast, and what I was thinking about on the subway while I made my way to work. I remember watching that second plane hit, out the corner of my eye, and having to sit down because I could not catch my breath. These are moments that stand still, that live in infamy, that forever define who you are and how you see the world.
2020 has been that kind of year, filled with so many of those moments. It has haunted us, kept us at night and made us question who we are and who we want to be as citizens of this country. When Dr. King was assassinated, the world stood still and mourned. We stopped to remember what happened at Gettysburg or on D-Day. We stopped for three days after 9-11 happened so we could catch our breath, say their names and remember. We came together and mourned as a nation because we knew that it was through our collective mourning that we were reminded that we are stronger than our struggles. We have lost more Americans due to COVID-19 in one year than we did during World War II. On average, we have lost 975 Americans per day. And yet, we have not stopped. We have not collectively mourned. To date, 19.4 million Americans have tested positive for COVID, and over 335,000 Americans have died. We are in a war against this virus and we are losing.
If you are Black in America, you are fighting not just one war but two: COVID and racism, because even though Black people make up only 13.1% of the population, we comprise 17% of COVID-releated deaths. Black people have died at 3.6 times the rate of White people. Black women are more likely to get COVID, and Black men are more likely to die from it. The data does not surprise us, we know that when White folks catch a cold, we catch pneumonia, and when White folks catch and survive COVID, we die from it. When children test positive, White children will survive it while Black (and Brown) children die from it. Racism has caused the conditions that have led us here: Black people have 60% more diabetes and 40% more hypertension. We are less likely to receive adequate health care, and more likely to work jobs that keep us on the frontline. We tend to live in food deserts and fast-food swamps, and even when we show up at the hospital, as doctors or lawyers or teachers, as learned and credentialed individuals, we are not given the highest level of treatment and care. According to Dr. Susan Moore, a Black woman physician who was denied adequate care while she struggled with COVID and later died of complications from it, this is how Black people get killed because we are sent home, and we do not know how to fight for ourselves.
In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. For Black people, 2020 has done both as Black Lives Matter met Black COVID-19 stories. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. This year has exposed how deeply divided our country is and how and why America’s experiment with democracy has failed. It forced us to ask questions about our future in this country and demanded that we brainstorm solutions to ensure our survival. Skylar Herbert. Antwion Ball. Shirley and Demetria Bannister. Susan Moore. 2020 exposed the roots of White folks’ racism and hatred of us, and it laid bare our collective pain and our wounds. This is a year that will define us, but it will not break us. We have survived too much and have come too far. We will be the ones to restore the glory, to find the moments of joy, and have hope and faith. We will find ways to laugh through the tears and pray through our pain as we look forward to the morning and to what is coming next.
I look forward to being there with you and getting to the other side of this war, together. Àṣẹ.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. Her book, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America, was just re-released.
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