By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
Growing up, whenever something happened to me, my Nana would tell me to write it down, to record it, to get my stories on paper. She said that we are a long-memoried people, and we document our pain so that the children of our children will know that they are the descendants of people who know how to survive. We speak our truth into the wind so that we can force this country to bear witness, to not look away. During the 1850s, abolitionist William Still recorded the names and stories of hundreds of escaped enslaved people who were fleeing to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Between 1920, and in 1938, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hung a flag out the window of their Manhattan office that read, “A man was lynched yesterday.” In 1968, my Nana, who was a nurse, taped a sign to her hospital locker that said, “Black people are dying today so we can be free tomorrow.” In 2015, the African American Policy Forum, led by Kimberlé Crenshaw, launched the #SayHerName campaign to document the names and stories of Black women and girls who had died at the hands of racist police violence. We tell our stories. We record our pain.
At the beginning of March, I launched #BlackCovidStories as a way to record and remember and recognize our pain. Covid-19 is devasting our community, and nationwide, we are dying at double the rate of our state population. We are standing at the center of America’s viral, racial and economic epidemic. When the virus began to rapidly spread across the globe and America, led by a racist bombastic sociopath and predator, chose a wait and see approach, I knew then that our communities, once hit, would be devasted. We live in a country where Black men have the lowest life expectancy, dying four years earlier than White men, seven years earlier than Black women, and, nine years earlier than White women. Black women, who are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than White women, have the worst maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country. In 2019, Black men and boys were 2.5 times more likely than White men and boys to die during an encounter with the police. We have the highest poverty rates, the highest unemployment numbers, and we disproportionately suffer from the underlying health conditions such as diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease that lead to the most severe cases of Covid-19.
When America began to act to slow the spread of the virus, schools were closed, and people were told to work from home. In our community, less than 20 percent or one out of five Black workers can work from home. We were quickly reclassified as essential, but what that meant, for many of us, was that we were expendable. We are a long-memoried people, and we know what it means and how it feels when white America offers our bodies up for sacrifice. Even though Black people are 13 percent of the population, we represent 30 percent of the bus drivers and about 20 percent of all food service workers, janitors, cashiers and store stockers. We do not have the luxury to stay at home, and we are experiencing the impact of this reality on our communities. Black women are more likely to test positive for it, and Black men are more likely to die from it.
We are the descendants of men and women who chose to survive, and who did it by gathering together. In moments of grief, Black people gathered. In moments of sorrow, we gathered. In moments of frustration and pain, terror and fear, we gathered. We gathered together during slavery, meeting in the woods to pray and learn. We gathered during Reconstruction, holding classes in our church basements to learn how to read. We gathered during Jim Crow, meeting in our club rooms to get built back up. We gathered during the Civil Rights Movement, meeting in our homes to plan, to prepare, to get motivated and be inspired. We gathered during times of crisis from Reaganomics, to Black Lives Matter, to the night of Donald Trump’s election, so that we could be together, support, love and lean on one another. Black people, we gather. It is how we find strength, how we shoulder each other’s burden and how we love each other. We are in a moment of crisis yet again, where white America is getting and surviving Covid-19 while we are getting and dying from it.
We are a long-memoried people, and we know that because of what we have been through in this country, we are survivors, we are magic, we are brilliant and we are geniuses; but, what we are not is immune to Covid-19. At the beginning of March, I had a long conversation with my father, trying to explain why he needed to adopt a different tactical plan if he wanted to beat this virus. My daddy is a fighter. He is a Vietnam War-era veteran, Civil Rights Movement activist, Bishop, and Pastor. He grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina, where he learned early on how to dodge racial bullets, and how to stay alive amid extreme Whiteness. He is not, as he clearly stated to me, afraid of the coronavirus; but, my father has diabetes and high blood pressure. He is a prostate cancer survivor and had quadruple bypass heart surgery. I told him that he needed a new survival plan because beating Covid is not about being brave; it is about being smart. We must be smart now so that we can gather together later, so we can one day speak their names, and lean on and love on one another. We are a strong-willed and stubborn people, and since we have survived so much for so long, we will keep rising, we will keep going forward, and we will survive what is happening on this planet, in this country, right now.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She is sheltering at home in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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