Since the end of May 2020 I have been trying to grapple with how major catastrophic and world-changing events have so severely wreaked havoc on the Black community. Every time I say “the Black community” I hear one of my dissertation committee members admonishing me by stating, “There is no one Black community.” But today, instead of cringing at my misspeak, I say “the Black community” with confidence, because COVID-19 and police brutality do not seem to discriminate among the differences within and between Black folks.
2020 — the year I will remember for literally choking the life out of Black folks on a global scale. As I sit here in July, reflecting on what we have endured thus far, I can say we should have known, could have known…but who would have expected the downward spiral that has taken place since the first catastrophe of the year? On January 26, we lost Kobe Bryant in a horrible helicopter crash that claimed the life of his daughter and seven other passengers. Upon hearing the news many were heartbroken and gasped for breath. When I heard the news, I felt like I had been sucker-punched in the chest. The helplessness. The questions. Whether you were a Black Mamba fan or not (and I was not), you were most likely shaken by the tragedy of losing this icon in the Black community. We waited with bated breath for almost a full month, metaphorically unable to breathe, to lay Kobe Bryant to rest on the date reflecting his and Gigi’s jersey numbers — February 24th (2/24). Particularly for Black folks, Kobe’s death symbolized how unfair and cruel this world can be. Unfortunately, this tragedy would be the prelude to more loss and more death, as if the Black community hasn’t experienced centuries of loss already.
Medically Gasping for Air
A little more than a month and a half had passed after Kobe’s death before COVID-19 shut down the universities, factories, restaurants, and the whole United States. I watched the news like I was binge-watching Netflix and hanging on to every detail about the menacing sprawl of this infectious disease. It initially hit the hardest for me when we got word that a co-worker at my job was diagnosed with the coronavirus. And it was then, for a brief moment, the world started to spin. The possibility of contracting the deadly virus was very real in that surreal moment. I held my breath as I read the message, and it seems like I remember holding my breath for the remainder of the day.
There was a lot of misinformation going around about the nature of the virus, and in the beginning there were rumors that children and Black folks were less susceptible to the disease. The rumor was erroneously confirmed by the early low number of cases we were seeing in the Black population including the continent of Africa. The fake reprieve didn’t last long because in only a few weeks we realized that Black people were more susceptible to COVID-19. The news spread like wildfire that us melanated folks were at higher risk. Preexisting health conditions essentially did us in with coronavirus. But this discovery was without a clear explanation of how the historical disadvantages we face(d) leave us more susceptible and contribute(d) to why our Black bodies are more prevalently riddled with diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, etc. And just like that, Black folks were literally dying horrible deaths, just like white folks, but at a faster rate…again. The stories of how folks died, gasping for breath, unable to breath and without enough ventilators was an indicator that this was not going to be our year, by any stretch of the imagination.
The details of this pandemic started to sound eerily familiar. I had taken up a bit of reading during the quarantine and stumbled upon Erika Armstrong Dunbar’s book titled Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Ona Judge. Dunbar recounted a similar crisis in the summer of 1793 when Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at that time, was hit with yellow fever. Unfamiliar with the disease, doctors of that time assumed that Black folks were immune. Black leaders of that era saw this as an opportunity to “uplift the profile of Blacks in the city,” and recruited Black people to serve as nurses and grave diggers. As with COVID-19 now, there was a devastating number of deaths, and Black people died due to more preventable exposure. These were the “essential workers” of the late 1700s epidemic.
But 2020’s vise grip on Black folks doesn’t stop there. A little more than two months into the pandemic the world watched George Floyd’s murderers literally suffocate the life out of his Black body — without flinching. I watched the whole nine minutes that captured his death, and I sat there breathless for what seemed like an hour. Playing it back, looking for the nuances in his face and the cop’s face. He cried out for his momma, he begged and pleaded for them to get off him, and he constantly screamed with what little breath he had left:….“I can’t breathe.” He side-stepped the chokehold of COVID-19, only to suffocate in the streets of Minneapolis at the knee of some heartless cop who did not see him as a living, breathing human being.
The video gutted me, but there were so many events happening at the height of this pandemic, and it was all too much. Black folks witnessing these events via the media, including myself, went into some dark, seemingly helpless places. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered without justice, Breonna Taylor was murdered without justice. But many of us still had to work and push through. I remember sitting on Zoom calls with lots of white folks and holding my breath that no one said anything insensitive (intentionally or not) to set me off or make me cry with frustration.
This perfect storm was brewing, but it inspired a nation to demand change. And that’s what we did. We demanded change in those very streets where George died, and in all the other streets of America that have claimed Black lives at the hands of brutal police. People from all ethnic backgrounds marched, protested, masked up, and stood up — in the midst of a deadly COVID-19 threat that more severely threatened Black lives. I remember attending a rally in a small town with my mask on and thinking of the irony I felt when I pulled my mask down for 3–5 seconds to say — -“I can’t breathe,” because the mask made it difficult. It made me think of all the hundreds of thousands of other people out in the streets, risking their own lives by staring the police and COVID-19 in the face, unable to breathe — whether by mask or by gas. But we decided in the moment it was worth it — not just for George but for all Black lives.
Taking In and Pushing Out
The year twenty-thousand and twenty, has been one raggedy, evil bitch so far. It’s not a completely new experience because we’ve seen all of these individual atrocities before: police beatings and killings, white supremacy, infectious diseases disproportionately affecting Black folks — all of it. Perhaps we just haven’t seen these ills so concentrated within a six month span. However, change seems to be on the horizon. Statues are coming down, police departments have been put on notice, racist white folks have been challenged, vaccines are being tested, and serious conversations about the intersection of race and this pandemic are happening. People are asking and grappling with some tough questions, but they are also making some tough demands, and “no” is not an option.
Historically, every success in the fight for equality, human rights, and justice has been met with some form of opposition. Today, it will be no different. Many in this nation will challenge doing the right thing by Black folks. But while thinking about how this year has squeezed so much from our lives in such a short amount of time, I remembered my high school days as a sprinter and a long distance runner. No matter how far the finish line was or how quickly I needed to get there, it was up to me to control my breathing. If I wanted to win or at least finish, I had to pace myself and continue to breathe. This race for safety and justice for Black folks will take a collective mindset to remind us to take in the air we do have and push out with purpose. Forceful sprints…Steady marathons…Keep breathing…Together…Maybe one day…We’ll take in air…That tastes….Like Freedom…
…and together we can finally freely breathe.