Commentary

A Black mother reckons with 2020

The country has changed after so much Black death, and so have we

I

hesitated to buy the “We Survived 2020” Christmas ornament. I would need something to help me look back on this year, I thought, but it felt premature, and I’m not one to tempt fate. There are days to go before 2020 ends and, especially for Black people, that survival thing is a tricky proposition.

There is a mantra in meditation – that what you hold in mind grows. And for the better part of the year, I’ve been holding dead Black people in my mind’s eye. They die of police violence. They die of COVID-19. They’re flattered to death by people who call them essential to keep them working, but won’t give them the space they need to breathe. I’ve been thinking about dead Black people, and testing the weight of Black lives against the promise of America.

I first wrote in March that African Americans were going to disproportionately die from the coronavirus, before I fully accepted what that meant. It’s not that I doubted my sources. It was more that Black minds come equipped with a fail-safe for when the burdens of this world become too heavy, even for people who invented the blues.

I first took a picture of the coronavirus graphic on television when just over 3,000 people had died. In my last photo, more than 300,000 people, nearly 20% of them Black, had been killed by COVID-19, and we are less than 13% of the population.

An 81-year-old African American COVID-19 patient is brought from the emergency room into the ICU ward at Roseland Community Hospital on Dec. 14 in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

All these months, as I’ve been writing about the pandemic, it feels like I’ve been counting along. Like I need my memories of this year to be based in witness, following in the tradition of the Black women who came before me, believing that my watch makes a difference.

I’ve talked with psychologists and education specialists about the savage inequalities of the coronavirus. I’ve interviewed emergency room doctors about the ways the virus attacks the body, and why it disproportionately kills Black people. I’ve talked with public health advocates about our endless aggregations of social and economic vulnerabilities stemming from every manifestation of racism, and how our deep distrust of the new vaccines is rooted in a long history of medical evil against us.

I’ve been moved by stories from front-line health workers overwhelmed by care for the sick and dying. They plead for personal protective equipment. They plead with the public to wear masks. They beg politicians, and other influentials: For the love of God, take this pandemic more seriously. And if you listen for meaning, you can hear their disbelief that this is what we’ve come to. It is the novel horror of having to plead with people over matters of such obvious truth, based on knowable facts, combined with the daily experience of watching people suffocate.

Me and mine are trying to survive COVID-19 and all the normal viruses of racism, while having enough energy, health and joy left over so that we don’t jump at shadows, or scream at our children. This is what this year of Black death has felt like, it’s been a walking blues, and it has almost been too much.

Yes, yes, Black people murmur in empathy and acknowledgment. You finally understand. This is what it is like to see the peril in front of you, and still not be able to save yourselves and others from it. Sadly, some of you who have never known that kind of nullification may never feel right again.

My pandemic literacy, my reading of disease vectors and spiky proteins have given me the illusion of control. But as I watch the number rise, every cough, every headache has me reaching for the thermometer, oximeter, sanitizer and two masks. My oldest daughter lives in Brooklyn, New York, and last spring when she couldn’t find a thermometer, I overnighted her the only one we had. I ordered another for one of my best girlfriends who has lupus, an autoimmune disease that disproportionately strikes women of color. She caught the coronavirus in the nursing home where she worked. I always feel myself to be one viral encounter away from a loss I cannot live with.

In early December, I woke up with a low-grade fever every morning for a week. I had body aches and chills and I was sick to my stomach. One night, I saw a black shadow at the bottom of the television screen that constantly broadcasts the cable news I often fall asleep watching.

That morning, I rounded up my husband and kids to get tested for COVID. My 22-year-old daughter, a recent college graduate, protested. She informed me she’s skeptical of the test, isn’t planning on taking the vaccine, is doubtful about the science, and my eyes darkened.

Dear God, no!

I wanted to rage at the internet-famous blasting their disinformation from all the platforms where she gets her news, to scream at the carnival barkers and conspiracy theorists and their weaponized inanities. But none of them were before me, so I screamed at my daughter instead.

What I would usually see as a bright young woman flexing her wings in ways that sometimes hit her mama in the face, took on a life-or-death patina in a year of life and death. And I’m reminded that in 1996 De La Soul tried to warn us, the “Stakes is Highfor Black people, and Lord, haven’t they gotten higher every year since.

A portion of 16th Street NW was renamed to Black Lives Matter Plaza accompanied by the words written in large letters on June 5 in Washington.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images/Assisted by city of Washington

My 18-year-old son, the peacemaker, pointed out that I raised independent thinkers and taught them to ask questions, and that my daughter masks up in public. I calmed down enough to get everybody in the car. We drove from testing site to testing site, but they required advance registration or were booked for the day, so I scheduled the first available appointment with an urgent care, many days later. And because we have learned how to be together inside while time passes slowly, I do repair work with my daughter, and ask for grace, because it’s been a hard year. I also tell my kids it’s “Mental Health with Mom Monday” and make them watch a documentary on disinformation.

Turn off the news, people close to me urge, but I can’t change the channel because what if I miss something that could save a life I cannot live without? Because I’ve had symptoms, when I’m finally tested, the results come back in 20 minutes. I’m COVID negative, the doctor says. It’s just a normal virus, he tells me.

Normal viruses. Feels like we’re swimming in them. And doesn’t that seem like a metaphor for all these other stories of Black death in 2020?

Pandemic deaths surge behind plastic and tubing and privacy walls. But that is not so for death at the hands of the police. Those deaths are intimate. They come to us one at a time, in details that get into the soft tissue and shattered bones of the matter, often with videos and anguish.

I watched George Floyd beg for his life as it was being extinguished by a Minneapolis police officer. I heard him call out to his dead mother, and minute by minute for nearly nine minutes, we felt our own helplessness and rage, and a heaving, forlorn sadness for our people. I watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery stalked and murdered while jogging in southeast Georgia. I watched the footage from Breonna Taylor’s apartment in the aftermath of her killing, and tried to escape the hamster wheel in my mind: What are you supposed to do if you are awakened by somebody breaking into your apartment and you fire a warning shot with your legally-owned weapon, and you’re met with a barrage of bullets that kill a young woman, followed by months of official cover-up and one is never held to account?

I was at Black Lives Matter Plaza, across from the White House, in the wake of the national social justice protests, when the 50-foot-high yellow letters had just been inked, and the movement had spilled into streets from coast to coast. It raised the question of whether this was finally the moment America would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, but the short answer from our nation has been to take that under advisement. The long answer is as it has always been: Sometimes Black people just find themselves dead, and there’s no way to account for that.

An emotional Hope Coleman, the mother of Terrence Coleman, a 31-year-old Black man with a mental health disability who was fatally shot by a Boston police officer in 2016, cries as she speaks to the crowd gathered at a Boston MAAPB (Mass Action Against Police Brutality) protest on May 29.

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

I wonder, do white news producers ever wonder what it is like for Black mothers to see these images of police violence over and over again? What it is like to make this calculation: Do I sit my kids down to watch this so they can be prepared for what might be out there waiting for them if they jaywalk, joyride, make eye contact, smoke weed, fall asleep in their car, fall asleep in their apartment, freeze up, run away, act Black and free … and encounter the police? Do I say that it probably won’t make a difference if they are sensitive, or trembly, or don’t understand why the police are pointing guns at them, or they didn’t hear the officers’ commands (or the officers didn’t issue any commands), or they think that they have rights that police departments are bound to respect? Why must I explain to my kids that because they are Black, it is statistically more likely that their world will come to an end if they change lanes without signaling?

It’s one of those normal viruses in America.

Even before all the cellphone videos, if you’re Black, you grew up hearing stories of Black people killed by police. They were members of our families, or our neighbors, or they were cousins of co-workers or friends of friends. There is a monstrousness in policing that drove huge numbers of white people to the streets in protest for the first time in 2020, but exists inside a tradition, and has long been warehoused in our waking minds.

“They killed him! They killed Cornbread, and he wasn’t doin’ nothing! He was just running home and they killed him,” cried a hysterical Laurence Fishburne in his film debut after the police shot a neighborhood basketball star in the 1975 movie Cornbread, Earl and Me, which I saw in the theater as a child.

“Hey kid, keep it quiet!” a white police officer warns.

In one of his famous comedy routines, the late comedian Richard Pryor talked about being drunk and shooting up his car. But he rushed back into the house when the police arrived. Because police “don’t kill cars, they kill n——,” he explained.

When I read about the death of Elijah McClain, 23, at the hands of Aurora, Colorado, police, which received new scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, I was struck by District Attorney Dave Young’s explanation of why he had declined to press charges against the officers who confronted McClain as he was walking home from a convenience store, listening to music. Young’s words felt eerily similar to those of John L. Pendery, who presided over the case of the escaped enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, whose story is the basis of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

“Ultimately, while I may share the vast public opinion that Elijah McClain’s death could have been avoided, it is not my role to file criminal charges based on opinion, but rather, on the evidence revealed from the investigation and applicable Colorado law,” Young said last June.

And here is Pendery, the federal commissioner for the Southern District of Ohio in 1856, remanding Garner, who had slit her infant daughter’s throat rather than see her in bondage, back into slavery. “The question is not one of humanity that I am called upon to decide. The laws of Kentucky and of the United States make it a question of property. It is not a question of feeling to be decided by the chance current of my sympathies.”

These are the kinds of things I think of, the parallels I draw, when I hear broadcasters talk about a coronavirus vaccine that so many Black people distrust because of the long, lurid history of medical racism, a vaccine that might get us back to “normal.”

When my son leaves the house, I remind him to social distance, double mask “and remember, keep your hands at 10 and 2 the entire time if you get stopped by the police.” That’s my Black mother’s normal.

Me and mine are trying to survive COVID-19 and all the normal viruses of racism, while having enough energy, health and joy left over so that we don’t jump at shadows, or scream at our children. This is what this year of Black death has felt like, it’s been a walking blues, and it has almost been too much.

I bought that “We Survived 2020” ornament because it celebrates this thing that we have always done. And I tell myself there are lessons about resilience and blessings anew in remembering that. I just need to wait a while, and catch my breath, before I hang it on the Christmas tree.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.