“Requiem for a Blues People”

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

By now you or someone you know has been touched by COVID-19, the novel corona virus. This cruel disease is burning a path through Black communities in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New Orleans to name a few. And, not only are Black people coming down with COVID-19 they are dying from it at a disproportionate rate—far outstripping their proportion in their cities. We are told Black people are succumbing to COVID-19 because they are more likely to have more underlying health risks—diabetes, hypertension, cancer, asthma, and COPD for example. At some point officials at local, state, and national levels finally admitted that Black people’s high morbidity is a direct result of longstanding and persistent social disparities—lack of access to health care, poor housing, low level employment, and limited access to quality food, etc. That’s the subtle way of saying racism is killing us!

Despite the acknowledgement that an unfair system is leading us to early graves, somewhere the discussion came back to our dying being our own fault. The Surgeon General, a Black man named Jerome Adams, defaulted to that old bromide… Black people are dying because they are not taking personal responsibility for their own health. He stood in front of a national audience at the daily COVID-19 press briefing and said, “Black people need to stop drinking alcohol and stop smoking.” He said that as if White people do not drink (remember the 3-martini lunch?) or smoke. He did not tell White people to stop using meth or opioids. No, his admonition was directed solely at Black people. So, in the midst of our dying we are being shamed!

On top of all of this death and suffering, I am even more concerned about the way this moment is keeping us from one of the most sacred rituals of Black life—the homegoing—or what the rest of America calls a funeral. Black homegoings are an important culmination of our journey here on earth. They allow family and loved ones to say a formal and public goodbye to the deceased. It allows us to speak well about the departed. It allows community and friends to surround us with condolences, prayers, and love. It allows us to send our loved ones into eternity with proper reverence and ceremony.

In addition to the formal ceremony, there is the repast, and no one does a repast like Black folks. As someone who has worked most of her adult life with White colleagues I have been to my share of “White” funerals. Some are somber. Some have a sense of humor or even whimsy, but none has had a repast like a Black repast. My White colleagues often have what might be termed a “reception.” There will be fruit and vegetable trays, perhaps a finger sandwich platter, some cookies, punch and/or coffee. However, a Black repast is a banquet. It has chicken (sometimes 3 types—baked, barbequed, and friend), ham, turkey, baked macaroni and cheese, yams, greens, green beans, potato salad, spaghetti, cornbread dressing, rolls, a wall of pies, cakes, cobblers, banana puddings, and ice tea, Kool Aid, and coffee. This food is a result of friends, family, church and community members bringing special dishes to be shared among the grieving family.

This Black grieving ritual is being totally lost in a time of COVID-19. The requirement to stay in our homes in order to stay safe along with not having any gatherings of more than 10 people means we cannot have what we think of as a “Black” homegoing. Thus, COVID-19 is not only stealing the lives of our loved ones, it is stealing our traditions. It is forcing us to grieve alone. When the patriarch of the famed Marsalis family, Ellis Marsalis, died last week all I could think of is that he would be laid to rest without the benefit of that New Orleans’ staple—a second line. People would be unable to dance behind his casket to the rhythmic beat of horns and drums playing, “When the saints go marching in.” Instead, less than a dozen of his family and/or friends will assemble in a quiet service to say their goodbyes. Perhaps after we come through this period, they will memorialize Mr. Marsalis but the memorial will lack the immediacy and feeling of a traditional homegoing.

Poet Amiri Baraka referred to Black people as “Blues People.” The music we created to make the nation’s most original art form contains within it a lament of our sadness and sojourn from the shores of West Africa to the cane brake and cotton fields of the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi and most of the South to the share cropping farms and the institution of Jim Crow to the battle for Civil Rights. We have died for the right to be Americans. And we need the ability to mourn in our very own way.

So, in this blog post I say and prayer and pour a libation for those Black people who have departed in the wake of COVID-19—whether as a result of the disease or the serendipity of a death during this time. I imagine glorious choirs, a rousing eulogy, smartly dressed ushers, funny anecdotes, and yes, a magnificent repast. I declare a requiem for those Blues People!

Stay Black & Smart.

“Why COVID-19 Should Scare Black People”

By now you and everyone you know has had some experience with COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus. The outbreak was first documented in Wu-Han China and because of its totalitarian government China could take draconian measures such as forced quarantines, building a hospital in less than a month, and requiring health care workers to work around the clock. However, in a democratic society, individuals retain certain rights that governments are not supposed to violate.

Today, people are pointing fingers at various people and government officials concerning slow or limited actions. Most of the nation is asked to practice what we now know as social distancing. Unless we are first responders—police officers, fire fighters, and health care practitioners—we have been asked to self-isolate and stay home. Our schools are closed, our jobs ask us to work from home, if possible, and sadly some of us have lost our jobs. We are washing our hands multiple times a day, wiping down hard services with disinfectant wipes, and shopping for hard to find staples like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bleach, and disinfectant wipes and sprays.

Lots of myths are spreading because of this deadly virus. One such myth is that young people can’t catch it. That’s not true. Indeed, 58% of those identified with the virus are in the 18 to 49 year old age range. A variety of “cures” for the virus are circulating on the Internet. However, as of this moment there are no cures for the virus. Our best course of action is to practice social distancing to help flatten the curve of the outbreak.

I wanted to write this blog because I am concerned about what COVID-19 may mean for Black people. One of the myths we must confront is that Black people can’t catch the virus. We know that’s not true. Idris Elba tested positive and several NBA players—Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant—have tested positive. We are all at risk for contracting the virus. But, as Black people we have a special risk.

Our risk is tied to our limited access to quality health care. We are less likely to receive a COVID-19 test even if we present with symptoms. Over the last few days 3 Black people have come across my news feed as victims who died from COVID-19. We are more economically vulnerable so we are likely to risk going to work or taking on side hustles like shared ride gigs (Uber, Lyft) and food delivery to make ends meet.

Historically, we say, “When White America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia!” Thus, White Americans may be getting the flu, but we are getting the coronavirus! We are less likely to be able to homeschool our children and our children cannot afford to lose precious classroom time. We have fewer childcare options and because our seniors are considered a vulnerable population we cannot rely on grandma and grand dad as childcare providers. Thus, we may be tempted to leave children home alone so we can earn a living. This can be very dangerous.

COVID-19 is scary by any measure but it is especially scary for Black folks. We have to pay attention to the best science and hygiene practices to stay safe and healthy. We will get through this but we can speed up the resolution by being smart in how we respond. Let’s stay safe… let’s stay healthy… let’s stay alive.

Stay Black & Smart!