Digital Healing: Womanist Counter Narrative During COVID-19
by Jocelyn Billheimer
On April 25, 2020, a Facebook live video of a large gathering of Black Americans on Chicago’s West Side grabbed the nation’s attention. With over one million views, this video showed young adults crowded together in what looks like a house party, without masks, despite the state’s stay at home order and new normal of “social distancing.” The city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, took to Twitter to call the party “reckless and utterly unacceptable,” and media outlets across the nation jumped at the opportunity to report on the gathering. Consequently, the race of many of the attendees added fuel to the fire. One Twitter user responded to Lightfoot’s tweet saying,
Why is it affecting ppl of color? This is exhibit A. The African American community [is] still having large get togethers / parties- block parties when it has been warm. That party could single [handedly] extend the order until July if a quarter of them infected 6 ppl each. (@Dukebball119The)
This perspective ignores what the Chicago Tribune reported just a few weeks prior to the party: “The ZIP codes in Chicago hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic are also among the areas with the highest percentage of African Americans, with high poverty measures and low levels of insurance” (Hussain and Reyes).
Blaming an entire ethnic group for increasing cases of COVID-19 without considering the larger context that brought us to this point dangerously encourages prejudice and ignorance to what COVID-19 exposes: biased and broken systems. As of May 6, 2020 Black people make up 51.1% of Chicago’s COVID-19 mortality rate (Chicago Department of Health). There’s a myriad of reasons COVID-19 has hit the Black American community harder than other racial groups, including historically racist healthcare disparities, the large amount of Black essential workers, cultural mistrust of the government, media, and hospitals, the amount of Black people with pre-existing conditions, lack of access to quality insurance, etc. These variables create a perfect storm called medical racism, where,
racial minorities bear a disproportionate burden of morbidity and mortality. These inequities might be explained by racism, given the fact that racism has restricted the lives of racial minorities and immigrants throughout history… [There are] several ways of conceptualizing structural racism, with a focus on social segregation, immigration policy, and intergenerational effects. (Gee and Ford)
Unfortunately, these factors aren’t thoroughly unpacked on the average, nightly news cycle. The prevalence of sensationalist headlines and questionable visual representation when the mainstream media does discuss the Black community and COVID-19 has only contributed to the spread of misinformation and placed a larger wedge between the news media and the communities they speak to. However, womanism won’t let medical racism win without a fight.
A Womanist Counter Narrative
The research in this essay explores how many online spaces created and curated by Black women effectively fill gaps the mainstream media misses when covering the Black community and COVID-19 by providing a womanist counter narrative.
Womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces, extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment/nature, and reconciling human life… Womanist methods of social transformation cohere around the activities of harmonizing and coordinating, balancing, and healing. (Phillips)
In the past decade, many black women have cultivated online spaces with womanist ideals and goals. These “for us by us” digital platforms provide a safe space for education, critique, healing, and mourning while centering Black voices in a time where black lives are blamed, disregarded, and used for shock value in media elsewhere. The corners of the internet where Black voices thrive are revolutionary in function because they
comment on the issues of the day raised in white newspapers and blogs, but… also highlight issues that whites mostly ignore… Our commentary and the relative importance that we give news are informed by our unique historical perspective on and position in America. From our vantage point, we share with each other a distinct perspective and critique that white people, including progressives, cannot have and generally do not want. (Holland)
In Shadow Bodies: Black Women, Ideology, Representation, and Politics by Julia Sheron Jordan-Zachery asserts, “The Internet hints at the possibility of another crack, or space, within which Black women can engage their politics. The Internet, and blogs in particular, can afford Black women with a new and different manifestation of space” (52). This emergence of a digital, womanist counternarrative during COVID-19 follows “a long tradition of black women’s activism” birthed in response to the silence and erasure black women face at the hands of white supremacist patriarchy (Jordan-Zachery 52). The online channels discussed in this essay make space for Black women medical professionals, activists, journalists, artists, and theologians to talk frankly about medical racism. With more control, more airtime, and less censorship than mainstream news platforms, these womanist, digital hubs position personal narratives as powerful, political tools for healing (Craig). As Ekemini Uwan, writer, public theologian and co-host of the Truth’s Table podcast, notes at the beginning of every episode, “this table was built by black women and for black women,” and this research aims to explore why that’s not only helpful but necessary in times of crisis.
Black Blogs Matter
Vee L. Harrison’s article for The TRiiBE, “a digital media platform showcasing innovative content to reshape the narrative of Black Chicago,” looks at the aforementioned party from multiple angles and gives Tink Purcell, one of the participants, a voice. According to Purcell, they gathered to commemorate their friends who passed away due to gun violence. The article debunks “outlets such as TMZ reporting that ‘1,000 people attended the Chicago house party…’ According to [Purcell], the party had about 100 or more attendees” (Harrison). She goes on to tell The TRiiBE
I get irritated with these celebrities trying to tell us to stay in the house. I’ll stay in the house if you come build me a basketball court like you got in your house. Come put a zoo in my backyard. These rich people got things to do while they sit in the house. Us people that aren’t as rich as them, we don’t have nothing to do in the house.
Purcell also admits that she didn’t know black people are more likely to die from COVID-19 and “she doesn’t watch the news because it’s boring and most times depressing.” Harrison explores the cultural mistrust and disconnect between some black people and the news because of historically racist representation. To unpack this trend, Harrison also included interviews with black politicians, journalists, and educators in Chicago. In a conversation with Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill school of Journalism, Whitaker notes, “there are systemic and structural issues around how we educate people… about the importance of news and having a news diet that would make you an informed citizen… That is not just a failure of the media. That is a failure of the school system. That is a failure of our parents. That is a structural and systemic failure that we as a community have to own, in addition to our institutions owning as well.” Harrison’s work with The TRiiBE not only humanizes the party’s participants and identifies systemic shortcomings but also uplifts local, black voices who have invested in bridging structural and generational communication gaps. It ultimately exhorts people on all sides of the conversation to “act more responsibly when it comes to their media consumption” (Harrison). This piece exemplifies how a womanist counternarrative complements investigative journalism by centering black voices and subjects rather than sensationalizing them.
Online for the Front Lines
For Harriet, a multi-platform digital community dedicated to Black women serves a community of over 100,000 subscribers via video essays, interactive live streams, pop culture commentary, and interviews through a womanist lens. In a recent video, For Harriet invited New York physician, Dr. Uché Blackstock, to discuss and expose the troubling impact COVID-19 has had on her patients. In the interview, Blackstock reflects on how she foresaw the tragedy, noting, “I actually wrote a piece early March, even before we had some of the preliminary data. I wrote about why black folks were going to be incredibly vulnerable to COVID-19, and why we would see the numbers that we’re actually seeing now… It was predictable. It was predictable and preventable.” As a physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity, Blackstock sheds light on the plight of black essential workers–medical and non-medical–in the first few months of the pandemic. Dr. Blackstock shares her experiences working in an urgent care center in Brooklyn, New York at the peak of this global crisis. Her usually diverse patient population became noticeably blacker and browner, and majority of these patients were essential workers (transportation, postal workers, corrections officers, etc.) Blackstock paraphrases her black and brown patients saying, “Everyone at work is sick. I’m afraid to go to work.” She explains some patients have even resisted admission to the hospital, because they see the news headlines, fear medical racism, and don’t believe that the hospital staff will take care of them.
The For Harriet interview adds depth to the mainstream conversation around essential workers. While news footage of neighborhoods clapping for nurses and commercials thanking grocery store workers are thoughtful and encouraging, they don’t really uplift the voices of or put a face to essential workers. These media moments are another form of sensationalism and thinly veiled erasure. Many essential workers are people of color, and while they may be heroes, they’re afraid, overlooked, underpaid, and underprotected from the time they clock in at work to the time they check in at the hospital. Blackstock notes how prematurely reopening businesses will affect black essential workers, stating, “the people who are in favor of reopening look nothing like the communities being most impacted by COVID-19.” Blackstock and Foster didn’t just use this conversation as an opportunity to share ideas and process their own feelings. These two accomplished black women prioritized the experiences of those with less privilege and influence than themselves which is the essence of a womanist counternarrative for communal healing.
Podcasting as Prophetic Praxis
Merriam-Webster defines prophetic as, “of, relating to, or characteristic of a prophet or prophecy.” The Biblical function and definition commonly thrown around in Christian circles digs a little deeper. In addition to making sure the word is accurate, if someone has a prophetic word, many Christians will test the Spirit of said prophecy by ensuring it exhorts, edifies, and comforts those who hear it. Truth’s Table, a podcast hosted by Christina Edmonson, Michelle Higgins, and Ekemini Uwan, has been a prophetic voice to black Christians in a time where our faith has been tested by the current state of politics, pop culture, and of course the pandemic. The self-proclaimed “midwives of culture for grace and truth” discuss race, gender, politics, pop culture, and current events through the lens of womanist theology. To kick off their third season in 2019, Truth’s Table prophetically began an episode series titled, “You Okay, Sis?,” to address medical racism and the unique mental and physical health issues faced by black women. Although not originally planned, the ladies of the table revisited this series in 2020 to kick off their 4th season in the midst of COVID-19.
In their episode, “You Okay, Sis? COVID-19 & The Black Community,” the ladies of table interview public health leaders, Latroya Hester and Channté Hester of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network. They open the episode discussing why the saying “When white folks catch a cold, black folks catch pneumonia” is popular within the black community and share anecdotes of loved ones encountering medical racism while dealing with COVID-19. The ladies talk about the different memes, misinformation, and pseudoscience being spread around by black people online (e.g. “black people can’t get COVID,” “hot water and lemon kills the virus,” etc.), why black people are looking for our own answers, and how to redirect loved ones to credible sources on COVID-19. They also critique the April 10th, 2020 comments from the U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams. His comments singled out Black and Latinx American communities to do a better job protecting themselves from COVID-19. Channté Keith notes, “One thing I found troubling was, he singled out African American and Latino communities when everyone should be having healthier behaviors at this particular time to lessen the blow of the virus. So don’t single us out.”
Truth’s Table has released a variety of episodes about COVID-19 that function as a womanist counter narrative–from a solidarity episode confronting Anti-Asian racism and platforming Asian activist voices, to an episode all about humor as healing during this crisis. They’ve also started a weekly, digital prayer line for listeners (a.k.a. “sisters at the table”) to commune and petition God for global revival and healing. Host, Michelle Higgins, says, “When we love someone, we create solutions for them” (Truth’s Table). We don’t play on fears, victim blame, or rewrite history. We create tables for those who aren’t being heard. This ethos encapsulates the power and purpose of a womanist counternarrative.
As 2020 comes to a close, the pandemic rages on, and our world dives deeper into a digital era. It is imperative that everyone improves our media literacy. We must read, watch, listen to, and search for credible sources from corners of the internet we might not usually frequent.
Future research on digital safe spaces for black women and femmes could focus on some of the negative implications of platforming these conversations for public consumption. Researchers could also explore why certain black women’s voices are deemed credible and marketable for these online conversations and others aren’t.
I am a black woman essential worker who already frequents online spaces cultivated by black women for entertainment, representation, and healing. This research began by accident, as I engaged this content to make sense of the world during the COVID-19 crisis and wondered how helpful it would be to the masses. The digital platforms discussed in this research prevented me from falling prey to misinformation I received from loved ones on Facebook Messenger and customers I encountered at my health store job. They’ve increased my knowledge of America’s long history of medical racism and how it still affects communities of color today. It encouraged me to keep waking up and serving my community although often feeling voiceless and helpless during this global health crisis. The innate intersectionality of womanist communication and thought has given me grounded hope in a time where it’s been hard to find. Pick-me-up conversations between black women happened in kitchens, beauty salons, prayer meetings, and dorm rooms for generations. They’ve saved my life. So it’s encouraging to know that a global health crisis can’t stop sisters from gathering.
Chicago Dept. of Public Health. “COVID-19 Death Characteristics for Chicago Residents.” Latest Data; https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/sites/covid-19/home/latest-data.html
@chicagosmayor. “I have seen the video which shows what appears to be a house party taking place inside a Chicago residence. What was depicted on the video was reckless and utterly unacceptable.” Twitter, 26 April 2020, 5:48 p.m., https://twitter.com/chicagosmayor/status/1254542891424395264?s=20.
Craig, Collin. “Speaking From Different Positions: Framing African American College Male Literacies as Institutional Critique.” Composition Forum 30, Fall 2014, http://compositionforum.com/issue/30/different-positions.php. Accessed 13 May 2020.
@Dukebball119The. “Why is is it affecting ppl of color? This is exhibit A. The African American community are still having large get togethers / parties- block parties when it has been warm. That party could single handily extend the order until July if a quarter of them infected 6 ppl each.” Twitter, 26 April 2020, 6:23 p.m., https://twitter.com/Dukebball119The/status/1254551613609586689?s=20.
Foster, Kimberly. “Why Covid-19 is Killing So Many Black People w/ Dr. Uché Blackstock.” Youtube, uploaded by For Harriet, 24 April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOkPlN0F4DU&t=744s.
Gee, Gilbert C, and Chandra L Ford. “STRUCTURAL RACISM AND HEALTH INEQUITIES: Old Issues, New Directions.” Du Bois review : social science research on race vol. 8,1 (2011): 115-132. doi:10.1017/S1742058X11000130
Harrison, Vee L., “A West Side house party exposes the disconnect between young Black residents, Chicago officials and the news during COVID-19 pandemic.” The TriiBE, 4 May 2020, https://thetriibe.com/2020/04/a-west-side-house-party-exposes-the-disconnect-between-young-black-residents-chicago-officials-and-the-news-during-covid-19-pandemic/. Accessed 5 May 2020.
Higgins, Michelle and Ekemini Uwan, hosts. “You Okay, Sis? The Black Community & COVID-19.” Truth’s Table, Spotify app, 2 May 2020.
Holland, Francis. “An essay on AfroSpear nomenclature: What we call ourselves and why.” 13 June 2007, http://francislholland.blogspot.com/2007/06/essay-of-afrospear-nomenclature-what-is.html. Accessed 7 May 2020.
Hussain, Nausheen and Cecilia Reyes. “Before data showed Chicago blacks dying at higher rates, communities of color knew recovery from COVID-19 would be slow.” Chicago Tribune, 21 April 2020, https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-coronavirus-chicago-health-disparities-data-20200410-rf7lmmvgurfwxpxiatebsozwsu-story.html. Accessed 6 May 2020.
Holland, Francis. “An essay on AfroSpear nomenclature: What we call ourselves and why.” http://francislholland.blogspot.com/2007/06/essay-of-afrospear-nomenclature-what-is.html. Accessed 7 May 2020.
Jordan-Zachery, Julia Sheron. Shadow Bodies: Black Women, Ideology, Representation, and Politics. Rutgers University Press, 2017. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=nlebk&AN=1566733&site=eds-live.
Phillips, Layli, editor. The Womanist Reader. Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.
Jocelyn Billheimer is an art school drop-out turned community college scholar at Prairie State College in IL, where she studies English. In Spring 2020, she wrote this paper as a final for her English class with Dr. Jessica Nastal. Jocelyn currently helps teach a 5th grade reading class–virtually of course–and loves to laugh, learn, and create with her students every day. Billheimer didn’t know she wanted to be a teacher until recently and is very excited to finish her bachelors and get certified within the next few years. When she’s not lesson planning, her hobbies include dance, digital art, jumping rope, reading, and working on her blog, chattyafro.com.