The “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women and COVID-19 in Mississippi,” which the team internally calls the “BWC Project” for short, is starting with three main counties—Noxubee, Hinds and Holmes—with other counties and systemic focus topics on the way. Maps by Kristin Brenemen

No More Waiting to Exhale: Black Mississippi Women Are Digging Out Causes of Harmful Inequities

Author Terry McMillan penned the quintessential manifesto for Black women when her book, “Waiting to Exhale,” was released in the early 1990s. She may not have known it at the time, but the stories of Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria created a space for Black women to be seen as vulnerable, loving, sentient and, yes, flawed. We are people who deserve the same in return—to be loved and heard and seen and supported and, of course, to breathe and keep on breathing. 

Illustrated cover of Waiting to Exhale
Terry McMillan’s 1992 novel “Waiting to Exhale” was the quintessential manifesto for Black women. Cover courtesy The Viking Press

That connection would become even more pronounced with the advent of the book’s visual component, a film of the same name and story line released in 1995.  That connection and space are needed now more than ever during the fourth wave of a global pandemic having strong and often devastating impacts on women’s lives and families.

For too long, Black women have been holding their breath, caught between an upsetting and absurd mashup of “waiting to exhale” and “waiting for Godot.” The lines between the two are revealed in Black women’s overwhelming fortitude to “just get things done,” which initially created a devastating depiction of how COVID-19 affected Black women in Mississippi. 

Black women are the matriarchal figures of their homes, families, communities, churches and work environments. They show up when no one else does, leaving little or no time for themselves to take a break or a breath. They’ve been acting frontline workers with and without the title. And that level of being present has nearly always cost them in mental, emotional, physical and overall sustainable health. 


The lines between are complicated by external forces refusing to acknowledge the burdens and suffering of Black women’s work and dedication, as well as the baked-in inequities passed forward through U.S. and Mississippi history, racism, sexism and violence against women. Furthermore, there are those who could change the systemic issues that cause the inequities, but choose to do nothing. Or they try to further silence the voices of the seemingly disregarded and bury the history and causes of today’s unlevel playing fields that show up in each of the 82 counties of Mississippi.

This “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19” collaboration between the Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Free Press aims to change that. Together, we are lifting up these voices and exposing the causes of systemic inequities in search of solutions in a new kind of Mississippi journalism that is long overdue.

No One Listens, Leaving Little Changed

A Mississippi Black woman once told a proverbial folk tale that goes, “If you’re walking down a road, and you see someone stuck under a log, you pick it up. But now, the burden is on you.” 

That is an analogy every Black woman can identify with. The crux of the issue is that oftentimes Black women are left to keep carrying the burden whether or not they have a travel companion or someone happens to travel down the same road at the same time. Or they are left expelling so much energy and breath asking for help. Often, no one listens, leaving little changed.

COVID-19 Cases y Race/Ethnicity and Gender through May 1, 2020 Mississippi
In the early months of COVID-19 in Mississippi, the virus hit not just Black Mississippians but Black women harder than any other group by race, ethnicity and gender. The Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Free Press together decided to figure out why, digging into systemic and historic inequities in several Mississippi counties that underlie Black women’s health, as well as other pandemics outcomes, including its effects on education, health-care access, community safety and economic impacts.  Graph courtesy MSDH

The “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and  COVID-19” project that the Jackson Advocate and Mississippi Free Press are introducing this week is an effort to name the existing inequities and their causes that meant that COVID-19 affected Black Mississippi women more dramatically, especially in the early months of 2020, and even worse than Black men here. This gender disparity among Black Americans was not true in every state. Why here?

Through much of the pandemic to date, a team of Black women journalists, advisers and editors, and two women-run publications have worked together to discover the reasons these inequities exist and what they revealed when the pandemic shone a hot spotlight for people who dared to notice.

The coronavirus may be relatively new, but the inequities causing these disparities are not. They were intentional and passed through the history of our state and nation with scant effort to change them and many attempts to cover them up how they happened. It is time to talk about them across divides on the road to real and meaningful solutions.

Scars of the Past

The history of Black women’s struggles to be seen and heard and adequately cared for in our society dates back to the founding of this country and has been well documented, especially through how Black women are able (or not) to decide what happens to their own bodies. Consistent access to adequate and sustainable health care for Black people, especially Black women, has not existed since the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Birthing a Slave bookcover
Marie Jenkins Schwartz writes about realities of forceful breeding that faced enslaved Black women. Cover courtesy Harvard University Press

Around the early 1800s, the slave trade technically ended, and slave owners began designing new tactics to increase their workforce. “Former slaves charged that owners forcefully bred slaves not only to enlarge their workforces but also to ‘improve’ their ‘stock,’” Marie Jenkins Schwartz writes in her book “Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South.

To accomplish these breeding goals, slave owners and medical physicians entrenched themselves even further into the daily lives and personal issues of enslaved Black women, making decisions regarding their bodies and their reproductive health. Schwartz explains that “by the late antebellum years, slaveholders were regularly eliciting the assistance of physicians in treating slave women’s health problems. The involvement of doctors with enslaved women’s reproductive health represented an expansion of the slaveholder’s domain—an intrusion into an area of life that had once been under the purview of the slave.”

“From the standpoint of enslaved women, the slave owner’s foray into the scientific management of their bodies represented something beyond benevolence,” Schwartz continued. “It was an effort to decrease the importance of women’s community and to substitute the ways of white men for those of black women.”

Using Black Women’s Bodies for Science, Profit

This scientific management of Black women’s bodies has now evolved over two centuries. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year old Black mother of five, travelled to Baltimore, Md., to the Johns Hopkins Hospital because she was experiencing vaginal bleeding. The hospital was one of few medical institutions that would treat African Americans. 

Old photo of a smiling woman in front of a brick wall
Henrietta Lacks courtesy of Lacks family/Henrietta Lacks Foundation

Lacks’ gynecologist, Dr. Howard Jones, diagnosed her with cervical cancer, and she underwent radium treatments to no personal avail. They did not help her.

The avail would be given to others, however, including Dr. George Gey, a renowned cancer and virus researcher at the institution, who received Lacks’ cancer cells to study. He realized that her cells, which would be renamed HeLa cells, did not die but replicated rapidly in just 24 hours.  Ultimately, Gey, hundreds of companies, thousands of researchers, and millions of people across the globe would be the ones who benefitted from the suffering and death of one Black woman. 

Her family has never received a red cent.

‘Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired’

Then there was Fannie Lou Hamer. 

In a recent Jackson Advocate article about the failure of Mississippi’s health-care system during this fourth wave of the pandemic, I wrote this: “The revered civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, was unfortunately a prime example of how Black women were treated when attempting to receive adequate care. Hamer, who checked herself into a Sunflower County hospital for a minor surgery in 1961, was the ill-fated recipient of a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’—a practice in which Black women were unknowingly forced into complete hysterectomy procedures. This horrendous racial tactic was used to control the birthrate of Black people.” 

Hamer’s fight for the right to vote sought to enable Black men and women, who had been silenced for too long, to create change in areas such as health care. When Hamer articulated the words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Medicaid and Medicare were originating in the U.S. health-care system, and her words gave voice to the centuries of inequities that Black Americans experience within that system. 

Now, exactly 60 years after Fannie Lou Hamer was coercively given a hysterectomy in a Sunflower County hospital and with the inadequate Mississippi health-care system on the brink of destruction, the inequities in access and information as it pertains to Black women and the health-care system are still prevalent.

Fannie Lou Hamer fought for Black inequality in Mississippi even as the white medical establishment abused her, including with a forced sterilization. Video courtesy Mississippi Public Broadcasting / Youtube

Since Mrs. Hamer spoke her “sick and tired” words in 1964, this epithet has been voiced in countless ways. It wasn’t until I read a recent article where an editor lists all the ways in which she is sick and tired of the issues that the pandemic has exposed that I realized that I had never heard myself or other Black women put voice to why they were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

This thought stirred a deeply rooted and resounding answer inside me. There hasn’t been enough breath to say all of the reasons why Black women are so sick and tired of being sick and tired. There hasn’t been enough time to think about the myriad reasons why. There haven’t been enough safe spaces for Black women to voice the reasons why. And there haven’t been enough listeners and doers when those reasons have been expressed before. 

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” is almost the same as asking a woman how she’s doing, and she says, “Fine.” She’s not fine but is too overwhelmed to tell you why and how.

It’s Time to Report the Truth, Seek Solutions

That silence changes with this project and this collaboration. 

Through the partnership of the Mississippi Free Press and the Jackson Advocate, the (In)Equity and Resilience project is gathering and listening to Black women virtually from across Mississippi, creating a safe space for them to voice their stories of vulnerability, fear, injustice, pain and joy. Over multiple and ongoing solution circles, they are talking about inequities in health care, quality education, jobs, safety (or lack thereof) and more across this great state.

We are also asking them what solutions are needed and how to get there.

With Black women’s views, realities and needs at the heart of this project, the full reporting focus is turning the valuable conversations during the solution circles into solutions-based journalism. The journalists working on this project have delved into the disparities exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, first seeking the roots from the ground up, to understand  why it so heavily impacted Black Mississippi women at the onset.

Torsheta Jackson kicks off the project by honing in on education disparities in Noxubee County, where she grew up. Then, Jackson native Aliyah Veal’s work will highlight Hinds County and the issues and solutions surrounding  crime, violence and safety disparities in the metro area during the pandemic, and the systemic connections. Azia Wiggins, also a project coordinator, is reporting on the history and continuing realities of health-care disparities in Holmes County.

The Solutions Journalism Network is supporting the initial “(In)Equity and Resilience” work. Later, we plan to look at inequities in pay and income, as well as realities of domestic and interpersonal violence, in additional counties in this ongoing systemic reporting across Mississippi. And that’s just the beginning.

This reporting, with real and difficult history fully embedded that explains and contextualizes the inequities that undergird today’s challenges, is groundbreaking and can create a positive catalyst for change in the conversations and actions surrounding Black women’s health and wellbeing in Mississippi. We believe in exposing deep causes first on the way to solutions.

MFP Solutions Circle June 2021
Black Mississippi women talked about challenges COVID-19 presented, inequities it revealed or exacerbated, the kinds of solutions needed at an “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19” solutions circle in June 2021. Internally, the team refers to the reporting collaboration as the BWC Project, which includes multiple circles with only Black women. Email solutions@mississippifreepress.org to join a BWC circle or to get on a list for circles on a variety of topics (or to suggest one).

I can’t wait to share the months of investigative, thought-provoking, and solutions-driven work of journalists from both newsrooms with readers in Mississippi and beyond. I’m confident that we will begin to shift the narrative, create pathways to sustainable change for Mississippi, model solutions-driven system reporting across the nation and, of course, become an impetus for that collective exhalation and sigh of relief from Black women across the state however audible it may be. 

Please let us know your thoughts as the “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19” project unfolds. 

Also see Torsheta Jackson’s overview of systemic disparities in her home county of Noxubee County, the first in-depth county overview in the BWC Project, focusing on education. Visit the full BWC Project microsite here

This Voices essay introduces the “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19” collaboration between the Mississippi Free Press and the Jackson Advocate. Visit the BWC Project website and email azia@mississippifreepress.org to get involved with solutions circles or offer suggestions and input. Email me at dtjohnson@thejacksonadvocate.com or MFP Publisher Kimberly Griffin at kimberly@mississippifreepress.org if you’d like to become a sponsor of this collaboration as it continues.

 

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