“We gonna be alright.”
I have heard some version of this refrain from every black woman I have spoken to since COVID-19 forced a global shutdown, contributed to the deaths of 90,000 people, and collapsed the U.S. economy.
We are not alright.
Black communities are the hardest hit by the virus. We represent 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the latest census data. Yet, counties with higher black populations account for more than half of COVID-19 cases and almost 60 percent of deaths, a recent study led by a team of epidemiologists and clinicians at four universities found.
Given the direness of the situation, why are we certain of our survival?
Wisdom of Our Foremothers
Every black American woman who is breathing right now is a product of survival.
Our confidence despite the odds during the pandemic comes from being part of a lineage that endured the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, militarized policing in black and brown communities, sexism, and every kind of trauma in between.
Before COVID, the collective wisdom of our foremothers was a shot of courage we needed to sustain us while persevering through hard times, striving to realize our dreams, or navigating a national horror like the recent shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Such events put the tenuousness of black life in America in sharp relief.
During COVID, that same wellspring of wisdom is our lifeline.
“My momma lives with me and she’s been a constant godsend,” said Nicole Kurtz, a relationship manager for Microsoft in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“She tells me how to conserve, how to store and how to endure without due to her upbringing of growing up in the segregated South,” Nicole said. “Patience. Hope. How to clean using what we have here and how to maximize what we have. How to cook in bulk and store.”
When Institutions Fail
The pandemic has exposed long-standing fissures in America’s health care, food supply, and economic systems that determine who lives, who dies, and which lives matter.
“My mom taught me how to be prepared,” said Tausha Orakwue, a principal consultant from Austin, Texas. “She said ‘you can’t call everything, but you can try your best not to get caught flat-footed.’ That’s the reason why black women know we will survive this.”
Tausha is among the hundreds of black women who are relying on home remedies, alternative care, and food cultivation they have learned from their foremothers as institutions faulter.
“Because of my grandmother, I have the ability to grow and cook food,” Tausha said. “When this pandemic started, the first thing I did was start my garden. I know how to fish. If our food supply chain breaks down, you have to know how to stretch a meal or you’ll be in a world of hurt. I can feed my family in the worst of circumstances.”
I learned to pray from my Grandma Lula.
We knelt beside the bed and prayed each night during our visits together. We thanked God for the blessings and lessons of the day. We asked for protection and grace. We asked for the strength and compassion to be better people tomorrow than we were today.
Harvesting Our Collective Wisdom
The collective and generational wisdom of our foremothers is a single tributary in a river of matrilineal guidance from diverse cultures, ethnicities, and sources.
It doesn’t belong to one culture, but is accessible to those with the imagination, memory, and receptiveness to put these survival strategies into practice. They exist not just to help you endure traumatic events, but to be transformed by them.
Canning, for example, is not just about preserving fruits and vegetables. It’s about developing a relationship with what you consume, how you consume it, and what becomes disposable. That relationship calcifies into wisdom when you judiciously and compassionately apply it to other areas of your life.
Such wisdom is also available to those have strained relationships with their mothers, grandmothers, and aunties. Perhaps you come from a family where this type of learning didn’t come easily, naturally, or at all from the women responsible for your care and concern. Survival is messy and complicated. Harm, in a multitude of forms, can also be passed down through the generations.
Cultivating Our Own Wisdom
Our foremothers guidance is available through role models, the internet, and communities of women who have been working before the virus to ensure greater integrity, more access to healthy foods, and preserving land traditions that respect our natural resources.
My favorite source is Harriet’s Apothecary. It is “an intergenerational, healing village led by the brilliance and wisdom of Black Cis Women, Queen and Trans healers, artists, health professionals, magicians, activists, and ancestors.”
The healing community offers a comprehensive “Remedies, Recipes, and Resources for COVID Times.” The guide features strategies ranging from “Ask a Sista Farmer” to a list of emergency funds for artists.
“Returning to normal” is the baseline of what we should strive for in a post-pandemic world. I want healing, magic, and wisdom. I want the disintegration of societal structures that worked for only a privileged few replaced with holistic care accessible to all. I want our foremothers’ wisdom not just used as an emergency measure, but a way of life that fosters more integrity, justice, and joy. Then and only then will we truly be alright.