No more waiting to exhale: Black Mississippi women are digging out causes of inequities that harm us

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DeAnna Tisdale Johnson

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 deserved the same in return – to be loved and heard and seen and supported and of course, to breathe and keep on breathing.

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 – and now during the fourth wave of a global pandemic having strong and often devastating impacts on women’s lives and families, that connection and space are needed now more than ever.

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 also 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, and sexism. Furthermore, there are those who could change the systemic issues that cause the inequities and choose to do nothing, or they try to further silence the voices of the seemingly disregarded and bury the causes of today’s unlevel playing fields that show up in each of the 82 counties of Mississippi.

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 often times 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.

The “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women and COVID-19” project that the Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Free Press are introducing this week is an effort to name those inequities that meant that COVID-19 hit Black women the hardest in the early months of 2020, even worse than Black men. This gender disparity among Black Americans was not true in every state.

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

The coronavirus may be new, but the inequities causing these disparities are not. They were intentional through the history of our state and nation with scant effort to change them. It is time to talk about them on the road of real and meaningful solutions.

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. One could argue that access to adequate and sustainable health care for Black people, especially Black women, has not existed since the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

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 this, 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. 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.”

This scientific management 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. Her gynecologist, Dr. Howard Jones, diagnosed her with cervical cancer, and Lacks underwent radium treatments to no personal avail.

The avail would be given to others, including Dr. George Gey, a renowned cancer and virus researcher at the institution, who was sent Lacks’ cancer cells. He realized Lacks’ 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. And her family has never received a red cent.

Then there was Fannie Lou Hamer. In a recent Jackson Advocate article, I wrote about the failure of Mississippi’s healthcare 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 healthcare. When Hamer articulated the words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Medicaid and Medicare were originating in the U.S. healthcare system, and her words gave voice to the centuries of inequities that Blacks 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 Mississippi healthcare system on the brink of destruction, the inequities in access and information as it pertains to Black women and the healthcare system are still prevalent.

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Since Mrs. Hamer spoke these words in 1964, there have been countless ways in which this epithet has been voiced. It wasn’t until I read a recent article in the Huffington Post, 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 of 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 said 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.

That changes with this project and this collaboration. Through the partnership of the Mississippi Free Press and the Jackson Advocate in the (In)Equities and Resilience Project, those reasons why (solutions) have been voiced and validated over the past year during solutions circles. We’ve talked to Black women virtually from across Mississippi, creating a safe space for them to voice their stories of vulnerability, fear, injustice, pain, and joy, as it pertains to health care, quality education, jobs, safety, or lack thereof, across this great state.

This reporting, with real and difficult history fully embedded that explain the inequities, is groundbreaking and can create a positive catalyst for change in the conversations and actions surrounding Black women’s health in Mississippi. I can’t wait to share the investigative, thought-provoking, and solutions-driven work of journalists from both newsrooms with our readers. Stay tuned!

DeAnna Tisdale Johnson has stepped into the role of publisher of her family legacy, the Jackson Advocate. Since March 2020, she has led the publication to once again become an award-winning newspaper with a new logo and website to boot. She is a Jackson native, graduating from Murrah High School and Tougaloo College. She is also classically trained in vocal performance, and, though she’s never broken a glass, she’s known to still hit a high note or two.

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No more waiting to exhale: Black Mississippi women are digging out causes of inequities that harm us

By DeAnna Tisdale Johnson
September 29, 2021