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Saturday, April 20, 2024

What Writing a Pandemic Newsletter Showed Me About America

It's September 2019, three months BC (before coronavirus), and every day I still come to a desk on the 16th floor of a Manhattan high-rise, in an open-plan office decorated with bright yellow badges and chunky, oversize messages on the wall that say things like “win,” “cute,” and “OMG.” I work at BuzzFeed. I used to love it. I was hired in 2017 and soon joined a new team that was mostly women of color, led by a Black editor, and dedicated to reaching multicultural readers. But in early 2019 the company laid off around 250 people, my team was dissolved, and I was shuffled into a predominantly white group that posts mainly about white celebrities.

Everything about it makes me tired: the rigid weekly content quotas, the uncertainty over whether I'd been spared for my work or simply kept for optics, the fatigue of pitching stories about Black and brown celebrities to an unsupportive white editor. These days my innermost thought when I gaze out at the Manhattan skyline through the office windows isn't OMG, it's WTF. On September 13, I fling myself off the hamster wheel and resign.

I begin to freelance and eventually decide to start a newsletter on Substack—something personal, for an audience of my own, that doesn't require a green-light from an editor at a “mainstream” (i.e., historically white-centered) publication, like all my current freelance articles do. I write up a first installment that centers on my struggles with burnout and perfectionism, among other things. But I never hit Send, because by now it's early March 2020, and it doesn't seem appropriate to blast out my self-centered musings while a scary-ass, full-blown pandemic is mushrooming across the world.

I shut myself in my Brooklyn apartment, binge-reading about virology and venturing out only for groceries and a brisk walk now and then. And what I read keeps making me worry in a particular way: When I learn that people with heart and kidney disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes, and other preexisting medical conditions are at a higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19, I know those conditions are especially prevalent in the Black community. When I start to read about the “essential workers” who will have to stay physically on the job while everyone else locks down—nurses, social workers, home health aides, grocery store and fast food workers—I know those professions are heavily made up of Black and brown women, like my own mother. Plus, well, I'm all too familiar with the wisdom in the ancient Black proverb “When white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia”—and the chronic social and economic inequities that affect Black health, and the distrust that many of us harbor for a health care system after generations of demonstrated racism. Every now and then, I send the articles I'm reading about the virus to friends and family—almost all of whom have yet to understand the severity and urgency of the pandemic. Even experts know so little about the virus at this point.


My overwhelming fear—which is almost a certainty—is that the Black community is going to be uniquely devastated by this pandemic. So, on April 5, I finally send out the first installment of my newsletter. Only now it's something completely different. I call it Coronavirus News for Black Folks.

They came true, of course, those worries that the pandemic will hit Black people especially hard. The first evidence comes mainly from articles by Black journalists and scholars, who connect the dots with racially sorted data from several states because federal agencies have yet to release any such nationwide numbers. Then, on April 7, the front pages of four of the biggest newspapers in America suddenly wake up to the pandemic's hugely disproportionate toll on Black Americans. Only then does the White House publicly acknowledge the disparity in a news conference. The only journalist at the briefing to press President Trump on what exactly he plans to do about it is Ayesha Rascoe, a White House reporter for NPR and, of course, a Black woman.

I start to figure out what my newsletter can do. American newsrooms are overwhelmingly white, and the traditional Black press has been decimated over time (because when the white media economy catches pneumonia, the Black media economy goes to the ICU). That means the issues that are important to Black people are chronically underreported even in good times. In the pandemic, a familiar blindness—a slowness—keeps showing up in historically white outlets' coverage, and I try to do my best to correct for it. I notice, for instance, that stories about essential workers tend to focus on white medical professionals. So in my newsletter I incorporate an interview series called “Essential & Black,” where I talk to Black woman on the front lines: a pregnant hospital food-service worker, a security guard at a social services nonprofit who has several risk factors for Covid, a pharmacy technician living from paycheck to paycheck.


In those early days, too, I notice some finger-wagging media coverage about the supposedly widespread myth among Black people that they are immune to the coronavirus; the implication seems to be that they will behave irresponsibly. (A Pew poll soon finds that, on balance, Black Americans are far more concerned about Covid than white people are.) Later coverage shifts to focus on a whole range of “bizarre” conspiracy theories claiming that the virus is some kind of weapon or plot. Some of these are circulating in the Black community. So I put out an edition of the newsletter, paired with a live Instagram panel discussion, about how to speak to loved ones who might believe conspiracy theories.

It's complicated, because Black people can actually back up their distrust in the medical establishment by referring to real horrors—precedents like the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, a federal study that deceived 600 Black men into thinking they were receiving medical treatment for “bad blood” beginning in 1932; the researchers were actually just observing what happens when syphilis runs its course unchecked for decades, allowing the men to grow sicker, infect their loved ones, and die. “How does one acknowledge the history of unlawful and harmful agendas aimed at the Black community,” I write, “while also combating a pandemic that requires well-informed awareness?”

Mostly, though, what I'm doing is curating. I spend hours poring over the internet, trying to find the most reliable and relevant news about the plague for Black people; each edition of the newsletter contains dozens of links and summaries. I start by publishing every couple of days, then settle into a roughly once-a-week rhythm. I carefully scan Black publications. I run search terms like “African American” + “Black” + “pandemic” + “Covid-19.” And then I present what seems like the most important stuff in one place.

It's pretty straightforward, but there's something powerful and terrifying about it: To run those particular search terms day after day is to stare down the barrel of all the biggest things coming for America in the summer of 2020. It's to be a sentinel.

In early May, I publish a few thoughts and links under the heading “Protesting During a Pandemic.” I link to a story about the fatal February shooting of a Georgia man whose name is just starting to become widely recognized—Ahmaud Arbery—and the first efforts to organize demonstrations over his death at the hands of a white father and son. The story explains how local community leaders have cautiously taken to protesting on social media and emailing and phoning officials to call attention to the case, while others begin to take to the streets.

“This story isn't directly related to the coronavirus,” I write, “however it does reveal the pandemic's unique impact on social justice efforts and hate crimes.” Protesting, I know, could aggravate the disproportionate impact of the disease on that same community. But how do you weigh one life-threatening risk against another? How do you maintain social distance when there's more strength in bodily numbers? Do cries for justice and equality ring as clear from a masked mouth?

I also learn about Christian Smalls, a Black longtime Amazon employee who gets fired after organizing a walkout to protest what he and others see as unsafe working conditions. Smalls' defiance soon inspires other Amazon warehouse workers, who have been keeping a frantic pace to supply America's shut-in households during the pandemic. People of color make up almost half of Amazon's laborers.

All of these burdens—of violence, of sickness, of labor—are falling so disproportionately on Black people, and they only worsen with time. A communal eruption is long past due. Within a month, some of the largest protests in American history are spreading from coast to coast.

That's not all I can start to see coming. One week I refer to an article that quotes a Rikers Island inmate saying, “We're like sitting ducks”; the next I post stories about confirmed prison outbreaks. I can see the coming waves of evictions and Black business closures from miles away, and I report their approach, link by link. The work feels important, and my subscriber numbers are climbing from three digits to four, but I'm feeling increasingly overwhelmed—as are other Black reporters I know.

While I've been reporting on the Black community my entire career, I have no particular background in science or medicine. But all of a sudden I feel like I'm on a front line. Is this what it's always been like? And I start wanting to understand better who's gone before me.

In March of 1864, a Massachusetts nurse named Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to graduate from an American medical school. Not long afterward, she headed for the South, where 4 million people had just been set free. She took a job with a federal office called the Freedmen's Bureau Medical Division. She was one of about 120 doctors assigned the task of looking after the health of the entire emancipated population—which was dying at a stunning rate in the throes of a smallpox epidemic, rampant malnutrition, and inadequate shelter.

Crumpler's post was a Freedmen's hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where she was subjected to intense discrimination by her colleagues. “Doctors snubbed her, druggists balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the MD behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘mule driver,’” according to an Ebony article from 1964. The hospital was also, in a sense, set up to fail. The entire idea of the Freedmen's Bureau Medical Division was seen by some American leaders as a waste of time. Black people, they believed, were uniquely vulnerable to smallpox, syphilis, and other contagious diseases. “No charitable Black scheme can wash out the color of the Negro, change his inferior nature, or save him from his inevitable fate,” one Ohio congressman said in arguing against the bureau's creation.

Crumpler left the South in 1869, but she didn't abandon it. She just changed strategy. In 1883 she bypassed the white medical system altogether and published a book of medical advice targeted at mothers and nurses—on things like nutrition, breastfeeding, how to treat burns, and how to prevent cholera. She called it A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, and she hoped it might end up “in the hands of every woman.”


Some writers have compared Crumpler's book, which was unusual for its time, to an early version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The historian Jim Downs argues it was also an implicit “rebuttal to the prevailing idea” that Black people were physiologically doomed—because it focused on what Crumpler called “the possibilities of prevention.” The book is anything but a polemic, but there are a few lines toward the end of the introduction that feel like a subtweet of the entire racist medical establishment: “They seem to forget that there is a cause for every ailment,” she writes, “and that it may be in their power to remove it.”

Sadly, American medicine didn't get the message. One year after Crumpler died, in 1896, a statistician working for the Prudential Life Insurance Company named Frederick L. Hoffman published a book called Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro. Drawing on statistical analysis of numerous data sources, Hoffman set out to prove once and for all that free Black people were dying off not because of social conditions but because of their “inferior vital capacity.” He concluded that they were bound for extinction (and were therefore uninsurable at anything but the highest rates).

Hoffman's work, and its so-called extinction thesis, quickly became pillars of American scholarship; white contemporaries swooned over his tables and tables of data. But a few people swiftly pointed out that Hoffman's actual analysis of all that data was a hot mess. One of them was a 28-year-old researcher named W. E. B. Du Bois. (He showed, among other things, that white people in some European cities were dying at higher rates than American Black people were.)

As a young academic, Du Bois believed that American authorities discounted the social conditions of Black life simply because they did not see them clearly enough. So he set out on a mammoth and unusual study of his own—one that would be as deeply investigated and tightly focused as Hoffman's had been high-handed, sloppy, incurious, and shallow.

Beginning in 1896, Du Bois began canvassing some 2,500 Black households in Philadelphia, sitting down in their kitchens and asking them standardized questions, to “find out what was the matter with this area and why.” Working with a single research assistant, Isabel Eaton, he surveyed businesses, chased down legal documents, studied obituaries. And in 1899, he published the results in an exhaustive study called The Philadelphia Negro, his first book. By and large, Du Bois found that Black residents were segregated into the city's unhealthiest neighborhoods, where they paid high rents for low-quality housing. Also, 35 percent of families lived in a single room; 38 percent took in lodgers; and only 13.7 percent had access to toilets. Only certain low-wage jobs were open to them, and they were shut out of most unions. As for death rates, Du Bois found that the areas with the highest Black mortality “contain the worst slum districts and unsanitary dwellings of the city”; but in other neighborhoods—where white families and the city's few well-to-do Black families lived—Black mortality rates looked much like white ones.

The book became a model for generations of scholars—because it was one of the very first works of American empirical social science. So to sum up: Crumpler bypassed the medical establishment by writing a self-help book, and Du Bois confronted it by pioneering a whole new American field of research—all to get it through people's heads that Black people were sicker for a reason.

The truth is, Black people have always had to use inventiveness, technology, and do-it-yourself media to work around a slow or hostile white establishment. And it doesn't always work. Remember the Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee? One of the first people who tried to put a stop to it was a 22-year-old statistician named Bill Jenkins, who was among the first Black recruits to the Health Service in the late 1960s. While he was there, Jenkins came across documentation of the study, which was still underway in Alabama—still performing tests on Black men who were infected with syphilis, but offering no treatment for the disease.

Jenkins decided he had to do something. As a young man involved in civil rights activism, he helped run an underground newsletter—yes, a newsletter!—called The Drum. So he and some fellow activists wrote up his findings for their handful of readers. But when they tried to get the attention of bigger media, they hit a wall: They blindly sent documentation of the study to newspapers like The Washington Post and “waited for this big article to come out.” They didn't hear back at all. “We didn't understand how news articles are written,” Jenkins would later say.

The press didn't pick up the story at all until four years later, in 1972, when a white social worker and epidemiologist leaked information about Tuskegee to a longtime friend at the Associated Press. Almost instantly, Tuskegee became front-page news across the country, leading to congressional hearings and the end of the study. The experiment had been going on in more or less broad daylight for 40 years.

What's different now is that the media workarounds at our disposal have become far more powerful, for better and for worse. (Platforms give us access to a nearly unlimited audience; they also surveill us, violate our privacy, and give harassers access to us.) Black Lives Matter itself is a technological movement, started by three Black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—over Twitter and Facebook in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. “It was incredible and powerful because we realized that we could use these social media tools to organize our people,” Tometi said in 2017. As the activist DeRay McKesson told this magazine in 2015, “Because of Twitter, Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, we're able not only to push back against dominant-culture narratives but also to talk to each other differently.”

Today I can add Substack to that list. But that doesn't mean these digital workarounds have lightened the load on us.

History often romanticizes the work of disenfranchised people who outflank their oppressors. But the mental, emotional, and physical toll of their struggle usually gets glossed over.

This is something I start thinking about in June, when my gums start bleeding. My dentist runs down a short list of possible causes, and we quickly eliminate them. But as the appointment winds down, the conversation turns to my work on Coronavirus News for Black Folks, and he suggests that stress might be the culprit.

I've always had a pretty detached relationship with my own stress—despite having handpicked several articles about Black health and stress for the newsletter. Hell, I've just interviewed a fellow Black journalist about being hospitalized for anxiety related to writing about Black deaths. Like many other Black women, I've been conditioned by decades of pushing through my own stress to believe that I'm immune to it. Now my dentist—a Black dentist, my choice—is informing me how mild gum disease could potentially lead to far more serious problems.

I go home. I back away from social media and pare down my freelance pitching—not easy, given how much self-worth I derive from my work. I also slow my newsletter output. I need a moment to breathe, to pour back into myself, before I go back into the fray.

This time around, I think the exhaustion that Black journalists are feeling is different. After years of laboring to bring attention to the health disparities that we are always the first to notice, we are buckling under the sudden, voracious thirst of predominantly white, mainstream platforms for this work. Linda Villarosa, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, tells me she's never been in such sudden demand. And she's torn about it. She hates that this overwhelming, overnight interest has only come about because of an onslaught of Black illness, abuse, and death in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. But she's also encouraged that maybe, at last, there's an opportunity for a deep and widespread acknowledgment of racial disparities—and of the battle that's raged against them since the beginning.

“It's important to know that we just haven't been sitting around letting things happen to us,” Villarosa tells me in a phone call. “We have always been in this fight. When I think of some of the people who have been doing this a long time, the people who are getting lifted up now, I'm really proud they stayed in the game.”

Bill Jenkins stayed in the game. According to a 1997 article about the legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis study, Jenkins was “haunted by his unsuccessful effort to halt it.” So he went back to school and became an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he directed AIDS prevention for minorities; he also spent 10 years running a program that provided free medical care to survivors of the Tuskegee study. Jenkins died in 2019 at the age of 73. W. E. B. Du Bois stayed in the game too, becoming one of his era's greatest Black leaders.

While we know very little about Rebecca Lee Crumpler's life—whether she was angry, exhausted, or even what she looked like—it appears that when she died in 1895, she was too poor to afford a headstone. Just this summer, on July 16, 2020, a group of her admirers finally raised enough money to give her one. They stayed in the game too. And so will I.

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This article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue. Subscribe now.

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