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Afrocentric in Two Pandemics: Covid and Racism

A Black daughter sits on her mother's knee in a grassy park under a tree

In April of this year, in Washington DC, my Aunt Mae learns that she has to fight an aggressive cancer that is overtaking her blood system. She is shipped to a low-standard hospital, rather than to the better hospital closer to her home. Her three daughters, all essential health care workers reliant on public transportation, now have an extra stress as they must get their Mom safely and as comfortably as possible to each of her appointments on time.

The specter of the COVID-19 virus hangs continuously in the air and challenges my ability to have my worth and dignity honored. In this pandemic season, we can ill afford to lower our defenses. We must remain crystal clear about the disparities affecting the lives of black and brown communities of which we UUs of color are a part. While I live in a mostly economically secure New York City neighborhood, in the ethnic richness between my Asian and Hasidic neighbors, I share community with the people of color who make a majority in the city’s less comfortable and less well-served neighborhoods.

Folks believe that this pandemic is impartial to race. Really…? Not true. Not at all true… People of color are amongst those who work tirelessly. Recently, I heard that a custodian of color at my UU congregation spoke of having lost 5 of his “homies.” By now, I suspect that the number has at least doubled.

As a parent of color, it’s always been especially important to me to give positive messages to my child, messages strong enough to counter the narratives received outside of my sphere of influence, concern, and care.

I ensure that my home reflects me: My love of my familial arc across the generations. My unapologetic Afrocentricity. My unshakeable commitment to building the Beloved Community. My Unitarian Universalist faith.

I ensure that I continue to model these values for my five-year old granddaughter. We are not able to sit side by side. She’s in Baltimore; I’m in New York. We Zoom as best we can, enjoying our Mima and Simone time. She dances for me, we read to each other, we share memories, and we share stories. She’s looking forward to our visit to the Motherland within the next five years.

It’s important to me that we share rituals, too. We light our UU chalices near the start of our time together and extinguish them as we bid each other goodnight. We share images of our current altars and recognize that although life seems hardly to move, our altars remind us that little changes happen daily. Simone finds a beautiful leaf on her walk in the park; it rests on her altar reminding her of her love for nature. My sister Hope and I receive wonderful homemade gifts from two dear young friends, and now a candle and scroll reside on my altar, reminding me of love across distance.

A generation ago, I swam against the tide helping my daughter Lehna and niece Jova unlearn lies, sometimes gently named as “untrue facts,” in order to strengthen their sense of worth and dignity. With Simone’s generation, I am again swimming against the tide. This time, I do so with a growing sense of urgency. I do not have the luxury of time to ensure that Simone belongs in her communities—whether at home, school, or at church. 

Across all manner of difference, the question of belonging comes to the fore. Who is ready for a gifted student who is trans, an electrician who is a lesbian, a man who is a nurse? A non-threatening black boy? Societal stereotypes die hard. My Unitarian Universalist faith demands that I continue to counter unhealthy, unsafe, and untrue narratives that hurt us all.

The COVID-19 virus has given us the opportunity to make real our commitment to justice across all barriers. May we take the baton and carry on.

About the Author

Janice Marie Johnson

Dr. Janice Marie Johnson joined the Ministries and Faith Development staff group in January 2019 as Co-Director of Ministries and Faith Development. She and Rev. Sarah Lammert share this position. They support, sustain, and advance multicultural, anti-oppressive, justice-centered, and innovative...

For more information contact faithengagement@uua.org.