OPINION: Black Life Disrupted

by Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, Erin Lee, Gia Nguyen, Briannah Reed, and Tiana Smith

In “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now,” the late poet, writer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou wrote that “African Americans as slaves could not even claim to have won the names given to them in haste and without a care, but they pridefully possessed a quality which modified the barbarism of their lives.”

Angelou continued, “They employed formally familial terms when addressing each other. … in the slave society, Mariah became Aunt Mariah and Joe became Uncle Joe. Young girls were called Sister, Sis, or Tutta. Boys became Brother, Bubba, Bro and Buddy.” 

The use and evolution of these familial terms have ensured Black survival in a society that devalues Black lives. But they have done more than that — they have created connection and closeness among Black people wherever we are, whoever we are. Black people have created cultural practices to match the sweetness found in the ways we refer to each other, including our infamous greetings (daps, hugs), family reunions, cookouts, and funeral practices.

Unfortunately, much of what is at the heart of Black culture is dangerous to do during the coronavirus pandemic. Rona has definitely disrupted Black life! But never you worry, we have suggestions for getting through this tough time with your Blackness — however practiced and expressed — intact!

If we want to come out of this on the other side alive and well, we can’t afford to operate as though it’s business as usual. Indeed, three things about Black life in America account for our overrepresentation among those infected, hospitalized, and dying from COVID-19: 1) structural racism and discrimination, 2) proximity to the virus, and 3) underlying health conditions. 

Structural racism exists in every aspect of American life, from education, employment, and housing to access to health care, health insurance, and coronavirus testing and treatment. Medical providers’ unconscious bias about Black bodies places millions of individuals in harm’s way when seeking adequate and quality healthcare. Secondly, Black people are more likely to live and work in closer proximity to the virus. Living in densely populated cities and employment in essential and front-line jobs (many without paid sick leave) place Black people at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Most Black people must continue working because of our financial circumstances, specifically our higher rates of poverty and racial disparities in wealth and income. 

Lastly, Black people suffer from underlying health conditions, which are linked to systemic racism, that cause higher COVID-19 fatality rates. Diabetes, obesity, asthma, kidney disease, and hypertension are a few of the chronic illnesses and underlying health conditions rooted in systemic racism that plague our communities. 

Black people are also prone to “weathering,” the negative effect chronic stress has on the body. It contributes to the body’s vulnerability and susceptibility to infection and disease. Combined, these things implore us to give some thought to the following questions: How do we show solidarity and love to other Black people without touching each other? How do we get through the family reunion, cookout, and holiday season without jeopardizing our lives and the lives of our loved ones? How do we provide our loved ones a homegoing without risking the loss of more life?

Black Greetings

“It’s good to see you!” “Well, it’s good to be seen.” In the Black community, it is commonplace to use the “dap” to acknowledge each other. Historically, the dap was used by Black men to show each other that they see each other and have each other’s backs. It expresses unity, strength, and resistance. DAP stands for “dignity and pride” and originated from Black soldiers in the Vietnam War as a way to say that they were looking out for each other on the battlefield. And since America has always been a battlefield for Black folks, it quickly gained traction in the Black community when Black soldiers returned. The dap gave birth to the Black power handshake. It is also commonplace for Black people to greet each other by hugging and/or kissing. 

But what do we do when our daps, hugs, and Black power handshakes — the very ways we develop an instant sense of family and kindredness — are dangerous in the coronavirus pandemic? For now, we will have to go to the Black folks’ toolkit of non-physical greetings — and we do have a toolkit! Head nodding (chin down), throwing one’s head back (chin up), using our colloquium of introductions (see #BlackMenGreetings #BlackWomenGreetings on Twitter), and laying eyes on each other will still allow us to establish mutual respect and a sense of solidarity without transmitting the coronavirus to our brothas and sistahs.

The Black Cookout

Cookouts are where Black people are free to let loose, have fun with family, and be reminded of the many blessings we have: family, friends, food, drinks, and fun. Cookouts are recognized by Black people as being for Black people (one of the times we really are able to have a for-us-by-us — otherwise known as F.U.B.U. — event). Common staples of a cookout are relatives old and young, great BBQ, potato salad, cornbread, desserts like banana pudding or sweet potato pie, grape soda, Kool-Aid, dominoes or cards, and of course dancing. Cookouts, like daps, are a way for Black people to see and recognize other Black people, and to make and keep connections in the family and in their communities. 

Can’t let go of the cookout? Here are some alternatives. 1) We can all try our hand at making our own classic cookout plate and joining the virtual family picnic table via Zoom, Google Hangouts, or the Houseparty app! 2) Support your local Black-owned restaurant by ordering take-out and share a meal with friends online. 3) If you must meet face-to-face, make sure to:

  • Keep it small; limit the number of “quarantine units” invited to the function
  • Keep your distance of 6 feet, even when you’re outside
  • Try not to share plates or platters, and/or have everyone bring their own food

(via Health News Hub)

The Family Reunion

“It’s been a long, long time/Since we had the chance to get together/Nobody knows the next time we see each other/Maybe years and years from now.”

These lyrics from the O’Jays’ “Family Reunion” ring true today as family reunions are one of the many events being altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Family reunions have immense significance in the African American community. The Black family reunion can be linked back to Reconstruction when former slaves put out ads in an attempt to reconnect with lost family members. These reunions were a major cause for celebration. The trauma of slavery tearing families apart and the joyous reunions that followed are part of what makes family reunions such an integral tradition for many Black families. Preserving family history was no easy feat. In fact, many family records during the era of slavery had to be hidden in Bibles for safekeeping.

Temple Professor Emeritus, Ione Vargus, notes that because Black family reunions do not depend on the government or rely on outside money, they are the ultimate expression of the power held by Black families. Given our history of being torn away from each other, it is unsurprising that Black people have family reunions more than other racial/ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, family reunions this summer will not be the same as years past. The pandemic has put a serious halt to large gatherings, especially those that have a large high-risk population. Adequate social distancing is just not possible for this type of gathering. Take a page out of the book of the Williams family in North Carolina, who held a virtual family reunion in order to keep their streak of 125 consecutive family reunions.


As Black people continue to experience the highest COVID-19 mortality rates of all racial and ethnic groups (about 2.3 times as high as the rate for whites and Asians, who have the lowest actual rates) we will be called upon to have more homegoings.  

Homegoing services mark the transition of the deceased to the afterlife. These pageantries are an essential part of African American history. They’ve given Black people the respect in death that wasn’t always received in life, especially during slavery and Jim Crow. Indeed, funerals, more than most events, bring people together from far and wide. Funerals are not only for the dead but also for the living. They are a time and space allotted for the grieving process: To cry, to wail, to pray, and to connect through loss. They are often considered “celebrations of life,” which take into account not only how the person died but how they lived.

When planning homegoings, we have to avoid creating “super spreader” events — where one person infects an atypically large number of people gathering indoors with lots of people from different households and in close, extended contact. Two funerals held in Albany Georgia where over 20 people got sick in a matter of days is an example of such events. These “super spreader” events triggered a coronavirus outbreak that made Albany a virus hotspot within weeks.

Although our ability to bury our dead has been severely compromised, we don’t have to figure this out alone. When we think of frontline workers, most often we think of the nurses, physicians, and CNAs that fill our hospitals and nursing homes. Undoubtedly, those helping the living are critical to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but a group of frontline workers that receive less attention are those helping the dead.

Funeral homes are facing many struggles right now, including protecting staff and funeral attendees from contracting the disease, navigating their own losses, and explaining to families why their crematories have halted the intake of the deceased. But they are also helping us to come up with new homegoing traditions in the midst of this pandemic.

Instead of celebrations that have hundreds of attendees, they are guiding families through the process of holding funerals with only a handful of people to ensure social distancing. Many are providing streaming services so that others can attend virtually. These recorded memorial services can be played later and shared with others who couldn’t attend online. We can also host our own virtual homegoings (e.g., Zoom, Skype, Google Meet) and share a eulogy or other prepared tribute, readings, poems, and personal stories. Eliminating the hardship of being alone as we grieve can provide a chance to mourn together in a virtual community. 

Family reunions and cookouts are associated with the warmer weather, but we know that Black holiday traditions are an important part of Black culture too. So, brothas and sistas, aunties and uncles, Big Mamas and Papas, keep in mind that many of the tips shared here can be used as we approach the colder months and are tempted to host and participate in our usual holiday gatherings. Public health experts agree, it will likely get worse before it gets better, especially as we deal with the Rona and flu viruses at the same time. We must ultimately remember that even though we have to stay physically separated, we can still be together — just in different ways. 


Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman is an Assistant Professor in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington (UW). Prior to joining the faculty at UW, she was a Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow. She was also a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research on Poverty. Her work has been featured in City and Community; the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences; Social Science and Medicine; and Women, Gender, and Families of Color, to name a few.

Erin Lee is a recent graduate of the Masters in Public Health program at the University of Washington, a member of the 2020 Husky 100 cohort, and a Bonderman fellow. During her time at UW, Erin focused on Maternal and Child Health Services, completing her thesis focused on the experiences of community-based doulas. Her time at UW taught her the importance of building community and reignited her passion and purpose for eliminating racial disparities in health, especially for women of color. Erin now works at the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and is committed to continuing to work in community with others for a better world. 

Gia Nguyen recently received her Bachelor’s of Science in Microbiology from the University of Washington. She currently runs her own work research lab at the Gates Center. Her time at UW instilled a passion to advocate on behalf of patients experiencing bias and improve the quality of their medical care. Gia’s long-term goals are to pursue medicine and work with women on family planning. She will continue to use her platform to eliminate disparities in women’s access to healthcare. 

Briannah Reed is a junior at the University of Washington pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Education, Communities and Organizations (ECO), with a minor in Diversity. She is passionate about connecting with others and using common experiences to look for ways to change current systems. She realizes and wants to help others realize that education can happen anywhere, be about anything, and be taught by anyone (especially elders). In her spare time, she enjoys writing poetry.

Tiana Smith is currently a senior at the University of Washington. She is earning her Bachelor’s degree in History, with minors in French, Diversity Studies, and African Studies. While at UW, she has focused her time on building community among Black women and is currently serving as the president of Sisterhood, a club that works to unite and uplift Black women on campus. Following her time at UW, Tiana plans to pursue a master’s degree in education and go on to teach history.

Featured image: Afro Bite 2020 (Photo: Susan Fried)