What Black Women’s Histories Can Teach Us about Pandemics

What Black Women’s Histories Can Teach Us about Pandemics
The creative genius of Black women, like Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (left) and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman (center), paved the way for modern Black women, like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett—the lead scientist in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Given this historic moment of global pandemic, I am inclined to reflect on the importance of history.

Already, this history is gendered, raced and classed. The privileged comfort and status of Global North nations moved slowly to combat the spread of the coronavirus that caused the respiratory illness called COVID-19 since it originated from China.

Nonetheless, a virus that spreads easily from human to human knows no national or natural borders—given the global expanse of human travel, migration and distribution of goods in the present neoliberal global economy. 

What began as the epicenter of the pandemic in China in January of 2020 soon moved to European countries like Italy in February and Spain in March to the United States in April. And the most vulnerable—the elderly, the disabled, the poor and communities of color in the United States with high rates of people with preexisting health conditions—bore the brunt of this crisis.

Meanwhile, women in healthcare professions and at homes as caretakers, cleaners, parents and teachers, felt the enormous weight of this burden on our already precarious, underpaid status as the “second sex.”

Despite these challenges, a few news sources did notice that—under women’s head-of-state leadership in countries like Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Germany, Denmark, Norway and New Finland—the numbers of the infected remained low, and measures to keep communities safe and under lockdown, while increasing community tests to trace the spread of the virus, proved effective.

Even U.S. cities like San Francisco, under the leadership of Mayor London Breed—the city’s first Black woman mayor—received high marks for early lockdown in the Bay Area.

The story is twofold: Women as a demographic have been overburdened by the pandemic, but in leadership positions, they have proven to be more than capable and even exemplars. What the history books will say remains to be seen.

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I think of history specifically because I came upon articles from The Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell and The Guardian’s Andrew Dickson encouraging those of us who were forced to work from home via remote delivery—a necessity for those of us teaching in higher education—to “spend the time wisely” and take advantage of the social isolation to create our best work, as white Englishmen did like Isaac Newton (he discovered gravity) and Shakespeare (he wrote King Lear) during the London plagues of 1665-1666 and 1606 respectively. 

Curiously, neither article referenced Virginia Woolf’s 1929 tome, A Room of One’s Own, in which she speculated on the gendered nature of such men who could of course attend to their creative endeavors—given how they could rely on a woman (mother, wife, sister, housekeeper) to keep their homes clean, cook meals for the table, wash their clothes and offer relative comfort while they invented calculus or clever word play.

Building on Woolf, Alice Walker specifically wonders about the “creative geniuses” among our ancestral Black mothers, especially those who were enslaved, who may have been overburdened with work—much like so many women in the contemporary moment—but who may have expressed their artistry through song and through the growth of “our mothers’ gardens.” 

That many in the present moment have turned to music in our “social distancing” via the Internet for comfort and joy, and some who have the space are growing their own gardens in anticipation of food scarcity, speaks to the power of Black women’s histories to relate across time.

More than that, I wish to invoke the creative genius of our Black women healers, like New Orleans Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (1801-1881), who healed many during a yellow fever epidemic in the nineteenth century with her knowledge of medicinal herbs (perhaps learned from her own mother’s garden).

Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.” (Britannica)

And Harriet Tubman (ca. 1822-1913), whose many roles—Underground Railroad conductor, spy and scout during the Civil War—included that of a nurse who also used her knowledge of medicinal herbs to cure Union soldiers of dysentery. It was in her role as nurse that placed her in South Carolina, where she would eventually become the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military raid on June 2, 1863 at the Combahee River that freed 750 bondspeople from slavery. 

Harriet Tubman, pictured between 1860 and 1875. (H.B. Lindsley / Library of Congress)

Tubman, who was to appear on a redesign of the U.S. $20 paper currency this year, must wait another decade, it seems, before this becomes a reality.

Such delays, despite her heroic efforts, are in keeping with how Black women’s histories are often forgotten when compared to the individualistic merits of Newton and Shakespeare who are often heralded.

Will the same fate befall our current nurses and other “essential workers” keeping so many of us alive and functioning during this time of crisis? And will African American women like Kizzmekia Corbett—the lead scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases working on a vaccine for the virus—be able to follow in the healing trajectories of Laveau and Tubman? 

Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, a viral immunologist, is taking the lead to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. (UMBC Magazine)

As proven over time, pandemics have often altered the course of history—and not just in the obvious examples of the bubonic plague in medieval Europe or the pandemics that wiped out indigenous America during the “age of discovery.”

Looking specifically at the histories of Black women, there are examples of local African women (senoras or signares) healing the earliest European explorers on the West African coast, who suffered from tropical diseases but whose intimate liaisons with these women provided them sure footing and a foundation on which to build the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade (ca.1518-ca.1807), not just in restored health but in the women’s facilitation of local languages, customs, and economic trading.

These women of color, signares, managed to gain some individual assets, status and power in the hierarchies of the Atlantic Slave Trade. (Face2FaceAfrica)

There is also the later example of the victory of the Haitian Revolution—begun in 1791 under the presumed leadership of a mambo, or Vodou priestess (under the influence of an African-based goddess, Ezili Dantor), and culminating in Haiti’s independence in 1804—enabled not just by the bravery and resistance of formerly enslaved revolutionaries but also by the raging yellow fever pandemic that wiped out Napoleon’s army, eventually leading to the sale of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which mapped out a “manifest destiny” agenda both for the United States and the eventual “scramble for Africa” that would unfold a century later among the European powers. 

As our current history and earlier histories have taught us, it is often the response to the virus, not the virus itself, that steers the course.

And a history that centers the contributions of Black women, who have modeled resistance and nurturing—especially during times of crisis—just might provide the blueprint for survival and thriving. Laveau lived to be 80 years old; Tubman reach 91 years.

Perhaps such longevity is heroic enough, but their legacy is measured in service and community.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.