“Being your own story means you can always choose the tone.”—TONI MORRISON, Writer
*Editor’s note: Photos by Kay Hickman, a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.
I first met Tanya Denise Fields at a panel I produced in New York City a few years back. I knew of Tanya because of our mutual social justice circles, and because of her refreshingly honest postings about her life and work on Facebook. In a world where so many politicians and activists are guarded, scripted even, Tanya is as unapologetically herself as bell hooks, Rose McGowan, George Carlin or Malcolm X.
When she walked into the event, I witnessed firsthand a leader who does not just inherit a space, but her clear, melodic voice and her boundless energy become like a sacred altar in that space. She is affectionately nicknamed “Mama Tanya” by those who work with her, by the communities that she supports: She is tall and regal, like a mythical African goddess; her dark skin radiates with self-pride like a disciple of Marcus Garvey or Fannie Lou Hamer; and thick black dreadlocks frame her head like the long history of women who have had to make something from nothing time and again, who have had to survive all matter of atrocities, to their minds, to their souls, to their bodies.
Indeed Mama Tanya is a survivor, of domestic violence, of dreams deferred, of the triple madness of racism and sexism and classism. But here she still stands.
That is because Mama Tanya, at age 39, is one of the most dynamic leaders I have ever met. Based in The South Bronx, New York, one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, she is the single mother of six children ranging in age from 4 to 17, four girls and two boys. She is an activist, a community organizer, an urban farmer and founder of The Black Feminist Project, a nonprofit is engaged in food justice and reproductive rights for working-class women of color.
She also manages a city-owned plot of land she calls “Black Joy Farm.” This urban farm grows fruits and vegetables, and Mama Tanya even has a vehicle that she has transformed into a mobile market to deliver those products to those not able to get to Black Joy Farm.
So you can imagine my great dismay, just a few weeks back, when Mama Tanya started posting that she was badly ill, that she believed she had the coronavirus. And that she may have gotten some or all of her children sick there in their three-bedroom apartment she also shares with her partner, her boyfriend, Mustaphai (pronounced moo-stoph-ah). Mustaphai is not the father of any of her kids but helps to take care of them, nonetheless.
This is why photographer Kay Hickman and I decided to visit her up in The Bronx—amidst the pandemic, carefully, while social distancing. There are countless stories about the disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx folks who have been affected by COVID-19, like Mama Tanya.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kevin Powell: When did you first start feeling symptoms?
Tanya “Mama Tanya” Fields: I’ve spent a lot of time wondering where I picked up the coronavirus. Probably too much time. I was down in New Orleans at a funders’ conference [in early March]. I get funded by NOVO Foundation, and they invited me to come down and speak on a panel. I remember getting down there the first day and hearing everything was “Corona, Corona, Corona,” and I started getting worried. I was like “Should I have come on this trip?” “Should I have gotten on a plane?” I was out there for the last day of Mardi Gras, out on the street, and then I came home on a plane and I felt fine. I started feeling sick about a week and a half later. I remember the date, too. It was the 12th. I have been in my house since March 12th. Around March 8th, I was like “This is serious, this is a big deal.”
KP: What happened next?
MT: I started feeling symptoms about six or seven days after we started sheltering in place. I told my kids they’re not going to school. They wanted to meet up with friends and I said, “Absolutely not.” I would not let them ride the train. I kept my daughter out of school even though she only went to school across the street. We were pretty much done on the 8th or 9th, just waiting for the country to get shit together and tell us what to do next.
Around the 15th or 16th of March, I woke up—I remember this very distinctly—I got up that morning, I felt kind of tired and I had a little bit of a sore throat, a tickle in my throat. I was like, “Oh damn, man! I think I got Corona!” And that day I didn’t feel terrible, but I had a little bit of a headache that was starting to creep up on me and I had a sore throat and I was praying. I was like, “I might be sick but I’m praying that is just me just.” You know, I had spent the whole week cleaning my kitchen, like deep cleaning my kitchen, caulking stuff so that we didn’t get roaches from my neighbor next door, opening up cabinets, taking stuff out and there was a lot of dust. I’m like, maybe I have a respiratory infection I’m getting ready to get.
I woke up the next day and it was like I had been hit by a Mack truck. It was immediate. It was not gradual. It was like a tickle in the throat and then the next day body chills and aches, I mean bad, worse than any flu I’ve ever had, and I’ve had the flu two or three times in my life. I knew—when I had the chills I knew— I must have a fever. I didn’t have a thermometer.
Toward the end of the week I couldn’t smell anything, and I couldn’t taste anything. If I ever had any doubts that I had Corona, at that moment I was like “I have COVID-19.” I knew it once I stopped being able to taste food or be able to smell myself. The kids were like, “You smell bad. You should take a shower.” I was like “I don’t smell anything,” and they would say, “Well we do.” I knew that I had Corona.
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KP: What was your emotional state at this point?
MT: I got like scared for real, for real. Then I was like, “Oh God, please don’t let me be one of these people that die. Don’t let me be one of the Corona people that die.” Before then I had never thought about going to the hospital. I knew that it was difficult to get tested. I had already called my doctor and they were like we’re not testing here. I had called some Urgent Care places; they were like “If you’ve not been out of the country we’re not testing.”
KP: How did you finally get tested?
MT: So my boyfriend got up. At this point he was also starting to feel somewhat sick. He’s having the “sweats,” he was having chills, and probably had a low-grade fever. He was not feeling well. He had lost his sense of smell. But he was much better than I was because we suspected that he might have already gotten it in December—because we suspected Corona might have been here earlier than folks were telling us.
He pulls the car out of the lot and he takes me up to Montefiore [Hospital]. It is a shit show up there. It looks like the stuff on [the TV show] M-A-S-H. But it wasn’t crowded, that was the thing. But from everybody that was there, these people were sick. Everybody that was coming in there, they had gray pallor, they had trouble breathing, and they were coughing. Folks looked bad.
We were all sitting in a very poorly heated tent in the driveway of Montefiore’s ER for hours. We were getting chest X-rays where we had to take our coats and scarves off in the cold, outside of the hospital, in what I can only call barbeque tents. You know the tents that you put up when you have a barbeque in your backyard? This is what was set up as medical triage! This is what healthcare providers and doctors and nurses and X-ray technicians were treating people in, and very sick patients were being treated in—and it was awful! It was awful! I literally was in tears.
I have anemia and so sitting in the cold is very painful for me. My fingers started to burn. It made breathing even worse. I lost the feeling in my feet. Then, when I did start to feel anything, it felt like there were a million pins in my toes and in the soles of my feet because I already have a tendency to get cold from not having very high iron levels.
And then they wouldn’t test me! They wouldn’t test me! But a group of men came in, said that they worked for this particular place and one of their co-workers had tested positive and they gave them a test. From my eyes—I’m not a doctor—they looked asymptomatic, but they were able to get a test because they worked for the city and somebody had tested positive. They weren’t sick at this moment, but they were able to get a test; and me, with my 102-degree fever, my sore throat, my body aches, and my needing a chest X-ray, I was not going to get a test.
According to the healthcare provider, who was very sympathetic, who was very apologetic, who was very transparent about the fact that she felt that I should be tested and anybody who felt they needed to be tested should be tested, and that we should all be able to get testing—her guidelines for the hospital that she worked for said that I “did not meet criteria” and they could not test me even though they were going to presume that I had COVID-19. I was finally able to get a test on the 14th day of being sick.
KP: How did you get the test, finally?
MT: Because there was no fluid, they were going to send me home. They were going to presume that I had COVID. I got home about six or seven o’clock that night. I had been in the hospital from about one or two o’clock in the afternoon ‘til about six o’clock and for that whole four hours I was out there sitting in the cold. Then I finally got a call from the Department of Health. They could set me up at a drive-through center. They were sending people to drive-through centers in Bay Plaza, the Mall at Bay Plaza in Co-Op City in The Bronx. They had two sites. They said, “We have Lehman and we have Bay Plaza but you gotta have a car, because at the drive-through center they will not see you if you show up as a walk-through.”
Both Lehman and Co-Op City are not easy places to get to on public transportation. You can get there, but it takes a very long time. It’s much easier to get there by car—and you need a car anyway for them to test you. The very nature of the testing they were doing, for their own safety you have to be in a car. So I’m thinking “What about people who need testing and they don’t have cars?” A lot of people in my community do not have cars. I don’t know if they were going to pay an Uber or what, but I was fortunate enough to have a car. So we drove up.
KP: And then what happened?
MT: When I get there, I’m very surprised that this appointment that I had to wait three days for—there’s like nobody here at this testing site. I was like the last person to show up and I was there for about 15 or 20 minutes and there were like four other cars ahead of me. And in the 15 or 20 minutes that I was there, there were no other cars behind me and there are all these cones, and everything set up, but it doesn’t look like there are people being tested. I found that concerning. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t, right? Just because I didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
KP: So you finally got a test—but what was your mental state through all of this?
MT: I think the conversations that I would like us to be having more of around this virus is how it affects people mentally and emotionally. My eldest daughter got very sick. She had a fever almost up to 104 and I was really sick and didn’t feel well. We had been giving her Tylenol and that fever would not come down. I remember saying to my boyfriend, “If this fever does not break today, we are going to have to take her to the emergency room.”
Having a fever of 103 or 104 for long period of time—and a long period of time is like more than 48 hours, more than two days—can give you brain damage. It can have much more serious repercussions. I was really concerned about that. She felt hot to the touch; she wasn’t eating; she was sicker than me, it felt like.
I felt very guilty. I gave her this. I was sick and then I made her sick. She got sick maybe two days after me and so I was like I gave her Corona. As a mom, who is supposed to protect her children, I felt like “How did she get this? Like I’m supposed to know better.” I wore the gloves, I sanitized them, I washed my hands, I disinfected everything in my house.
KP: Your emotions were all over the place….
MT: The only thing I can do is sleep and eat CBD gummies. I would get some relief from the body aches. The fever finally broke around the ninth or tenth day. Right around the time I went to get my chest X-ray, my fever finally broke and all I could do was sleep all day. And meanwhile, as someone who is priding herself quite honestly on being a mom with a big family, the head of my household and super productive, I feel useless. I can’t even return people’s phone calls and that really was taking a toll on me.
I was still trying to get out of bed and do stuff and this virus really had me to the point of—I’m a person who is really good at pushing through—I couldn’t push through this. I was really tired and there were times when I felt like, I just felt like “Bitch, if you die and you leave these six kids….”—like “You can’t do that. You can’t get Corona and die!” And we were starting to see at this point that it wasn’t just people over the age of 60 who were expiring from this virus, that there were young people in their forties and their late thirties, on the rare end of the spectrum—teenagers, babies. An infant died from Corona, contracted it and then died. This virus was killing, is killing folks, and I was just like, “You can’t die! Please don’t die!”
KP: Do you believe that your entire family—all six kids plus your partner—have the virus or had it at some point?
MT: I think we all had it. Taylor, my eldest, she was the sickest of all of us. At one point she was sicker than me for several days. I was like “I’m gonna have to get my shit together to take her to the hospital,” and my partner was like “You know, you’re gonna stay here and I’ll take her” and I was like absolutely not. There was no way that my child was gonna go to the hospital and I wasn’t gonna be there.
So I’m the only one who got tested. I got a presumptuous positive. What that means is that by the time they tested me, there was virus in my system, but it was going away. Like there were residual cells, because that’s how long it took for me to get a test, 15 days. So yes, positive. I didn’t need to get anybody else tested. I knew that I had made everybody else in my house sick. My friends keep saying stop saying that but that’s how I feel. I got everybody in my house sick.
KP: How did this affect your relationship with your children?
MT: When I was sick, I wasn’t parenting. I was trying. I was trying hard. I was crying and I was begging them. Literally I was like, “Y’all know that I don’t feel well.”
My kitchen—you know my kitchen, I run a lifestyle brand. Well, I’m aspiring to be a lifestyle brand, I’m building a lifestyle brand called “Mama Tanya’s Kitchen”—is my happy place. I had spent a week deep cleaning my kitchen. That was cathartic for me as well, just dealing with this whole shelter in place and feeling aimless and not knowing what the world was gonna look like from one day to another. Cleaning my kitchen was very cathartic. I was very proud of the way that I had organized my kitchen. I remember crying. I remember propping myself up on the side in front of the sink, using it to hold myself up, and I remember crying and I remember saying to them, “I am sick. I literally cannot do anything. I need for y’all to get your shit together.”
And my boyfriend put the kitchen back together and something shifted for them. I don’t know if it was because they got scared that I was really sick. I don’t know if it was the tears; my kids do not like to see me cry. I was crying yesterday and my daughter, my 17-year-old—I’m about to cry right now just thinking about how upset they get about me crying.
I used to spend a lot of time, you know, earlier on I spent a lot of time crying. There was a point in my life while I was in a very deeply, deeply abusive relationship and I would spend a lot of time in my room and I’d just—I’m crying now ‘cause I just had an epiphany that maybe this is why—I would spend a lot of time in my room with the door closed crying and my kids had to take care of themselves, and I’m not proud of that.
Then, there was a shift. They just kind of kicked it into gear. My daughter who was sicker than me started feeling better than me and they started. They were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but they started feeding themselves and they started cleaning up behind themselves. I remember getting up and being like “Hey, guys. This looks okay in here. Thanks.” They had cleaned up the living room and they had kind of cleaned up the bathroom and they were taking care of themselves.
KP: We hear the horrific numbers of Black and Latinx people affected by the coronavirus here in America. What are your thoughts as someone who is surviving it?
MT: I’m not an expert with the numbers. I want to be very clear about that. I’m only talking about what it looks like to experience it as a Black person, to go into a Black and Brown neighborhood and not to be able to get fuckin’ tested, to wait 15 goddamn days to get a test, to go to a testing site and hardly see any other people getting tested. What I know as an “expert” in my field around food justice and public health as it relates to food and the overlap; we know how the medical community treats Black and Brown and non-Western immigrant bodies.
KP: So how do we cope, get through this?
MT: Black people’s defense mechanism I think has been humor. We’re making light of the fact that all this shit—that folks are now realizing—that this illness that has been an issue for folks in our community, is now affecting everybody. Like were saying, “We’ll be fine,” but those of us that knew, we knew we would not be fine. We knew we would not be fine. When the world gets a cold, Black folks get the flu. Well when the world gets Corona, Black people end up dead.
And that was the other reason too that I was so scared, because I was like if I really do need to go into a hospital—the last place I wanted to be was a hospital! I can tell you horror stories about having my children in hospitals. Just having a baby, which should be like the happiest part of your life, I can tell you the microaggressions and the medical racism. I know that some of the birthing sores that I had in hospitals were a result of passive racism and implicit bias of medical professionals in the medical establishment.
KP: Being a Black woman is not a game….
MT: We’re more fragile. I mean how do you live through hundreds of years of systemic oppression that have physical, emotional and mental ramifications and impacts and not be the worse for wear? We see that Black women are dying at higher rates giving birth regardless of the socioeconomic status and regardless of whether or not there were any existing morbidities. That means that healthy, affluent Black women are dying giving birth or after giving birth; their children are dying during birth or after birth and poor, malnourished Black women in poor health. Why is that happening when the only thing that those two women might have in common in health is that they’re Black? It’s because racism is literally killing us. That’s all I can give you. It is literally killing us.
But also there is something, that we don’t have the language for, that involves racism and the psychic and biological toll that it takes on you as a human being to be suffering under it. When these things pop up, it just exacerbates it even more. That’s not a very astute answer, but it is the only one I can give you.
KP: So what keeps you going in spite of all?
MT: I’m a miracle. I shouldn’t even be alive. I don’t think people even understand the brutality of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and how few of us made it here, just because of the brutality of it. And I am the eighth or ninth or tenth generation of the legacy of somebody who survived that. My children are whole-ass fuckin’ miracles. So that keeps me going. We are walking, breathing miracles. So we’ll get through it. I don’t know how. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like. I know it’s gonna be different than what it is today. I can’t give you any hope about what it looks like. I don’t have a plan, I ain’t got a solution. But I am very confident that we will move through it.
But I’m also humbled by the fact that some of us won’t get through it. And so for those of us that do get through it, we have an obligation. I do truly deeply believe that. We have an obligation to then actively work in tandem with the other folks who have gotten through it to make it better, so that the next time we have an obstacle—because we will have one, as sure as my name is Tanya Denise Fields, there will be another obstacle that we come up against. The Buddhists say that to live is to suffer.
When we come up against it again, the next time, the amount of us who don’t get through it will have decreased because those of us who did get through it have the obligation to create a world that is better able to sustain for all of us. I hope that that is what comes up out of this pandemic. I really do. I really, really do.
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