Unwell: A Study on the Perception of Black and Aged Bodies

By McKenzie Clarke
Spring 2020

As the world navigates the unprecedented spread of a new, supposedly “non-discriminating” disease, it proves worthwhile to mine those instances throughout history in which epidemics and/or pandemics have shaken the world (or portions of it) to excavate what lessons they may harbor for this present moment. This research explores the various ways in which Black people’s racialized bodies have invariably been viewed as epidemics unto themselves, as well as how narratives of disease are imposed onto aged Black bodies.

Historically, African-Americans have had to contend with efforts by their government to ethnically cleanse their communities or for their bodies to be used as experiments. More specifically, this research will attempt to provide an emphasized focus on the way the Black woman’s body and, by extension, the aged Black woman’s body, has been forced into an imaginary of disease.

To start, it is helpful to look for those instances of rhetoric that influence how the Black body has been perceived historically, so as to more keenly analyze how it continues to be viewed currently. Former President Thomas Jefferson, who held slaves, was quite clear in describing the Black body in racialized terms. “Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This transpiration renders them more tolerant of hear… [and] they seem to require less sleep.” (Jefferson 7).

This rhetoric of the “other,” that the Black body is heartier and more resistant to any kind of deterioration, encouraged white slave owners to regard Black bodies as inherently “diseased” and “foreign” vessels, a perception that was useful in ensuring that issues of morality would not cloud the “need” to build the American economy on the backs of other human beings. Language surrounding the supposed “superhuman” quality of the Black body is particularly dangerous, however, for the way in which it veils the nature of the health issues that harm the African-American community today. Pointing my analysis toward this current historical moment, I will focus specifically on how such language continues to influence the way in which Black bodies, and aged Black bodies, are perceived.

The coronavirus, also referred to as covid-19, has inspired similar rhetoric that the Black community holds a unique immunity to the virus. Not at all rooted in evidence, language like this has led to the existence of statistics in which predominantly Black communities suffer more harshly in comparison to others. The Huffpost reported that many covid-19 cases “are heavily concentrated in the Black population. In Chicago, 23% of residents are Black but
account for 58% of COVID-19 deaths. In Milwaukee, Blacks are roughly one-quarter of the population and roughly one-half of COVID-19 cases. In Louisiana, 7 out of 10 COVID-19 victims have been Black. Coronavirus hot spots include a number of cities with large nonwhite populations, such as New Orleans and Detroit, as well as the majority-minority New York City boroughs of Queens and the Bronx” (Ignaczak and Hobbes).

Data like this is being analyzed intersectionally, but experiences like those of Zoe Mungin, a 30-year-old student who passed away due to coronavirus after being turned away twice for testing, reveal that the insensitivity embedded within Jefferson’s statements are still ingrained into the logic of the healthcare system (Robinson). And it is Black aged bodies in particular that tend to suffer more acutely.

One might take the example of Deborah Gatewood, a 63-year-old healthcare worker from Michigan who passed away from complications due to Covid-19 in late April. Gatewood was turned away four times for coronavirus testing from the hospital at which she had worked for 31 years. “The next day, Gatewood went back to the hospital to be tested. They acknowledged she was showing signs of COVID-19, her daughter told Fox 2 news, but they still told her to take cough medicine and rest” (Robinson). Gatewood’s experience demonstrates the pervasiveness and unfortunate effectiveness of such myths as “Black people cannot get/do not suffer as heavily from covid-19,” and her repeated dismissal from the place to which she dedicated most of her working life also underscores Jefferson’s seemingly outdated statements about the Black body’s “otherness.” According to such logic, it seems to follow that people like Gatewood or Mungin “require less” healthcare for ailments against which they are supposedly reinforced.

In the SIS anthology–Their Memories, Our Treasure–community activist Faye Bush, who has dedicated her life to health issues and environmental injustice practices that plague her community, describes how many of the problems that come to visit the African-American community are dismissed by others, mainly by white people, who argue that Blacks are at fault for their circumstances. “They said the problem was our lifestyle . . . but some of the people who died didn’t even have a lifestyle, you know, because some of them died when they were young…(Bush 66). Although referring to how “they” attempt to justify how harmful environmental injustice practices cause severe health complications to both young and old in the Black community, her words still point one to the unfortunate reality in which “they” disadvantage Black bodies with the perception that they are both more vulnerable to maladies and yet have otherworldly capacities with which to combat them. Employ an intersectional perspective, and one might understand how Black women’s bodies and, in particular, Black women’s aged bodies, become figures of both the supernatural and the diseased.

Going further, by examining the language of Spelman students to the aging process, one can gain insight into how aging has been viewed as a difficult, undesirable process. When asked what image the phrase “old woman” evokes in the imagination, one participant said, “A woman in a wheelchair, wrinkles, and a shaky voice.” The participant’s response suggests that aging naturally involves an unavoidable onslaught of vulnerabilities and, by extension, their comments also signify that they are in some fashion victim to similar rhetoric surrounding aging that surrounded Black people during slavery — that there is an othered, diseased quality to the aging process. Ideas like these can impact empathy and attention given to elders (The same participant shared that they do not interact with elders on a daily basis), and they inevitably contribute to harmful perspectives like “Old people are more susceptible to Covid-19,” even as growing research begins to suggest otherwise. Other responses like, “I do, at some sense, fear growing old because, on the one hand, I want to experience life to the fullest, but also I don’t want to grow old and look back like I have missed things.”

Historically, Black women’s bodies have taken a hit, from the mistreatments of such scientists as J.Marion Sims, to the pervasive idea of the “matriarchal,” and with the sterilization projects of the 1970, all events or instances of language that cast them into a simultaneously “strong, yet dangerous” imaginary. However, despite some of the aforementioned responses, there are still more nuanced, productive ideas amidst the population of Spelman women. Another
participant, when asked the same question about what images come to mind when one hears the term “old woman,” said “Cicely Tyson.” Attempting to communicate ideas about grace and strength, said participant also fully embraced aging, saying that “I can’t wait to get older!” because she perceived other modes of power, such as self-confidence and freedom–as being associated with the aged Black body.

Although occupying a unique historical moment, remaining vigilant towards identifying and excavating those instances of rhetoric that prove harmful and dismissive will aid in the quest towards equality, as treatments of Black bodies during the pandemic prove to make it more discriminating than it first appeared.