The racialization of disease in the United States has a storied past that is consistent with its most recent manifestation in President Trump’s insistence on calling the coronavirus the “China plague” in the early days of the pandemic, and most recently the “kung flu.” Asians and Asian Americans have reported incidents of discrimination and harassment that they state are linked to the president’s incendiary language.
Historically, the racialization of illness, or ascribing racial meaning to sickness and disease that a racial group has not played a role in, has impacted Black Americans. For example, physicians believed that Black people were less susceptible to disease during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Arguing that their African ancestry created a natural immunity to the yellow fever, which was believed to originate in mosquitoes in Africa, Dr. Benjamin Rush convinced free Blacks in Philadelphia to assist in caring for the ill and disposing of the dead. Despite Rush’s theory, 240 Black people (close to 10 percent of the African American population of Philadelphia at the time) died from the disease in 1793.
The Black Press’s response to pandemics“The Black Press has been one of the primary sources to counter the negative racialization about Black people’s health with productive racial narratives about public health that have produced life-saving information.”
While racializing sickness is often negative, when done by a racial group to reframe damaging narratives, it can deepen the meaning and context of an illness. Racialization of a public health crisis, in this context, can create awareness about causes and prevention for disease for specific racial communities. The Black Press has been one of the primary sources to counter the negative racialization about Black people’s health with productive racial narratives about public health that have produced life-saving information. Vanessa Gamble argues that, during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, papers like the Baltimore Afro-American Chicago Defender and Philadelphia Tribune provided coverage that warned Black Americans of the danger the disease posed.1“‘There Wasn’t a Lot of Comforts in Those Days’: African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” Public Health Reports 125, no. S3 (2010): 113–122. Notably, the Chicago Defender’s weekly column, “Preventative Measures, First Aid Remedies Hygienics and Sanitation” by Dr. A. Wilberforce Williams provided information and recommendations on how to prevent Black Americans from contracting the Spanish Flu and what to do in the event they became sick. “Place yourself in a good warm but well-ventilated room. Do not close all the windows and doors—in the name of God, do not shut out the air,” wrote Dr. Williams.2A. Wilberforce Williams, “Talks on Preventive Measures, First Aid Remedies Hygienics and Sanitation,” Chicago Defender, October 5, 1918, 16.
Dr. Williams also provided other racial nuances of public health information about the Spanish Flu, noting, “The negro people speak of this feeling [illness] as ‘misery.’” However, Dr. Williams viewed the term as “nonsensical” and believed that Black Americans made themselves a “laughingstock” when they used the word.3A. Wilberforce Williams, “Talks on Preventive Measures, First Aid Remedies Hygienics and Sanitation,” Chicago Defender, October 12, 1918, 12. He also derisively commented on some Black American’s belief in particular types of herbal remedies they believed could prevent them from contracting the influenza. According to Williams, Black people purchased asafetida, a pungent smelling gum obtained from the roots of an herbaceous plant, or raw onions and garlic and placed it in a bag around their neck as preventative and healing devices. “You are only making fools of yourselves,” he wrote to Defender readers, and advised them to follow his and other physicians’ advice on hygiene and sanitation.4Williams, “Talks on Preventive Measures, First Aid Remedies Hygienics and Sanitation.” Racialization in this context, served to counter misinformation that could have led to more African Americans dying from the flu. But it also shamed readers and highlighted the class divisions within Black communities.“The Black Press’s racialization of Covid-19 tapped into a historical and structural context that constructed a different narrative that defies a history scapegoating Black people and other people of color as hosts of disease and illness.”
In keeping with its history, news outlets within the Black Press were one of the first to racialize the public health crisis within the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Black news organizations anticipated that Covid-19 would reveal long-standing health disparities that are the result of structural racial inequality in the United States and announced a coronavirus pandemic taskforce and resource center at least two weeks prior to the initial release of racial mortality data. On March 25, The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the trade association of African American-owned newspapers and media companies reported, “It is well documented that African Americans get sick more frequently, are screened for illness less often, are diagnosed for disease later, are treated less aggressively and buried earlier than those in other ethnic groups in America.” In this regard, the Black Press’s racialization of Covid-19 tapped into a historical and structural context that constructed a different narrative that defies a history scapegoating Black people and other people of color as hosts of disease and illness.
Challenging misinformation about Covid-19, again like Black newspapers during the Spanish Flu pandemic, online Black news media sites also racialized public health information on the coronavirus pandemic. Cognizant of a collective Black misunderstanding about the pandemic, many Black media platform—including Spectacular Magazine, Sugarcane Magazine, and Black News—ran a piece titled “Top 11 Misconceptions Many African Americans Have About Coronavirus” in mid-March.
Social media has provided new ways to racialize discussions about illness and prevention during the coronavirus pandemic. In the initial days of the pandemic, “Black Twitter” and Facebook users created a new name for the coronavirus, “The Rona.” Reportedly the creation of the “Rona” developed from some African Americans’ discovery that Facebook was removing posts that referenced “coronavirus” or “Covid-19” and created the name “Rona” to bypass algorithms that filtered out the former terms. California Black Media columnist, Aldon Thomas Stiles wrote that Facebook “did not stop users from giving a nickname to the virus to get past firewalls…Not long after the crisis began to get more serious, the #Rona hashtag started to appear in social media feeds.” Ernest Owens, who writes for The Grio, attributed the name “Rona” to: “My Black friends, family, coworkers, and followers had decided to nickname the coronavirus ‘the Rona,’ and to prescribe humor as the remedy for the ongoing reports of increased death tolls, suspended travel, and federal communication errors that have now defined this public health crisis.”
The use of “the Rona” and derivations of the phrase became popular and evolved into songs, video memes, and GIFs that circulated on social media. While these memes are generally viewed as humorous, closer examination reveals that they operate in similar but in a much more expansive fashion than the Black Press in their attempts to racialize public health information that can prevent illness among Black people.
Black social media counters Covid-19
A case in point is North Minneapolis-born rapper and DJ, Blu Bone who posted a video on Instagram and Twitter about the coronavirus that includes a song he wrote that features rapper, social media, and reality TV personality Rolling Ray. Titled “Corone Cunt” the song is rooted in the Chicago ballroom culture and advises listeners how to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Blu Bone chants over a House Beat by VJtheDJ:
I don’t want corone…
You better go call Tyrone
You better get up out my home
You better sanitize that phone
You better clean between the toes
You better stay home alone
Don’t sex me I don’t want to bone.
No, I don’t want no corone
Blu Bone’s video features a montage of images, including some from a ball he attended the night before Chicago was locked down. The video exemplifies what André Brock describes as “Black Kairos,” a practice used in virtual environments where Black people are engaged in a particular moment even as they are calling on “past iniquities and future imaginings.”5André Brock, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures (New York: NYU Press, 2020), 218. Blu Bone notes that he used a beat that dancers could find pleasure in even as the song includes a message about the “urgency to live” and the importance of preventing the spread of Covid-19. Even more, Blu Bone calls on the historical inequities in healthcare that Black Americans have faced by chanting, “They want to charge for the vaccine.”“While he does not make it clear who “they” are in the song, he does note in his explanation about the song that he views class as being situated in a Black queer and Black femme framework where these communities are disenfranchised.”
Noting that he created the song to help ease the despair he saw Black people express on social media when a quarantine was imposed on Chicago, Blu Bone told Office magazine,
I had gone to a ball the night before—that night all of the female figures stormed the floor for the frenzy. The room was vibrating, and the ceiling was sweating. It seemed as if everyone knew that this might be one of our last times together for a while, and we decided to give our all to the space. They had officially announced the recommended shut down the next day, and the city was on tilt. Social media flooded with despair and confusion, and it started to really give me the blues. I opened my laptop, picked up my SM-58 mic and tried to channel all the joy and strength I felt the night before at the ball onto VJtheDJ’s beat. I recorded the chant in about three hours, then uploaded it to SoundCloud the same day. It was a good time and really gave me a way to reclaim and own my feelings about it all.
Blu Bone’s chant simultaneously centers and transcends his emotions about the pandemic, by emphasizing the structural inequalities that require people to pay for a vaccine to prevent them from contracting the coronavirus. Blu Bone chants, they put him on quarantine and “then they want to charge for the vaccine.” While he does not make it clear who “they” are in the song, he does note in his explanation about the song that he views class as being situated in a Black queer and Black femme framework where these communities are disenfranchised. To this end Blu Bone indicates that “they” is a white supremacist power system that controls resources that could save people’s lives.
By beginning the song from an individual perspective and proclaiming, “I don’t want corone” and ending the song with “Our life is a priority,” Blu Bone privileges the communal life and health of Black LGBTQ+ communities. He argues that if Black and queer people in ballroom culture are made a priority then there will be care for everyone else. “That’s the dream,” he notes.
Unlike Dr. Williams’s discussion about the Spanish Flu in the Black Press, Blu Bone’s post democratized opportunities to not only racialize but create intersectional narratives around illness and health during a public health crisis. Particularly, Blu Bone’s decision to feature Rolling Ray, a gay Black man who was a born with disability and uses a wheelchair, at the beginning of the song places the coronavirus in a Black queer space that hosts overlapping and multiple intersectional narratives about health.
Whereas Dr. Williams’s column ridiculed, even shamed, Black readers for relying on home remedies or speaking about the Spanish flu in colloquial terms, Blu Bone’s “Corone Cunt,” like many social media posts, celebrates Black cultural linguistic creativity by calling the coronavirus by another name and captures an intersectional Black experience regarding illness that is largely invisible in contemporary and historical Black media.
Blu Bone’s use of social media goes even further. He brings the ballroom into conversation with Black digital practice to fashion a site of resistance. Blu Bone told Office, “I just thought about that resistance that I had felt at space at that ball…and the resistance that had always existed in that space…we’ve been facing pandemics and epidemics…”
The racialization of disease continues to place marginalized communities, including Black people, at risk of hate and biased treatment. However, its corollary, the racialization of public health information for Black people in contemporary news and social media, produces intersectional narratives about race and health that not only enhance the emotional well-being
and physical health of Black communities but also provides greater access to a wider range voices in a public health crisis.
Banner image: Linotype operators of the Chicago Defender, Black newspaper, in Chicago, by Russell Lee/Library of Congress.