We’re failing to protect Black and Marginalized People from Another Virus Plaguing Our Nation

Branden Janese
Mar 13, 2020 - 8:00

It’s gonna be a difficult summer.

One thing that I understand about COVID-19 is that it has drained the world of hand sanitizer. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo found a solution to that problem. He ordered people who are incarcerated in New York correctional facilities to manufacture 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a week to make up for the shortage. 

What an innovator! Isn’t it a hoot that convicted felons are clean enough to produce sanitizer? Cuomo also plans to put the lazy lifers to work again by digging graves, if too many of us fuck around and die too soon. Who needs Medicare for All when you have an island full of Black slaves waiting around for a way to make an easy buck?

Black slaves, epidemics, and white death. I’m reminded of a story in Black American history.

In 1721, smallpox had torn through the city of Boston, killing hundreds of white people. Without any vaccine, everyone went into disturbia.

Living in Boston at the time was an African man who had been kidnapped, enslaved and renamed Onesimus. The man who made the murderous purchase of a human life, Puritan minister Cotton Mather, knew that in biblical times Onesimus was a slave whose handle meant “useful.” So, when Onesimus purchased his freedom from Mather in 1716, Mather wrote in his diary that this African man was, “wicked”, “useless”, “ungovernable”, and “rebellious.”

Stay with me here because this part is important.

Five years before the smallpox epidemic in Boston, before Onesimus purchased his freedom from Mather, he told Mather a story about a time in Africa when he learned an operation that stopped the spread of smallpox. The practice involved taking pus from an infected person, and rubbing it into an open wound on the arm, inoculating the host from the virus. So, in 1721 when Mather’s family started dying one by one from smallpox, the minister introduced the African remedy to the colonies. He was rejected by the whites who would never knowingly let a nigger’s cure cure them. They’d rather die, I suppose. So, when a ship full of men became infected with smallpox, Mather alongside the only physician in Boston who believed him, tested out the operation and saved many white lives from smallpox.

Ain’t that sweet? 

Photo from Open Knowledge Commons, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Part of me wishes that Onesimus would’ve kept that African remedy to himself. Let the colonizers pass a painful death, ignorant and confused. 

Then I think, hold up, I got a whole lot of Massa’s blood in my body. If Onesimus hadn’t revealed how to stop the virus, would my white ancestors have survived? Would my mother know my name?

I’d like to take this time, while the world waits in a silent and sterilized stillness, to introduce myself. 

My name is Branden. I’m a Black woman. I’m a descendant of Black American slaves. I have no evidence of this except for my skin color, the most brilliant sepia. My mother is half white. I have no evidence of this except for her skin color, a dominant pearl. My father was the master gunnery of the U.S Marines. I have no evidence of this except for the public U.S Government military records and a DNA test. I was raised in the most pleasing place in the world, the state of Michigan, where I attended majority white populated schools. I graduated from a private arts college in New York City. 

While I struggle with the question ‘should Onesimus have let the colonizers die?’, just real quick — white people — you did not give Black people anything by ignoring our pain and exploiting our knowledge. Onesimus and his inoculation is one example. Another example is Black Americans and music. In 2019 the comedian (husband to a Black woman, and father to a Black girl), Bill Burr had the nerve to take credit for Black music by saying that since Black people had no privileges in society, we, in turn, make good music to share with the world. A creation that Burr believes only can come from children raised in communities of single mothers, liquor stores, and high rents. Good music! A little ghetto gift only found in the poorest places in Black America. Like a fried catfish hole-in-the-wall. Funkytown, indeed. Bill Burr should know better. And I hope he learns. Because white male racism takes much, much longer to get over than daddy issues. Trust me Bill, I’ve lived the research.

“Paper Tiger”, Performed by Bill Burr, Netflix Media Center, 2019.

Maybe a personal anecdote will help here…

Two years ago, I was working as a server at one of the most praised Austrian restaurants in the West Village. I got a table of three white men, two Americans, and one other. At one point in the evening I stood over the table, performing my best version of a house-nigger, and served three pieces of veal, that had been pounded, breaded, and fried. At this time, the other white man paused his conversation with the two Americans, looked up at me with joy and glee in his eyes that I have not seen, even in a small child, and he danced in his seat like he was holding his piss. He asked me, “Where are you from?”

I said, “I live uptown” (at the time I rented a room with half bath from a Haitian man on Riverside Drive and 120th).  But he wasn’t listening and, before I finished the N in uptown, he grabbed a hold of one of the Americans, shook him, and said, “So, so, so, his grandfather used to own your mother!?!” The manager of the restaurant was so close he heard the whole thing, as well as the other servers on the staff. They shrugged it off like a Weinstein supporter watching the movie mogul prey on a young actress in the 1990’s. 

The manager of the restaurant (who was an angus of a man, German, and had evidence that his grandfather wore a Hugo Boss suit in the 1930’s) was just a man, working at a restaurant. However much of a leader he was, he couldn’t, rather, he wouldn’t, refuse to serve a racist. He allowed that type of person to break bread in the house with no judgment whatsoever. Damn. What a missed opportunity to show up for a Black girl. 

No racist crime that a white person commits amazes me, not anymore at least. What made me cry that night was that everyone expected, hell, everyone insisted, that I was okay. They were not prepared to believe my version of this story, and how it hurt me. They put their best ‘sucks to be you’ faces on, and they looked down on me like I was the one in the wrong. This is too often the reaction to black pain.

On what assumptions rest those extraordinary questions that the white man needs to ask me? On what assumptions rest did he think that I needed his stale, low picking fruit humor to deal with my history? 

What he doesn’t know, because I hadn’t told him, is that at this point in human history, no white person has the luxury of bullying me out of existence. I could very well produce an Onesimus who has the cure for COVID-19. A shame that most of my Black male suitors are on Rikers bending over backwards to make gallon jugs of useless hand sanitizer. 

When will we learn? Not protecting our Black women, not protecting our marginalized people and not protecting the poor means that we may not have a Kobe to cry over in the next generation. We may not have a James Brown to bougie down to. Not protecting people who are incarcerated means that very soon, we may not have anyone to force into quickly, and cheaply producing our core crafts. Then again, maybe I’m just not in the know. Maybe I’m so far out of the loop, that I’m missing the point of America’s goal: to finally rid herself of the stain she has been scrubbing since she lost the civil war. 

COVID-19 may be a new virus in America, however, it’s certainly not the only virus in town.  

About the Author

Branden Janese is a creative and a writer. She lives uptown.

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