The pandemic in particular highlights who is readily expected to provide essential labor and who has the power to invisibilize it


by Jenn M. Jackson

My sixty-eight year old mother has been an unpaid, unofficial caretaker for my grandmother for at least twenty years. She was a social worker for more than three decades. Now, she also works for free as an administrative assistant at church. After delivering fresh produce and cooked meals to my elderly grandmother recently, my mother says, “I’m just so tired of driving back and forth on the road so much. Going to grocery stores is not safe.” 

From the opposite end of the country, all I can do is send money to cover Grandma’s groceries and remind my mother to wear her mask.

My mother has survived two bouts of breast cancer. She is immunocompromised from a combination of years of chemotherapy and other health factors like heart failure, and asthma. Now, with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) looming, the labor my mother already struggled to provide for my grandmother poses an even greater risk to her own life. At the same time, that labor is also a mirror of the care my grandmother has provided to her community. 

I don’t know what to do with that, or the fact that Black Americans are dying at three times the rate of white Americans due to COVID-19. The unequal access to testing and treatment for this crisis cannot be separated from the impacts of white supremacy and this country’s long history of anti-Blackness.

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Black mothers are living witnesses to the consequences of modern medicine. and its cruel experimentations on Black bodies. We have always known this, but the pandemic in particular highlights who is readily expected to provide essential labor and who has the power to invisibilize it. Not only are Black mothers expected to caretake, they also hold the deaths, memories and losses of our communities.  

Black women officially and unofficially, often work in essential jobs like nursing and social work which do not allow them the opportunity to work from home. While holding these roles, Black women also face discrimination in the labor force. The expectation of Black mothers as always workers makes it difficult for them to earn living wages and mother at the same time.

I work as a full time professor but I’m not considered an essential worker. While I support several households financially, I am privileged in that I am not expected to show up to my physical workplace each day. For me, teaching college students while homeschooling three children has become my new normal. And, while this has presented its own set of challenges, it doesn’t compare to the types of constraints many Black women face now.

“The hardest thing about this moment is the sense of powerlessness,” said Cristal Carter, 31, a mother of two who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. “If I get sick, if something happens to me, then what happens to my children?”

As a medical assistant at an urgent care facility, Carter’s previous 5-day, eight-hour schedule is now a 3-day, twelve-hour schedule. She starts each day at 6:30am by getting her six and eight year olds ready for the day before taking a cab to the local YMCA. That’s the only place open and offering childcare at those hours. Carter starts her work day at 9:00am. Around 4:30pm, a friend picks up her kids and watches them until Carter is off at 9:00pm. Carter homeschools the kids on her off days. But, the financial burden of childcare remains.

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“I have to pay $5 an hour when they are at the Y,” Carter said. “I’m spending like $120 a day, $130 a day.” 

CaShawn Thompson, 46, is an early care and education specialist at a Head Start Center in the District of Columbia. She said her place of employment is “unique in the fact that it services families that are experiencing the trauma of homelessness and other poverty-related trauma such as domestic violence, lack of education, lack of food security.” Thompson said. “We’ve been closed since March 13th.”

Most families, Thompson says, are from female-headed households with at least two children. According to Thompson, with the center being closed, parents are struggling to maintain the educational and social connectedness for the children while also trying to provide food, shelter, and other personal needs like diapers and pull-ups (which the center usually provides).

Many times, Black women who have not birthed children who are called upon as mothers. This is what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls “other mothering.” In her book Black Feminist Thought (2000), Collins writes, “Community othermothers work on behalf of the Black community by expressing ethics of caring and personal accountability.” They do this, she says, with “little fanfare or recognition.”

“I am someone’s mom,” said Taylor Crumpton, a 24-year-old social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area. “When I go into work, I’m not Taylor. I’m ‘Mama Tay.’ I’m ‘Mamu.’ I’m ‘Auntie TiTi.’ I’ve become a grandma. One of my clients is pregnant. I’ve had clients name children after me.” 

Crumpton works in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco where novel coronavirus exacerbated the already difficult conditions facing homeless people in the area. Working with vulnerable Black and Latinx populations puts Crumpton at risk of contracting COVID-19 each day. For Crumpton, administering community care has outweighed her personal safety as social distancing hasn’t been an option.

For many Black women right now, the sense of overwhelm and exhaustion have become the norm. In a world where Black women were already expected to perform unpaid labor, beyond their physical and emotional means, this crisis has stretched their bodies and capacities in ways we may never understand. 

“Are Black women’s lives disposable?” Crumpton asked. “In my opinion, the answer is ‘yes’ because we’re on the front lines and nobody cares.”

For Carter, this moment is one where we should intentionally take stock of the care work Black women provide. Then, we should find ways to carry some of that weight.

“Just extend some kindness in some way besides just looking at her in awe,” Carter told me. “Ask a Black woman how you can best support her right now.”

While the gesture may seem incredibly small, affirming the labor that Black women, mothers, and care workers provide our communities is anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, and anti-misogynoirist because it acknowledges work that is usually erased and ignored. By centering and recognizing this critical community sustaining and future building work, we refuse to be complicit in logics that suggest that Black women’s efforts are invalid or redundant.

And, honestly, it’s the least we can do for women who have done and continue to do so much for us.