August 2020

More than a Cog in a Machine: Black Motherhood in Times of Protest and Pandemic

A Black student and mother navigates health, political, and economic crises in New York City.

by Kassaundra Johnson

Growing up in Brooklyn, the rarity of snow days had me and my friends joking about hell freezing over before the closing of any NYC public school. We used to watch the TV feverishly on the mornings of a snowstorm or heat wave, praying our school would appear at the bottom of the screen. It rarely did. So when, at 5:31pm on March 15, 2020, the news broke that Mayor Bill De Blasio had decided to close New York City schools for the rest of the academic school year, we knew that this pandemic would change everything.

By the middle of Spring, it had become clear that COVID-19 was no blizzard. Rather, New York City had become the epicenter of an historic global pandemic. Immediately upon hearing schools were to be shuttered, I opened my laptop and began creating a curriculum for my three-year-old son. I meticulously curated stories to correlate with various subjects he had already become familiar with in Nu Beings Preschool. I modeled his at-home school day to mirror the day to which he was already accustomed. I combed over his new—our new—schedule. I was not going to let COVID-19 derail my son’s education.

As a poor Black mother, I am constantly in spaces where it is imperative that I advocate for my child. My obsession with his schedule was less about me and more about the reality that this pandemic would disproportionately affect working-class Black children like Greyson. I sprang into action out of necessity, joining a legion of Black mothers across the five boroughs. I utilized Facebook mommy groups to connect with other young Black mothers who shared tips and tools to keep our little ones engaged. When people think of the challenges of motherhood, many times they only consider white motherhood, not understanding the specific challenges that come with being a Black mother.  Facing an international pandemic, it was more imperative than ever to show up for our Black children.

A day of learning and at the Intrepid Museum in New York City.

A few hours went by before I closed my laptop, a series of emails and text messages began to flood my phone. My partner Wayne, who works for one of the country’s largest production companies, was suddenly out of work as TV shows, movies, and photoshoots came to a screeching halt. My mother, a 911 operator for over 20 years, called to let me know that she would have mandatory overtime until further notice. My younger brother, a cashier at a local supermarket, was told that hours would be increasing; it was “all hands-on deck,” as Brooklynites shuffled into his store to stock up on necessities. Emails filled my mailbox from John Jay College, City University of New York and from my professors, often tinged with a sense of panic. No one knew what was next or what needed to be done.

I was in crisis mode, like so many people around me. I was already a poor Black student, mother, and worker, but now I also had to be my son’s teacher. My mother and brother were essential workers, exposing themselves daily to the possibility of contracting COVID-19. We all live together, so the possibility of one of them contracting and spreading it to us remained high. My anxiety was heightened because my mother has a heart condition and other health issues. My partner’s furlough reduced our income to my part time minimum wage paychecks to support our son. What little savings we had quickly dwindled. It angered me to learn of other families with more means who were packing up and fleeing the city for homes in New Jersey or the Hamptons. They could escape the death, destitution, and anxiety enveloping the rest of the City. I could not.

In addition to caring for the needs of my own child, I also helped my students adjust to a new virtual learning environment at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), where I worked as a part time English tutor. Having transferred to John Jay from BMCC, I knew first hand that I had to reassure and work hard for the students I tutored. I emailed each of them to offer words of support and encouragement about being students during a pandemic. Many of the students I tutored were in the process of crafting transfer essays for their applications to four-year institutions and now were facing job loss, homelessness, and deaths in their families due to COVID. The work was all consuming, helping students from 10AM to 4PM. Many times I worked through what was supposed to be my lunch break, with my son tugging at my feet and scarfing down bananas. I wanted to ensure all of those students that, regardless of the chaos raging outside, I would support them.

Even as I helped others face the challenges of their new realities, I had difficulty accepting mine. I had dreamt about the day that I would walk across the stage at my college’s annual commencement ceremony, my family would be screaming so loud my ears would ring. I was absolutely devastated when CUNY decided to cancel all commencements. As a first generation college student, I was so proud to earn a bachelor’s degree and to have overcome many challenges and grown personally on the journey. During my time attending CUNY, I had experienced sexual assault, the death of a family member, and homelessness. I came to understand the problematic structures that hold up the halls of higher education. On many occasions, I had to confront racism and sexism at CUNY.

Enjoying a day of giggles at one of our favorite places in Brooklyn, Cadman Plaza.

At the same time, my time at both the Borough of Community College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice was my own coming of age story as I thrived as a student and I became a mother. CUNY’s response to COVID-19, consisting of a few emails about mental health resources and small emergency funds, was inadequate. But I kept working. I knew that it was important for me to not miss a beat as school transitioned online. I turned in all my assignments, normally completed in the few minutes I had between homeschooling my son and tutoring. Sometimes I would be reciting science terms while preparing dinner, or listening to the audible version of a textbook while I cleaned and my son napped. I immersed myself in all the class work, homework, tests, and quizzes. School was an escape—a sliver of control in an uncontrollable situation. I graduated this Spring with a 4.0 gpa.

Despite these hard-won victories, escape was only possible for brief moments at a time this spring and summer. In a few short weeks after the pandemic began, the lives and deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor had become national news. I watched hours of protest footage, recalling just a few years earlier when I joined in die-ins with Justice League NYC after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. The gut-wrenching feeling of continuously watching modern-day lynchings play out over social media is all consuming. George Floyd calling out to his mother still rings in my head.

Yet again I am forced to face a harsh truth. I am constantly reminded of what it means to be a Black mother in America. Although, there is much joy in raising my Black child, that joy is often dampened by pain and fear. From the very beginning, Black women are 12 times more likely than white women in the U.S. to die during childbirth. The unconscionable death rate of Black male victims during encounters with police keeps me up at night as I try to figure out when it is the appropriate time to have “the talk” with my son.

Still, as I watch Black youth mobilize, organize, and take to the streets, this time feels different. There is much uncertainty about the future, but what is clear is that we are on the cusp of a revolution. The pandemic shone a bright light on our native New York, while Black Lives Matter protests peeled back our eyelids and forced us to have a real dialogue about racial justice. The juxtaposition of Black Lives Matters protests and the COVID-19 pandemic allowed me to analyze my identity and my place in the fabric of American society. Over the course of this pandemic, I have often felt invisible. I felt like a cog in a huge machine that steam rolls over the poor and marginalized. I have come to realize that classism and racism are powerful tools that impair people like me every day in this country. These feelings and sentiments are heightened during a global pandemic. But, what I have also realized about my place in society is that I have the power to create change and mobilize my community. As cliche as it may seem, I can and will be the change I want to see.

Kassaundra Johnson is a recent graduate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she received a B.A in gender studies. She is currently a fourth grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York, which she also calls home. She aspires to attend law school and become an attorney specifically working within health law in hospitals across NYC. In doing so she hopes she will be able to advocate for more Black mothers who have been victims of discrimination by medical institutions. In her free time, she enjoys going on adventures around New York City with her awesome threenager Greyson.

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