When Department of American Culture alumna Jallicia Jolly (Ph.D., ’20) was invited to curate a virtual exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) for its “Medicine at the Museum” project, she selected three works of art to initiate a conversation about Black women healthcare workers in the time of COVID-19. The pieces Jolly chose tell a story that Jolly knows well as a scholar and the daughter and granddaughter of Black female caregivers. Black women healthcare workers’ experience of our current moment, Jolly says, is part of a longer lineage and history of racism, Black health activism, and the practice of mutual care.
“Curating the UMMA exhibit was exciting because we don’t always think of the visual as a way to engage with these complex ideas. But art is vivid by nature,” Jolly says.
“Black labor, Black care, and Black life have always been a central part of American history and culture,” Jolly says. “What does it mean to put one’s life on the line in a time of crisis, in a country where your labor and life are never seen as valuable?”
In Jacob Lawrence’s painting, “Builders (The Family),” an elegantly dressed Black family walks through a construction site. Jolly says she sees hope as well as social inequity in this painting. “Hope in the ordinariness of a Black family moving with dignity through a space that could harm them, and hope in what the construction workers are building,” Jolly says. “The family is building something, too,” Jolly says, “with love and tenacity.” As the family in the painting is put at risk by the potential perils of the broader society, the safety of Black bodies are put at risk by social inequity as evidenced by the disproportionate suffering of Black people at the hands of COVID-19. This reality, in the context of the massive societal inequalities that Black people face, leads to what Jolly describes as a “slow death.”
“When the context of slow death has been your reality and the primary vector of oppression,” she says, “disproportionate Black suffering becomes normalized instead of mourned.” Jolly’s curation invites the viewer to participate in a virtual space of mourning that slow death. If there’s a connection between hope and mourning, it’s in the refusal to normalize injustice, and honoring certain truths of Black experiences.
In Dmitri Baltermants’s wartime photograph, “Carting the Dead, Kerch, Crimea,” women push heavy carts of dead bodies. To Jolly, the carts evoke the refrigerator morgue trucks that appeared in New York City’s streets in the spring. The photograph captures the same kind of off-stage physical labor performed by Black women in nursing homes and hospitals that goes unseen and uncelebrated. “Who carries the dead?” Jolly asks. “Whose labor brings us into the future? The burden falls unequally on women of color. But how will Black women survive into that future?
“It’s very clear to me where the fault lines are,” Jolly says. “Some essential healthcare heroes are not valorized. I wanted to forefront the fact that when we think about care labor in COVID, Black women are only heroic if their lives are expended to save other people. Coverage of COVID heroes wasn’t focused on feminized labor force, like nurses, in-home personal aides, and others who had to use vacation pay, who didn’t have PPE.”
Edward (Robbie) Roberson’s documentary photograph of a civil rights protest, “Tired Marchers Sleep on the Streets—‘We were tired, we were tired.’, Selma, Alabama,” is emblematic, Jolly says, of a certain kind of collective exhaustion from entrenched racial disparity and white supremacist violence. The figures in the photograph are collapsed on the ground, in the midst of fighting for justice.
“Exhaustion is something I feel in my body and soul,” Jolly says. It’s a weight Jolly feels, she says, as an intersectional scholar, a reproductive practitioner, and a daughter and granddaughter. She knows tired Black women. “It feels like everything depends on carrying that weight—the present and the future—on our back,” she says, “as well as the weight of the past’s haunting legacies.”
“This is not a theoretical playground for me—it was life, growing up in Brooklyn, in a household where my mother and grandmother worked as personal aides and healthcare workers. It was growing up as a Black girl and now as a Black woman.”
In solidarity with her mother and grandmother, Jolly joined a Zoom meeting with the National Health Care Union 1199 that had been called to organize and make sure workers got the pay and PPE they needed. On Zoom, Jolly’s mother had the opportunity to participate in a collective dialogue with the governor about the plight and interests of health care workers.
Jolly sees the purpose of moments like those and of exhibits such as UMMA’s “Medicine at the Museum” as the same—shifting the idea of who is worthy of being listened to, of whose labor and health really matters.