January 13, 2023
In Lavender Fields, contributors use autoethnography to explore how Black girls and women are living with and through COVID-19. Essays center their pain, joys, and imaginations for a more just future as we confront all the inequalities that COVID-19 exposes. Today we offer an excerpt from reelaviolette botts-ward from her chapter “#BlackGirlQuarantine Chronicles: On Womanist Artistry, Sisterhood, Survival, and Healing.” Below read the excerpt.
By reelaviolette botts-ward
Kai hands me a large bottle of hand sanitizer from under her denim coat, sneaking me the high-priced liquid substance with the subtlety of a secret, as though making this exchange public could have deadly effects for the both of us. “You sure?” I asked as I hesitated to hold the bottle in my hand as my own. If anything, I thought she might need it more than I. An unhoused Black womxn living at the encampment on the corner, Kai was much more vulnerable to the coronavirus than me. I had told her how I’d just come from scouring every drugstore within a fifty-mile radius of West Oakland and found nothing. The news kept saying keep sanitizer in yo pocket, but where in the world was a girl gon’ get some from?! Kai leaned in close and whispered, “Girl, you see that box inside my tent? I’m good!” She pointed to a large cardboard container with a label that read 50 Piece Sanitizer. “You take this; I know you gon’ need it.”
I was so grateful for her in that moment for having a homegirl neighbor who shows me what sisterhood feels like in the middle of a pandemic. As she wiped down all her possessions with bleach-drenched paper towels, I grabbed a cloth and helped her clean any potential trace of COVID germs from the half-broken wooden dresser. Kai had her quarantine care plan on lock. She let me know that she would be “cleanin’ and carryin’ on” as ritual in this pandemic. The ethic of care she modeled for the fragments of her homespace, precarious to airborne particles and to the unpredictability of fire that travels through wind, does not diminish the brutal fact that she is damn tired of being homeless.
The next week Kai invites me to protest on behalf of Black womxn who live at the encampment. We are demanding that the local motel allow them to stay in vacant rooms since COVID has prevented its normal flow of guests. My sign reads, “Black womxn deserve safe housing in a fuckin pandemic!” The motel refuses, as the owner calls the cops to dissipate the unassuming crowd. They arrive, tell us to go home, and gradually, we do.
I am saddened by the turnout. Nobody came ’cause nobody cared. Unhoused Black folks, and their particular vulnerabilities to the virus, never became central to communal conversations about the layered impacts of this disease. The intersection of race/class/gender/precarity never centered Kai and her needs. The violence of housing insecurity, and the impossibility of shelter in gentrified Oakland, is only exacerbated by this pandemic. The mockery of shelter in place is that Kai, and all my homegirl neighbors who live at the encampment on the corner, wasn’t never even sheltered, to begin with.
reelaviolette botts-ward is a doctoral candidate in the African Diaspora Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research is on Black women’s healing spaces, and she looks at the ways in which embodied, ancestral, spiritual, and creative healing occurs within and beyond the physical landscape of home. Her first book, mourning my inner [black/girl] child, was published with Nomadic Press in 2021. In her role as founder and CEO of #BlackWomxnHealing, she works closely with the California Black Women’s Health Project and Flourish Agenda to provide sister circle-style retreat opportunities for Black women across California.