Pandemic Stories From the Frontline:
Oral History Project Centers Black Nurses and Doctors Across Three Continents
When Dr. Kim Gallon, co-director of The Black Frontline (TBF), a pandemic oral history, approached Dr. Katie Boston-Leary to help them recruit Black nurses to interview, she did not need a lot of convincing to help. TBF is one of the many projects of The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice (AIEJ).
Like most historical narratives, photos and documentation from the 1918 flu pandemic did not include Black voices. This project was an opportunity to capture the voices of Black nurses and doctors during the COVID pandemic so that years from now, they would not be absent from the story.
“We know Black people were delivering care [during the 1918 flu pandemic],” Boston-Leary says. “It was almost as if Black people were not in existence or were not in the U.S.”
But project coordinators were having a hard time getting Black nurses to participate.
“They felt that the best way to get them to participate was to be reached out to by someone they know,” Boston-Leary says. “So that was my charge.”
The initial target was 20-25 nurses, but Boston-Leary nimbly doubled that number. She had to tell some nurses, to their disappointment, that they had enough people to interview.
Esther Armah, executive director of AIEJ, international journalist and playwright, describes herself as a “global Black chick”; she was born and educated in London, lived in New York City for eight years, and Accra, Ghana, is her ancestral home. The idea of TBF came to her when she pondered what the experiences were like of the people in the three places that she calls home.
“What would it mean to hear these stories? How might they help shape the future healthcare sector by centering voices that are traditionally the most marginalized? Especially at a time when we know there is a disparity on who is dying from COVID,” Armah says. “I wanted to engage an entire community of Black healthcare workers and what it means to take and honor their oaths against the backdrop of institutional racism.”
One of the most potent dynamics Armah witnessed was the commitment to find humanity among all the fear and terror during the early days of the pandemic, particularly around the ways that people found to support one another.
“We have stories in Ghana of how music is often a backdrop, particularly gospel, that became a bond for when you feel there is nothing more you can do,” Armah says.
There was also the frustration and anger at how much discrimination and institutional racism make a Black person’s world less safe than it needs to be.
“COVID made institutional racism hyper visualized and truly illustrated the cancer of racism,” Armah says. “You have people getting stopped and harassed in full scrubs. They have just come from sacrificing their safety to save someone’s life, and you get thrown against the hood of a car. One of the doctors said, ‘Why would I be out here in full scrubs committing crimes?’ It’s pervasive, and I think the most devastating thing is how, frankly, easy it would be to create change if there was a willingness to do so.”
TBF has collected 300 narratives and plans to launch public access on their website in the Fall of 2022. In addition to shedding light on the varied experiences of Black healthcare works across three continents, Armah wants to enable academic institutions, public health administrators, and those in professional development to use these stories in their prospective fields to improve equity.
“It’s essential that a nurse in Ghana, a nurse in Chicago, and a nurse in Birmingham, can hear one another’s stories and experiences so they can connect and realize just how close in the sector they are, despite being millions of miles apart,” Armah says.
To stay up to date on TBF, visit them on Twitter.