When COVID-19 spread around the world, I was living in the south of France, but my mind was in the U.S. south. Every day, through my notes from a thirteen-month ethnographic research I completed in 2016, I travelled from Bordeaux to Jackson, Mississippi. I roamed the streets with homeless men and spent time in kitchens with the various families I had gotten to know. During my time in Jackson, I was conducting research on how the social context of the contemporary south impacts the foodways of black folks up and down the socioeconomic ladder. In 2019, I was on leave from teaching and was trying to write the book based on that research. The anxiety that COVID brought to the world was unbearable, and it made for a difficult writing environment. But my stresses paled in comparison with Zenani’s, one of the people about whom I was writing.
I was in France also when George Floyd was shot and killed in Minneapolis. Just as the virus spread, the death of Floyd had bred a mixture of anger, anxiety, and fear in the lives of black folks all the around the world. Whatever little bandwidth we had for dealing with the virus was now directed towards managing our emotions around police brutality. I was sure Zenani was consumed by seeing all the protests. I was around her and her family when Trayvon Martin was killed. The coincidental similarity of his and her son’s name (Trayvon) freaked her out.
So, from far away, I relived my time with her and the various difficulties she faces in her day-to-day attempt to take care of her children and feed her family.
When I stopped by her house one after, Zenani was taking a nap. My arrival woke her up. She explained to me that she had been up since 3 a.m. because she has been trying to wean her baby from the pacifier. The baby’s teeth were now big enough to bite through the rubber. Zenani feared she might choke on the small pieces. Without the pacifier, the baby had to be rocked back to sleep when she woke up in the middle of the night. I was there to give her a ride to get milk for her baby. Trayveon, her nine-year old son, mentioned that he too was hungry. When he wants something, he leans over to his mother and whispers it to her. She, in turn, responds with something just above a whisper. I wrongfully assumed that we were going to the grocery store, but she directed me to a distribution center for The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. She was, according to the Department of Agriculture, one of nearly 450,000 Mississippians who relied on this social welfare benefit. Unfortunately, the holes in this societal safety net were often too large to catch enough of them.
We walked up a few steps through a narrow corridor into what was set up to resemble a grocery store, a very small one. At the entrance, she presented her ID to the attendant and started filling out a form to register her eligibility for the services. Before she could finish, the attendant alerted her that, unfortunately, she could not get what she came for because it was not her day. She was eligible to “shop” at the center once-a-month and her new month was set to begin on Wednesday. Zenani politely excused herself out, making it seem as if it had been a simple miscalculation on her part. She did not show the desperation that had brought her there. On the drive back, she let out her frustration. She mentioned that she was between “a rock and a hard place,” a phrase she used often to describe her hardships. She had about $30 with her that she had hoped not to spend on formula for the baby.
Before heading home, she asked me to take her to the library to fill out a job application. Her low-paying job was no longer sustainable. At the library, she paid fifty cents for a new card because she had misplaced her old one. Using a generic template, we created a new resume, which included a long list of short stints at various places. Due primarily to inconsistent transportations, she started and stopped working at various places several times a year. For the cover letter, she fed me sentences and I did the typing.
“If I could type that fast, I’d be working in an office somewhere,” she commented. “I wish I was smart like you,” she added.
“You are, but you are smart with different things. There a lot of things you know how to do that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do,” I responded genuinely.
“Yea, but my shit don’t make me no money.” And a pause, she added, “It might even get me in trouble.” We both laughed, nervously.
After we finished, we headed back home. It was by then around noon and I mentioned that I was hungry. When she tried to help find me something to eat, I downplayed my hunger and declined. She knew Trayveon was hungrier—he hadn’t eaten all day. And, the baby still did not have any milk. When she got out of the car, she paceed back and forth in her front yard. “I hate these times, when I run out of food an money. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she muttered to herself. “I gotta steal my baby some milk.” By that, she meant that she had stretch her meager resources. Making her dollar stretch had become an all-consuming activity that exhausted her mental energy. And the stress of it all persisted over days and weeks, weakening her immune system.[i]
Her life was an illustration of what some scholars call the psychology of scarcity. The basic premise of this line of work is that people obsess over things they lack. And, “if you face scarcity, you may end up in a kind of psychological tunnel… .”[ii] Zenani’s scarcity was economic resources, so her tunnel vision was directed towards doing whatever it took to keep up with her bills and feed her family. This tunnel vision may have benefits, but it often has even more dire negative consequences. When people focus on what they lack, they tend to perform poorly on other tasks because scarcity limits or distorts the brain’s “bandwidth”—the mental capacity available at any given time. When people face extreme scarcity, their brain’s bandwidth is impeded by as much as one night’s worth of sleep or 13 IQ points, which leaves them with little mental energy to take on other tasks. These findings are as true for poor people, who lack money, as they are for the lawyers in Jackson I got to know, who lack time. Unlike lawyers, those in poverty, like Zenani, cannot outsource the services that they cannot manage themselves. Add to that the anxiety induced by the killing of black people in various parts of her country and the body becomes severely overtaxed.
Thinking back to her life amid COVID-19 illustrates how the difficulties of Zenani’s day-to-day life make her vulnerable not only to the virus but to various other health problems. A meta-analysis of studies on the impact of stress on mental health found that chronic stress, like that common in the lives of people like Zenani, “have negative effects on almost all functional measures of the immunity.”[iii] According to a June 2020 Washington Post-Ipsos poll, nearly 1 in 3 (31%) of black Americans reported that they know someone who has died from coronavirus, compared to 9% White Americans; 17% Hispanic Americans and 13% U.S. adults overall. What is maddeningly worse is that Zenani does not have the bandwidth even to grieve, either the death from police shootings or those resulting from the pandemic. As Journalist Marissa Evans recently put it, “we are in the middle of a Black bereavement crisis, and we do not have the privilege or time.”
We got back in the car, kids and all, and headed to go get something to eat. Again, I was not sure where we were going, so I just followed her directions. Trayveon sat in the back seat with the baby. He did not know how to strap the baby into the car seat, so he held her on his lap. Unfortunately, when we hit a pothole, it bumped him and the baby from their seat and the baby started crying. She was tired, and hot, and hungry, and thirsty. When Trayveon kept asking his mother what he could do to quiet her down, Zenani let out a cry of her own. She yelled at him for his “stupid, fucking questions. “I’m just trying to figure out how to get us something to eat, baby.” He held back his tears. Zenani handed him the water bottle in my care. Maybe the few drops of water in there would quiet her a bit. We drove in silence through a couple stop signs.
“Do you think it’s karma for all the things I did?” She wondered if her hardships were payback for sins she had committed. I assured her that this was not the case, and resisted giving a sociology lecture about how the social structures of the country were intentionally constructed to make life more difficult than it needed to for people like her. When we passed by a Dodge Charger, she commented, “I want one of these cars. I can see me and my family int there.” Her two comments, juxtaposed against one another reminded me of DuBois’s statement: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”[iv]
At the local grocery store, I waited with Trayveon at the door as his mom went inside to pick up a gallon of milk and baby formula. She had $9 left.
When she asked Trayveon what he wanted, he said he wanted Chicken Nuggets. At the Wendy’s drive-through on Highway 80, she ordered Wendy’s 4 for $4. She got a hamburger, chicken nugget, fries, and a drink—strawberry lemonade. And, for herself, a salad, a chef’s salad with all the toppings, and fries. The two meals cost $7.83, so, out of her $9, she paid with a $5 bill and three $1 bills. She had a single $1 bill left in her hands.
As she waited for her food, she remembered, “I didn’t get Momma anything. I know she about to go to work, but I still like to look out for her.” Her mother, who was languishing in her own low-income job, was living with her. When we returned home, Trayveon gave her grandmother the burger and he ate the 5-piece chicken nuggets and the fries. Zenani made some formula for the baby and gave the bottle to me to feed her. I watched them all eat, enjoying a bit of peace amidst their chaotic life. The baby fell asleep on my chest as soon as she was finished with the bottle.
All of the events described transpired before the pandemic and before the worldwide protests. Zenani was already using her entire bandwidth to take care of her children. She had none left, and her immune system was sponsoring her overdraft. COVID and the anxieties of symbolic systemic racism have put her more deeply in the red.
Joseph C. Ewoodzie Jr. is associate professor of sociology at Davidson College. He is the author of Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Twitter @piko_e
[i] Daniel Brisson et al., “A Systematic Review of the Association between Poverty and Biomarkers of Toxic Stress,” Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work 0, no. 0 (July 12, 2020): 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/26408066.2020.1769786.
[ii] Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Macmillan, 2013); Cass R. Sunstein, “It Captures Your Mind,” The New York Review of Books, September 26, 2013, 3, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/sep/26/it-captures-your-mind/.
[iii] Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller, “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry,” Psychological Bulletin 130, no. 4 (July 2004): 601–30, https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601.
[iv] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 1903), 5.