Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Monday, May 25, Memorial Day

May 25: George Floyd is killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, sparking protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Protests, rioting and looting follow.

From the cutting room floor ...

In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson talks of the Great Migration that African Americans made from the South to the North throughout much of the twentieth century. She describes how the Great Migration had much in common with the vast movements of refugees “from famine, war, and geocide in other parts of the world.” She tells the story of Lil George who had to flee Eustis, Florida after demanding better pay for picking fruit and then hearing that a lynching party was coming for him. There was no way of knowing who would be in the group that came for him, “whether it would be the new big-hat sheriff, some crew foremen, or Klansmen currying favor.” Whoever it was, Lil George, like so many, was running for his life. 

This morning, I see the COVID “cases by population” map on Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 website. I feel a tingling on the back of my neck, like I’m looking at a ghost. I have seen this map before.

While the news media celebrates declining case numbers in the major cities on the east coast, they are not noticing the significance of what is happening in the South. Wilkerson says that “the people of the Great Migration who ultimately made lives for themselves in the North and West were among the determined of those in the South, among the most resilient of those who left, and among the most resourceful of blacks in the North.” I am not at all sure that such a qualification is defensible or needed. The African Americans who make up the black belt of the Deep South deserve to be counted among the strong, the resilient, the determined. They have survived and persisted in a place that is endemically underfunded and short-shrifted. A place that has come up short because the white interests in this country didn’t care enough to change that trajectory. In the tiny town of Greensboro, Alabama, for instance, you can visit the safe homes that Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis used the night before the Selma march. People stayed to fight; they still do.

Now, the coronavirus looms like a ringwraith over what Flannery O’Connor called a “Christ-haunted” land. It finds a new foothold in the places that have the fewest recourses, the furthest trips to get to a hospital, the worst experiences with healthcare. The virus is settling in the counties where, 160 years ago, white plantation owners ran work camps for enslaved people enforced by daily violence. It is not a coincidence that COVID-19 is settling in here. Left is the mark of that legacy of slavery—descendants three and four generations later, taking this next round from the coronavirus. Only now, the national eye is not looking with the same intensity as it did when New York and New Jersey were the epicenters. 

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Strings, Sabrina. “It’s Not Obesity. It’s Slavery.” The New York Times, May 25, 2020, sec. Opinion.

WHO. “WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19 – 25 May 2020.” World Health Organization, May 25, 2020.—25-may-2020.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.