It goes without saying that 2020 was fraught with tension and anxiety as a result of the pandemic and the heightened focus on race relations following George Floyd’s death. For those who may not immediately make the connection, Floyd was a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minnesota, USA, sparking worldwide media coverage and protest. The police officer in the case was recently convicted of murder.
During times like these with racially charged undertones, it can be unsettling to be an ethnic minority professional (in my case a nurse faculty person). People look to you for guidance, explanation, and strength. They often want some kind of reaction. But I was surprised by my unexpected response to George Floyd’s death. In the midst of the heightened discussion, fervor, and attention to race, I found that I needed to retreat. Soon after that event, I believe I developed Black racism fatigue and did not have the strength to talk with anyone about it.
Despite those feelings, the coincidence of COVID-19 and attention on race relations was what I needed to make sense of what happened to me. The pandemic allowed time to work from home and gave me the opportunity to be an introvert. With more time alone, I read many books by authors I had often heard about, but regrettably never read in school such as WEB Dubois, Frederick Douglas, Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston, and Michelle Obama. I drank in all the African American history documentaries developed by Henry Louis Gates and numerous other creators. Ironically, I even found myself drawn to homely documentaries produced by Masterpiece Theater and BBC, like “Downton Abbey” and “Victorian Farm.”
I’ve often thought about what these works had in common for me and now I think that they all describe a sense of place, history, and rootedness. Although I learned about historical events in the American South, western and northern Africa, and even the hamlets of England, there was a common resonance for me. Through them I understood how people overcame challenges and how—contextualized by time and place—they drew upon their experiences to make sense of the world. They even helped me to understand that our current problems are not all new. Similar to the characters and authors I learned about, I can make sense of this crazy world we live in. Ultimately, I am thankful to have learned more about my place in this world as an African American of Caribbean descent and Nigerian affiliation.
My experience during this reflective time has taught me two things. First, it is important to create space to keep calm and take time to reflect. Sometimes I have to extricate myself from the echo chambers found in social and broadcast media. Instead, I have delighted in learning more about my personal history and understanding how it intersects with past and current events. The most validating part for me has been learning about the many triumphs of my people in the face of struggle, no matter how unfortunate the history and sequela of slavery in the Americas. I see my life not as a reaction to what others do, but as one that emanates from the unique cultural and historical patchwork of my people. Second, it is important to share our lives and history with others. This can remove invisibility and expose others to the richness of the experiences that we all have. Since I am a nurse educator and scholar, this means that I must expose my students to the life experiences of as many peoples as possible and to bring thoughtful qualitative evidence of those experiences to our professional literature. Many well-known nurse theorists conceptualize such concepts as cultural competency and report that exposure to others can facilitate a desire to learn more about one another and to advocate in their best interests. I encourage all of us to take part in learning and telling stories toward an emancipatory nursing praxis.
Melissa Mokel, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut, USA. She is a member of Sigma’s Mu Chapter.