Vulnerable Bodies and the Air We Breathe
On May 25, my family and I moved into a new home in a new town. Changing homes during the Covid 19 pandemic required an immense amount of planning and immense care, particularly because my chronic condition makes me high risk for extreme complications and death related to this virus. We took extra caution with the manner and timeline of our transition.
Our professional movers wore glove and masks, and they shrink-wrapped every item of furniture they transported. Any box touched by someone outside our family unit had to be deposited in our garage and storage room for days before it could be brought into our home. I remained either in my bedroom or in the backyard for my first three days in the house, slowly unpacking the things that our family had transported ourselves and instructing my husband and children where to place them throughout the house.
We had to be so careful, because we know how vulnerable my body is. Vulnerable bodies require lots of extra planning and care, and many of us have never been more aware of that than we are being asked to be during this pandemic. Each of the members in my family remains consistently focused on what invisible substances our bodies may be inhaling.
My body, like yours, is vulnerable to the air we breathe.
And my particular vulnerability was caused by the air we breathe.
As I was settling down to rest my first evening in our new home, the vulnerability of another’s body was being made violently clear hundreds of miles away from mine. The brutal murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin revealed not just a moment of vulnerability, but a lifetime of it. As a black man raised in the US, Floyd had always had a vulnerable body -- albeit one that many people likely perceived as powerful and even dangerous, which is an integral cause of its vulnerability.
While carefully unpacking our family’s treasures from boxes the following day, I listened to accounts of the 8 minutes 46 seconds required to end Floyd’s vulnerable existence, to the events leading up to those minutes, and to the public outrage generated by those minutes. In my psyche those two unrelated events -- my move and his death -- are now intricately interwoven, as are the process of my family settling into our new home and the unsettling of our nation through protests, riots, and deep questioning of the systemic racism at the center of our communities, institutions, and economy.
George Floyd’s body, like yours, was vulnerable to the air we breathe. This particular vulnerability was not to Covid, the virus he had already contracted and recovered from; rather, his vulnerability was to systemic racism.
Here is how my vulnerable condition was created: years ago, there’s no way to know when, I unknowingly inhaled a fungus called histoplasmosis. This likely happened when I was working as an archaeologist in Greece during my 20s; however, it also could have occurred during many different points in my childhood. In fact, if you grew up East of the Mississippi River (or in many other areas of the world) and spent a lot of time outdoors, you were almost certainly exposed to this particular substance also.
And you were vulnerable to it. You probably never knew you had inhaled it; I certainly did not. Statistics say that most of us exposed have no reaction to it whatsoever, that a small number of us have flu-like symptoms for a short amount of time, a very small number become blind or have lung problems related to this exposure. And a miniscule number have a reaction that leads to serious illness and death. Our bodies are vulnerable to this invisible substance in the air we breathe.
George Floyd’s body was also vulnerable to invisible substances in the air he breathed. His body was vulnerable to the invisible substance of racism; and, as with histoplasmosis, those inhaling it are entirely unaware. Unlike histoplasmosis, though, no one exposed to racism remains unaffected. Each of us is affected by that substance becoming manifest as white supremacy, violence, brutality, and control.
I am vulnerable to the racism in the air I breathe. Indeed, my vulnerability to this air helped create Floyd’s fatal vulnerability to it. I am in the initial stages of learning about my vulnerability to racism, the air I have breathed my entire life. If you are interested in a very simple introduction to one manner of viewing and understanding the ways racism is passed between us, as effortlessly as oxygen and carbon dioxide, here’s
a good place to start.
No one made my body vulnerable. It is vulnerable in the way all bodies are; it is affected by the air it breathes. George Floyd’s body, too, was affected by the air it breathed; his vulnerability, in contrast to mine, was to a substance constructed entirely by humans.
All the care that my family took when moving to our new home -- all the research and planning and hard work just to keep my vulnerable body safe -- that’s how we must care for all our vulnerable bodies. My loved one’s vigilance around caring for my body has become a model for me of the attention I need to pay to the vulnerable bodies of others. I can never allow myself to ignore my susceptibility to everything that I may be inhaling, whether that is a natural virus like that caused by Covid or a human-created one like racism.