Last summer, when Covid-19 vaccines were in development, friends on text threads and Zoom calls asked if I’d get one. My response was always the same: Sure, I’ll be right in line — after 100 million of y’all go first. I told them I’d seen too many zombie movies. But my hesitancy was actually grounded in a less cinematic reality: I just don’t trust America enough.
This mistrust comes from an awareness of the ubiquity of American anti-Blackness — a dynamic that can, um, modify your sense of reality. That’s what happened, for instance, with the persistent myth of Tommy Hilfiger’s racist comments.
In 1996, owning a Tommy Hilfiger shirt was everything to 17-year-old me. But a year later, I’d completely extracted Hilfiger fits from my rotation. Word had spread that Tommy Hilfiger, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, had complained about Black people wearing his clothes. The shirts, windbreakers and parka I owned were immediately relegated to the deepest parts of my closet.
Mr. Hilfiger never actually made those racist comments. In fact, he hadn’t even been a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” when the rumors started. But the myth wouldn’t die because it felt so true that to question it felt like gaslighting your own Blackness. Of course this white man with aggressively preppy oxfords and an American flag aesthetic would believe that people like me sullied his brand. It just fit.
The same way, a story about Dorothy Dandridge and a pool just fits: As the urban legend goes, the movie star was visiting a hotel in Las Vegas in the 1950s, and she dipped a single toe into the all-white swimming pool. This so disgusted the hotel’s management that they drained the entire thing. This story, which was also depicted in the HBO biopic about her life, has never actually been confirmed. But to anyone familiar with the history of America’s relationship with its Black citizens, the anecdote is believable. Maybe it ain’t true, but it also ain’t exactly a lie.
To question whether this bottomless skepticism is justified is like asking whether a cow has cause to be wary of butchers. From redlining and gerrymandering to the Tuskegee experiment and Cointelpro, the proven conspiracies against Black Americans are so devious, so deep and so absurd that they blast open pathways for true-sounding non-truths to enter, too.
The terrible spoken word poems I wrote in college (“We’ll never get justice, because justice for just-us just-aint-for-us”) habitually referenced the so-called Willie Lynch letter — an instruction manual for controlling Black slaves that I, along with many others, believed was written by a slave owner in 1712 and contained deep insights into modern race relations. The truth: Willie Lynch never existed and the document was forged. I believed that the government conspired to track my thoughts and movements — as if my flaccid stanzas and banded collar Wilsons Leather biker jackets were a threat to the state. I even once allowed myself to entertain an argument that the natural color of milk is not white, but brown. (Don’t ask.)
The term “hotep” has become a catchall among Black people to describe other Black people who still believe some of these easily debunked stories — but the reality is that most of us have some hotep in us. And not because we don’t know how America really works, but because we know too much. The lack of trust in our nation’s systems and structures is a force field; a bulwark shielding us from the lie of the American dream. And nowhere is this skepticism more justified than with the institution of medicine.
I don’t trust doctors, nurses, physician assistants, hospitals, emergency rooms, waiting rooms, surgeries, prescriptions, X-rays, MRIs, medical bills, insurance companies or even the food from hospital cafeterias. My awareness of the pronounced racial disparities in our health care system strips me of any confidence I would have otherwise had in it. As critics of a recent Saturday Night Live skit suggesting that Black people are illogically set against getting vaccinated pointed out, the vaccine hesitancy isn’t due to some uniquely Black pathology. It’s a direct response to centuries of anecdote, experience and data. (Also, the demographic among the least likely to get a vaccine? White evangelicals.)
Despite all this, in March, I stood in a long line to receive my first dose of a vaccine to prevent me from becoming seriously ill from a virus that I had no idea even existed 14 months ago.
My journey from “I don’t even eat hospital pizza” to “voluntary Pfizer guinea pig” is complicated, but not singular. Existing in America while Black requires a ceaseless assemblage of negotiations and compromises. Even while recognizing the anti-Blackness embedded in society, participation is still necessary to survive.
For instance, I am dubious that American schools are able to sufficiently nurture and prepare Black children for 21st-century life. But my interest in home-schooling my kids is the same as my interest in letting them attend school on Neptune. So my compromise is to allow them to attend school, but then to also fortify them with as many academic, social, and political supplements as possible.
Sometimes the negotiation is just the choice to participate: My parents were two of the tens of thousands of Black victims in the subprime lending crisis. I watched them be evicted from their home after loan terms they just couldn’t meet kept multiplying. But when I was ready to buy a house, the gateway to homeownership was through those same banks.
The trust still isn’t there. Will never be there. But the negotiation that placed me in that vaccination line last month required me to weigh that distrust against all that I miss. I miss the year we just lost. I miss playing basketball. I miss watching it with my dad. I miss barbecues. Malls. Movie theaters. Restaurants. Cities other than Pittsburgh. I miss only needing to be hypervigilant about racism and gluten, and not whether the air inside of a Giant Eagle supermarket might kill me too. And I know other people miss their years and their hobbies and their dads and their homies. With the disproportionate havoc this plague has wreaked on Black and brown people, my desire to return to some semblance of normalcy and prevent more death is a force greater than my cynicism.
I’ve already begun to fantasize about the cookout I’ll host after I get my second shot, and each of my equally-suspicious-about-America family members and homies get their shots, and enough time has passed to feel safe gathering. Maybe we’ll laugh about how us seeing each other was only possible because we trusted an institution that has been pathologically untrustworthy. Or maybe we won’t. Because that’s not actually funny.