The Takeaway

Black People Are Still Working Themselves to Death and It Will Not Stop Anytime Soon

Overwork is a vestige of slavery

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Co-authored by David Stovall, PhD and Ebony Omotola McGee, PhD

We do it all the time. As Black academics and racial justice researchers, we work seven days a week and way too many hours in the day. The grind never seems to end. We love the work although it comes with fatigue (also known as racial battle fatigue). We want to see Black students and other Black people thrive without structural oppression. These are the reasons we tell ourselves to explain why we work so hard. And to an extent they are true.

What we rarely say, but know all too well, is that we work so hard because we must. Like our enslaved ancestors, working oneself to death has unfortunately become our legacy. Our enslaved ancestors were worked no less than an average of 16 hours per day for six or seven days a week, and as a result, many of us have embraced the idea that our “hard work” in the traditional sense serves as a testament to our commitment to succeed. What we haven’t come to grips with, however, is that this relentless labor often results in premature death. The untimely passing of brother Chadwick Aaron Boseman from colon cancer serves as a lesson on the unreasonable expectations placed on the Black body.

As two Black researchers employed in academia, we are clear that the new administration in the White House does not necessarily make things “better” or even less difficult for us. Instead, we are clear that 45’s electoral loss only means that overt White supremacist terror is in a brief hibernation phase. White supremacy, as the isolation, marginalization, and dispossession of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color in thought and action remains front and center.

We work seven days a week and way too many hours in the day.

Gone are the days of a badly tanned sociopathic liar in the office of the president stoking the fire of White supremacy. He’s been replaced by an administration resigned to making us serve in the perpetual role of advising those who don’t have a clue about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and are more interested in the act of consoling White tears. While we applaud the work of those of our comrades who do DEI with intention and integrity, we will not subject ourselves to the death-dealing hamster wheel that demands our breath and bone. We will not serve the powerful at the risk of our well-being.

Black social epidemiologist Sherman James coined the term “John Henryism,” which describes the work ethic of someone like Boseman and also someone like Kizzmekia S. Corbett, PhD, 35, the lead scientist on the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine team. Corbett has talked openly about getting inadequate sleep and working many hours in order to save lives, just like so many of us who work and work and work and work for the same reasons. John Henryism is a cultural adaptation of Black people faced with the daunting task of creating an American identity for themselves. The legend of John Henry celebrates his victory over the steam engine, an invention of the robber baron colonizer. But Henry’s struggle resulted in his death. He killed himself to prove his worth to a world that never valued his life beyond his capacity to work for his oppressor. “Success” in this sense is relative. It is encouraged only to the extent that the oppressors deem it useful in their quest to seize and maintain power.

The narrative of hard work, self-reliance, and freedom are still hailed as the means to lead a “good life” in the United States. Missing from this picture is the idea that, for us, any such success takes place only under the realities of systemic racism, White supremacy, and anti-Blackness. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, PhD, cautions us to recognize that racism, or “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” is foundational to Black life in the United States. In a land born from slavery, genocide, and wrongful land appropriation, the harsh realities of state-sanctioned violence, disparities in health care, lack of living wage employment, housing insecurity, and lack of quality education position the Black body only in relationship to the power of the White elite.

Because the dehumanizing and gratuitous punishment of our bodies has been normalized, Boseman’s death lately is lamented in relationship to his deep commitment to his art. Absent from this analysis is that his untimely passing reminds us that under White supremacy, the Black body is often thought of as a source of entertainment, amusement, and spectacle. Going back centuries, the pattern of mainstream White society was to frequently caricature Black people as comical, superstitious, lazy, and dim-witted. As Boseman intentionally fought these stereotypes through his writing, acting, and directing, his work reminds us that all Black people in America remain actors and participants in the ongoing American racial drama.

Mainstream White society’s relegation of Black people to positions that do not command respect translates into a pernicious form of physical and mental exhaustion that debilitates the psyche of Black folks. Black folks deemed as “talented” get the benefit of being called resilient, gritty, and worthy. We should be asking, “Worthy to whom?” Is it to ourselves, or are we only “worthy” when we are in service to the White world?

Stories lauding Chadwick Boseman’s willpower and self-determination ignore the fact that he shouldn’t be dead. In the United States, we know that African Americans are more likely to develop colorectal cancer and are also more likely to die from it. How much longer would he have lived if not for the overall stress of racism that impacts Black people from the moment we are born? While we are not privy to Boseman’s medical records, he was treated for a disease that usually doesn’t appear until much later in life. He was 39 years old when he was diagnosed with a disease that usually appears around age 68. As we celebrate his life and his gift to the world through his art, we must also take heed of the fact that he lived a precarious existence.

This moment of racial reckoning and unrest, coupled with a global health pandemic, and the realities of racial capitalism, reminds us that the real work, beyond the demands of the White world, is taking care of ourselves and the folks we love. Where we thank brother Boseman for this lesson, we also know he didn’t have to die for us to understand it.

David Stovall, Ph.D. is professor of Black Studies and Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago

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