Confinement and Disease from Slavery to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Apartment building in Chicago, 1941, (Russell Lee: Library of Congress)

As many college students as well as others have moved back home during the current pandemic people’s houses are feeling more cramped than ever. The conditions of small living spaces feel even more confining as communities are tasked with staying inside as much as possible with orders to shelter in place still intact in some locations. These conditions have left many feeling restless, bored, agitated and sad as they try to carve out private space and a sense of normalcy in such an uncertain time. The feelings of confinement ordinary people are facing contrasts starkly with the views of celebrity housing available through live streams, photos, and videos on social media. Gal Gadot and several other celebrities, for example, released a video of them singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The video was posted to Gadot’s Instagram with the caption “We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let’s imagine together. Sing with us. All love to you, from me and my dear friends.” Immediately, people on Instagram and Twitter noted the emptiness of these gestures coming from wealthy celebrities without the addition of material action.

The pandemic has drawn to a head the inequalities in housing and wealth defining the contemporary US. The nation’s majority have been left scrambling to make rent for their tiny apartments while watching the wealthy squirrel away in large open concept mansions with lush lawns and huge pools.

For Black communities, these contradictions are nothing new, as forced immobility and confinement have defined their historical and contemporary experiences with regard to the matters of space. As West Africans were rendered slaves, one of their primary spatial experiences was confinement, first in slave castles like El Mina in modern Ghana and then aboard the thousands of slave ships that traversed the Atlantic across five centuries. Africans crossed the ocean packed in and chained together with little room to move.

The carceral space aboard the slave ship  put captives in a position of increased vulnerability to diseases and illness. Despite slave trader’s efforts to bring only “healthy” Africans across the sea many ships suffered numerous casualties due to yellow fever, smallpox, scurvy, malaria, flux, and several other diseases. Sowande’ Mustakeem has noted that the isolation caused by the sea voyage along with the cramped and unsanitary conditions captives were held in created unique and devastating encounters with disease. The spread of disease was further aggravated by the violent treatment of captives aboard these ships as well as poor nutrition. As people’s bodies attempted to heal from physical and psychological injuries as well as illness, they faced an environment that only further deteriorated their capacities to fight infection.

In the North American context, despite variation in housing circumstances across different regions and time, the enslaved were forced to live in confining spaces. Whether awaiting sale in a dingy and overcrowded slave pen in Richmond, living in overcrowded gender-segregated barracks in Charleston, or making lives in a drafty and inadequately sized cabin on a rural sugar plantation in New Orleans’ hinterland, slaves experienced the quotidian violence of tight living irrespective of other differences in their social conditions and labor. This contrasts sharply with white slave owners who demonstrated their power with sprawling homes on sprawling estates. Consider for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County, Virginia mansion, Monticello in contrast to the small and poorly insulated log cabin structures in which the people he enslaved lived. The contrasts between Black and white space also had another dimension related to mobility. Especially in the wake of the Jacksonian era, white people moved freely, while enslaved people’s movements were legally regulated and violently circumscribed. Even free Black people, especially after Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rebellion, were strictly delimited in their abilities to move freely. Confinement and immobility were twinned conditions for slaves. As Katherine McKittrick analyzes, Harriet Ann Jacobs, spent seven years in her grandmother’s garret or attic space, unable to fully stand upright in nine-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, three-foot-tall space. She hid in this space, carving it as a “loophole of retreat” in order to evade the violence of her master and eventually to escape. For Jacobs freedom required a subtle reworking of the confinement enforced on Black life and Black geographies.

This lack of mobility and confinement continued after slavery as part of its afterlives along with the related condition of predisposition to contagious disease and premature death. In Chicago between the World Wars, Black migrant communities were forced into the West and Southside by legally sanctioned segregation, policing, and vigilante violence. Black families rented small apartments called kitchenettes at exorbitant rates, and as St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton characterized  in their influential study, lived in cramped poorly heated and congested conditions. As Rashad Shabazz argues, in the spaces of kitchenettes, Black Chicagoans experienced an expression of carceral power in their ordinary lives, manifest in the arrangement of their housing. He writes “by creating close associations between people the kitchenette made privacy of any kind impossible, shaming its residents by putting all actions under the forced gaze of others in the room.”1 This kind of housing arrangement is psychologically wearing, as Richard Wright’s Native Son disturbingly and dramatically fictionalizes. Many Black Chicagoans, across generations, experienced life-long emotional states like the frustration, restlessness, and captivity some people stuck in their homes due to the pandemic currently are experiencing for the first time.

This confining geography extending out from kitchenette also had deadly effects. In 1918 and 1919 the Spanish Flu pandemic caused mass death and tremendous social upheaval that anticipated and rehearsed what Black communities are currently experiencing with COVID-19. Prisoners today are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19—the highest number of cases tied to a location is a prison in Ohio where 80% of the prisoners have tested positive. This resonates with the history of the Spanish Flu in Chicago. As one Chicago Defender writer noted, “Chicago police stations are doing more to breed disease than any other agency supposed to be working for the good of Chicago.”2 The journalist went on to note the way Chicago jails “huddle prisoners together” without medical examinations and how this led to the spread of the deadly flu.3 The carcerality of the kitchenette also made its residents vulnerable. Shabazz notes that Black Chicagoans had higher rates of mental illness, disease, and death all of which were influenced by their crowded and run-down living conditions. These kinds of vulnerabilities tied to spatial confinement are ongoing in Chicago where 50% of the deaths from COVID are Black, and where segregation and carcerality continue to define the landscape.”4

Blackness’s tie to tight spatial control and confinement,extending between living spaces and formal carceral institutions, and from slavery to the present, puts Black people at greater risk for disease and infection exacerbated by the mental health effects of confinement. This greater vulnerability tied to spatial confinement, overcrowding, and other effects of our nation’s anti-Black geography buttresses the spatial advantages white communities enjoyed historically and which they continue to enjoy. White slave owners profited from the confinement and forced vulnerability of their slaves. White landowners in Chicago profited from overcharging their Black tenants for poor quality housing. The risk of death, disease, and mental illbeing that Black people live with exists to produce white safety and comfort, guaranteed in exclusive geographies away from lead paint, rusty water, over-policing, and gratuitous violence. In order to mitigate the unequal deadly effects of COVID-19  and to prevent the future of devastating conditions disproportionately affecting Black people, we must reimagine the American landscape outside this history defined by the twinned and reinforcing structures of Black immobility and confinement.

  1. Rashad Shabaz, Spacializing Blacknes: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 50.
  2. “Spanish Plague Raging in Chicago: All Places of Public Assemblage Ordered Closed by Health Officials,” Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Oct. 19, 1918.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Color of Caronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the US.” APM Research LAB, May 5th, 2020. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.
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Gabriella Onikoro-Arkell

Gabriella Onikoro-Arkell is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University in Gender Studies in the School of Social Transformation. Her research focuses on affect and emotional labor in Black women’s media.

Comments on “Confinement and Disease from Slavery to the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Thank you for this interesting reading. It is very relevant and timely. I hadn’t thought about the context of proximity and the pandemic as a cultural factor.

    Reply
  • This is a remarkably brilliant article. I found it exceptionally enlightening and full of important details.

    Reply

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