"If you are mandating anything for a Black community, it's a huge mistake. It disrespects our experience in this country. The vaccine needs to be made available and convenient for people. There needs to be more information sessions and engagement of people on a community level that allows people to ask questions and come to a decision that is appropriate for them. You can't mandate the result you want for marginalized communities. It takes more time and more care. It must take everyone's personal experience into consideration."

— Zac Manuel, director of the documentary This Body

Alysia Harris, Arts & Soul Editor: Both my mother and grandmother were hesitant about getting the vaccine—and to tell the truth, so was I. I wasn't just thinking about the Tuskegee experiment or the gynecological surgeries and experimental procedures done on Black women without anesthesia; I was thinking about the high rates of mother and infant mortality experienced in Black communities today. I was thinking of my own experience with doctors, battling with a white physician for 15 minutes before pulling out the Yale Ph.D. trump card just to be taken seriously, or my mother breaking her foot in two places and being dismissed by the orthopedist without him even examining her. 

To ask Black folks to unquestioningly assent or trust the doctors trivializes the real questions Black patients have to ask ourselves every time we step into a health facility. We have to evaluate not just the treatment, but also the motives of doctors and health care institutions. It's a scary and vulnerable position to be in, and it requires patience, empathy, and long- term committed action to address the continuing harm racism causes within the medical sector. 

The short documentary This Body is part of the Reel South, Firelight Media, and Center for Asian American Media collaboration Hindsight, a film series exploring the experiences of communities of color during the COVID-19 pandemic. The film unpacks both the personal and national histories that influence many Black peoples' decisions regarding vaccination with care, honesty, and respect.

This Body follows Sydney Hall, a Black student at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, as she makes the decision to participate in vaccine trials for COVID-19.

"I hoped for more vaccination turn-out," Hall said of her experience. "I anticipated these outcomes as far as a [resurgence] with different strains and variants, because it happens with the flu as well. Unfortunately, it happened a little sooner than expected."

The film's director, Zac Manuel, was particularly interested in partnering with Reel South to document the process of a Black person going through vaccine trials and how Black communities respond to the vaccine given monumental historical grievances against their persons. "When someone has the power over [a Black person's] body or freedom, how can you trust that that person has your best interest in mind, given the way that people treat Black bodies?" he asked in an interview with Scalawag.

Kierra Coleman.

Echoing that same sentiment is Kierra Coleman, another Black veterinary student at LSU who participated in the film. "Black people are not given the proper medical treatment as everybody else. The Black Lives Matter movement and this pandemic do tie in to each other, and I feel like the doctors do play the same role as the police do, just in different settings." 

Coleman is also skeptical of the accelerated push and incentives towards vaccination. Hall brought up required polio vaccination as a precedent that could pave the way for mandatory school vaccinations, but also agrees that government and health officials should first provide trustable and transparent information instead of twisting people's arms by threatening to take away their livelihoods. 

"Being vaccine-skeptical or vaccine-hesitant is not the same thing as COVID-denial. There is a truly held belief system, but it doesn't mean [people] don't understand the risks facing their community. They just don't think that this is the way forward for their community. We don't have to live at the poles."

— Nick Price, series producer of Reel South

Despite the severity of the resurgence in Southern states, both those who support vaccination and those who remain on the fence warn against mandatory vaccination and disclosure. Many are calling for the media to stop throwing gasoline on the existing fire; some worry that the highly polemic nature of the issue at hand may even cause violence to break out between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. 

Responsible public health must strive to be radically inclusive, recognizing that there are a variety of strategies that we must employ to make sure the greatest number of people are protected, not just against COVID-19, but also against exploitation and other forms of harm. Those strategies include providing transparent information, free and accessible testing, social distancing, wearing masks, limiting exposure, washing your hands—and, for some people, getting a vaccine.

Coleman wants the public and the media to know that there is room for everyone in the conversation about how we keep our communities safe."Everybody plays a role in how this develops. Everyone should be allowed to exist no matter their stance and live without ridicule. I want to see things get back to as close to normal as possible. I want to see people get better and live their lives more," Coleman said.

"What I hope people get out of this film is that we should take out the practice of shaming people, and we should put into practice asking people questions," Manuel said. "If we know what people's fears, worries, and concerns are, we can make better [solutions]. Have conversations with people that have different experiences in a way that feels safe and respectful in a way that we can learn from each other."

Breaking Through COVID is a collection of stories focused on illuminating the ways the pandemic has realigned our communities and put sharper points on the crises the South was already facing.

We understand how wide open the door has been flung for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. We understand how deep the mistrust of the media is right now, too. Help us help each other. Tell us about the radical Southerners doing this work in your community. Especially in places without formal organizing infrastructure, how can we adapt some of their lessons in our own communities? Let us know.

breaking through covid

Alysia Nicole Harris, Ph.D. is a poet, performer, linguist, and charismatic Christian. She lives in Corsicana, Texas, and serves as Scalawag's Editor-at-Large.