Sick and Tired: Fannie Lou Hamer & the Cost of America’s Sickness
Fannie Lou Hamer (pictured in a floral-print dress) walks along an unpaved road in 1971. She would have been about 54 years old at the time of this picture. (Louis H. Draper)
Precious Lord take my hand. Lead me on. Let me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn.
As I sat in my bedroom feeling heavy with the news of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Fannie Lou Hamer singing “Precious Lord,” played on repeat in the background.
In this recording, she recalls finding out Medgar Evers had been killed shortly after she and five others had just been released from the Winona Jail where they had been beaten and terrorized. Ten years later, she stood before a crowd singing the popular church hymn, dragging each word with the same conviction that made me tremble in church as a child. A conviction that carried pain I didn’t quite know or understand yet.
I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.
During the historic win in Georgia, as Stacey Abrams was hailed the savior of American democracy, I was thinking a lot about Fannie Lou Hamer’s tireless fight for Black Mississippians’ right to vote. She marched and traveled all over this country testifying, with every fiber in her body, on behalf of the Black South. But like many of our freedom fighting ancestors, there was a cost.
Even after surviving a beating in jail that would leave her with life-long injuries, Hamer suffered grave health consequences at the tail-end of her life from carrying the enduring burden of racism. From hypertension to diabetes, racism has detrimental effects on the physical and emotional health of Black women. Learning of Fannie Lou Hamer’s poor health reminded me of a quote from Jesmyn Ward, a renowned Black Mississippi author:
“Living in the American South for generations, my family has collected so many accounts of racial terror, passed down over the decades. I carry every slur, every slight, every violent malign within me; they have become a part of me, accreted in me year after year to settle in me and express themselves in my body: vascular inflammation, migraine headaches, diabetes, giving birth to both of my children prematurely.”
It was a reminder that all the studies in the world on racialized health disparities couldn’t tell us what we already knew: racial terror seeps into our bones and eats us from the inside out through generation after generation. I know this because of the high blood pressure that runs in my own family, the stroke that killed my great-grandmother before I was born, the kidney failure of my great aunts and uncles, my mother’s depression and my own. We can feel it in our bodies, and we can see the ways it weathers us down to the gristle.
… [N]o other place in this country is free until I am free in the south.
The voter suppression in Mississippi is as present today as it was when Fannie Lou Hamer and her co-organizers were brutalized in that Montgomery county jail.
Like the Freedom Summer 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the agenda to suppress Black votes haunts the very dirt of Mississippi. It is enough to even lead me to question whether Mississippi will ever change, especially when Black people continue to die at the hands of both the police and a racist healthcare system all over this country. However, as Hamer was, I am of the belief that the freedom of Black people everywhere is dependent upon the freedom of Black southerners.
When Georgia turned Blue during the 2021 run-off elections, I was hopeful for the possibility that Mississippi might also become more politically representative of the nearly 40% of Black people who make up the state. It was also encouraging that Mississippians overwhelmingly voted to remove a Jim Crow-era provision to the constitution intended to lessen the impact of Black voters. More importantly, Hamer’s legacy continues to be reflected through organizations such as MS Votes and the drive of youth organizers, who just last year organized a Black Lives Matter protest that drew in thousands of people. Though these wins for Black Mississippians are few and far between, it’s still a hopeful sign that change is becoming more and more real for our state, and by extension, the rest of the country.
America is a sick place, and man is on the critical list.
In 2020, we were (and continue to be) reminded through a pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black communities and a judicial system that continues to fail Black lives, this country has yet to account for its violence. It is a violence that often makes me wonder if my life is worth living. Thankfully, Hamer’s singing and teachings have remained my solace through this pandemic—the grief of witnessing Black death daily and the ongoing insurrections against the political progress of Black folks.
When she sings: “Through the storm / Through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand / Precious Lord / Lead me on,” the weariness in her voice affirms my own exhaustion with the state of this country. And yet, it also doubles as a source of empowerment. In her testimonies throughout the song of experiences with white supremacist violence, Ms. Hamer offers a sort of comfort that pulls me out of my somberness. Her refusal to cower to all the ways this country tried to silence her inspires me to, at the bare minimum, live. In that living, I try to lean on the same faith that kept her going. And every day, I pray her spirit continues to guide me and Black folks everywhere to liberation.