Rhonda Moore Johnson, MD, MPH
4 min readFeb 26, 2021

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Happy Black History Month: Pandemic Reflections on the Power of One

“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” (John W. Gardner) — I used this quote in a blog post published in 2016, “Personal Reflections on Black History Month.” (https://www.highmarkhealth.org/blog/care/Health-Equity-360-Personal-Reflections-on-Black-History-Month.shtml)

Well, five years later, in this sequel to my original blog, I can say I have to disagree with this quote. History has never looked or felt more real and lived to me! Typically, during Black History Month, we acknowledge the courageous individuals who fought for justice and equal rights, and paved the way for countless others to have a better life through their professional, scientific, civic, athletic, arts, music and cultural contributions to American society.

As I reflect on Black History Month 2021, I cannot shake off the intrusions of this pandemic and how it has disrupted my normal observances. As I read tributes and watched virtual programs, I became keenly aware of the Power of One. One person really can influence the actions of others and the very life of another. One person can be a superhero; and one person can be a superspreader. One leader’s actions can exacerbate a pandemic; another leader’s actions can mitigate its impact. One primary election can change the outcome of a presidential primary and race. One person can influence thousands of disenfranchised voters to register to vote and turn out in historic numbers. One injury can end a professional athlete’s career. And one person can influence supporters to mount a historic insurrection on our nation.

In my life time, I have experienced being the first person to graduate from college and the became the first Medical Doctor known in our limited genealogy. I witnessed the first African American President and the swearing in of the only African American, and female, Vice President. I often wonder what’s next to come as we live through history.

We are living though one global pandemic that eclipses all other recent events involving infectious pathogens in my opinion. One pandemic, which here in the U.S., has exposed 400 years of black history in terms of health disparities. These are health inequities that had begun before my immediate ancestors exhaled their first and final breaths. Health inequities whose origins trace back to 1619, when African human beings, arrived in colonial Virginia, felt to be so inconsequential to only be listed by a count. Health inequities that did not end with the end of American slavery in 1865, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and persist documented and undocumented as described in 1962 in the words of late James Baldwin, “for the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind

With the COVID-19 pandemic, I really feel like my personal life is dated now in two distinct periods: pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. As I mentioned in my original blog post, my maternal and paternal great-grandmothers were born in the 1890s, and both were the daughters of freed slaves. I grew up with these women, not from afar for they were part of my living. They made quilts by hand, they made biscuits from scratch, they were comfortable using both handguns and shotguns. One received an equivalent of a third grade elementary education. One was known for her ‘roots’ and herbalist skills. They were both married as young teenagers to men decades older and widowed at a young age with children. Both were part of the great Black migration from the Jim Crow South, fleeing North Carolina and Alabama; their hard-wired black Southern traditions never departing from them. I pause to give tribute to them because both of my great-grandmothers endowed me with a legacy of fortitude that has enabled me to continue living through systemic racism, and the recent trauma of watching the statistics of lives lost prematurely and inequitably in this pandemic.

My black history reflections on the Power of One can extend to everyone. We can all make choices each and every day to use our voices and our resources intentionally to help others in a way that is unique to you. The Power of One person will not dismantle systemic racism and one person will not end this pandemic. It will take the collective action of many. However, we each have the power to lead by personal actions, and to stand up to racial inequality.
Before and during COVID, we may have lived in relative isolation with our nuclear families, friends and loved ones, caring about our own interests above all others. Post-COVID, the reality is that we have a personal obligation to sustain long term investment in equity to collectively alleviate suffering, to improve health, to revive jobs, businesses, local governments, communities, especially to Black people who have long been exploited throughout history.

The Power of One can change history. We can all start today proudly embracing the fact that we all are living Black History Month. Blackness can be a state of mind, if not the color of one’s skin, embracing an anti-racist future that is greater than our individual or collective past. It is about each person saving one other, giving to the universe what we have in this moment. I am especially grateful to our health care workforce for all of their untold sacrifices and professional dedication during this pandemic — they are making history, one saved life at a time. To all of the heroes of the past, present and future, I say, Happy Black History Month — make history each and every day while you are living through this pandemic and beyond with your superpower, The Power of One.

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Rhonda Moore Johnson, MD, MPH

Dr. Rhonda Moore Johnson is an award-winning medical professional, author, social media influencer and educator. She is a health equity champion.