Rereading ‘The Salt Eaters’ Helped Me Process My Pandemic Fears

Toni Cade Bambara’s novel on healing and activism is prescient for the present moment

Kaitlyn Greenidge
Published in
6 min readJun 18, 2020


Photo illustration.

Before all this started — the staying indoors and the constant cleaning and the calls about who got tested, who had it, who passed and was suddenly gone — I was afraid to go to the doctor. One of my earliest memories is running through a clinic’s waiting room, while a sibling was in the office for yet another appointment, and tripping and falling onto an exposed nail on a bench, splitting the flesh of my cheek open to the bone. I remember crying, the startled pediatrician holding my face, and then blacking out and waking up on a table, strapped to a gurney. Another doctor leaned over and assured me that the stitches he was about to sew into my cheek without anesthesia wouldn’t hurt at all. Needless to say, he lied, and I have hated going to the doctor ever since.

I come from a family with a penchant for eccentric health problems. We map neighborhoods by recalling all the places we’ve vomited or fainted in public while growing up. I thought the fact that my body was usually viewed as a failure was a comment on my character and a misfortune confined to my bloodline. Even though I wrote a whole novel about the legacies of scientific racism, I still blamed myself for every doctor’s visit that left me feeling demoralized and unheard, all the nurses who stuck my arms until they bruised, claiming not to find a vein, all the dismissals of pain. I just assumed that I lived in a body continually going wrong, not that I was moving through a system that was predicated on pathologizing me.

A veteran of the Black power movement and the women’s movement, Velma is recovering from a suicide attempt and thoroughly burnt out from the tolls of political struggle and the eternal splintering of leftist movements.

But in the past few months, Covid-19 roiled through my communities and it became clear who wasn’t surviving. It was Black people, and the devastation could not be explained away by the quirks of genetics. I knew what it was on an intellectual level — I obsessively read…