It’s already February, which means it’s time for Black History Month. Last year around this time, I challenged myself and readers to choose a book related to the theme of the Black family, but this year I want to do a deeper dive into the 2022 theme: Black Health and Wellness. This theme comes from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and seeks to highlight the struggles and successes of Black people throughout US history. The health and wellness of Black people in the United States is a complicated history, and includes both the medical discrimination they have historically and still presently face, as well as the accomplishments and progress found despite that discrimination.  

Amid historical and present-day discrimination, it is no surprise that Black Americans have faced more prejudice and negative outcomes in health and medicine. This is partly due to structural racism like redlining, which leads to Black people being more likely to live in poor neighborhoods with everything from higher rates of pollution and fewer trees, causing an increase in heat and asthma related deaths, to a shortage of primary care physicians and hospitals, resulting in longer wait times and worse emergency care. Present day negative healthcare outcomes also stem from historic falsehoods, such as claims from doctors who conducted experiments on enslaved people that Black people did not feel pain the same way that white people did, which allowed them to justify the practice of slavery itself as well as its most brutal tactics, such as beatings. These experiments are well documented but failed to prove their hypothesis. In addition to being ill-conceived and unethical, they also lacked appropriate controls and, as such, could never have yielded conclusive results. Recent statistics and experiences of Black patients show the legacy of these lies, including studies that show as many as 73% of white medical students falsely believe Black people have thicker skin, higher pain tolerances, or less sensitive nerve endings. These falsehoods lead to Black patients of all ages being less likely to have symptoms taken seriously, being less likely to be admitted to the hospital, and being significantly less likely to be prescribed medication and treatments, from opiates for pain to chemotherapy for cancer (for more information about medical racism and its negative outcomes, consider checking out articles from Medical News Today and St. Catherine University

But despite the many horrific barriers Black people have in the way of competent healthcare in the United States, there are many historical and present-day stories worth celebrating and learning from as well. Many of these success stories come from Black medical workers who were seeking to improve conditions for their own communities, like that of Dr. James Durham, a freedman who purchased his manumission, became the first Black doctor in the US, and served Black patients in New Orleans from 1783 to 1801. Later successes also came from community focused goals, such as when the National Medical Association was created in 1895 by Black doctors who were barred from joining the American Medical Association due to race. This new organization was created with a focus of improving the health of racial minorities through public education, healthcare screening, and advocating for the end of segregation in medical practices (for more information about historical medical achievements of Black Americans, check out this timeline).  

Even in the mid to late twentieth century, after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Black communities were working to improve the lives of their own people, given the disparities resulting from years of segregation and ongoing structural differences. For example, activist organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked with newly graduated Black doctors, like Dr. Robert Smith, to create the Medical Committee for Human Rights, an organization that treated sick and injured civil rights activists in the south. Other activists around the country achieved similar goals, including the Black Panther Party, who made the health of their communities a core focus, opening thirteen free health clinics around the country that administered first aid, screened for things like tuberculosis and diabetes, and offered social services. They also created the Free Breakfast for Children program, raised awareness for sickle-cell anemia screening, and fought against exploitative and unethical research using Black people as test subjects (check out this article from Columbia University for more information). Whether it was over two hundred years ago or the last few decades, improvements in Black health and wellness have largely come about through initiatives and cooperative efforts within these communities, and that alone is worth celebrating.  

If you’d like to learn more about setbacks and successes for Black health and wellness this Black History Month, consider checking out one (or many!) books from this list