Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, is the author of a new book released JAN 2012, entitled Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. By documenting the multi-faceted health activism of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and critically assessing the BPP’s strategy and tactics in a respectful and appreciative manner, Body and Soul presents an analysis that is rare and needed. read on…
In her book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. Nelson writes that “the Party’s focus on health care was both practical and ideological.” On a practical level, the BPP provided free community health care services, including preventative education. Simultaneously, the BPP railed against the medical-industrial complex, declaring that health care was “a right and not a privilege.” Ronald “Doc” Satchel, the minister of health for the Chicago BPP, wrote in the BPP newspaper that “the medical profession within this capitalist society…is composed generally of people working for their own benefit and advancement rather than the humane aspects of medical care.” A newsletter published by the Southern California chapter argued that “poor people in general and black people in particular are not given the best care available. Our people are treated like animals, experimented on and made to wait long hours in waiting rooms.”
By 1970, People’s Free Medical Clinics had become a requirement for every BPP chapter. In 1972, the BPP revised point six of the founding ten-point-platform, adding a demand for “completely free healthcare for all black and oppressed people…We believe that the government must provide, free of charge, for the people, health facilities which will not only treat our illnesses, most of which have come about as a result of our oppression, but which will also develop preventative medical programs to guarantee our future survival. We believe that mass health education and research programs must be developed to give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information, so we may provide ourselves with proper medical attention and care.”
While citing Martin Luther King’s 1966 declaration that “of all forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane,” one chapter provides an important historical context for the BPP’s health activism by detailing what Nelson calls “the long medical civil rights movement,” that began long before the BPP. “Mobilized in response to the distinctly hazardous risks posed by segregated medical facilities, professions, societies, and schools; deficient or nonexistent healthcare services; medical maltreatment; and scientific racism, activism challenges to medical discrimination have been an important focal point for protest efforts and organizations. The Panthers were heirs to health activism that directly reflected tactics drawn from this tradition,” writes Nelson.
The Black Panthers’ health activism has been under-reported across the ideological spectrum. Depictions of brothers and sisters working in their neighborhoods, wearing white medical coats, was unspectacular compared to images of Black radicals wearing leather jackets and carrying guns.
It is ironic that our collective memory of the Panthers remains so incomplete because their health activism — from their political writing about medical issues in The Black Panther newspaper to their practice of DIY healthcare — exemplified the anti-racist, anti-capitalist stance for which they are known. In fact, the reality of health inequality brought the BPP’s political perspective into sharper relief because it offered stark and specific examples of how economic and racial oppression literally damaged bodies, families and communities.
As you know, the BPP was originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a name that reflected that protecting communities from police brutality was a primary motivation for the group’s founding. The BPP exposed the misuse of power whether it was at the hands of police officers or physicians. So, it’s also useful to think of the Panthers as being engaged in medical self-defense.
In Los Angeles, Party members Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown, nursing professor Marie Branch, Dr. Terry Kupers, and others established that chapter’s People’s Free Medical Clinic. But, like all of the BPP’s health activism, this work extended beyond the clinic, including in this case, confronting police brutality. BPP health programs and prisoners’ protection from medical discrimination were seamlessly discussed. The LA Panthers advocated for, and provided health care for, incarcerated persons; some of these men and women needed medical attention because they had been abused while in police custody.
Body and Soul offers an account of the BPP that moves away from the narrow confines of the so-called “culture wars,” in which the Party can only ever be a positive force or a negative element. Paying attention to the Party’s health activism calls into question the inaccurate stereotype of the activists as aimless thugs.
We also gain a different perspective on things we thought we already knew about the BPP; like the fact that the Panthers were avid followers of Fanon, Che and Mao, whose writings were required reading for all members. Through the prism of health, one can see very clearly the influence of Fanon’s dissection of colonial medicine in Algeria on the Panthers’ understanding of medical discrimination in the U.S. We can take seriously the fact that Fanon and Che were physicians as well as political thinkers. We can appreciate that Mao, who established the “barefoot doctors” lay health worker program, made available to the Party not only broad revolutionary principles, but also specific ideas about health care as political practice.
In addition to setting up their own clinics, they used legal approaches not dissimilar from the NAACP to voice their opposition to problematic biomedical research. Working in this vein, the Panthers engaged and reinterpreted scientific ideas about race and disease. They reinterpreted scientific theories about the causes of sickle cell anemia, for example, by placing the prevalence of the disease in the context of the history of the transatlantic slave trade, the medical-industrial complex and contemporary racism.
The Panthers’ use of this tactic — the politics of knowledge — should remind today’s activists that “framing” matters. It is important to be able to translate political arguments — health-related ones and other ones — into language, into stories, really, that resonate with the broader public. The Party could be expert at this.
The Nixon administration and mainstream philanthropies would ultimately co-opt the issue of sickle cell anemia. But the BPP played a key role in raising awareness about the disease and in situating it in a powerful political language that could mobilize communities. Body and Soul features chapters focusing on free medical clinics and the campaign to educate the Black community about, and test for, Sickle Cell Anemia.
The Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform is still relevant to addressing the widening health inequality in the U.S. and what to do about it.
This book truly pays homage to the leadership of the Black Panther Party in the areas of Health Activism. To learn more please check it out here http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/body-and-soul
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