Happy Women’s History Month! Just as Black history is American history, women’s history, or “herstory,” for that matter, is key to history overall, our collective stories – “ourstory,” if you will.
As we were planning this health supplement in March, covering Black women’s health was a natural fit. However, focusing on Black women’s health was more than a convenient way to uplift ladies in health care. Understanding and prioritizing Black women’s health is necessary in addressing challenges in the African American community.
I contend Black women are superheroes. While many live day in and day out as “strong Black women,” African American women face major health disparities.
As strong and resilient as Black women often are, between historic mistreatment of their bodies, environmental and social factors that detrimentally affect health, and racism in health care that persists today, Black women are being disproportionately affected at higher rates for diseases such as “anemia, cardiovascular disease and obesity,” according to “Health Equity Among Black Women in the United States,” a February 2021 study published in “Journal of Women’s Health.”
The journal, written by Juanita J. Chinn, Iman K. Martin and Nicole Redmond, notes Black women have shorter life expectancies and higher maternal mortality rates than other women in the United States.
“The higher burden of these chronic conditions reflects the structural inequities within and outside the health system that Black women experience throughout the life course,” the writers note. “The health inequities experienced by Black women are not merely a cross-section of time or the result of a singular incident.”
Dr. Karenga Lemmons, who has worked as a physician for more than four decades, said inequities in access to health care and other societal and structural challenges, Black women tend to face further overall challenges.
Often serving as givers versus receivers, Lemmons, who is also my cousin, said it is particularly imperative that Black women prioritize their health in order to continue serving other people’s needs. Referencing Sophia A. Nelson’s 2022 book, “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned While Taking Care of Everyone but Me,” Lemmons noted how unhealthy it can be when women don’t prioritize health first.
“Black women are often the providers, [but] it’s time to take care of your health,” Dr. Lemmons said. “As an individual, if you can’t take care of your health, you can’t take care of others.”
Strong Black Woman vs. Healthy Black Woman
While “strong Black women,” should be celebrated, it’s also imperative that we emphasize the importance of “healthy Black women.” The strong Black woman stereotype, research shows, contributes to the implicit bias often seen in the medical industry when treating African American women patients.
“Research consistently has documented the continued impacts of systematic oppression, bias, and unequal treatment of Black women,” the journal notes.
Due to stereotypes, some doctors don’t always take African American women seriously.
“We also carry a lot of stigma as Black women. We’re too emotional, we’re overly aggressive and all these social factors go into how we are afraid to take care of our health,” said Lemmons.
In April 2021, my mother, the Rt. Reverend Paula Clark, experienced an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) rupture in her cerebellum, causing bleeding in her brain. The AVM ruptured at a gym and though she was in a health crisis, she had to call emergency services herself, and her best friend, a Black woman physician in Chicago, had to insist doctors conduct imaging tests, which ultimately diagnosed the issue and saved her life. Initially, doctors planned to send her packing with instructions to rest and eat.
My mother’s story isn’t isolated.
In the famous 1964 words of activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Black women are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” They deserve respect and just treatment when addressing health challenges.
It’s time to go beyond “strong Black women,” and help people appreciate the importance of “healthy Black women.” Prioritizing “healthy Black women,” will not only help in encouraging self-care and healthier living, but will offer wake-up calls to practitioners who undermine Black wellness. Further, uplifting Black women’s health, by nature of womanhood, can put a stop to generational health challenges faced in African American communities.