When I think of my grandmother Ella Mae, I think of her rose bushes and her joy. The two are entwined — the flowers bring her joy, and they are a perfect metaphor for her willful happiness.
Ella Mae is 105-year-old years old. She was born and raised in South Arkansas and continues to live there in an unincorporated farm hamlet situated in a rich delta of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. A Black daughter of America’s Jim Crow south, Ella Mae’s life ain’t been no crystal stair. Yet, her joy blooms with the richness and grace of a red rose.
Each February, I think often — more often than usual — of Ella Mae. In the spirit of Black History Month, I think often of my ancestors, both distant and near. This month, when asked about my Black heroes, my family is who I think to mention first: Grandpa Shivers, Ella Mae, Uncle Glenn, my mother Ophelia, my father Billy.
Under the banner of this year’s Black History Month theme — “Black Health and Wellness” — my meditations turn to my elder’s wisdom for keeping my bodily temple in working order.
You have to believe you’re coming up on the right side of the mountain.
Shed your shadows to embrace the light.
Rest on Sundays; even God took a day of rest.
The same people you see on your way up; you will see on your way down. Stay humble.
A family that prays together, stays together.
Black Americans’ rituals, songs, stories, and practices have buoyed our collective wellness through an otherwise heavy and violent existence in this country. They are revered as the wisdom of the ages. Teas, herbal remedies, a hot compress, and the annual dose of castor oil and Father’s John to prevent illness. Prayers, a pastor’s anointing, a firm hug, a song to heal the heart.
This month, we celebrate these ancient rites. We honor those practices that have long preserved our physical health by nurturing the health of our hearts and minds.
This month, we also acknowledge where we need more when it comes to the health and wellness of Black America. Racial and ethnic minorities continue to receive lower-quality health care than white people — even when insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable.
We raise up these disparities of our healthcare system, which are perpetuated by racial bias.
Black Americans are romanticized for our healing abilities, for our grit. For our superhumanness. And in the next breath, we are dehumanized for it, considered inhuman because of our perceived ability to withstand more.
We are more than the stereotypes that have perpetuated our inequitable medical treatments and health outcomes. We must be seen for our full humanity.
The last two years tested the temerity of humanity’s health and survivability. No other community has felt this as acutely as the Black community.
We find ourselves at an inflection point when it comes to our considerations for the future of Black people’s health and wellness. It is time we take stock of our wounds, both recent and historical; both physical and mental.
The good news is, we are beginning to mend the rift between mind and body in our healthcare systems. Care models and employer/payer health plans are being designed with an understanding that mental health is health.
At Hurdle, as a part of our work with employers and payers, we are seeing more C-level and HR leaders embrace the notion that mental health is not just about mental illness but is something every employee experiences.
Additionally, policy influencers are elevating the movement for mental health parity. In the first week of February, a bill to declare structural racism a public health crisis was reintroduced. Days later, the American Medical Association urged Congress to hold insurance companies accountable for their repeated failure to comply with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.
The needle is moving for Black health and wellness, but it will require each of us to play our part. At Hurdle, we built a model of culturally intentional therapy that equips our therapists with the skills needed to effectively address issues of race, ethnicity, class, and culture. By weeding out racial and cultural bias, we ensure BIPOC individuals’ narratives are not only heard and acknowledged but also put in perspective to understand their experiences. And from understanding, comes healing.
I live states away from my beloved Ella Mae now, but I can still remember my grandmother’s joy in my memories of her — humming a cheerful church song while pinning bedsheets to a clothesline or setting a pot of beans to boil. Even Black matriarchs who have buried sons, brothers, daughters, and husbands into an earth saturated with the blood and sweat of ancestors will sing about “this joy” that they have. These matriarchs were clear about their joy’s origins: The world did not give it to them. The world could not take it away.
In my book The Joy of the Disinherited, I write about this.
“As a little boy, I learned early on that spirituality flows through the Black community like the blood in our veins. It is life-giving. And like blood, the communal spirit instinctively rushes to the site of our wounds to begin the immediate work of healing.”
This month, we celebrate the traditions of healing that have sustained Black health and wellness for centuries. And we continue to cast visions of a future where health parity is achieved.
This year’s Black History Month theme presents an opportunity to recognize the clinical researchers who pioneered studies to validate the Black emotional experience in America and its impact on our health. Later this month, Hurdle invites mental health experts to unpack their findings from the past four decades. Through a special three-part, Q+A blog series, they’ll share their recent insights into the impacts of vicarious and racial trauma, and offer a roadmap for how culturally intentional therapy can improve health outcomes.