The theme for this year’s Black History Month is all about taking a look at the legacy of Black health and wellness; a celebration of past, present and future transformative innovations. Social progression cannot happen without those who determine new ways to overcome problems or improve the lives of others; something we should all learn about and acknowledge.
With its beginnings in 1915, Black History Month was introduced by distinguished historian Carter G. Woodson to broaden awareness about the achievements of Black American men and women; with their integral significance becoming fully realized and celebrated. Woodson’s vision encompassed Black People around the country seeing themselves reflected and represented equally; in an America that no longer regarded their foundational contributions as an outlier of White history.
Carter G. Woodson set in motion a shift in consciousness; Black history is American history no matter how hard some factions in society try and ban, restrict or limit its teaching today.
The Past: Dr. Rebecca Crumpler
Graduating in 1864 from New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts (the first of it’s kind to train women — opening in 1848); Dr. Rebecca Crumpler (1831-1895) became the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree in the United States. At a time when prejudice and discrimination actively worked to prevent Black People from entering medical fields; she forged ahead despite the overwhelming intersection of racism, sexism and misogyny trying to restrain her.
Moving on from practicing in Boston, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler spent some time after the Civil War (1861-1865) caring for formerly enslaved African Americans who required rations, clothing and medical attention; many of whom received no previous access to this kind of care. By accomplishing this, not only did the world of medical training become a possibility for Black Americans, it opened up access to health treatment for them too.
The Past: Mary Eliza Mahoney, R.N.
After working for 15 years as a cook, laundress and intermittent nursing assistant at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts (opened in 1862); Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) enrolled into their nursing program; becoming the first professionally trained African American nurse when she graduated in 1879.
Mary Eliza Mahoney, R.N., further transformed American medical training in 1896 when she became part of the original creators of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN); a community-based answer to the deliberate exclusion of Black women from similar, primarily White associations. During her lifetime tenure at the NACGN; her efforts to encourage other African American women to take up nursing doubled the number of those signing up from 1910 to 1930.
The Present: Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
As the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett has been instrumental in producing the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine and spearheading education and vaccine outreach programs for Black, Indigenous and Latino American People.
After devoting many years to expanding her expertise through studying influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and coronaviruses; and receiving her Ph.D in Microbiology and Immunology from University of North Carolina; Dr. Corbett was ideally placed to help address U.S. racial inequalities and disparities between Covid-19’s impact on Communities of Colour.
The Present: Simone Biles
Simone Biles has rightfully claimed her modern day, eponymous place among gymnastic athletic greats; she has four skills named after her to prove it. She currently retains the record for the most World Championship medals (25 in total), and the most World Championship gold medals in history — ever. At just 24 years old she has accomplished so much, including normalizing discussions centred around mental health.
Citing mental stress and anxiety after experiencing the “twisties” while completing a vault in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (an extremely serious spatial awareness and conceptual mental block); Simone Biles withdrew from competing with her teammates for that event. With a gold medal all but assured for Team USA; this was an incredibly courageous decision to safeguard her well-being. The squad understood, they knew the twisties can cause a loss of control between mind, body and muscle memory; disconnecting the ability to land on the ground safely. They accepted and supported Simone as she chose not to risk the possibility of a career-ending or even life-threatening injury. The greatest gymnast of all time became a champion for humanizing mental health struggles. She demonstrated to us all that no matter what, taking care of ourselves is always a priority.
The Future: Progress
Spaces within the wellness industry are often dominated by White voices, particularly White women who have co-opted and/or repackaged health and healing practices started by Black, Indigenous, AAPI and Latino communities. Add to this the inequalities of access to healthcare that many Americans of Colour face and you begin to comprehend why diverse, inclusive programs/organizations are vital in today’s world.
Many racial disparities and biases happening today need to be urgently addressed within the healthcare sector; from the lack of photos in dermatological textbooks that show what conditions look like on non-White skin; to medical students believing an old slavery myth that Black people have thicker skin/don’t feel pain in the same way as White patients; to how a drawing of a Black fetus highlighted the sheer lack of representation in medical illustrations; all of which negatively impact the quality of care and treatment being given.
Recognising that these issues exist is a significant first step to dismantling them; innovation and supporting social progress frequently begin when someone establishes a solution that facilitates effective change.
The Future: Maryam Ajayi
Maryam Ajayi, for example, advocates for comprehensive access to equitable and inclusive health and wellness through her Dive in Well initiative. By offering a range of resources, support and training both on and offline for individuals and businesses; Dive in Well aims to foster a culture of wellness and self-care for everyone.
The Future: Rachel Cargle
Similarly, philanthropic innovator, activist and writer, Rachel Cargle started the Loveland Foundation to provide Black women and girls with financial assistance and informational resources to access therapy; promoting overall well-being and highlighting mental health support.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. | Maya Angelou
It’s critical that beyond Black History Month we continually educate ourselves about the groundbreaking contributions the Black community has had throughout the past; it’s equally necessary that we acknowledge how these histories directly inform and influence the present while building the future.
How are you celebrating and supporting Black History Month this year?
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