Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Toward a Performance Approach to African American Personal Narratives about Diabetes

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Toward a Performance Approach to African American Personal Narratives about Diabetes

Article excerpt

Diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, is one of the biggest health challenges currently facing African Americans. According to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.9 million or 18.7% of all non-Hispanic blacks ages twenty and older have diagnosed and undiagnosed diabetes. Compared to non-Hispanic white adults, the risk of being diagnosed with diabetes is 77% higher among non-Hispanic blacks. African Americans also have higher rates of complications resulting from the disease, including amputations, blindness, kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke (American Diabetes Association).

Over the last few decades, qualitative health researchers in fields ranging from sociology to public health have sought out "lay," as opposed to "expert," understandings of illnesses like diabetes. Folklorists, trained to examine the dynamic nature of vernacular beliefs and expressions, have offered great insights into how communities and individuals create meanings for their lived experiences of both health and illness. Significantly, though, health researchers looking at the lay perspectives of African Americans have made little reference to folklorists' work.

To be fair, folklorists' perspectives have not been completely absent from this research. For example, in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, Gamble (1997) references Turner's (1993) work on rumor among African Americans. Gamble argues that Turner's analysis of these rumors, by identifying how they "reflect Black beliefs that White Americans have historically been, and continue to be, ambivalent and perhaps hostile to the existence of Black people" (p. 1775), shows why it is important for health professionals to recognize the validity of the beliefs they communicate. While this convergence between folklore studies and public health is a productive one, it represents the relatively narrow scope in which health researchers tend to engage with folklore scholarship; more specifically, it represents how they tend to look to folklore primarily to find evidence of pre-existing community traditions and beliefs.

Looking to folklore to understand African American community traditions and beliefs can make valuable contributions to health research, particularly when such research helps illuminate the types of misunderstandings that happen in both clinical encounters and public health campaigns. In this paper, though, I present the idea that health researchers interested in lay perspectives have much to gain from folklorists' critical attention to the individual as well. In the Introduction to their edited volume The individual and tradition: Folkloristic perspectives, Cashman, Mould, & Shukla (2011) remind us that "tradition is enacted only through an individual's acts of creative will" (p. 2). That is, community beliefs and expressions do not just emerge out of the air; rather, they are validated, questioned, negotiated--and ultimately perpetuated--through the performances of individuals.

This importance of giving attention to performance is particularly relevant in the study of illness narratives in the African American community. Health researchers seeking out lay perspectives have increasingly looked to personal illness narratives, first-person accounts of individuals' experiences with illnesses. Liburd et al. (2004), for example, looked at illness narratives from African American men with type 2 diabetes in order to examine the disease's effects "on their sense of self, lifestyle, and significant others" (p. 219). Most recently, Ross, Lypson, & Kumagai (2012) collected African Americans' accounts of their interactions with the health care system in order to better understand sources of racism and discrimination. While such thematic analyses illuminate patterns across individual experiences, one critique of this type of work is that researchers often approach illness narratives as transparent windows to authentic experiences rather than social productions (Atkinson 2009). …

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