Building a Healthy Black Harlem: Health Politics in Harlem, New York, from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression

By Dorman, Jacob S. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Building a Healthy Black Harlem: Health Politics in Harlem, New York, from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression


Dorman, Jacob S., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Building a Healthy Black Harlem: Health Politics in Harlem, New York, from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression. By Jamie I Wilson. Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2009. xii + .206 pp. $104.99 hardcover; $26.99 Kindle.

In Building a Healthy Black Harlem, Jamie J. Wilson shows that residents of Harlem, New York City in the 1920s faced severe overcrowding that caused numerous health problems. Residents met these challenges by frequenting magico-religious workers and conventional doctors alike. Campaigns to improve care and desegregate the medical staff of Harlem Hospital ultimately resulted in the hiring of Black nurses and doctors by the early 1930s, but Harlem remained one of the unhealthiest neighborhoods in New York. Wilson's argument is that poor housing conditions, lack of access to health care, and racial discrimination in the 1920s and 1930s "encouraged not only personal and organizational pursuits for health services, but also political organization with the community in order to demand health options from medical and political leaders..."(2).

Wilson views the struggle for health and wellness in Harlem as not just one of many struggles waged in those tumultuous decades, but as the principal struggle waged by Black residents of Harlem in those years. Wilson uses the census to paint a meticulous social history portrait of life in one Harlem tenement, while drawing from The New York Amsterdam News, and from the poetry and fiction of Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, Langston Hughes. He also relies on reports from New York governmental agencies as well as prior scholarship, especially the work of Cheryl Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). For Wilson as for Greenberg and other scholars of Harlem, the neighborhood's health woes began with the racial discrimination that burdened Harlem residents with high rents and low wages, forcing overcrowding and breeding the highest rates of disease in New York City. Wilson's account is especially innovative in depicting magico-religious workers, whose advertisements are ubiquitous in Harlem newspapers of this era, as frontline healthcare workers practicing forms of root work and conjure with roots in hoodoo and African modes of healing. Taking for granted that these spiritualists, "professors," and healers provided a valuable service, Wilson argues that their arrests and criminalization "reduced the quality of wellness care by limiting overall healing options in the community," (58). …

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