Black Panthers: Activists for Healthy Communities

By Hawkins, B. Denise | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, April 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Black Panthers: Activists for Healthy Communities


Hawkins, B. Denise, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Dr. Alondra Nelson, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, didn't set out to find stethoscopes and the white coats of medicine among stories of gun-toting Black Panther Party members or their iconic black leather jackets and berets, but she did.

The historical research and extensive interviews conducted with members of the Black Panther Party that eventually led to Nelsons October 2011 book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, began, somewhat, as a scholarly detour and personal curiosity Nelson, whose expertise includes gender, science, and socio-historical studies of medicine, had already set out to understand and write about the barriers that African-American communities confronted in mobilizing around the HI V/ AIDS epidemic when she began noticing references to the Panther s little-known health activism.

Nelson, who wasn't born when Bobby Seal and Huey P. Newton founded the party in October 1966, says photographs of Panther Party member Kathleen Cleavers fierce afro and sunglass-covered eyes are among her first images of the Black Panthers, but as a scholar, she had only "a passing knowledge of the Black Panther Partys health-related activities." Delving deeper, Nelson writes about the groups understanding of health as a basic human right and the social implications of genetics that, decades ago, seemed to anticipate the current debates about the politics of health and race. Nelson says there are many lessons to be learned from the Panther Party's health care campaign and education platform on sickle cell disease.

DI: What inspired you to tackle the topic of the Black Panthers' health activism?

AN: I didn't come to the book intending to be a Panther scholar. I try to impress upon people that there is so much of their history that we don't know, and that some of the things that first come to mind about the Black Panther Party are true. The book is not meant to say that they were angels but that their history is complicated. The fact that we don't know about their health politics suggests that we may have all been a little hoodwinked by the way that the media framed the Black Panther Party during this period.

DI: Are there parallels between the Black Panthers' response to sickle cell disease and the type of health activism needed today for HIV/AIDS in the Black community? …

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