Wellness, Activism and Civil Rights

By Lang, Clarence | The Crisis, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Wellness, Activism and Civil Rights


Lang, Clarence, The Crisis


BOOKS Wellness, Activism And Civil Rights Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination By Alondra Nelson (Univ. of Minnesota Press, $24.95)

The Black Panther Party for SeIfDefense, formed in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, is probably the most extensively researched organization of the Black Power Movement. A cottage industry of edited volumes, monographs, articles, dissertations, documentaries and symposia has mushroomed. The challenge now is how to continue to push research on the Party in new directions.

Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination accomplishes this task. Nelson, a sociology professor at Columbia University, contends that, in contrast to the Party's armed exploits, its "Serve the People" programs - aimed at ensuring the Black community's survival pending revolution - remain an underexamined dimension of its legacy. In particular, scholars have not studied the Party's health activism, which, similar to its community patrols against police violence, embodied the Panthers' self-defense mission. Indeed, Nelson notes, African Americans historically have been medically underserved while overexposed to discriminatory medical practices. From this standpoint, health is not simply a matter of individual wellness, but also a lever of power. Like other aspects of the Panthers' Ten Point Program, demanding affordable and free access to healthcare constituted "a struggle over the terms of Black citizenship."

Marshaling medical history, scholarship on race and science, and recent work in the field of Black Freedom Studies, the author shows that the Panthers acted within a rich and longstanding heritage of Black protest against medical exclusion and abuse. Yet, Nelson illustrates, the Panthers' health initiatives evolved in the specific context of the mid-to-late 1 960s. This was a landscape shaped by, among other things, the passage of historic civil rights legislation, which nonetheless left many African Americans dissatisfied with the content and pace of racial reform; President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," which brought Medicare and Medicaid into being but signaled a mounting national health crisis; and the expansion of government repression against the Panthers, which encouraged them to emphasize survival programs over armed struggle.

Among the Panthers' health-related accomplishments, they launched a public awareness crusade against sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease disproportionately affecting African Americans. …

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