One of the highlights of my career was being flown back into the country to the American Public Health Association (APHA) Conference in Atlanta, GA. Arriving at the Georgia World Congress Center to speak before an audience of over 20,000 that was going to be viewed online by a million people in the health profession was truly a blessing! As I walked into the arena, I remembered how I felt being in that space with Steve Harvey and his team and how on that day I felt like I was coming back to this place while I stood their shaking hands with folks I had watched on TV. However, no one could have told me that I would be back there that same year and in this capacity.
As I ended my opening presentation for what was the closing plenary dialogue, I received a resounding round of applause and a standing ovation as I sat down to join the other power filled women that were on stage with me representing indigenous people and people of color. I felt my ancestors sitting down with me smiling. I could hear my teachers’ voices and feel the ones that had passed on patting me on the shoulder and hugging me. They thought I would be a doctor and I even studied medicine very briefly to see if that was where I was led. However, GOD led me away from medicine to computer science and mathematics. I am blessed not to have gone into the financial debt or the places and spaces of trauma that many of those that work in the medical field have gone through, but to still be respected among those that literally put their lives on the line to save other people’s lives and to assist in improving their quality of life.
Part of my blessing has been sitting on community committees with partners at MUSC-the Medical University of South Carolina. My first steps into that institution happened over two decades ago when I was asked to come and do a keynote address for mental health professionals. I was to assist them with cultural competency since they had to work in the Gullah/Geechee community. The Q & A that day was as life changing as my presentation for the APHA. The dialogue gave me insight into the vast differences that people of various cultures have regarding stability and how that balance is to be maintained. Some continually seek outside measures through pleasure, drugs-legal and illegal, thrill seeking or risk taking and others go seeking inside spiritually, but sometimes miss the mark and think that is also an external action. Thus, they walk into and out of churches, synagogues, mosques, and locations of spiritual rituals unchanged and off balanced. I was there to help the doctors to be more receptive to overstanding spirituality and the Gullah/Geechee community and how this helps with mental stability. It was about trust. Trust in GOD. Trust in spirit. Trust in who is delivering the message. Trust in their cultural legacy as it relates to who is bringing the message.
As I work more and more with people from different cultures, I do what I can to bring them into a circle of respectful connection with my people. That begins with having open and honest dialogues about topics that many people of all races try to avoid like racism and the horrible history of America. However, if we do not discuss the foundation, we may not be able to stabilize and repair the house and thereby, balance things out.
Once we get pass the shock of my directness or my ability to cut to the chase, I quickly find out who is truly willing to work with me for the safety and health of my community. Many people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic are realizing that those two words do not mean the same thing.
As I already mentioned, one must establish trust in order to work with the citizens of the Gullah/Geechee Nation even if you are one of them. I am blessed that many of my people recognize, I da binya and ain da gwine nowhey tall tall. Ef mi crak mi teet e fa allawe nah jusss fa mi and e ain drylongso. As that trust got built up (unbeknownst to me that it was happening), I was elected to be the spokesperson for my people and they expect me to be honest and truthful when I speak on their behalf or relay information to them. Many despise that the truth hurts because I may “step on e toe” as folks say in church, but when they are honest with themselves, they may occasionally agree that it wasn’t a lie that I was telling. It was simply that they had an adverse reaction to the medicine that they needed to take for us to heal as a community. The truth taste bitter to many that don’t want to face it and be held responsible for doing something about changing it.
I have had to swallow the bitter pill of reading and hearing coronavirus updates that clearly expose what others thought were words of conspiracy theory folks in the Black community-there are MAJOR health disparities that negatively impact Black people in America. I have had to swallow the bitter pill that things that are considered to be the trifecta that are literally weakening and killing the Black community are hypertension i.e. high blood pressure, diabetes i.e. sugar, and heart disease. Many folks in dialysis due to kidney failure have one or all of these to contend with. So, to some folks they would look at this and say then “You are bringing it on yourselves” because these are controlled by exercise and diet. However, that would mean that this person is failing to recognize the economic disparities that have resulted from enslavement and the Jim Crow Era and segregation and continued racist policies. As a result of these things, the disenfranchised communities often are locations of food deserts and second hand food like substances sold as food products. These are also the areas in which the schools receive the least funding. So, the meals and lessons “served” to the children will not feed the minds and bodies in the way they are fed in more economically enfranchised areas or in areas where cultural traditionalists that hold on to their land and teach about the complete legacy of the land are respected as educational resources and leaders.
It would show that this person doesn’t know the legacy of enslavement and the diet and dietary habits that were passed down from that time to now in families. That person is not looking at how not working on a plantation was a protest mechanism in some cases and in other cases it was triflingness which has also been passed down. So, to do a “workout” triggers certain things even unconsciously in some folks.
Most of all, who is telling them that these are the things that ail them or the methods that can heal them? Do these folks resemble those that participated in creating and carrying out the Tuskegee Experiment? Are these the folks that used our bodies to inflict pain and disease into us so that they could “study” medicine as is horrifically detailed in the book, “Medical Apartheid”? Are these the people that took Henrietta Lacks’ cells (the HeLa cells) and continue to use them around the world in medicine without her family receiving a dime? Are these the people that allow Black women to suffer in order to prove that they can withstand more pain than others? Are these the faces that we see interrupting our viewing daily to tell us to trust them concerning the coronavirus pandemic and testing a vaccine?
The Black community in North America has not had a good history with government in the US, Mexico, nor Canada for the most part. Gullah/Geechees have lived in all three places and we have a detailed on-going struggle with trusting governmental bodies. So, once again, if the “authority” is government related, trust is that much harder to gain. Our literal safety is usually in jeopardy the minute we put our guard down to trust these folks. I didn’t trust them enough to wear a mask coming back into the United States when they first started grounding planes and preventing folks from entering the United States as COVID-19 was spreading. I wore my mask on the plane and prayed my way through customs in order not to add to the racial profiling that could have caused those that panic to decide to escort me to some testing camp somewhere since they still had no hold on what they were going to do to figure out how this virus was spreading and who had it versus who didn’t. Now, they wonder why there are more race related reports concerning wearing the masks that they pray will help us from contracting the disease. The fact is, there remains a problem with racism and xenophobia around the world and there is no one working on a vaccine against that. That is work that one has to choose to do on your own just like someone who is told by the doctor that he or she should exercise and change eating habits. The choice to change is yours. When you don’t change, there can be deadly consequences.
Knowing that there are deadly consequences leads to action or cynicism and complacency. People that do not feel safe while living are not necessarily motivated to live. If they are not accustomed to being around people that live to be 100 years old (like we are on the Sea Islands of the Gullah/Geechee Nation), they don’t often think that they will live to be half that age. So, why not just do what you can today because you could be gone tomorrow anyway? I know some of you are horrified by reading that, but I actually have seen it and heard it. As I meditated on it and examined it, I realized that I had to go back to what I love doing, studying.
I studied myself. I studied my community. I studied the words that I am hearing-health and safety. I decided to examine the words because they do NOT mean the same thing. To that end, I found that they are defined as follows:
1: free from harm or risk : UNHURT 2a: secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss b: successful at getting to a base in baseball without being put out 3: affording safety or security from danger, risk, or difficulty 4obsolete, of mental or moral faculties : HEALTHY, SOUND 5a: not threatening danger : HARMLESS b: unlikely to produce controversy or contradiction 6a: not likely to take risks : CAUTIOUSb: TRUSTWORTHY, RELIABLE
Definition of safe1: a place or receptacle to keep articles (such as valuables)
1a: enjoying good healthfree from disease b: not displaying clinical signs of disease or infection 2: beneficial to one’s physical, mental, or emotional state : conducive to or associated with good health or reduced risk of disease3: showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being : evincing good health 4a: PROSPEROUS, FLOURISHINGb: not small or feeble : CONSIDERABLE
I could do an entire series of lectures regarding safe and healthy and I pray that my colleagues invite me to do so when the world gets back to moving around. However, in the meantime, I will simply sum this up to say that many in the Gullah/Geechee Nation feel safe because they are people of faith and we believe we are safe in the arms of GOD at all times. Yet, we have been put in danger by another form of encroachment that disturbs our peace and threatens our health. This one does not simply displace families from their land, it kills folks (Some Gullah/Geechees were already killed for their land.). In spite of this, I see folks out with and without masks (I still encourage everyone to err on the side of safety and put the masks and gloves on and clean up your houses, cars, and yards.) smiling, laughing, and enjoying seeing one another.
I know that we have evolved with a mechanism to get us through difficulty because there is a collective consciousness that got us through the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, through Jim Crow, through human rights violations and racism, through fights with those in the towns around us that hated us because of the way we talk when we speak Gullah/Geechee, and through tropical storms and hurricanes. We find safety in knowing “This, too, shall pass.” and “Trouble Don’t Last Always.” We get through things knowing that we are going through it together. We may not be in the same buildings, but we are not isolated because we are part of a community and a family and we gwine be togedda cuz dah how we do. I must say, “I feel you.”
My health improves when I walk outside into the field and plant another seed or work another row and feel my ancestors embrace me as they’ve done so many times before when I did what I could to improve the quality of life of my people including those times I took to the board rooms and the stages with the health professionals. Right now, I am praying for all of the medical professionals to be safe and healthy as I pray for my people to get understanding.
I am encouraging my people to live on and return to their traditions of keeping the land, working the land, and eating from the land and passing this down to the children. I pray that you trust me. You will be able to be safe and healthy if you do. GOD ain gee we disya fa tro whey tall tall. Ef we tek cyare de eart, de eart gwine tek cyare ob we.
While you ponder whether to trust me or not, I am thankful that GOD allowed me to be Gullah/Geechee. Tenk GAWD fa keep e anointed people and fa hep webe safe and healthy. Peace, health, safety, and love to everybody.
I am asking all of my Gullah/Geechee Famlee to take this latest survey by MUSC concerning cancer in our community. You may open the survey in your web browser by clicking the link below: Sea Island CATCH Community Survey