‘Medical Doctors Can’t Do you No Good’: Politics of Health and HealingPosted: December 9, 2011
I was talking to a friend after a recent trip to the doctor’s office, where I felt hesitant to be completely honest with my doctor. My friend replied, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if our doctors were our friends’. The comment really stood out to me, because it compelled me to think about the role of doctors within our society. It would be nice if they were our friends. Healers should be trusted members of our community not sources of harm and fear, which is what they have been under this patriarchal imperialist system that uses ‘science’ to support the artificial, but real material divisions within our society. Being queer, mixed race and poor I have dealt with a lot of shame and blame from the system. Healthcare in the United States is reflective of the harm of the capitalist system in its totality. To be clear, I am not saying that individual doctors, nurses, and health workers are the problem, although historically and presently, health workers have acted as agents of the system upholding racist and sexist practices, which I will explore within this essay. However, I am not directing my arguments at individual workers; I am directing it at the system and the bureaucracy and exploitation that health workers endure at the hands of a system that opposes real care and love. A close friend and comrade of mine, who is also a nursing student, writes fiery important pieces that deal with these politics of care on her blog here, http://disparagedcna.blogspot.com/ You can also find it on my blog roll towards the bottom to the right. Please check it out!
The harm caused by the capitalist healthcare system, currently and historically, has led me to explore other methods of healing. I draw from traditional African and indigenous practices utilized by my ancestors that involve herbs, meditation, fruits and vegetables, the earth and the moon. My African ancestors drew from the earth as a source for their wellness; they did not see themselves as separate from it in the same way that their European colonizers did. They also had a distrust of white doctors and western medicine, due to its evasive practices and its connection to white supremacy. Black people were often not even seen by white doctors, but even when they were allowed access they couldn’t go either out of lack of funds or fear of the violence and experimentation they might endure at the hands of the doctors. Problems we are still confronted with today. These systems of oppression, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, still structure our world today including our healthcare system. This is why we still deal with harmful, inadequate, racist and sexist care that does more to keep people sick than to heal. If we are to have a society of wellness then we must take out the current system that has historically been based on harming people and the earth so that we may build a system based on a communal way of living that values life.
The title of this essay is taken from a chapter in the very interesting book Black Magic: Religion and The African American Conjuring Tradition by Yvonne Chireau, which explores the African spiritual roots of healing and harming that exist within Black communities and culture throughout the US today. It was a very intentional part of colonization to disconnect Africans from their rituals and ways of doing things; colonization enslaves your body as well as your mind. However, the ruling class was never completely successful in destroying our spirit and determination; this is evident in the many rebellions that occurred back then and continue to occur today and also through the spiritual practices of African Americans that exist today. Even Black Christian communities have had a different interpretation and practice of Christian texts, because of the different cultural experiences. There is often room for magic and other ways of interpreting the world that reflects the African earth based spirituality influence on black Christians and Christian communities. Chireau’s book is a fascinating historical account of this blending of culture and spirituality that is a product of the colonial experience.
I have experienced this within my own family. My grandparents and great grandparents were practicing Christians that regularly attended church. I, on the other hand, am not. I have never even been to a church service. I am not an atheist though; I am very spiritual. I just don’t rely on a ‘white’ man in the sky to help me interpret the world and myself in it. I draw from the earth, the universe, my people, and my own intuition (that I am learning to trust). These are the sources that help me connect with my own spirit and the spirit that runs through us all. It helps keep me grounded and striving towards a healthy amount of selflessness. Even though I am not a practicing Christian I can share my practice with my grandmother and she understands and accepts it. One day I was explaining to her how I communicate to my great grandmother, her mother, through my altar and meditation. She affirmed that practice by telling me how wonderful it is that I pray. It struck me, because I never used that language before to characterize what I am doing, but when I thought about it I realized it is a form of prayer. It made me happy to see my grandmother and I sharing our spiritual practices and affirming them within each other, but using our own language; our own language, and yet a shared language that reflects our shared history. It also allowed me to understand on a deeper level the arguments Chireau presents in her somewhat academic account of the historical blending of African magical spiritual practices and Christianity that exists within African American communities. But more importantly it allowed me to understand how these spiritual practices are a part of our health and healing practices; it is all connected. The separation between mind, body and spirit is a product of the western bourgeois empire that strives to break our spirit and turn us into submissive workers. They have been successful in developing a working-class that the majority of us are a part of. But what they don’t have complete control over is our mind, and our abilities to collectively share knowledge and fight back against such a system, which we see happening all around the world.
Due to the harsh conditions that most black persons lived under before and after emancipation and continue to live under in this country, it is no surprise that an emphasis on collective healing to alleviate suffering emerged as a part of black culture in this country. Chireau writes,
“For many blacks, the distinction between spiritual healing and other forms of healing was often blurred. In order to be successful, a healer needed to be familiar with spiritual interventions as well as conventional techniques, such as herbalism and traditional “doctoring.” (93)
She goes on to include a quote from a slave narrative,
“’Twan’t no used to send fo’ a docta,’ recollected one former slave, ‘cause dey didn’t have no medicine. My grandmother got out in de woods and got ‘erbs.’” (93)
A whole person doesn’t exist under capital, where our mind and bodies are disconnected for the purpose of exploitation and domination. But despite the efforts on the behalf of our oppressors to break us, dominate us, feed us lies about our history and culture, we have been able to hold on to our rituals through oral traditions and passing down of stories. Stories that heal us and inspire us to not only heal, but to wage class struggle to liberate ourselves, the ultimate healing. After ‘emancipation’, black people were able to access white doctors, but most didn’t because they were unable to afford the exorbitant fees. Capitalism makes healthcare a business for profit and therefore makes it competitive among people and hard to access for the majority who don’t make enough. The same alarming reality is true for education. Here in Oakland we are being threatened by the closure of thirty schools, because they are not generating enough profit for the city. This is what Capital does. It takes basic necessities for the survival of the people, such as healing, education, housing, food, ect., and transforms them into profit making enterprises that the people build, as workers, but have no easy access to.
On top of not being able to afford healthcare, black people didn’t go out of fear and lack of trust of what might happen to them at the hands of these so-called doctors. Like I already said, healthcare under capital reflects the economic divides within societies, but capital is not solely economic exploitation. It is also a deeply oppressive system that has developed white supremacy to maintain racist divides within society and it utilizes patriarchy to oppress and harm people through divisions and regulations based on gender and sexuality. These multiple forms of oppression exist simultaneously within capital and help maintain it. Black people are oppressed and exploited within society and therefore within bourgeois health institutions as well, and black people understood it back then and now. Chireau writes,
“Frightening stories of mutilation, bodily theft, and other diabolic acts by white doctors circulated in black communities for generations after slavery. Their consistent theme—that of health authorities who deliberately harmed or experimented on unknowing patients—demonstrated the acute misgivings of African Americans toward the ‘white medical establishment’” (95).
Intersections between race and gender are clear within the experimentation that happened to the African and black woman’s body. Early colonial abductions of African womyn, such as Sarah Baartman, were brought back to the west and put on display like an animal to be studied. Her body was examined, and when she died they dissected her. The wide spread sterilization that still continues today reflects this colonial experimentation on black people, particularly black womyn, and shows how deep and complex this system’s oppression is. It divides us all from each other and it divides us internally. Our spirit and mind doesn’t matter, when they want us to be obedient servants, workers, slaves. We have no control over our society and the way it is structured. We all have to work, and we supposedly get some say in where we sell our labor power, but even then there are a hierarchy of labor powers, where certain work is offered to certain people. And when we are at work we do not have control over our labor. And that lack of control over your experience translates into your body too. I have written before about the alienation of the body and how that is an important aspect of gender and racial oppression. This isn’t just some abstract concept to me. I go back to the body, because that is a real experience that I feel as a woman of color today; not having control over my body. Being disconnected from my spirit and intuition because capital has broken it. It broke it when it enslaved my ancestors. It broke it when it beat my people; raped my sisters; took away our autonomy over our bodies so that we can be dependent cogs within their profit making machine. This is our legacy in this country, but it doesn’t have to be our future.
Under a different system, a communist system, doctors would be our friends and integrated parts of our communities. At the root of communism is community; communism would restore our organic connections with each other and ourselves under the new principles of love and oneness. Everyone’s useful labor would be for the direct benefit of the community and therefore people would have more organic trust and connections to each other. This type of world would change the social relations of the entire society, including the way we approach health and healing. Our relationships with our healers would not be grounded in the exchange of money that reproduces unequal power dynamics. I have often heard from most health workers that they are interested in this sector of work, because it allows them to connect with people and give back to their communities. I don’t deny that. That is why I am an educator, because I want to uplift and give back to my community. But often I cannot teach what I want the way I want, because I have to work under the parameters of the bureaucracy of the bourgeois public education system. I have to satisfy their agenda, and their agenda is opposed to mine. I believe doctors, nurses, and other health workers deal with similar constraints and pressure from management. My sister is an oral surgeon and has been unhappy recently with her current job placement. In the past she has worked in health clinics and veterans hospitals serving working-class people, who need the free/low-cost services she provided. Her recent move to a new city also came with a new job at a private practice for a bourgeois dentist, whom she doesn’t share the same vision with always. She has to work for him to make a living, and therefore cannot do the fulfilling healing work that she would like to do. I have a lot of empathy for her. If we were living under a communal based system that was structured around the people’s needs and abilities then the whole world would be benefitting off of each other. Our spirits would be uplifted; our mind and body restored. Now that is a beautiful thing. All we have to do is collectively act on that dream, and we can make history. We already have; we already are. The people will be free!