Despite contributing to extraordinary breakthroughs and advancements in the medical field, influential black voices in health and wellness are often not regarded as highly as their white counterparts. It’s no secret many of us didn’t get the most inclusive education in history class (I mean, McGraw-Hill wasn’t exactly progressive). So, it’s our individual responsibility to educate ourselves and preserve the memory of those who have impacted healthcare as we know it, and support those fighting for a more equitable future.
Join us this month as we learn more about Black voices of past and present and give them the recognition they deserve. Here are a few notable names to be celebrated.
Henrietta Lacks is arguably one of the most important people in modern science, but not without controversy. When Henrietta Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer in the 1950’s, researchers took samples of her unusually resistant cells. These cells lead and continue to lead to huge advances in medical treatment. However, these cancer cells were taken from her without her consent and raised several questions that challenged the ethics of those involved.
Henrietta’s immortal “He-La” cell line is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line in scientific research. Her cell line, “became one of the most important tools in medicine—with damaging consequences for her family, many of whom often struggled to get access to the very health care advances their mother’s cells helped make possible.” (henriettalacksfoundation.org)
To learn more about how Henrietta’s cells contributed to breakthroughs in science, such as the development of the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization, be sure to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book was also adapted into a documentary that can be found on HBO Max.
In 2010, Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, also created a foundation inspired by Henrietta’s life. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, “seeks to promote public discourse concerning the role that contributions of biological materials play in scientific research and disease prevention, as well as issues related to consent, and disparities in access to health care and research benefits, particularly for minorities and underserved communities.” (henriettalacksfoundation.org).
Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson is best known for her transgender rights activism, but she was also a vocal member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Founded in 1987, ACT UP, “ultimately forced the government and the scientific community to fundamentally change the way medical research is conducted — paving the way for the discovery of a treatment that today keeps alive an estimated half-million HIV-positive Americans and millions more worldwide.” (npr.org)
“Johnson was a key figure in the disturbances that followed a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street, early in the morning of June 28, 1969. Many legends have grown around the event — often characterized as a riot, but more recently described as a rebellion or uprising,” wrote The New York Times. “She was also an AIDS activist, attending protests by and meetings of ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy organization. In a June 26, 1992, interview, Johnson said she had been H.I.V.-positive for two years. ‘They call me a legend in my own time, because there were so many queens gone that I’m one of the few queens left from the ’70s and the ’80s,’ she said.”
You can learn more about Marsha P. Johnson by watching the documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” on Netflix.
In the 1990’s, Magic Johnson’s public announcement of his retirement from basketball after being diagnosed with HIV stunned the world. “At the time, many Americans viewed AIDS as a gay white man’s disease. Johnson (1959- ), who is African American and heterosexual, was one of the first sports stars to go public about his HIV-positive status.” (history.com)
In the years following, Magic played a huge part in shifting the general public’s perception of those living with HIV. According to Dr. Marsha Martin, “The public at large learned something and the black folks learned something… You can live with this, and you also don’t have to discuss the how, when and why. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is you can be tested, you can get treated. And if you do your best, try to be as healthy as you can, take your medicines, do your exercise, eat properly, have the support of your family, you can make it.”
Magic is living proof that due to advancements in science and medicine over the last 30+ years, HIV, which was once regarded as a death sentence, is now a manageable condition for many people.
Tarik Daniels is a “Mental Health/HIV Justice Activist, Black Queer Feminist, and Healing Justice Community Organizer…[whose work] focuses on social injustices towards the black diaspora of woman, queer, and trans persons of color in America.” (mistertelltales.com)
Tarik, Founder and Executive Director of Whatsinthemirror?, is committed to breaking down mental health barriers via “a social movement that provides mental health awareness and suicide prevention through art and advocacy to communities of color.” (mistertelltales.com)
He also serves as a City Commissioner on Austin’s LGBTQ Quality Of Life Advisory Board and was named as one of Austin’s best and brightest young professionals at the 2019 Austin Under 40 Awards.
Click the following links to follow Whatsinthemirror? on Facebook and Instagram and hear what Tarik has to say about how the pandemic is affecting those living with HIV in the podcast, “More Than A ‘Black Problem:’ COVID-19 & HIV.”
Raniyah Copeland is the current President and CEO of Black AIDS Institute, an organization committed to “end[ing] HIV in Black communities by engaging and mobilizing Black institutions and individuals to confront the epidemic.” (blackaids.org) In 2019, she was named one of The Root’s 100 Most Influential African Americans in 2019
According to Raniyah, “Ending HIV in Black America will only happen if our efforts to end HIV are led by Black communities most impacted, and BAI [Black AIDS Institute] is at the forefront of ensuring that Black America isn’t left behind in those efforts.” (hivplusmag.com)
Raniyah is also the co-founder of the Afrikan Black Coalition, a statewide organization for black students in California.
Click here to get involved with the Black AIDS Institute.
Ken Williams is a distinguished public “speaker, a compelling storyteller, a diligent HIV activist, a constant media presence, and the creative force behind the award-winning video blog, Ken Like Barbie.” (hivplusmag.com)
In describing the HIV epidemic within the Black community, Ken says, “Our narrative is that — despite this virus that is physically, socially, and politically trying to kill us every day — we are still here. There is something affirming and resilient about being a black gay man in America, living and loving out loud with HIV.” (hivplusmag.com)
Click here to learn more about Ken’s story of resilience, hope and living unapologetically.