Black Health Matters: Innovators, Researchers, and Advocates Leading The Way

By Sueann Tannis on February 4, 2022

This month is an opportunity to explore how we can do better for future generations of Black people who have seen their communities left behind in global health for far too long. Photo: Larry Crayton/ Unsplash

As a Caribbean woman of African descent, born in Barbados and living the Black experience in America, I know way too many people who have had their lives snatched by aggressive cancers, other non-communicable diseases, and preventable health conditions because of inequity in our global health system.

So when I saw that the theme of Black History Month this year was Black health and wellness, it was an opportunity to reflect and remember. For generations, Black scientists, researchers, and leaders have worked to address the glaring health disparities that affect people of African descent. They have made major breakthroughs, broken down racial barriers, and built trust in health systems that have often failed the Black community.

Health As A Human Right: WEB Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Photo: Library of Congress

In 1947, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and William E.B. Du Bois submitted a petition to the UN. The history-making document drew attention to patterns of discrimination that limited the human rights of Black Americans, and put the spotlight on issues including employment, education — and access to health care. Although it wasn’t the first time Du Bois, a sociologist and civil rights activist, had written on the matter of health and race, this document put this national issue front and center at the UN and made it a global one.


Diversity In Health Care: Daniel Hale Williams

Daniel Hale Williams performed the first documented, successful pericardium surgery in the United States to repair a wound. Photo: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1891, Daniel Hale Willams, an African-American doctor opened Provident Hospital, the first medical facility in the U.S. with interracial employees. According to the Provident Foundation, “He was aware of the prejudice against Black patients in hospitals and the inferior treatment that was often dispensed.” One hundred and thirty years later, as researchers continue to examine the issue of Black mistrust of the U.S. healthcare system, it’s clear that diversity among health practitioners — similar to what Willams nurtured at Provident — will continue to be a key step in addressing the issues of bias and discrimination in health.


Championing Health Security in Africa: Dr. John Nkengasong

Dr. John N. Nkengasong served as the founding director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo: U.S. Department of State

Across Africa, there’s growing momentum to increase the continent’s capacity to handle disease threats. Cameroonion virologist Dr. John Nkengasong — named on the 2021 Time 100 and as a “modern-day African hero” —  is founding director of the institution leading the effort, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “While African leadership in addressing COVID-19 has been extraordinary, the pandemic has also underscored what we’ve long known to be true: we must urgently reimagine the approach to public health in Africa,” he said ahead of the first international Conference on Public Health in Africa in December 2021.

As calls for global health equity grow louder, I’m encouraged that there’s a powerful voice centering Black health in the international conversation. Thank you, Dr. Nkengasong.


Black Mental Health is Health: Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka

Simone Biles (left) and Naomi Osaka (right) are ushering in a new wave of awareness about mental health in the Black community. Photos: Lindsey Wasson Reuters, Loren Elliott/ Reuters

We’ve long heard that mental health is health. And in the Black community, it’s no exception. Yet, Black and African American people are less likely to seek help for mental health, or open up about their struggles due to perceptions of stigma. So in 2021, when Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles chose their mental health and wellness over competition and entertaining the world’s sports fans, it was groundbreaking. Both trailblazers in their respective sports, they let Black people everywhere know “it’s OK not to be OK,” ushering in a new wave of transparency and openness about mental health in the Black community that could save lives.


Beating the Cancer that’s Killing Black Women

Black women are 40 times more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. Photo: Klaus Nielsen/ Unsplash

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Black women are 40 times more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. This disparity — not just isolated to the United States — has inspired research that continues to uncover the under-explored genetics of breast cancer in African and African-American women. And it’s been game-changing. Studies by Black women like Nigerian-born Dr. Funmi Olopade and Barbadian-born Dr. Juliet Daniel are giving hope to a generation of Black women like me who watched their matriarchs succumb to the world’s most aggressive cancers at alarming rates — often without the access to care and counsel they need.


Breakthroughs in Understanding Sickle Cell Disease: Marilyn Hughes Gaston

Marilyn Hughes Gaston is a physician and researcher. She was the first black woman to direct the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. Photo: Maryland Governor's Press Office

Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder with outsized impact on people of African descent — at a staggering rate of 73.1 cases per 1,000 Black births. But historically, it’s been overlooked and under-funded. Without groundbreaking research led by Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, sickle cell disease patients could be worse off. Gaston’s research changed the world’s understanding of sickle cell disease and today in the United States, every child is screened for sickle cell disease at birth. Beyond the scientific breakthrough she made, Gaston dedicated her life and work to improving health care and outcomes for Black communities. She was also the first African American to direct the Bureau of Primary Health Care.


There’s No Gender Equity without Racial Equity: Dr. Natalia Kanem and Faye Wattleton

Dr. Natalia Kanem currently serves as Executive Director of UNFPA, prior to which she was Deputy Executive Director, and earlier UNFPA Representative in the United Republic of Tanzania from 2014 to 2016. Photo: UNFPA

So when Dr. Natalia Kanem was appointed Executive Director of the UN Fund for Population (UNFPA) in 2017, as a Panamanian of African descent, she brought a unique and essential perspective as a champion not only for sexual and reproductive health and gender equity but also for racial equity.

“Let us also not forget that racism and discrimination have long been part of that equation,” she reminded PassBlue last September.

Faye Wattleton is an American reproductive rights activist who was the first African American and the youngest president ever elected of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Photo: Lev Radin/ Shutterstock

Where there are Dr. Kanems leading the global agenda, there are also Faye Wattletons – defending reproductive rights for Black women in their countries and communities. Wattleton, the first African American and youngest person to ever run the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has been a revolutionary defender of women’s rights and opportunities, and a leading voice for the African-American experience in the reproductive rights movement. “It is poor women – African American women and other minority women – who will bear the burden of a restriction of access to safe and legal reproductive services,” she told a convening of the National Council of Negro Women in 2008. “We do not have access to the care necessary to keep our bodies and minds and souls healthy,” she said then – and sadly, that remains true today.

Health for All – Including Black People

It’s well-documented that Black people are grappling with injustice, inequity, and racism – all of which impact the extent to which they can lead healthy lives. Just some of the champions have been highlighted here but we know there are countless others defending the health of Black people globally. As this movement pushes for and creates change, I can only be optimistic that Black health and wellness, with all its nuances and complexities, will be a key consideration as world leaders pursue Health for All. For certain, it will require a shift in global health conversations and practices: How diseases are researched, how health equity efforts are funded, who is included in decision-making, and exactly how they’re included.

This month is also an opportunity to explore how we can do better for future generations of Black people who have seen their communities left behind in global health for far too long.

I’m hopeful that non-Black leaders with considerably more resources and influence will reimagine global health to prove what my generation and others before me have always known:

Black health matters — and it always will.