We have to consume things with Black liberation and environmental justice in mind.
“Capitalist mechanisms have a tendency to repackage our trauma and sell it back to us.”
In this feature, we ask organizers and academics to reflect on the connections between health justice and Black liberation. This week’s contributor is Antoine Johnson. Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in UCSF’s Humanities and Social Sciences program. His dissertation examines social and environmental effects of HIV/AIDS among Black people in the Bay Area from 1981 throughout the 1990s. He is from Oakland, CA and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sacramento State in US History.
Gwendolyn Wallace and Roberto Sirvent: Can you please tell readers of the Black Agenda Report a little about your background and the work you do around health justice?
Antoine Johnson: I was born and raised in East Oakland, California. We were surrounded by drugs, liquor stores, police, and clinics. I’ve always been cognizant of the lack of grocery stores, inadequate access to health care, and increased policing among drug users and dealers, as well as unhoused people. My work, which focuses on the social and environmental effects of HIV/AIDS among Black people in Oakland and San Francisco, looks at the disease from a health justice perspective. Black organizers, including sex workers, lesbians, gay men, and pastors saw HIV/AIDS as a social disease, while many health professionals and policymakers framed it as one of individual behavior. My project centers Black AIDS activists and organizers confronting the disease and challenging scapegoat narratives that rendered them hopeless by failing to address social problems like underemployment, drug dependence, and poverty that increased Black people’s susceptibility to infection.
In what ways can you help readers understand state violence (e.g. prisons, policing, surveillance, borders, militarism, housing policy, etc.) as a public health issue?
I think state violence creates and reinforces public health crises. Right now, we see mass evictions throughout the country because people were either fired or laid off from work due to COVID-19. Predatory landlords utilize the police to evict their tenants. That creates isolation that can lead one to resorting to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. In Oakland, the police are tearing down homeless encampments to clear way for gentrification projects, which is another form of violence, as we saw with the murder of Breonna Taylor. And militarized police showed up to evict unhoused Black women who occupied a vacant home in Oakland, starting the Moms 4 Housing Movement. Housing is a human right and all of these things are connected.
How might Black health depend on changing our relationships to the Earth and the environment? In what ways does environmental justice intersect with Black liberation?
Our relationship to the Earth and our environments are critical to our liberation. Eating better not only extends our life but also helps the planet. We see and hear about the terrible conditions animals experience in slaughterhouses. But the onus isn’t entirely on us. For example, the Flint water crisis is state-sanctioned violence. Environmental justice leads to clean air and water—taking care of the planet while taking care of ourselves. A friend and mentor of mine, Adrionna Fike, showed me that a better future is possible. West Oakland once lacked grocery stores. Adrionna and others created a grocery co-op in the same area, called Mandela Foods which is worker owned. They provide healthy food and give EBT shoppers half off their groceries. I think they exemplify Black liberation through our relationships with the planet and our environments. Also, I love the “Fit Hop” movement going on with the rapper Stic from Dead Prez, his wife Afya Ibomu, and their partner Coach Nym. We have to consume things with Black liberation and environmental justice in mind. Their “Healthy Gangsta” music, podcasts, and books show people that health is wealth, and it is needed more in our culture.
Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters begins with one character asking another, “Are you sure sweetheart, that you want to be well?...Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter.” What does working toward individual and collective healing look like to you? What would it mean to be whole?
Individual and collective healing looks messy to me. Messy and necessary. It can be confrontational, but I think that is needed. Dialogue does not have to be cordial to be productive. A lot of us, myself included, will have to sacrifice beliefs and practices we’ve grown accustomed to that are detrimental to us, our families and communities. It isn’t easy giving up on something you’ve done or identified with most your life, but it might actually save us. And we have to come to terms with the fact that we might not see the changes in our lifetimes. That revolutionary suicide, as Huey P. Newton called it, is to create a better society for those coming after us. That scares and excites me, but we have to envision a better world and work towards it. It starts by healing ourselves.
What role can love, care, and mutual aid play in our collective struggle against capitalist medicine and state violence?
Love and care should be central to our mission against capitalist medicine and state violence. It might be easier to point out who does more harm than good to our causes, often those organizations and individuals who benefit from state violence and racist science and medicine. And I think that is where mutual aid contributes. Many professional medical organizations were designed without us in mind and we need our own mutual aid projects, created by and for folks with whom we identify. Racist institutions often try to save face by asking how they can help such projects, which often flourish without their assistance. I think that is something to anticipate and not fall victim to. Capitalist mechanisms have a tendency to repackage our trauma and sell it back to us. If we love and care for one another, we will be able to identify fake love and not allow it to compromise our missions.
How does your work go beyond appeals for reform, access, inclusion, and equality? In other words, how does health justice connect directly with goals of abolition, revolution, and Black liberation?
I am a huge fan and supporter of the scholar Dorothy E. Roberts. She often talks about abolishing things like the child “welfare” system and radically rethinking ways we care for our families. Although my work is on HIV/AIDS, the stories I hope to tell document ways police brutality, inadequate access to health care, and poverty increase Black peoples’ vulnerability to premature death. By sharing these stories, I am calling for the abolition of police, racist science and medicine, and the welfare system. That abolition contributes to Black liberation through a radical reimagination of the healthcare system, as well as better employment opportunities and community interventions for those in need. It bothers me that many police officers know nothing about the communities they serve, and there are ample stories of people calling them when someone has a mental health breakdown. Policing and surveillance should not be involved in matters of health equity. The current system reinforces ways in which poverty deteriorates our health. We must take care of ourselves, not in the neoliberal sense, but in ways conducive to our communities while imagining and working towards revolution and Black liberation.
Gwendolyn Wallace (she/her) is a senior at Yale University pursuing a BA in the History of Science and Medicine, concentrating in Gender, Reproduction, and the Body. Her research interests include histories of community health activism, reproductive justice, and the intersections between race-making, science, and medicine. Gwendolyn enjoys working with young children, gardening, and searching for used bookstores to explore.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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