Health Justice and Black Liberation: Dr. Angel Love Miles
Health and disability are interrelated and distinctive social categories that have significant implications for the black community.
“Unhealthy environments restrict our movements, confine 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 Dr. Angel Love Miles. Dr. Miles received her PhD in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland College Park and completed her postdoctoral fellowship in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She specializes in intersectional approaches to research and is a published author, professional speaker, teacher, and social justice advocate. She currently works as a Healthcare/Home and Community Based Services policy analyst at a prominent disability advocacy and services organization in Chicago.
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?
Dr. Angel Love Miles: I was born a beautiful black girl with Spina Bifida and grew up in a predominately black housing complex for low-income families in Germantown, Philadelphia. While I often played with the predominately black and nondisabled children in my neighborhood, I attended separate schools and camps for children with disabilities. This immersive upbringing in both the black and disability communities influenced my interest in exploring issues of identity and inequality.
My scholarship centers on the intersections of race, class, and gender as they pertain to disparate social, economic and health outcomes, especially as they impact black women with disabilities. My research on the barriers and facilitators to homeownership for African American women with disabilities illuminates the ways that health and disability are interrelated and distinctive social categories that have significant implications for the black community. In addition, as a policy analyst at a prominent disability advocacy and services organization, I advocate for equitable access to healthcare and home and community based services for people with disabilities using an intersectional lens.
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?
Healthcare in America is constructed not as a right but as an asset, a commodity made possible by access to limited resources. The monitoring, management and control of the resources that maintain the health and wellbeing of others, has long been a major part of dominant groups’ ability to gain and maintain power. In this way, public health disparities are not a happenstance. They are a product and precursor of the very state structures put in place to control the masses without threatening the power of the ruling class. The structures associated with housing, transportation, prisons etc. both illuminate and perpetuate the existence of health inequality. Healthcare is used as a bargaining chip in which dominant groups can coerce people to work, wage war or negotiate treaties and more. Power is having both the ability to introduce the poison and provide the antidote however and whenever it best suits your interests. Violence is often the mayhem that happens in the process of trying to impose and/or resist this power imbalance. This is how I would describe state violence relationship to public health.
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?
Black Americans remain the most spatially segregated ethnic group in this country. Our geographic locations are associated with some of the most environmentally hazardous places in the country where we have less control of the land and spaces we inhabit or the places and business that provide us sustenance. Despite these systemic realities, many in the black community have organized to develop community gardens, educated their neighbors about healthier and affordable eating options, environmental practices and more that can help black communities thrive. Linking health and wellness to black history and African ancestral practices will help inspire more black people to culturally identify with people like the black sharecroppers who helped build this country and challenge the association of health, wellness, and environmental justice with white elites. It’s important that we invest in black people who use their ingenuity and creativity to develop widespread health and wellness practices that affirm our heritage and accommodate our reality. Unfortunately, that reality includes the fact that a black man jogging in the community or black people in a crowd or in public in any capacity are often interpreted as a threat. It means that our communities are more likely to have roads and streets that are hazardous for biking and riding, public parks and recreational areas remain sparce, gym memberships or personal equipment is economically out of reach, and more. Such extraordinary environmental barriers make maintaining the health and wellness of black people even more vital and challenging, but not impossible. Instead it requires that we be innovative in our approaches in a way that responds to the particularities of the challenges that black people face in our health and environment. Unhealthy environments restrict our movements, confine us. Living in environments free of pollution, violence, state surveillance, climate instability, and food, housing and economic insecurity is black liberation.
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?
Disability studies challenges the concept of wholeness, wellness, healing and cure. Instead it argues that disability is a natural part of the spectrum of human difference. It is something that can happen to anyone at any time. Far more people will have to learn to live with a chronic illness or disability than those who will ever be considered fully cured. In addition, if you live long enough most will age into disability. Our value as human beings is not dependent on the absence or presence of disability, illness or any concept of wholeness of body or mind. Rather than solely working towards wellness or cure, a less ableist goal would be to work towards freedom. A world free of injustice and health inequalities caused by them. James Baldwin discusses the paradox of being sure you want to be free of oppression in the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” In it he argues that oppressed people, black people specifically, need to be sure that they are ready to be liberated and not make suffering an identity. Similarly, dominant groups need to be sure that they want to be free of basing who they are on the subjugation of others, and come up with a more just sense of being. We have to be brave enough to work towards a new way of relating to one another that is not dependent on beliefs of superiority or inferiority of self or others. That requires that we give up the sense of power that can come from identifying with a dominant or a subjugated group.
What role can love, care, and mutual aid play in our collective struggle against capitalist medicine and state violence?
Love and lust for power and control is largely what fuels state violence. Fear of losing that power and control to others we hate is another motivating factor. We must instead choose to redirect our affection, time and resources to just causes. Mutual aid is one such cause that can be used to subvert systems of oppression that prioritize profit over people. Love for ourselves and others both inside and outside of our communities is what will deliver us from state violence. We put that love into practice when we acknowledge and affirm our interdependence as a society and work towards creating institutions and practices that reflects a culture which builds power with and not over its people.
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?
The very nature of centering the social locations of black women with disabilities in my work requires that I challenge dominant approaches to justice and liberation as those models do not fit this community. It requires that I deconstruct and resist not only racism but structures of ableism, misogyny, ageism, heteronormativity and gender conformity in both the black community and dominant society. Multiple structures of oppression make society completely intolerable for black women with disabilities to survive, thrive, and reach their full potential. The very presence of black women with disabilities often requires that others rethink the way environments and cultures are structured to subjugate and exclude them. For instance, how many staples in the black community like hair salons, barber shops, and places of worship are accessible to people with disabilities? What does it mean when God did not “wake you up and start you on your way this morning with ‘good’ legs and ‘good’ health” as varying versions of this common black church saying suggests? We must create a culture and society that reflects that black women with disabilities are valued and loved as they are, for who they are. That requires more than just “inclusion” and “access”. It requires our full and equitable submersion and participation into every aspect of this society. It requires freedom from ideologies that suggest that we are inferior and do not belong. The most radical and loving thing we can do is love black women with disabilities not in spite of but because of who they are.
“How many staples in the black community like hair salons, barber shops, and places of worship are accessible to people with disabilities?”
I want to close by stressing that our approach to eliminating health inequality in the black community must be asset based. Despite all of the adversity black people have endured in this country, we are still here, strong. We still contribute to every aspect of American society, and we still produce some of the greatest minds. With so many odds against us, how do we do this? Is it magic? Is it the pain of racism itself? It is neither. Black people have developed coping strategies and cultural practices that we take for granted but need to identify and lift up because they are what sustain us, not magic. Furthermore, although black people have experienced a lot of suffering in this country and globally, suffering is not our identity, that is not what makes us who we are. The more we understand that, the greater we will resist anything that causes us unnecessary harm and the more we will invest in the collective health and wellbeing of every member of our community. Freeing our minds, culture and bodies from any toxic practices or beliefs that put any of us in jeopardy is key. This requires ridding our own community of hierarchies of class, gender, ability, sexuality and all oppressions as we simultaneously demand the same of others. It is vital that we not lose sight of our individual agency and collective power as we work towards those goals. Thus, an intersectional approach that centers the most marginalized is required in order for black liberation to be fully realized.
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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