Januarie York’s preferred medium is the spoken word poetry she has been performing for more than 15 years. But when she was invited to participate in an Indiana civic event this past fall, she decided to bring along a visual aid.
It was a poster board with the outline of a man’s body on it. Color-coded arrows pointed in different directions. A brown arrow indicated an abdominal stab wound, with the price of $12,000 listed alongside. An orange arrow pointed to the kidneys: dialysis, $89,000 per year. A yellow arrow pointed to a gun shot wound to the chest: $30,000 if not fatal.
“These all happen to Black men,” York explains. “But the one thing they don’t get is at the very top.” She cups both hands around the blue arrow pointing to the head: $90 per hour for counseling. Tears well up in her eyes. “If you have gone through any of the other things in this picture, you need to talk to someone. You need to heal.”
The data back her up. Black men in the U.S. suffer worse health than any other group. Institutionalized racism, in the form of overincarceration, low wages, lack of access to adequate housing and healthcare, and the accompanying stress, takes its toll: Black men die far younger than other groups, and they suffer from high rates of cancer, violent injuries, hypertension, and diabetes.
They also have high rates of mental illness, which is often misdiagnosed or untreated. Much of that is due to lack of access to care, but some is caused by the barrier that stigma erects against admitting the need for help. “Much too often, we African American men advise each other to “man up” to personal problems,” Harold “Woody” Neighbors, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine wrote recently for the Association of American Medical Colleges magazine. “African American men and women must help shift a culture that sometimes frowns upon professional help-seeking.”
York agrees, but also says Black men need to have opportunities to lift each other up in their own communities. “There are a lot of events for women, but I don’t see yoga or spa parties or coffee conversations set up for Black men,” she says. York’s friend Pope Adrian Bless, who also started as a spoken word poet before becoming a successful rapper, agrees. “There aren’t many outlets for men to come together and talk, period,” he says. “We don’t often have the opportunity to express ourselves with those who face similar challenges.”
Last year, York decided to change that. She drew inspiration from her neighborhood landmark, the 555-acre historic Crown Hill Cemetery a few blocks from her home. “In the Black community, we often talk of embracing the idea that we are all queens and kings, with crowns on our heads,” she explains. “But all around us, we see Black men with crowns that are broken, that have fallen off, or are tarnished.” So, York’s plan started with a name: Crown Heal.
"Wanting Attention is not a Bad Thing"
Crown Heal took the form of community meals, served in York’s home, to ten to twelve Black men at a time. York and some friends prepared lavish feasts and ornate table settings. “It was important that they knew they were in a loving place, where they could feel comfortable opening up,” she says. Then they left the men to talk.
As it happened, many of the men faced mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. They talked about those struggles, and how their health is intertwined with the challenges of the world all around them. Some tears were shed, but affirmation was offered, too. “If what is out there hasn’t killed us yet, that is proof of our resilience,” one man said.
To York, the topics of the men’s conversation were not as important as the fact that they were free to express themselves, and to be listened to. “I invited men who I knew wanted attention,” she says. “So often we hear that as a criticism—so and so did that just because they want attention. Well, of course! We all want someone to pay attention to us. You think that I go on stage and want people to turn away and talk to each other and ignore me?”
“Wanting attention is not a bad thing. The bad thing is when people are not getting enough attention, especially when they are hurting.”
Bless agrees, and says that the meals York hosted provided that opportunity to be heard. “To be a Person of Color and to have that space was thrilling,” says Bless, who is open about facing his own mental health challenges. “Comradery and brotherhood strengthen confidence and instills hope to go out in the world. And to try harder.”
York makes it clear she is a poet, not a social worker. And she rejects the label of community activist. But she feels an obligation to act, an obligation she says should be shared by the entire community. “We all need to care. Black men are humans, they are part of our society, and they are expected to keep their heads up and moving forward. But they are suffering.” She pauses, then repeats, with emphasis: “They are suffering.”
“So, we all need to help them open up, to help them love, to help them heal.”
Faith and Healthcare Notes
Excellent Five-Minute Video on Medicare for All. “Republicans and even some Democrats are out to scare you about Medicare for All. They say it’s going to dismantle health care as we know it and it will cost way too much. Rubbish.” Economist Robert Reich explains why in this short video.
In Memory of Marilyn Saviola, Pioneering Disability Rights Advocate. As her New York Times obituary says, Ms. Saviola spent a lifetime “in the midst of the push for obvious accommodations like curb cuts in sidewalks and less obvious ones like financing for personal aides for people who need help dressing, bathing and getting in and out of wheelchairs. Over the years her wide range of activities included blocking buses in her wheelchair in transportation-related protests and organizing a singing group for people with disabilities.”
Shocking Evidence of Pharma Greed Causing Patient Harm. The wonderful HIV treatment advocates PrEP4All Collaboration, represented by the NYU law’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic, filed a petition last week with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showing evidence that the pharma giant Gilead delayed development of a safer HIV drug. Why the delay? Gilead wanted to halt the rollout until its monopoly profits were depleted from its older HIV drugs, even though the old drugs exposed patients to greater risks to bone and kidney damage.