Amber Lascelles, Research Associate for the Black Health and the Humanities project, reflects on the motivations behind the project, the marginalisation of Black health research in the UK, and what the humanities have to offer to further our knowledge about Black people’s health in Britain.
During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there was a moment when we learned that NHS staff were dying after being exposed to high levels of the virus. Every evening I would switch on the TV to plug myself back into the chaos the world had become and one evening I saw a mass of faces, people who had died whilst treating Covid-19 patients. Growing up with a parent in the fire service, I am no stranger to the fear that a close family member could die simply whilst doing their job. But this is not usually the reality for medical staff. In addition to working in the public sector, the faces on my TV screen had something else in common with my father; their faces were Black. Brown. They were now dying from exposure to the Covid-19 virus at a disproportionate rate.
The statistics that Black women are 4.3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white men and women, and Black men 4.2 times as likely, reflect health inequalities that have been evident for decades in Britain and which have been exacerbated by the global pandemic and a hostile environment that polices access to healthcare. 2020 has been punctuated with grief, and one incident has stuck with me: in April, railway worker Belly Mujinga died after being infected with the virus when she was spat at whilst on duty at Victoria station in London. The dehumanising nature of this overtly racist attack, coupled with the low-paid and undervalued jobs migrant workers often endure, are the realities that shape the disproportionate death rates. As Lioba Hirsch has argued, the unevenly felt impact of Covid-19 ‘lays bare how strongly antiblackness shapes the material and imagined geographies of Black death and survival.’
Then, in the US in May, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, sparking a wave of Black Lives Matter protests that reverberated globally. Across the UK’s major cities, people marched with signs reading ‘JUSTICE FOR BELLY’ and showed solidarity with the NHS frontline workers dying at disproportionate rates. The protests were suggestive of a feeling of transnational solidarity across the African diaspora that connected anti-black racism to health inequality. In the UK, the impact of Covid-19 on ‘BAME communities’ received widespread media coverage, but the government appears unwilling to seriously consider the social, environmental and economic reasons, as well as the structural racism, that lie behind this reality.
The Black Health and the Humanities project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, emerges from this broader context. Based at the Centre for Black Humanities at the University of Bristol, UK, the project considers how the works of Black artists, writers, historians, film and theatre makers have creatively and critically addressed the health of Black people across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Working alongside project PI Josie Gill, I am exploring Black health beyond medical and scientific disciplines to highlight the important role that the humanities play in representing experiences of and approaches to health and illness. A central part of the project involves setting up a training network for PhD students and early career researchers interested in the intersections of Black and medical humanities. If Britain is to seriously address racial health inequalities, Black perspectives must be at the forefront of critical conversations about healthcare.
As part of the project, we are collating a database of resources of historical and contemporary work concerning Black health in Britain to demonstrate the centrality of these themes to Black British cultural production and bring to light some lesser-known works and texts. While public debates on racial health inequalities often centre around and draw upon the US context, there is a significant history of academic and creative responses to Black health inequalities in Britain. Some important examples include Femi Nzegwu’s Black People and Healthcare in Contemporary Britain (1993), a sociological study looking at the ways NHS services alienate and deprive Black and minority ethnic people; Donald Rodney’s politically charged artwork which confronted racism whilst incorporating his experiences of sickle cell disease; and The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe (1985), which argues that African-Caribbean women initially experienced the NHS primarily as caregivers — not receivers of care — serving to maintain Britain’s white male labour force. Health activist Melba Wilson’s edited collection Healthy and Wise (1994) explores cancer, hypertension, AIDS, FGM and domestic violence from the perspective of Black women, while novelist Beryl Gilroy’s essay ‘Black Old Age’ in Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader (1999) reflects on the process of ageing as part of the first generation of ‘Windrush’ era migrants to grow old in Britain.
Our training programme for PhD researchers and ECRs will explore Black health using the humanities as a starting point. Consisting of a series of five workshops beginning online in March 2021, we will cover topics including the history of Black health in the UK, hostile medical environments, chronic illness, care and ageing, Black health activism and the health price of activism, healing and Black health futures. The approach to these workshops is grounded in Black and cultural studies methodologies and informed by philosophy, history and sociology. The workshops will be led by academics, writers and artists from a range of disciplines and institutions and participants will be encouraged to develop their critical and practical research skills by engaging with scholarly, creative and archival material on Black health and wellbeing. The workshops will form a central part of a broader collegial network to provide a supportive environment for PhD students and ECRs to develop and share their research.
If you’re interested in applying to be part of the Black Health and the Humanities network and participate in our training programme, please apply on our website by 22nd January, 2021.
BBC. ‘Windrush row: I was denied cancer treatment’. Accessed December 9, 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-43818671.
Bryan, Beverley, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe. 1985. The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain. Verso.
Gilroy, Beryl. 1999. ‘Black Old Age’ in Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader. Routledge.
Hirsch, Lioba. 2020. Geography Directions, May 26, 2020. ‘Thinking about Black death and (im)mobilities during the Covid-19 pandemic’ https://blog.geographydirections.com/2020/05/26/thinking-about-black-death-and-immobilities-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/.
Nzegwu, Femi. 1993. Black People and Healthcare in Contemporary Britain. International Institute for Black Research.
Office for National Statistics. ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by ethnic group, England and Wales: 2 March 2020 to 10 April 2020’. Accessed December 9, 2020. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/coronavirusrelateddeathsbyethnicgroupenglandandwales/2march2020to10april2020.
Tate Britain. ‘Donald Rodney 1961-1998’. Accessed December 9, 2020. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/donald-rodney-3076.
Wilson, Melba. 1994. Healthy and Wise: the Essential Handbook for Black Women. Virago.