Though Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, many African Americans are still bound by policies that cut quality of life and help health disparities abound. (Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash)

By Mylika Scatliffe,
AFRO Women’s Health Writer

Juneteenth is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” commemorating the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that thousands of African Americans in Texas had been emancipated from slavery. The announcement, made on June 19, 1865, came two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed during the Civil War, therefore ignored by the Confederate States, and not enforced in the South until the end of the war.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of Black people in America knows that the “freedom” granted by the Emancipation Proclamation did not exactly translate to the established definition of freedom. 

The Oxford dictionary definition of freedom is “the state of being able to act without hindrance or restraint; liberty of action.”  Black people are no longer forced to toil under harsh conditions solely for the economic benefit of Whites- but nearly two centuries later there are still daily struggles for equality and the feeling to be truly free.  Inequities– especially when measured against the lives of White people– touch almost every aspect of African-American lives.

The current struggle for generational health

Some of the most persistent legacies of American slavery for African Americans is the systemic and persistent racial inequalities in health care. These inequalities touch all aspects of health care including maternal and child health outcomes. 

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans aged 35-64 years old are 50 percent more likely to have a high blood pressure than Whites.
  • The CDC reports that there are 700 deaths during pregnancy each year, and that “Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women.”
  • According to the American Cancer Society, “Black people have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial/ethnic group in the United States for most cancers. For example, Black women are 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than White women, despite lower incidence of the disease.”
  • The “risk of having a first stroke is nearly twice as high for Blacks as for Whites, and Blacks have the highest rate of death due to stroke,” according to the CDC, which reports that “every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke.”

Kenneth and Teresa Reed are the owners of Fit For Life Personal Training in Pikesville, Md. They have made it their mission to educate their clients about healthy eating and fitness to combat historic inequities in the Black community.  One of their mottos is “You can’t out-train a bad diet.” 

Teresa Reed, 67, was motivated to get fit after seeing her father, both grandparents, aunt and uncle all develop diabetes and eventually pass away from Alzheimer’s disease before age 70. 

“My father discovered he was diabetic at age 40.  Heart disease runs in my mother’s side of the family, and I didn’t want that for myself,” said Teresa.  

“We as a community need to think differently. We don’t have to accept that we’ll be diabetic and have high blood pressure just because our parents did,” said Kenny.  The 62-year-old made it his mission to get healthy and teach others to get healthy and fit once he discovered how much healthier he felt once he gave up the destructive habits of drugs and alcohol. 

The Reeds are passionate about passing on information to their clients that will benefit everyone’s health- especially when it comes to the dinner table.

“We as Black people love to cook out on the grill;  I didn’t know that increased our exposure to carcinogens when done on a regular basis, [which] increases the risk of developing certain kinds of cancer,” said Kenny. 

Today, they warn Black Americans of the dangers of “soul food,” which originated in chattel slavery when Black Americans had low-quality options- such as pigfeet and chitlins. 

Though Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, many African Americans are still bound by policies that cut quality of life and help health disparities abound. (Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash)

Food deserts and the struggle for healthy food options

“Food deserts” are defined by the USDA as an area where a third of the population lies greater than one mile from a supermarket in urban areas and greater than 10 miles in rural areas.  

During the Great Migration, many Black Americans left the southern United States for northern cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit.  Because White people stereotyped Black people as dirty, poverty-stricken and criminals they fled to the suburbs, as part of the phenomenon known as “White flight.” 

White flight affected grocery store presence in the neighborhoods where Black people remained.  Large grocery stores, believing the same stereotypes about African Americans, saw White neighborhoods as better locations for greater profit and left neighborhoods with large African-American populations.  

Many people in these neighborhoods may not have cars to travel to access stores that sell fresh and healthy food. While grocery stores may be scarce, fast food, bodegas and liquor stores are in abundance in poor, largely African-American neighborhoods. The lack of healthy food choices results in African Americans having higher rates of chronic and somewhat preventable diseases including hypertension, diabetes, obesity and certain types of cancer.

Environmental justice and the struggle for healthy living spaces

More and more Americans are seeing the conversation around environmental justice grow louder. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will only be achieved once all Americans can “enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards” and have “equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

The repercussions of red-lining practices and centuries of being forced to live in the harshest of conditions- next to factories and areas with high pollution- have long begun to show up in the health reports of Black Americans.  

According to the EPA, “the burdens of asthma fall more heavily on Black children” in part due to  “access to health care, and exposure to environmental triggers.” The EPA reports that “Black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and are four times as likely to die from asthma as White children.”

Black children are also bearing the brunt of inequities in the quality of housing. 

According to the CDC, “between 1999 and 2004, Black children were 1.6 times more likely to test positive for lead in their blood than White children.”

Lead poisoning effects include “lasting neuropsychological deficits in attention, behavior, cognition, intelligence, and memory,” according to a report published by the National Library of Medicine. Children exposed to “greater exposure during early childhood later results in decreased brain volume in adulthood.”

Still today, African Americans are fighting the effects of lead paint. Though highly publicized and quickly forgotten in Flint, Mich., lead pipes are still affecting water quality in Black homes across the country.

Juneteenth may have ushered out slavery, but Black Americans are still fighting a host of inequalities. Eliminating racial disparities at every turn. True freedom mandates a deliberate long-term focus, just as deliberate as the policies that have developed the disparities over the last few centuries.

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