African-Americans account for almost 25 percent of deaths due to heart disease despite making up only 13 percent of the American population, and Black men are the most likely to die of cancer of any group or gender, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both are conditions that one can help prevent by establishing healthy habits early, and a recent conference at Morgan State University tackled the importance of helping young Black men develop healthy masculine identity through rites of passage, and the way such rites can improve health outcomes for Black men.

“Rites of passage is something that provides lots of information on proper growing into adulthood, and one of the most important things about growing into adulthood is health literacy,” said Dr. Keith Hunter, one of the organizers of the Nov. 8’s ‘Optimal Health for Black Men Conference’ at Morgan State University, and an anesthesiologist who has been practicing medicine for 33 years, during a conversation with the AFRO prior to the conference.

For Hunter, health literacy is about identifying misconceptions, like the idea that you are prostate cancer free if you have no trouble urinating, and correcting such misconceptions with the appropriate information. This is equally true of developing healthy masculine identity, central to avoiding many of the risky behaviors in which young men participate and which can have health consequences now and later in life.

According to Dr. Raymond Winbush, director of the Morgan State University Institute for Urban Research, one of the sponsors of the conference, many young Black men receive misguided signals about their entry into adulthood—in the past, various youths have cited to Winbush receiving their driver’s license, the day they became fathers, or the day they became gun owners, as their entry into manhood—and this lack of appropriate
and healthy rites of passage into adulthood for Black boys sets them on a path of less than ideal health.

Rites of passage programs utilize culturally informed exercises and challenges to help boys learn to master their behaviors and take
responsibility for their maturation, symbolically guiding them into adulthood. Through this process, these young Black men are then better
equipped to take the necessary preventative steps that ensure a healthy future.

“What we’re trying to do is show how rites of passage programs can be used to enhance the healthy development, not only physically but
psychologically, of Black boys,” said Winbush

Of course, ensuring healthy development requires not only better lifestyle choices, but also a more robust engagement with the health care system, an industry many African-Americans are reluctant to trust because of a history of abuses against Blacks.

“The first anesthesia was tried on some poor brother in South Carolina where they put ether on his face and just left him,” explained
Hunter of a problematic history that extends far beyond the notorious Tuskegee experiments, and citing the book ‘Medical Apartheid’ by
Harriet Washington. “Gynecological surgeries, cesarean sections, lots of things like that were first tried by a very lauded surgeon named
J. Marion Sims, but he basically turned his African-American slaves into morphine addicts as he perfected his techniques.”

Hunter described this as “a morbid history”, and Winbush noted that this history has stood in the way of better health outcomes for many
African-Americans, who “know and have been the victims of a bad health care system as it is exercised towards Black people.”

“Optimal health is when you have knowledge about all aspects of yourself—physically, mentally, spiritually—that you understand how your body works, but that you also understand how your mind and thought processes work,” said Winbush.

“It’s understanding what is needed in the community to make you healthy. Being aware of the availability of certain services, how to utilize them. Being healthy is more than just an absence of sickness, it’s being aware of your place in the environment.”