Serving the People: Healing and Hope

By Ida Jones, PhD
Port of Harlem

Nelson_Body coverThe 1960s often evoke a flood of emotions for many people.  Two recently released powerful books expose elements of the Black Panther Party (BPP) that explore and explain part of this moving period:  Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination ($24.95, University of Minnesota Press) and Jamal Joseph’s Panther Baby:  A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention ($23.95, Algonquin Book).

Body and Soul provides a full portrait of the BPP’s medical services employed to alleviate the lack of preventive medical services for Black people.  Concurrently, in Panther Baby, Joseph shares his memoirs as a young adult whose thirst for belonging resulted in his joining the BPP and ultimately serving time in prison.  Together, these books move the superficial reviews of the BPP to the background and provide a platform for two distinct voices of  “the people” the BPP sought to serve and protect.

As explained by Nelson, the BPP knew that racism stigmatized Black people and the results included misdiagnosis or inappropriate medical treatment.  Diseases such as sickle cell anemia, diabetes, hypertension and asthma plague Black people and resulted in Blacks having high and rising mortality rates.  To counter this, the BPP linked the lack of health care to the weak, but burgeoning Black political agenda.

Nelson writes that the BPP’s activism demonstrated how the physical Black body came to represent the broader treatment of Black people in America.  Moreover, her innovative work offers another perspective on the social justice activism the BPP employed versus the media-driven gun-totting, rebellious Black youth image that too often comes to mind.

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