Public Healing and the Black Radical Tradition in the Americas



Everywhere in the Americas, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the violence of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment,” in particular when it comes to health. In this text, Elise A. Mitchell traces a historic cartography (with its zones deliberately left blank) of the Black organizing of public healing in the Americas and the Caribbean from the 16th century maroons to today’s activists.

Mitchell Funambulist 1
Craig leading a Black Trans and Queer yoga class in Philadelphia. / Unknown photographer (c. 2019).

Backs bent and we breathed, finding ease in the dimly lit back room of an unassuming row house. The wood floors creaked under the weight of our everything. And Craig guided us through the motions of shedding the day, bringing us back with our breath to our yoga mats. We would bend and stretch and release grief, stress, and revel in the joy of Black queer living. For Craig’s class, you would check your things by the entrance, on a wooden bench that resembled a pew. Perhaps, for some, this was church. I know I attended religiously. Then you would roll out your mat, brought or borrowed (there were always enough to go around). All of us Black, queer, trans, beautiful, and brilliant. Whether you paid or not, all of us were welcome in this Philadelphia home. It was 2019, we breathed freely unmasked. Those nights the room was a yoga studio, the next day it was a living room, Friday it was a dance floor, upstairs it was a home, and the kitchen was also one of the best restaurants in the neighborhood.

A year later, in the wet hot summer of 2020, that row house would become a distribution center for masks, water, milk, and goggles for brave souls who took to the streets in the name of George Floyd and so, so many more. That house would also become a distribution center for medicines, menstrual products, and food among other essentials. When Black queer and trans and poor people needed and wanted sustenance because the city failed to ensure that its residents did not go hungry, because the country failed to ensure the supply chain, because the governments and public programs failed, that house would become a distribution center for all manner of mutual aid. This home has sustained the Black queer community in Philadelphia holistically. But I will not name it because it is someone’s home. Some of the most radical acts of Black resistance and communal preservation are not meant for public consumption. If you know, you know.

The people in this home who, day after day, night after night, received us in joy and in grief, in serenity and in struggle, epitomized the Black radical tradition of public healing. This tradition is over 500 years old.

The Black radical tradition in the Americas was forged in slave societies when enslaved people established spaces for communal care, liberated themselves, fled into forests to establish maroon societies, often alongside Indigenous peoples, and contested and confounded European rule. Numerous scholars, notably Cedric Robinson, have brought into view the ideological and political connectivity between Black radical movements from the earliest days of slavery through the period after World War II. Robinson argued that the Black radical tradition has been a “specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development” (Black Marxism, 1983). “Public healing” is a term Africanists use to describe the healing practices, inclusive of spiritual, environmental, political, and bodily practices that Africans designed to prevent and address community health threats. If we take the African character of Black political thought seriously, we must recognize how public healing has been an integral part of the Black radical tradition in the Americas, inclusive of the Caribbean, since the tradition began among enslaved and self-liberated Africans roughly 500 years ago.