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.

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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.

In the 1490s, the first recorded healing center in the burgeoning Spanish colonies on the island of Ayiti-Kiskeya (Hispaniola) was in the home of a Black woman. Spanish colonial officials recalled for centuries that she healed all the poor that she could in her bohio, a term used to describe African and Taíno dwellings. Spanish officials would eventually build a colonial hospital, the Hospital de San Nicholas de Barí, where her bohio once stood. Other bohios would persist and populate the region, continuing to serve as informal healing centers where poor people, regardless of race, were rarely turned away. Early Spanish ordinances reveal that they served as healing centers, spaces where food and essential goods were sold, where self-liberated enslaved Africans and Taínos found refuge, and where all manner of licit and illicit work transpired. Before and after the first African slave revolts recorded in the Caribbean, bohios were the sites of early radical Black organizing and community survival.

Black people’s homes remain sites of crucial, collectivist, and clandestine radical Black organizing for health, healing, and holistic well-being throughout the Americas.

Decades later, on the same island, the first recorded African slave revolts in the Americas occurred in the wake of the smallpox pandemic of 1518, which struck the island of Ayiti-Kiskeya before spreading to the wider Caribbean and the American continents. The pandemic lasted for years, through the early 1520s. On Christmas in 1521, enslaved Africans on the plantation belonging to Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego Colón, set the property on fire and marched through the region gathering hundreds more enslaved people in a reputed plot to take over the land. Their plans were ultimately thwarted by a band of Iberian settlers, who captured and killed many of them during a series of armed confrontations. Some of the insurgents managed to escape into the Bahoruco mountains where they joined rebel Indigenous groups. Though the Spanish eventually captured many of them, others remained in the rough terrain. In 1522, the Spanish passed a set of laws that specifically targeted enslaved and free Black people in their settlements. These laws made vague references to rebels still at large and anticipated future revolts. For decades (if not centuries) thereafter, Black maroons thwarted European attempts to settle the island with guerilla warfare and raids. 

The revolt was not a direct response to the smallpox pandemic, but rather a response to the broader morbid and mortal conditions of enslavement and colonialism in the 16th-century Caribbean. Among many West Africans throughout the Atlantic, epidemic diseases were also the conditions of possibility for political transformation. Early modern and modern West Africans have long understood epidemic disease to be a sign of broader communal misfortunes that require social, political, spiritual, and ecological remediation as well as bodily care. Thus, we might read the revolt and subsequent formation of maroon societies as a radical response to the untenable, morbid conditions of Euro-Caribbean enslavement and colonization that enabled the smallpox outbreak to spread and spiral into a pandemic. Throughout West African history, even in sources dating to medieval Africa, forests and groves have played a unique role in West African statecraft and public healing. They were the places where the ill could convalesce, they were the places where political, diplomatic, and military strategizing and transformation in the wake of epidemics unfolded, where herbal medicines were cultivated, and the sites of crucial spiritual geographies of health and ecological balance. In Caribbean and American forests, Black maroons, like their African ancestors, cultivated healing herbs and established sustainable ecological, spiritual, labor, and political practices to preserve the health and well-being of their communities. Thus, the maroons’ decision to flee into the forest encompassed the political and public healing dimensions of African praxes of sustainable world-making to promote collective well-being.

Maroon leaders who were also eminent spiritual practitioners and healers, and their legacies persist through the modern era. 18th-century Black political leaders in the Caribbean, including Mackandal in Saint Domingue and Queen Nanny and Three-Fingered Jack in Jamaica, were well known as healers and ritual practitioners in addition to being insurgents. Their political leadership, spiritual power, and healing knowledge inspired enslaved and maroon Caribbeans for generations. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to romanticize their praxes of public healing and collectivism. These processes also entailed violent and risky revolts along often unforgiving terrain, as they did in Africa as well. Additionally, to preserve their existence amid Euro-colonial incursions, some maroon colonies were conscripted into aiding Euro-colonial projects by capturing and returning enslaved Africans. Nevertheless, their survival, social, political, spiritual, and ecological practices still reveal an enduring collectivist health politics that aspired to preserving the well-being and the lives of Black people for purposes other than the labor exploitation and commodification wrought by European slavery and the slave trade. 

We find the legacies of these health politics in modern Black radical social movements. . Three examples that come to mind are the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Nation of Islam (NOI), and the Black Panthers. In each of these movements, Black women, in particular, played leadership roles in health education and health management. For example, the UNIA featured a health corps, known as the Black Cross Nurses (BCN), first founded in Philadelphia, with chapters across the U.S. and in Canada, Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Panama, and Cuba. Though scholars have rightly critiqued the classism and respectability in some branches of the BCN, the ideological aspirations—their “freedom dreams”—tethered together anti-colonialism, bodily and medical care, as well as reproductive health to promote Black well-being. Despite the movement’s shortcomings, the vision of Black health and healing as linked to anti-colonialism and Black separatism was rooted in a tradition of radical Black freedom dreaming. Likewise, other Black nationalist organizations, such as the NOI, have focused on Black people’s nutrition and food security in their organizing. Nutrition and food security have been central parts of the NOI’s organizing and activism since its inception. They viewed and continue to view access and consumption of nutritious food as central to Black people’s collective physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and, more broadly, Black liberation.

 Other organizations, notably the Black Panthers, similarly viewed food security and access to adequate healthcare as crucial to Black liberation.

The Black Panthers have long been recognized for their “survival programs,” including their free breakfast program and health clinics, some of which still exist today. As Alondra Nelson argued in her comprehensive study of the Black Panther’s health politics, health was a powerful, elastic political lexicon where the stakes of injustice were exposed. The Panthers’ social programs and political ideology were undergirded by collectivist health politics, an extension of the legacy of public healing ideologies and strategies that people of African descent have engaged in for centuries. A vision of collective Black health and well-being has always been a part of what Robin D. G. Kelley termed “freedom dreams,” the fruit of the Black radical imagination. 

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The UNIA Black Cross Nurses in Manhattan, New York, on August 1, 1922, leading the parade for the world convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Harlem. / Unknown photographer.

Though some of the most radical forms of Black public healing persist under the cover of secrecy and clandestine networks, we also witness how spaces borne of grassroots organizing have become formal institutions for Black health and healing. For example, in Philadelphia, in 1985, Bebashi Transition to Hope was founded to address the HIV/AIDS crisis among people of color, particularly Black people in the city of Philadelphia, with no paid staff and only a loaned office space. Today, Bebashi continues to serve Black people, Latinx people, and Indigenous people coming from the south of the settler colonial border, and other communities of color in the city. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bebashi played a crucial role in distributing food from their pantries, hosting COVID-19 vaccination events, and continuing STI screenings and providing reproductive and sexual healthcare to predominantly Black Philadelphians. Workers at Bebashi viewed this life sustaining labor as an extension of their mission to empower Black people to enhance the quality of “their overall well-being.” This holistic approach to Black healing and health politics falls squarely within the Black radical tradition of community health and public healing. 

To assert a direct ideological link between the politics of early modern maroons and the Black radical social movements of the 20th and 21st centuries would be painting with too broad a brush. Indeed, their radicalism and their approaches to health and healing manifested in a diversity of ways. Rather, the core public healing politics of marronage and those of modern Black socio-political movements, such as the UNIA and U.S.-based organizations such as the Nation of Islam and Black Panthers, exist within the same ideological milieu: the Black radical tradition of responding to the whole range European and Euro-American oppressions with collectivist strategies to promote holistic well-being. Furthermore, the groundswell of grassroots Black organizing that we have witnessed in the last thirty years includes a politics of communal care and public healing that has been part of Black radicalism and African and African diasporic politicking since time immemorial. A tradition of Black radical community health and public healing was contemporary with (and contested) the European and Euro-Atlantic medical traditions that emerged in the early modern period and laid the foundation for modern biomedicine and public health. This Black radical history and tradition is particularly worthy of inquiry in our present moment as we persist amid the realities of the COVID-19 era. ■