Health Justice And Black Liberation: Ugo Edu
State violence directly impacts communities’ and individual’s ability to feel well, safe, dignified, respected, and valued.
“Black liberation is tied to environmental justice.”
In this feature, we ask organizers and academics to reflect on the connections between health justice and Black liberation. This week’s contributor is Ugo Edu. Dr. Edu is Assistant Professor of African American Studies at UCLA. She is a medical anthropologist working at the intersection of medical anthropology, public health, black feminism, and science, technology, and society studies (STS).
Gwendolyn Wallace and Roberto Sirvent: Can you please tell readers of the Black Agenda Report a little about your background and the work you do around health justice?
Ugo Edu: I remember always wanting to be a doctor—perhaps because my parents are Nigerian—and having a genuine concern with people’s health. I soon became disillusioned with treatment and the competition that entailed pre-med education as an undergrad at UCLA. Nonetheless, I decided public health better suited my interest and desire to develop preventive interventions. Public health left out too many factors to be the only means by which I felt I could contribute to health—I decided to study medical anthropology, simultaneously exploring other disciplinary offerings. My current work draws on all these aspects of my academic trajectory. While my intellectual interests include race, aesthetics, affect, and body knowledge and modifications, with a focus on the politics of reproduction, reproductive and sexual health, health disparities, and body modifying practices, all my research, teaching, and service are interested in exploring the relationships between Blackness, medicine, health, the sciences, and technology.
I am currently finishing up full-spectrum doula training, childbirth educator training and recently gained certification as a holistic fertility doula to be able to contribute in a different way to reproductive justice, which is part of health justice. I wanted to be able to teach from experience working in the field and more importantly effect change in the reproductive outcomes for Black birthing people and the children they birth. I am excited to begin doing this birthwork and working with some of the amazing activists and birthworkers already in the work.
In what ways can you help readers understand state violence (e.g. prisons, policing, surveillance, borders, militarism, housing policy, etc.) as a public health issue?
State violence manifests in many overt and subtle ways—medical neglect, surveillance, policing, unjust policies, police brutality, funding decisions, etc. This violence directly impacts a community and an individual’s ability to not only live without disease but to also feel well, safe, dignified, respected, and valued. In my work in Brazil, state violence has looked like underfunding the public health care system upon which the majority of Brazilian people rely upon to access any form of healthcare—including access to contraceptives. It has included the governmental provisions of contraceptives known to fail or contraceptives that distort the bodies of the consumers in such a way as to encourage abandonment of the method. It has also included caps on tubal ligations making it difficult for women to control their fertility and producing conditions in which politicians and doctors can abuse their power to sterilize without consent and/or trade votes for the procedure. This is alongside state violence that pushes Black people and the poor to the margins where there is little to no education, healthcare, security, sanitation, housing, or jobs.
Not only does this state violence produce situations which have come to be constituted as public health issues—high rates of unplanned pregnancies, overrepresentation of Black women as victims of maternal mortality and morbidity, unsafe abortions and the sequelae that often follows, infected or opened abdominal wounds, contraceptive unmet needs—but their constitution as public health issues further justifies state intervention, which often looks like violence for Black communities.
How might Black health depend on changing our relationships to the Earth and the environment? In what ways does environmental justice intersect with Black liberation?
In an interview with a woman in Brazil, she talked about a well-known abortifacient plant that facilitates an abortion. Development of the city resulted in the decimation of the environment in which that plant grew. People rely on rat poison, and other dangerous methods when they can’t afford the lush clinics reserved for the elite or misoprostol.
Black liberation is tied to environmental justice. There are ways that Black people have been discouraged and disallowed from shaping the kinds of relationships we want and need to have to the land and environment. So much knowledge about the lands from which we came and upon which we live has been lost or stolen, to our detriment. Yet so much of what we need to live well is or can be grown and cultivated by our own hands. This extractive and destructive model of relating to the earth will most affect Black folks who have been forced to inhabit the unhealthiest, most impoverished places, by design.
I remember talking to folks in LA in undergrad about growing their own food. I was told that it was illegal to plant food in your yard. I realized there was a design to the dismantled relationship between Black people and the land. Then some years ago in Oakland, an abandoned field was reclaimed by some Black people that formed a collective called Quilombo/Kilombo. As soon as Black people turned the eyesore field into a garden and beautiful space, here came the local government to destroy it.
Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters begins with one character asking another, “Are you sure sweetheart, that you want to be well?…Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter.” What does working toward individual and collective healing look like to you? What would it mean to be whole?
I’m not sure one would be able to be alive in the world in its current form and be whole. To be well, healed, and whole would mean to not be in this world, for me. So individual and collective healing looks like working to destroy this world and its machinery as we know it. And that is an extremely terrifying thought, even for those that most stand to benefit—maybe less so in this covid-19 moment though it’s an epidemic of sorts everyday for some of us!
Less dramatically perhaps, and within this world, it looks like working everyday to dismantle within myself all the things that draw me away from a whole self, a slow gradual disconnection from many of the socially constructed things we give importance, including our identities, but not necessarily from one another. I’m imagining this as a process whereby love and care for self and others grows on a regular basis in a way that allows for healing of past traumas and makes room for continued growth and healing. Wholeness is less a destination or state and rather a process.
I’ve stopped just telling my students to take care of themselves and “self-care over this degree. Can’t get a job/graduate if you’re dead” and actually developed a course that gives them space and encouragement to dive deep into self-care, cultivate a self-care practice for themselves, and explore tools for cultivating collective care and healing.
What role can love, care, and mutual aid play in our collective struggle against capitalist medicine and state violence?
Love and care are important! I start with self-love and self-care because it is virtually impossible to love and care for others if you don’t do for yourself. I think despite what Black people globally have been through, we do actually have a large amount of self-love, we just have a whole lot of healing and caring to do that is constantly interrupted by whiteness and its sequelae. The love and care make way to trust, believe, and truly see ourselves in one another such that mutual aid can manifest in ways that go beyond spending lots of money to support Black artists, Black designers, Black products, schools, and entertainment but include building and relying upon on our own alternative modes of healing, planting, celebrating, feasting, educating, communicating, relating, and cultivating life and communal expectations.
I keep thinking to myself about Chadwick Boseman’s passing, “how did he get diagnosed at stage III and isn’t that the story for Black people?” And I kind of get stuff at how to change that, even with all the love and care I have for all Black people. How does my love and care for Breonna Taylor and the Breonna Taylors I teach—young, beautiful, full-of-life, hopeful, talented, aspiring Black women—transform into making sure they don’t die while pregnant, or in labor or sleeping before going to work the next day or while driving to an interview for a job? I guess I stay with this question to avoid complacency.
How does your work go beyond appeals for reform, access, inclusion, and equality? In other words, how does health justice connect directly with goals of abolition, revolution, and Black liberation?
Perhaps I am still trying to figure that out! One thing I am trying to think through in my work is that inclusion can never be the goal because the thing into which one might be seeking to be included, especially if one is Black, depends on your non-inclusion to exist—once you are included, once Blackness is included, the thing ceases to exist. The medical, scientific, and health fields have and continue to depend upon the availability of black bodies to experiment, exploit, maim, prod, observe, infect, and kill. The inclusion of Blackness is not allowing Black doctors to practice or Black public health professionals to surveil, count, and intervene. The medical, scientific, and health fields would literally have to be dismantled, reimagined, and reconstituted for black bodies to cease to be the fodder fueling these industrial complexes and sustaining white lives. I question the rights framework for Black people and ask questions around the process of medicalization and Black people’s ability to access or not those treatments, services, or procedures.
Pedagogically, I ask students to see medical negligence, medical racism, scientific exploitation, etc. as state violence. We explore the medical industrial complex and its relationship to Blackness so that they can understand, for example, why midwife Asmara Gebre in San Francisco is striking and asking SFGH to remove sheriffs from the hospital and asking SFDPH to invest some of the $20 million they currently spend on sheriffs in supporting community resources that would increase health outcomes.
Gwendolyn Wallace (she/her) is a senior at Yale University pursuing a BA in the History of Science and Medicine, concentrating in Gender, Reproduction, and the Body. Her research interests include histories of community health activism, reproductive justice, and the intersections between race-making, science, and medicine. Gwendolyn enjoys working with young children, gardening, and searching for used bookstores to explore.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics , where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project . He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror .