Health and wellness among African peoples – facts and myths

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Dr. Ivory Phillips

Who would believe that African medical science and practices were quite advanced compared to Europe in ancient times? Who would believe that Hippocrates, the noted Greek physician, acquired much of his knowledge of medicine from Africa? It’s all true, if one would but look at the facts in the ancient documents uncovered in Africa.

Who would believe that Ancient Africans pioneered in the field of pharmaceutical science? They had identified hundreds of animal, plant, and mineral sources to cure various illnesses and serve other medicinal purposes. Among their pharmaceutical advances were successful treatments for glaucoma, high blood pressure, heart conditions, and pain. (Just as examples, modern medical scientists derived aspirin, kaopectate, and castor oil from African medical practitioners.) 

Who would believe that Ancient Africans were skilled in gynecology – birth control, abortion, and Caesarian sections? They were knowledgeable in anesthesia, skin grafting, bone setting, and tissue cauterization. These ancient physicians performed surgeries, including brain surgery, and practiced under antiseptic conditions. Various types of vaccinations were also administered by those medical professionals.

Many perhaps do realize that dentistry, including the filling of cavities and replacement of teeth, as well as the performing of autopsies and embalming of bodies, were highly developed in Ancient Egypt. This is fairly widely known because in world history classes it is admitted. The problem is that, for generations, there was an attempt to convince the world that Egyptians were not Africans. That myth, however, has been debunked, showing that they were Africans, much more ethnically so than has been the case since the Arab invasions starting in the mid-600s A.D.

We point to these unbelievable truths for three specific reasons. (1) These were the ancestors of African Americans who need to be proud of and build upon their legacy. (2) They counteract some of the miseducation to which all Americans have been exposed. (3) They help to highlight the fact that the American experience of Black people created the health disparities that we see today.

Who would believe that in this one country, life expectancy for African Americans is 4 or 5 years shorter than for white Americans; that infant mortality among Black Americans is far above that of white Americans; that death from diabetes, lead poisoning, cancer, and a host of other illnesses and diseases show the same results? Who would believe that high rates of respiratory ailments and morbid obesity are also much more prevalent among Black Americans? When one looks at mental health, there are the same kinds of statistics for low self-esteem, depression, and stress-related illnesses. Based upon research by Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, one can definitely add post traumatic slave syndrome to the list of mental health conditions. In short, the health and wellness of African Americans is not nearly what it should be, given the wealth of the country and the current state of healthcare and medical science. Who would believe these disparities in a country where Black people have been “freed” and racism is supposedly dead? 

Historian Kenneth Stampp, in “The Peculiar Institution,’ recorded the existent myths about the enslaved Africans and the neglect of their health and healthcare during slavery. Among other things, there were the myths of Africans being very different biologically, the idea of the enslaved being able to endure more physical labor and even the idea of their not having souls as Europeans. These myths led to their horrific treatment, which in turn helped create the health disparities. Dr. Harriet Washington has delved even more deeply into the ways in which Black people have been experimented on and neglected in terms of their health, based upon similar myths. This, too, helped create and maintain the health disparities. These findings are outlined in her book, “Medical Apartheid.” Psychologist DeGruy-Leary’s “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” does the same thing regarding Black mental well-being.

There is no better time than now to destroy the myths, broadcast the facts, and to reverse the conditions regarding African American health and wellness. There is no better time to put an end to the continued experimentations and medical neglect of Black citizens. There is no better time to capitalize on the knowledge that has long existed in Africa. All of this can be exponentially advanced by at least underscoring the work of and increasing the number of Black medical scientists and health care professionals in this country. It would be another testimony that the health and wellness of African Americans is of prime importance now and into the infinite future.

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Health and wellness among African peoples – facts and myths

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 28, 2022