If you want to hear some of the most asinine responses to health care you ever want to hear (besides in Congress), ask a black man when was the last time he’s been to the doctor. “Never” is a common response for many men in their 40s and 50s. Ask a black man about his nutrition and the responses are just as ridiculous. Stuff like never having a piece of fruit. You can’t make this stuff up. But ask a black man, any black man, any man – period, where his “little black book” is – and trust me, he not only knows where it is, he can tell you the last time he saw it – though he may never admit to what’s in it. It’s more sacred than his life itself.
But somehow, he never sees his own life (and health) with the same sacredness as he sees that little black book. The nurturing of a black man’s health never seems to have the same priority as nurturing a black man’s “manhood.” He’ll probably take a bite out of his little black book (especially if his woman catches him with it) before he’ll take a bite out of an apple. It is the reality of black men’s health status in America. You may never see a black man go to the doctor (on his own). If you ask most black men, “Who is your doctor,” or “where is your doctor,” you get that dazed looked, as when your woman calls your name after she’s caught you not listening to her and she asks you, “What I just say?”. Same look.
You may not know the last time your man went to the doctor, but you know where to find him, on the regular, when it comes to his “do.” The barbershop – where men talk about anything and everything that has to do with politics, relationships, reality and of course, themselves. Thanks to diabetes specialist, Dr. Bill Releford (pictured), one topic has been added to the barbershop conversation: health. Dr. Releford has established the Black Men’s Barbershop Health Initiative, a national program where doctors and other health care specialists go to hundreds of barbershops and black men are treated for hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic diseases that disproportionately impact black men. At first glance, you wouldn’t think that treating black men wherever they are was such a complex proposition, but it is.
Changing the mindset of black men to see a doctor is a difficult one. Fear of doctors is tied to a vestige of slavery where black male illness was totally ignored. Distrusting doctors has a long history, even before the Tuskegee experiment. Anyone over 60 will tell you that most black men they know used to stay away from doctors and hospitals, particularly in the South, because they felt that if you went in, you would never come out. The fears were associated with misdiagnosis and mistreatment of blacks, particularly those without health care insurance or family doctors.
Health care in America is truly a privilege when it should be a right. Whatever the reasons for past fears, life expectancy of the society in general has gotten longer as black men’s have gotten shorter. Certainly environment and stress play a large part in undiagnosed illnesses, but access to care and quality care for those who desire it is no longer an issue. But that hasn’t caused black men to seek out regular health treatment. You have to admit, it’s cultural. Black men live without health care until they die, most times in poor health, and more often than not, prematurely.
The Black Men’s Barbershop Health Initiative seeks out black men where they are. If you ever try to find black men “where they are,” one place you know for sure where you’ll find black men, every day of the week, is in the barbershop. That’s also cultural. Black men bond at barbershops. They find a level of comfort and trust, yes trust, that they rarely find anywhere in American society outside their homes (and sometimes, not even there). So, Dr. Releford and his doctors began showing up at barbershops and asking simple questions, like “When’s the last time you went to the doctor?” or “When’s the last time you ate a salad?” or “Do you know your numbers?”
You know when you mention “numbers” to a black man, he thinks you’re talking about his numbers in the lotto, or the ones he gives his bookie for the numbers rackets (formerly the poor people’s jackpot before lotteries were legalized). And if you asked for his little black book, you are asking for his “secret stash” of confidential contacts (isn’t that a diplomatic way of putting it) that he generally takes to his grave. You know black men are not big on talking about themselves (beyond their conquests) and certainly not big on giving up information. If you get their real name, or even their first name – you got TMI (too much information).
However, all that’s changed. Dr. Releford’s health initiative now takes away every excuse that black men have for not getting treated. The doctors got to them where they are. Black men are getting tested and treated for chronic illnesses on the spot. And when black men are told to go to the doctor, and they say they don’t have one or don’t know how to find one (most black men are not going to tell you that they don’t have one), they are given “a little black book” of doctors in their area that will treat them for the illnesses they have and will nurse them back to health. A little black book that will keep them from the grave, and one they can share with other black men who suffer in illness and ignorance about their health status. A novel idea that plays to black male machismo in a way that saves his life.
The Black Men’s Barbershop Initiative turns two taboos, black men going to the doctor and black male liaison directories, into preventive measures for extending black male life expectancy. Finding black men where they frequent and frequenting black men with books they are likely to carry just found a new spin, one that will save their lives and that creates a new pathway to the doctor’s office. Who says that black male health care can’t be reformed in this time of health care reform?
Dr. Releford has proven that time and place for black male health care counts as much as knowledge and education. It’s an impressive outreach that should be supported by men, women and children. The next time your man (or father, brother or uncle) says he’s going to the barbershop, know there’s more there than just some conversation. The trip to the barbershop has taken on a whole new experience – one that does more for black men than a cut or a trim. The barbershop is now a lifesaving experience.
Republished with permission from the BlackCommentator.