Several weeks ago, during an impromptu visit to a barbershop in West Baltimore, I engaged in thought-provoking dialogue with about two dozen Black men about their health, wellness and vitality in the age of COVID-19. The shop, nestled in a thriving commercial district in Baltimore along Charles Street, served as an encouraging space for the conversation: Images of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Huey P. Newton adorned the walls, and tranquil music by John Coltrane and Miles Davis accompanied the buzzing sound of clippers.
The men in the barbershop ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. A few Black male youth accompanied their fathers, participating in the age-old tradition. The barbershop is one of the most sacred institutions in the Black community. Whether they stop in for shape-ups, fades or shaves, Black men in barbershops share unique reflections about issues impacting them and their families. For Black men, barbershop conversations are almost like a rite of passage.
The spirited, intergenerational conversation I participated in addressed the adverse social, emotional and health-related challenges facing Black men. From navigating daily life, to police interactions to chronic stress, Black men face uphill battles in pursuit of healthy lifestyles.
The men in the shop reflected deeply on childhood experiences and their ongoing struggles to become better sons, uncles, fathers and husbands. Many of them lamented fallen comrades who lost their lives to health challenges, including COVID-19, drug overdoses, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, AIDS and prostate cancer. Listening to the names of sons, uncles and fathers was simultaneously cathartic and frightening. It was unnerving hearing the narratives about Black men who died in their early 30s from preventable maladies, or listening to men discussing childhood friends who had a foot amputated due to diabetes. One young man, in for a beard shape-up, shared the emotional journey of having part of his foot amputated at age 29.
Through heightened levels of transparency and vulnerability, the men in the shop discussed their fears and apprehensions about going to the doctor. They were honest about their reluctance — citing the infamous “Tuskegee Experiment” — and their general distrust in Baltimore’s medical institutions. In their own words, the men articulated the relationships between the social determinants of health, distrust of the medical profession and the impact race and class have on accessing quality health care in Baltimore. Sadly, several men said it had been at least a decade since their last visit to their primary care physician, and they were worried about getting bad news.
I shared my family’s recent pain over losing my brother, Peter C. Miller Jr., 55, a lifelong West Baltimore resident and retired Marine who lost faith in medical institutions decades ago. A former athlete who exercised regularly, my brother represented yet another glaring example of the importance of regular doctor’s visits. Like so many Black men in the barbershop that day, Peter was apprehensive about scheduling annual physicals and screenings for prostate cancer, colon cancer and other services recommended for Black men over 40. And in March, stomach cancer took his life.
From diabetes to colon cancer, Black men are disproportionately impacted by certain illnesses when compared to their white counterparts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black men are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than white males, 36% of Black men are obese, and nearly 4 million African Americans age 20 and up have diabetes.
If we are truly committed to the health and prosperity of Black families, addressing the health crisis among Black men must absolutely become a priority for our health care institutions, public agencies, elected leaders, equity advocates and our communities.
Among the initiatives we should undertake:
- Targeting Black men with education and outreach emphasizing disease prevention and health maintenance, perhaps through a citywide campaign that enlists the help of prominent, well-respected members of the Black community, like U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, to stress the importance of weekly exercise, eating a nutritious, healthy diet, increasing one’s water intake and reducing smoking and alcohol consumption;
- Improving medical staff training to foster better understanding of the historical context regarding trust — or the lack thereof — that exists among Black people when it comes to doctors;
- Increasing investment in and access to free and affordable health care services in communities struggling with generational poverty and poor health outcomes;
- Creating a pipeline of Black men interested in careers in health care — physicians, nurses, radiology technologists, dentists, physical therapists and so on.
While plenty of Baltimore’s resources are understandably focused on homicides and non-fatal injuries, Black men in Baltimore are also dying from the silent killers of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. It is time to sound the alarm.
David C. Miller (email@example.com) is the author of “Dare To Be King: What If the Prince Lives?” and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Social Work at Morgan State University.