- Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination
In recent decades the Black Panther Party (BPP) has been the subject of scores of books and countless academic articles. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination provides an enthusiastic recounting of the organization's work establishing community health centers and sickle cell anemia programs.
Body and Soul consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. In chapter 1 Nelson gives a historical overview of black health care struggles, constructing a threefold framework: institution building, integrationism, and politics of knowledge. Nelson highlights key black social reform leaders, women's activism, and rights organizations. These activists organized black hospitals and health education campaigns, as well as helped to integrate medical institutions. [End Page 297] Nelson also covers W. E. B. Du Bois's The Health and Physique of the Negro American as a seminal survey refuting racist health science.1
Nelson's threefold interpretation has gaps and questionable conclusions. It generally overlooks the black medical and nursing schools, perhaps the national black community's chief response to medical (including hospital) discrimination. Nelson suggests the Panthers' self-isolated "health clinics" were a modern equivalent to the black hospitals of pre-World War II black America. But the geographic and structural range of black hospitals, medical and nursing schools, and physician practices were broad and complexly woven from a wide array of support elements: local black physicians, town leaders, federal agencies (Freedmen's Hospital in D.C.), and white philanthropists, as well as middle-class-oriented churches and lay supporters in the various cities. All these social segments revered the scientific idealism and religious aura of medical healing. And all intended to spread these ideals through health and hygiene work among worthy poor blacks—quite different motivations from the radical lay health orientation championed by the Black Panthers.
The narrow ideologies that shaped the Black Panther's health initiatives are the subject of chapter 2. Nelson shows that the Panthers were most influenced by the anticolonial psychiatry of Franz Fanon. From his writings Panthers came to believe medical illnesses among society's black and poor were causally linked to political conditions. A second key influence was Ernesto "Che" Guevera and his social mobilization ideas; a third, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung and his theories of populist politics and "bare foot" doctor-led health institutions, geared to "serve the people" (p. 70).
Chapter 3 covers the Black Panthers' health centers, named "People's Free Medical Clinics." According to Nelson, these "clinics became the infrastructure for the Party's health programs" (p. 77) Nelson repeatedly refers to the centers as "clinics"—never clarifying if and when in the text she is using the term in its medical-legal meaning. Nelson writes that during the late 1960s and early 1970s, of "the thirteen Black Panther clinics established . . . all contained examination tables, offered primary healthcare [and] collaborated with medical professionals . . ." (pp. 92-93). No footnote is provided for this statement. Furthermore, Panther chapters "were able to secure municipal, state, or federal funding to support their initiatives" (p. 105). But no source is cited for this, and none of the specific cities or agencies is identified. Medical and social historians utilize city-specific medical institutional and public health materials as vital to the works they produce. In this chapter, and other sections (e.g., the Conclusion) that describe the Party's health services, the sources appear to be largely one-sided: mostly the BPP official newspaper, interviews with former BPP members, and isolated news articles. [End Page 298]
Chapter 4 covers the expansion of the Black Panthers' health activism into tackling the sickle cell disease problem among blacks. This section provides detailed descriptions, including photographic images, of Panthers health personnel conducting sickle cell screening and educational events. Nelson describes the mindset behind the Panthers' enthusiasm for these activities. The "state's failure" to address the sickle cell anemia crisis was "for the...