Black Women's Health: A
Six years ago, my life changed radically. I would learn what it felt like to lose a mother and what it truly
meant to grieve the loss of a loved one. Words cannot explain the depth of emotions I experienced
after my mother's death in a dimly lit intensive care unit where she lay for weeks fighting to recover
from heart valve surgery and several other complications. While she slept under heavy sedation, I
would hold her weary hands — hands no longer able to do the things she loved the most — and
whisper nearly silent prayers asking God to spare her, restore her health, and send her home to be
with us again for many years to come. Like most children, I believed my mother would live for a very
long time, well into old age. Sadly, she was 64 years old when I said goodbye to her at 12:20 p.m. on
May 22, 2006. It is a moment I will never forget.
My mother’s early struggle and death at the hands of heart disease, which began with a heart attack at
age 48, opened my eyes to a deeply troubling reality. Her story was not the exception. Amidst my grief,
I sifted through memories of the many women whose lives had been cut short by illness including all
three of my paternal aunts, my mother-in-law, and countless other women whose hair I shampooed as
a young woman growing up working in my mother’s hair salon in Richmond, Virginia.
Lisa Peyton Caire
As I reflected, I made a list of all of the women’s names — women whose entire families we knew intimately and for whom we shed
countless tears upon the news that they would no longer be coming in for their regular hair appointments. I remembered the many
wakes, funerals and repasts which were increasingly surreal and harder to stomach each time. In looking back, I realized that what
made it so difficult was the realization that these women were young — 38, 45, 48, 50, 52, 60 — and that these beautiful women,
mothers, sisters, friends were dying before their elderly mothers in the prime of their lives, leaving behind children, spouses, lovers,
extended families, colleagues, and friends largely as a result of preventable diseases.
Today, African American women account for roughly seven percent of the U.S. population and fourteen percent of the total population of
women, yet we are overrepresented in all major categories of disease and illness, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes,
cancer, stroke, obesity and reproductive disorders. We are more likely than our white peers to die from heart disease, cancer, and
stroke; to be obese or overweight, or to be diagnosed with HIV. We need not look far within our families or to read local, state, and
national reports to gather that the health of African American women is in a state of duress. Though there are certainly exceptions and a
promising trend of wellness-centered living among a growing number of women of color that is critical to highlight, celebrate, and
replicate, we cannot close our eyes to the dire need to move Black women en masse and across the age spectrum from a place of
survival and coping to one of thriving health and mind-body-spirit wellness.
While turning our attention to the issue of Black women’s health, we must consciously and as a community of citizens, leaders,
advocates, policy makers, pastors, health professionals, medical institutions and community-based organizations, address and resolve
the host of socio-economic and systemic barriers that overlap and exacerbate these alarming conditions. We must advance specific
conversations, public policy, and outreach efforts that target the unique challenges and concerns most heavily impacting Black women
and our families — particularly those of us living in poverty — like access to quality and affordable healthcare, housing, food, childcare,
family-supporting employment and post-secondary education. We must do this with the intention of creating the systemic conditions that
reduce chronic stress and struggle in the lives of Black women, factors that weigh heavily on our health outcomes.
With focus and effective effort, I am certain that we can reverse the epidemic levels of disease, illness and other maladies that are
curbing the potential and shortening the lives of far too many African American women here in the state of Wisconsin and across the
United States. It can and must be done and we all play a role in making it happen.
As for individual Black women, we owe it to ourselves and to our foremothers to choose life over death, wellness over illness, and to
invest the time and energy to place our health and well-being at the top of our list of priorities. Our daily choices and behaviors have the
most direct impact on whether we perish from poor health or flourish over the course of our lifetimes. The road to wellness begins with
us. Let’s get there together, starting today.
Lisa Peyton-Caire is the Founder of Black Women’s Wellness Day, an annual health summit that aims to inform, empower, and inspire
women and girls of African descent to build healthy, wellness-centered lives. This year’s event will be hosted on Saturday, September
22 at the Urban League of Greater Madison. Visit www.bwwday2012.eventbrite.com for more information.