My mother died of lupus when I was 10 years old. She was 35 years old. Lupus is a disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells. It mostly affects women of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to have lupus than their white counterparts. There is no cure for lupus, but people are able to live longer today because of the advances in medicine.

My mother was one of 11 children. Four of her siblings preceded her in death. Despite having diabetes, my grandmother lived into her 90s, as did my paternal grandmother and my paternal great-grandmother, whom I am named after. My paternal great-grandfather lived to be more than 100 years old. His 100th birthday was highlighted in the local paper in Maben, Mississippi.

I always marveled at how long they lived. My friend JoAnne would remark, “They lived differently back then.” Indeed. My grandparents grew up in rural segregated Mississippi without modern conveniences. There was no microwave or washing machine. Food was grown in a garden and there was probably a farm that had chickens, pigs and cows. Clothes were hung up on a line to dry after a deep washing in a washtub. And people just moved more. They walked everywhere. Their treks to work, school and church were probably mini-marathons or long hikes that covered more than a couple of miles. There were no diets or gym memberships. Yet folks lived a long time.

I can’t imagine what health care looked like back then. But I do know that over the years there has been a mistrust of the medical field in the African American community. 

There was the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of Black men in Alabama, who thought they were being treated for “bad blood,” were unknowingly given syphilis in 1932. The disease was left untreated for 40 years in the name of research, causing blindness in some, and even death. 

In some Southern states, Black women were sterilized without their knowledge. Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer went to the hospital in 1961 for a surgery to remove a uterine tumor and the doctors gave her a hysterectomy.   

Fannie Lou Hamer gave a riveting testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Years earlier, In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her knowledge when she had surgery to remove a uterine tumor. Credit: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Decades earlier, North Carolina’s Eugenics Board authorized the sterilization of thousands of Black women. And more recently, the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used in medical research without her family’s knowledge or consent, received a settlement from the company that profited from products that were developed from Lacks’ cells.  

This lack of trust has led to African Americans not getting important health care that could save their lives or deal with preventable diseases.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, in 2019 Black Americans were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than their white counterparts. They were 2.5 times as likely to be hospitalized with diabetes and twice as likely to die from the disease.

CDC data shows that in 2019, Black Americans were 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than their white counterparts, and that more than half of Black women had high blood pressure. The Office of Minority Health also found that Black men were twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than white men and Black women were nearly 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.

In Louisiana, the state’s Center for Health Equity has noted that the state often ranks “49th or 50th in state health outcomes” and that there’s a nearly 20-year difference in life expectancy based on where you live, your gender and and your race. 

In New Orleans, according to the Tulane University School of Medicine, there is a 25.5 year difference in life expectancy depending on where you live in the city.

Since moving to New Orleans nearly a year ago from Washington, D.C., I haven’t had my annual wellness check, my annual pap smear or a mammogram. I probably need to get my eyes checked and do something about this persistent cough. These health screenings are important — especially If I want to live as long as my great-grandfather. 

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Lottie L. Joiner, assistant managing editor at Verite, is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience covering issues that impact underserved and marginalized communities. She...