Black Women’s Health Conference
By Betty Norwood Chaney
Vol. 5, No. 5, 1983, pp. 18-20
In 1970 Byllye Avery had it made. She was married to a wonderful man. He was college educated and had a good job. They owned their home, had a station wagon and two children. They were a black family achieving the American dream.
Suddenly, Byllye Avery’s husband died of a heart attack at age thirty-three, a casualty of hypertension (killer of one out of every four blacks). Only after years of cardiovascular stress, usually producing no symptoms which require medical attention, does high blood pressure result in major complications: stroke, heart attack, heart or kidney failure and the premature death and disability of hundreds of thousands of people each year.
High blood pressure occurs more frequently among blacks than whites; it develops earlier in life, is more severe and causes higher mortality at younger ages. Deaths from hypertension before age forty are six to seven times more common in blacks than whites.
The loss of her husband changed Byllye Avery’s life. Realizing that degrees, jobs, money or middle class trappings matter little without good health, she began a crusade to improve health care education and conditions for blacks.
Avery co-founded the Gainesville (Florida) Women’s Health Center and Birthplace, Alternative Birthing Center. Her discoveries about the conditions of black women’s health appalled her. Not only was the incidence of hypertension in black women double that of the rest of the population, but so were the rates of diabetes, cancer and lupus. And because black women-headed households make up fifty-three percent of all U.S. households in poverty, the demands of living for black mothers lead to psychological distress for more than half of the black female population. Additionally, the problem of teenage pregnancy is a major health and social concern and black infant mortality rates are twice those of whites.
“If sickness and suffering among blacks is to be reduced,” Avery said, “it will be through the development of a new consciousness about health and well being among black women.”
Over two years ago, Byllye Avery conceived the idea of a national conference on black women and health. Sponsored by the Black Women’s Health Project and the National Women’s Health Network, the conference convened this summer on the campus of Spelman College in Atlanta. Over sixteen hundred health care providers, health educators and interested women attended from across the country, overwhelming and almost tripling planners’ expectations. The three-day gathering featured workshops, speeches, films, self-help demonstrations, exhibits and cultural and physical fitness activities. Discussion topics included hypertension, diabetes, cancer, lupus, domestic violence, stress, maternal and infant health, teenage pregnancy, elderly abuse and occupational and environmental health.
Dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), activist and freedom fighter, the conference theme was “I’m sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired,” words which Ms. Hamer said often as she struggled to effect change in rural Mississippi. According to conference coordinator Eleanor Hinton-Hoytt, the theme symbolized not only “the struggles and suffering of black women, but also our commitment to seize control of these conditions which affect our lifestyles and health.”
Keynoting the conference, Dr. June Jackson Christmas of the School of Bio-Medical Education, City College of New York, insisted that “we must do more to learn and understand the causes of our being sick; the reasons for our being tired. Black women face the triple jeopardy of being black, female and poor in a racist, sexist and class
The goal was to help black women learn to take care of their bodies and take charge of their lives. “At the conference,” says Byllye Avery, “we tried to take care of black women in the way that we think we need to be taken care of–in a way that nobody has taken care of us before.” Sixty workshops ran concurrently with films, exhibits and self-help demonstrations. You could be tested for sickle cell anemia, see a film on natural childbirth or a photo exhibit on black women’s life cycles. The second and third days began with yoga and physical fitness sessions.
All the workshops were well attended but the most popular ones dealt with the psychological conditions of black women. Many illnesses that black women suffer develop amid living conditions of continuous emotional stress. “If we are going to improve our health,” argues Avery, “we first have got to deal with our minds.”
The most popular workshop was, “Black and Female: What is the Reality?” This session, designed and conducted by Lillie Allen, a family medicine educator at the Morehouse School of Medicines’ Family Practice Center. was held three times to overflow crowds. Allen sought to dispel the myth that black women have to be eternal pillars of strength. The women who attended (whites were excluded) shared deeply personal, often painful experiences. The conclusion of this workshop found hundreds of women in tears, embracing one another. “We felt,” said one woman, “tremendous relief.”
“It was amazing,” Allen says, “how one person in talking about an area that was difficult for her helped the other women present. They were able to relate to it and it opened them up. By the end of the workshop the women had become genuinely interested in and supportive of each other.”
Allen’s workshop has prompted the Black Women’s Health Project to make the formation of self-help health
groups across the nation a major goal over the next few years. Already there are more than twenty such groups under the sponsorship of the Project. Although they all share the emphasis on reaching lower income black women and increasing their access to and knowledge of health care services and principles, these groups are very diverse in focus. A Florida self-help group, for instance, aims at reducing high blood pressure through diet and exercise, while a Georgia group has hosted a women’s health weekend in a rural area which included demonstrations on breast self-examination and gynecological self-help.
While the popular cry at the end of the Atlanta conference was for another gathering next year, Avery cautioned that “the real work has yet to be done.” She does not project another national conference until 1986. In the meantime, the BWHP has set as a goal the creation of fifty new self-help groups, a newsletter, a report and a handbook on health issues, regional conferences, and production and distribution of video health education materials and the production of a documentary on the national conference to be shown on Cable Atlanta and other cable television systems.
Individuals or groups who seek more information should contact the Black Women’s Health Project, M.L. King, Jr. Health Center, 450 Auburn Avenue, Suite 157, Atlanta, Georgia 30312, (404) 659-3854.
Betty Norwood Chaney, a former editor of Southern Changes, lives in Atlanta where she is a teacher, mother, and freelance writer.