In 1983, Eleanor Hinton Hoytt counted as one of 2,000 women at the first National Conference on Black Women's Health at Spellman College in Atlanta. Her involvement as an organizer was prompted by her grave concerns about the state of black women's physical and emotional health. Then, as now, she said, her trepidation was summed up in a nutshell by Fannie Lou Hamer's famous utterance of being "sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Much to her chagrin, Hoytt said black women in America are not significantly better off from a health perspective than they were more than 30 years ago.
So Hoytt, president of the Black Woman's Health Imperative, said she decided to write a book, "Health First! The Black Woman's Wellness Guide" which she describes as a step-by-step guide to better health and living. Her co-author is Hilary Beard, an award-winning health journalist who specializes in health, healthy lifestyles and personal development.
The book is divided by age group and caters to women from 20 to 74, Hoytt said. For each group, the book offers facts and information and that are of benefit to adolescents, young adults, those in mid-life and the mature. It dispels myths while concentrating on the Top 10 health risks and the effects of these - violence, cancer, depression, heart diseases, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and strokes on black women.
Rather than presenting just a snapshot of the health landscape, the authors share with readers how to beat the odds by developing and adhering to healthy lifestyles and then they focus on how black women can take care of themselves by embracing the concepts of healthy bodies, minds and spirits. Of equal importance is what they term as "self-care" – from knowing one's body and assessing one's health, to drawing a hot bath, replete with candles and soft music to keeping annual medical checkups.
One of the books most appealing features is the personal stories of women who spoke about having a heart attack or a stroke, coping with depression and dealing with other health challenges. Their stories are poignant, inspiring and illustrate the womens' triumph against the odds.
"The book delves into "who we are, how we are and what we know about ourselves, seeing ourselves differently with a new set of eyes and the potential of knowing we can be well," said Hoytt. "I want women to travel a path towards spiritual healing and emotional and physical health. We see this as life-changing. It's not a recipe. We're asking them to look at themselves and see the real truths."
"We indulge in a lot of denial, self-neglect and lack of self-love. This is a move toward tough care," said Hoytt, 68.
At the risk of sounding naïve, Hoytt said she seeks nothing less than a revolution around black women and their health.
"Women understand the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit," she said. "We call on our spirit's help in order to be okay. But it's not enough. I truly believe that if one person does it, more can. I want a revolution. This is not enough for us. We need happiness, joy and good relationships."
"...We have to change, achieve health equity and begin changing our actions, looks, speech, attitude and language. We have to come to grips with what makes us happy."
In the book's foreword, Byllye Y. Avery, founder of the Black Women's Health Imperative, recalls the driving forces behind the conference.
"Over 2,000 black women came together to start conversations about topics previously thought unspeakable: emotional and sexual abuse, domestic violence and abortion. We talked about becoming pregnant as teenagers and how being mothers too early meant being mothers for too long. We knew we had to take the risk of talking honestly about things we'd never talked about before," wrote Avery, an activist on women's issues and winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in 1989.
"We simply knew that, in Fannie Lou Hamer's famous words, we were 'sick and tired of being sick and tired.' We knew those words described our frustrations, our anguish, and our need to connect with other black women who felt the same urgent drive to find the tools that would engage us in changing our lives."
Hoytt agrees with Avery that most black women are unaware that they are entangled "in a conspiracy of silence, keeping ourselves victims of the oppression that racism, sexism, classism and homophobia fueled."
She said black women have been abused, ignored and neglected, and though they want to be well, "no one has given us permission to take that first step." Black women often live lives of quiet desperation that is characterized by lack of access to adequate healthcare, having to raise children as single mothers, being caught up in dysfunctional and sometimes violent relationships and marriages, and grappling with a range of health and other related issues, all of which take a massive toll on their health and well-being.
Black women, Hoytt said, face some formidable challenges. She cited the fact that the median income for about 20 million black women in America is $26,000. One in four black women suffer from diabetes or its complications; too many are abused by their spouses and boyfriends; they're not making enough money; have less than perfect children; live in neighborhoods with inadequate lighting and the absence of parks and green space; and have a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30.
The book's introduction further details the stunning array of issues black women face.
"Michelle Obama may be the our nation's first black First Lady, and Oprah Winfrey may have been crowned as the most powerful female force in the American media and among the wealthiest women in the world, but the average black woman struggles. She struggles to get a decent education, earn a living wage and sustain meaningful relationships."
"She struggles to gain the social support she needs, fights society's negative perceptions of her, and deal with her own low self-esteem. She struggles to take care of her children and loved ones, and she struggles even more to take care of her physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being."
Black women's lives "play out within a 'perfect storm' of disease, oppression and misguided optimism," Hoytt explained. The implications for black women's health – or the lack of it – have troubling ramifications for the entire black community. If black women continue to live unhealthy lifestyles and succumb to diseases as varied as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and some cancers, communities across this country will be rocked to their core, Hoytt asserts.
"There is so much against us," she said. "We have not delved into truth and we need to. We have to say no, push the plate aside, take to walking 10 blocks away."
Despite the dire scenario, Hoytt, mother of a 37-year-old daughter, said all is not lost.
Women who fall into the 40-64 age-group represent the largest number of black women. They earn more and have a better chance of making more money. They usually have health insurance and have the greatest potential to have a partner.
Women, she said, need to recognize and understand the varied factors which influence women's decisions, shape their lives and ultimately provide a path to good health.
She said she is confident that black women can do as they have done through this country's history and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
One positive development in black women's favor is President Obama's healthcare law which provides "an institutional path that will give us access to better care and put more of us in charge of our health. We will no longer have to make co-payments for preventive services such as mammograms, PAP tests and testing for STDS," the authors explain in the book's Introduction.
"If we get sick we no longer need to worry about our policies being cancelled or unreasonable limits set on the amount of care that's covered ..."
At the end of the day, Hoytt said, there is a certain beauty of black women wresting control of every aspect of their lives.
"What would it take to be healthy, black and female?" she asked. "This is the right time, the right conditions. With health reform, this is the right time. We need to take advantage of this. This is the opportune time to take advantage of essential preventative health practices."
"Women deserve more ... we have degrees, job titles, positions, relationships and travel abroad but are we healthy? I think not. Women have a responsibility to protect themselves, love themselves and know themselves. Once they assume that responsibility, they'll really be okay."
Hoytt will be at three book signings this week in the region:
2/1/2012 – Washington, D.C.
Lecture & Book signing—12 p.m. – 2 p.m.;
National Education Association
1201 15th Street NW, Washington, D.C.
2/1/2012 - Washington, D.C.
Lecture & Book signing– 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.;
Busboys & Poets
2021 14th St NW
2/2/2012 – Baltimore, Md.,
Lecture & Book signing– 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Enoch Pratt Free Library,
400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore, Md.