Juneteenth celebrations aim to reclaim narrative on Black health

MADISON, Wis. — This week the U.S. marks the anniversary of the emancipation of people who have been enslaved. Juneteenth festivities begin Wednesday in Madison, with events scheduled each day until Saturday’s parade at Penn Park.

Although the holiday is a celebration, systemic racism still exists today. And the COVID-19 pandemic exposed and amplified racial disparities, especially in healthcare.

Black people make up 7% of Wisconsin’s population. But of those fully vaccinated, Black people only make up 3.5%.

The Black community was especially plagued by COVID across the country. In Wisconsin, they made up 12% of hospitalizations and 7.5% of deaths.

“There’s vaccination pop-ups all over our community. But that has not yielded the results that we need as a community, as well as the health system (needs) to get on top of this,” said Annie Weatherby Flowers.

Weatherby Flowers is the found of Kujichagulia-Madison Center for Self Determination and Madison’s Juneteenth celebration.Juneteenth

“We want our people to be a more effective part of the Madison community. That is our mission statement,” she said. “How do we help our community with social and personal responsibility? One of the ways for that is you connect folks to truth.”

That’s why Black health issues are a big focus of this year’s Juneteenth events. On Friday, there are three virtual conversations with doctors and experts about social determinants for health, influencing precision medicine, and autoimmune diseases affecting Black and Brown people.

“(We’ll) talk about the dynamics of what it’s going to be like moving forward now that we’ve experienced a global pandemic and what that means for Black Americans and the Black community locally,” said Joshua Wright, community project coordinator at the Carbone Cancer Center.

The conversations won’t be just about COVID, but will also focus on the issues that made the Black community more susceptible to COVID.

“Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, those types of things that you’re talking about, Alzheimer’s, cancer. These are all different conditions that the Black population has experienced with disproportionate outcomes,” said Wright.

Right now less than 34% of the Black community in Dane County has had at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s compared to 53% of people in the Latinx community and 62% of the White community.

Dane Co Data 15th

“That’s because of trust, you know. And the lack of relationship or feeling like your doctor really cares about you or are they just creating something else to bring harm to Black folks,” said Weatherby Flowers.

Leaders believe lack of access to vaccines is also preventing many people in the Black community from being vaccinated.

Organizers have invited UW Health to host a pop-up vaccine clinic at Saturday’s Juneteenth parade.

Shiva Bidar, UW Health’s Chief Diversity Officer, said there will also be physicians there to answer questions.

“The (lack of) access is not just access to the vaccine. It’s also access to trusted information,” said Bidar.

She is hopeful that people will trust the vaccinators at Saturday’s clinic and come get their questions answered. But she understands why many in the Black community are hesitant.

“There’s just a general mistrust of government systems and health systems and healthcare because of really both a history of harm that has happened, but also the current harm. I mean racism exists currently,” said Bidar.

For more information on Madison’s Juneteenth events, click here.