Blue Heart

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, what will it take for racial healing in America? A personal tragedy touches off a powerful meditation on the costs of racism and the transformative effects of listening to each other's stories.

Gail C. Christopher
15 July 2013

Ntianu Imani Christopher (left) and Vivien Thomas (right). All rights reserved.

The doctors grew quiet, which is never a good sign. On reflection, I now realize there was a clear inconsistency between their words and the weight of their facial expressions during that seemingly eternal moment of silence. But their words offered hope. What new parents wouldn’t cling to hope?

We buried Ntianu, our baby girl, six weeks later – “Tetralogy of Fallot” the doctors said (also known as “blue baby syndrome”), despite the ray of hope that had accompanied the doctors’ earlier words: “when she is older, we will perform open heart surgery to correct the defect.”

Decades later I learned the story of Vivien Thomas, who created the complex surgical procedure that could have saved her life. As a lab assistant in partnership with Dr. Alfred Blalock, Thomas was the first person to figure out how to divide the subclavian artery and sew it into the pulmonary artery that supplies blood to the lungs. The arteries of infants are tiny compared to those of the animals in the laboratory on which Thomas had perfected the procedure, so he had to design special needles that could make sutures small enough to heal properly and assure that the lungs would become re-oxygenated - turning blue babies healthy again and able to live long and normal lives.

In fact, in 1950, the year I was born, Blalock and Thomas operated on their one thousandth Blue Baby. In subsequent years hundreds of thousands of other infants were saved by their procedure. So how was it that twenty-one years later in 1971, my African American blue baby was denied this life saving operation, which had, ironically, been created by an African American genius?

One can only speculate about why the doctors in a small hospital on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio did not use it. She was African American. We lived in a racially-segregated neighborhood where the hospital was located. The physicians were white. It was not a large teaching hospital. But I will never know for sure why this surgery was never mentioned, nor why we were told that “nothing could be done for at least five years.”

However, my loss pales in comparison to the immeasurable human potential that goes unrealized every day because of our failure to remove the scourge of racism, and the denial of the humanity of anyone perceived as the “other.” Its shadow looms large today in racial and ethnic violence, as well as in those institutional and structural forms of racism and exclusion that I may have been dealing with in that inner-city hospital.  

Vivien Thomas managed to do the impossible for a black man of his era, though it was the pragmatic kindness of a white man, Alfred Blalock, that made possible their shared success. When the rules and norms of the time said “no” to Thomas having a meaningful place in the laboratory, Blalock recognized his talent and fought to keep him at his side, and to get him paid more than the janitor’s salary that was allowed by university policies. The surgical procedure that Thomas perfected and that Blalock performed successfully ushered in the entire field of cardiac surgery in the USA. Thomas went on to train a generation of African American cardiac surgeons and was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. 

Vivien Thomas’ life story is a penetratingly-sharp illustration of the costs that racism imposes on individuals and societies. How much human progress has been stifled by such ignorance? How many other geniuses of color have been marginalized, forgotten or never realized? And how many lives have been lost or thwarted as a result? Glaring racial inequalities in mortality, education outcomes and income levels begin to provide an answer to that question. In 2010, researchers estimated that health disparities cost the United States economy over $1.24 trillion between 2003 and 2006. These costs included increased health care spending, reduced labor market productivity and revenue loss, and costs incurred from the premature deaths of people of color from chronic diseases.

These costs are related to health disparities alone, but perhaps the most striking illustration of the persistent effects of the racialized history of the USA is the ever-expanding wealth divide. Analysts from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy concluded that the total wealth gap between white American and African American families tripled during the 25 years from 1984 to 2009, driven by factors including years of home ownership, household income, college completion rates and persistently-high unemployment, particularly among young adults. All these drivers are linked to racial segregation, related public policies and economic disinvestments in minority communities. So what will it take to end racism in America?

New laws, policies and resource-allocations are vital but not sufficient. Change must go much deeper, and to that end, the America Healing initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation supports communities who are willing to make the journey towards reconnecting and re-affirming their individual and collective humanity or wholeness.

Racism - the belief in a hierarchy of human value based on physical characteristics - is a fallacy, a false story inherited from seventeenth-century philosophers and scientists. So we have found that the first step in racial healing consists of sharing counter-stories that can open hearts and alter both conscious and unconsciously-held perceptions, disrupting deeply-internalized beliefs about “the other” in the process. In the words of one of our partners, Rachel Godsill, “because our brains respond so powerfully to information in the form of narratives or stories, those of us engaged in equity work or community empowerment ignore this form of communication at our peril.”

Stories are crucial because they engage our attention and create new meaning.  The 21st century has ushered in an era of unparalleled brain science and related research. We are learning how we use parts of our brains to create, store, and access not only information, but the meaning of that information for us as individuals and its implications for the societies we live in. The power of narrative is emerging as an important piece of these discoveries.

It seems as human beings, we are always telling ourselves and others stories about our experiences. We use this warehouse of stories to organize and categorize our ways through life. We call up shared stories to help us make decisions, derive meaning and navigate situations on a daily basis. And as long as the shared stories of our history, power structures, opportunity systems and contemporary media images continue to reflect and affirm racial hierarchies, daily life will reinforce these stereotypes and racism will persist.

Our work shows that there is power in creating “healing circles” that allow diverse individuals to share personal stories of their journeys in the face of racism. The collective experiences that these processes create afford invaluable opportunities for the deep healing that is required if meaningful action is to be taken and sustained. 

A typical circle has 18-20 members drawn from many different organizations, regions and identities. They agree to spend the day together engaged in listening, sharing and affirmation, a process that can be transformative for many people. The invitation to share stories about personal encounters that affirm our humanity usually elicits remembered moments of triumph and resilience in the face of great odds. Such stories also illustrate the vulnerability we share as human beings, thereby deepening both individual and collective capacities to empathize with one another. "An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard" as the saying goes, or “have not felt,” as I would add.

For example, when a renowned economist tearfully shared that his choice of career was driven by witnessing the premature, violent deaths of many of his friends on the streets of his neighborhood as a teenager, the research he shared with the circle about racial disparities in unemployment and incarceration rates took on new and lasting meaning.

This healing work does not replace advocacy for systemic or structural change: quite the contrary. Both are needed to eliminate racism, but social justice will not happen without healing, and healing cannot happen without social justice. This is the cycle of transformation that the twenty-first century demands.

In the words of one of our partners in Alaska, “the most important lessons learned from this project are very simple. At our very core, each individual has an important personal story to share, and we each hold the responsibility to ensure racial equity for all people. By honoring our individual experiences, we can create shared responsibility for our collective future success – but that will only happen in a respectful and open space. We are stronger together.”





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