Editor’s note: For generations, Juneteenth has been celebrated by some Black families in America to commemorate the day that people illegally kept in slavery two years beyond the end date decreed in the Emancipation Proclamation were freed. This month, Oregon and the United States took steps to extend that celebration to the rest of the country by making Juneteenth — June 19 — an official state and federal holiday. Like many employers, OPB is joining in.
On this day, we are elevating Black voices — including the voices of OPB digital producer David Stuckey and Black Men’s Wellness founder Darrell Wade. They spoke together on the same day the city of Minneapolis agreed to the largest pretrial civil rights settlement ever over the killing of George Floyd, and talked about their experiences as Black men in America in the 21st Century, as well how the health needs of Black people are shaped by the world they live in.
The American pastime of lynching never ended — the foliage evolved.
From branches and bark to bars and barbed wire, the United States has always found a way to dehumanize Black people and watch as their blood fertilizes the ground with a greatness the majority claims (when beneficial) as American. And throughout the entire history of this country, this barbaric ritual has been done with that familiar smirk.
Fortunately for Black people, what they’ve always had to help them adapt, navigate and survive the journey to liberation is: Black people. The teenager of the known world. A myth so tangible its history hidden. An energy with a fecundity that has improved the world in unmeasurable ways.
Enter Darrell Wade of Black Men’s Wellness.
Hailing from St. Louis, Wade has seen poverty first hand and now sits on several executive boards in Oregon. In the world’s design, Wade saw that the path for Black men was scattered, not only with brute force, but also with physical ailments and diseases that correlate to long winding tributaries of oppression that have no end in sight.
Wade analyzed an epidemic ravaging the country before COVID-19. An epidemic killing people that looked like the man in the mirror. Like people in his family. He founded Black Men’s Wellness with the goal to improve the health of Black men being disproportionately affected by high blood pressure, hypertension and chronic heart disease.
Hours after the city of Minneapolis awarded $27 million to the family of George Floyd, OPB’s David Stuckey sat down with Wade and discussed his community-based initiative during these times, the debt America owes to the Black world and lastly, the future of beauty.
David Stuckey: What struck me in your bio was the first line where you say “you’re fighting for the wellness of African-American and Black men.” Because the fight really starts within, before you even know how to fight. How has that fight evolved over the years?
Darrell Wade: I think, especially during the protests, and with the pandemic, there was that argument of, ‘Have you guys gone down to the protest,’ you know? And a lot of Black folks, I think, felt obligated, like, should I go down to the protest? But then on the other side you had Black folk that were like: “We done marching.” So I think it’s evolved in the sense that, really just realizing that … waking up in the morning is fighting for my own wellness. Getting out of bed and trying to live, and to be fully present in my body in this oppressive system.
Wellness is now a trending term. I see a lot of it on social media, a lot of hashtags. And I think that it’s a great thing, but honestly, I think just the realization of what you’re facing every day when you get out of bed and put both of your feet on the floor, and realizing that you’re fighting for your wellness from the moment that you pull the cover off, you know what I’m saying?
Stuckey: In what ways?
Wade: In a multitude of ways. And so, in terms of Black Men’s Wellness, it has evolved literally to solely focus on awareness around hypertension, heart disease and chronic disease. And the reason being is because most of us don’t take it as seriously as we should. And in my opinion, it was already an epidemic that was severely under addressed. When I started doing research and found statistics on the CDC webpage and stats on The American Heart Association’s page. I was like, oh my God!
And a lot of us just don’t know. I was part of an event called Beat the BP (Beat the Blood Pressure), put on by physicians over at OHSU. And they were saying that Black folks died of heart disease at a rate more than 25 percent higher than white folks – from high blood pressure and heart disease. Twice the rate!
I said, how is that possible? So I researched if there were any programs to address this and I didn’t find any.
I think, as a community, we’re so overwhelmed with needs, we’re still recovering from recovery. The crack epidemic and the gang violence of the ’90s.
Stuckey: And we both grew up during that time and seeing those things in our neighborhoods.
Wade: Exactly. And I tell people, you know, talking about PTSD?
When there were rumors of a civil war and some people were like: oh there’s going to be a civil war. Well I said: we already survived a civil war!
Stuckey: The war on drugs.
Wade: The war on drugs. Two opposing factions fighting over what? Resources. Whether it’s economic or whether it’s land. And crack was a resource.
So, yeah, I have PTSD, man. I mean, we all do from that. We’re still recovering from that. We’re still trying to de-stigmatize mental health in the Black community. And that’s another goal of Black Men’s Wellness.
Because high blood pressure is affected by so many outside agitators, you know? I mean, you look like you’re in good shape, but you could totally be so stressed out, that you have hypertension. It’s not always obesity. It’s not always diet and exercise. Sometimes it’s your mental wellbeing and emotional wellbeing.
Stuckey: For someone that doesn’t have much knowledge, could you tell me what causes hypertension, high blood pressure and chronic heart disease and if I do have it, how can I manage it?
Wade: First of all, I am not a physician, want to put that disclaimer out there. But there’s multiple causes for hypertension and high blood pressure. One being diet. Second being exercise. Stress. Emotional stress. And those are primary contributing factors to hypertension and heart disease.
So, if you look at me, someone could say, well, he’s not obese. He looks like he is in good shape. He looks like he works out. Right? But often it’s my stress that I walk around with… I’m way off the chart with my blood pressure and I do take medication. So, medication is one way [to help] and you know, especially in the Black community, there’s a stigma around medication and I was resistant to it as well. I’m on the lowest dose of high blood pressure medication. I’m also increasing my leafy greens. I have a goal of 10,000 steps a day. So diet and exercise is a great way to start. Water is something that we don’t talk about and watching your salt intake. And managing your stress levels.
We [Black Men’s Wellness] did a meditative coloring event that was curated and put on by our mental health facilitator who discovered coloring actually relaxes and improves sleep. And it wasn’t just coloring. What we did was put on some low-fi hip hop, low-fi jazz, and we just colored. That was for an hour. And for the first 10 minutes it was just silence and then we talked, you know, and after that we just colored and toggled back and forth. It was really cool.
Stuckey: You said stress is a variable that could cause hypertension and high blood pressure in Black men. And we know what 2020 was and dealing with the last presidency that was based on oppressing non-white people in any capacity possible.
Stuckey: Now, couple that with being a Black man, seeing all this stuff on the news, seeing people being murdered. People talk about George Floyd, but if somebody really reads the news every day you would realize there’s a brother Floyd in a lot of small towns that you don’t ever hear about.
Wade: Or because it wasn’t caught on tape. And it took a while for us to hear about George Floyd.
Stuckey: Yes. And that is a very singular stress because Black folk, and Black men specifically, are getting killed at a higher rate. I’m not going to say killed just by police but by America. And it’s on purpose. These killings are on purpose. And no one wants to say it: So is there a correlation between that and high blood pressure and hypertension in our community?
Wade: [sarcastic laugh] Yeah. It elevates your stress levels through the roof. Because you’re just constantly, even if you’re not consciously worried about your safety, you’re subconsciously concerned about your safety, and that is going to take a toll, especially because the way stress attacks our bodies. You don’t necessarily feel it right away. It’s over time.
It’s a slow choke.
So we’re constantly having to fight for our wellbeing in a sense. Because we know we’re in a hostile environment. You wake up in a hostile environment.
As Black men, you just do.
And that puts stress on your arteries, your heart valves. Because I’m constantly stressed out. And it’s not just for us, you know, for your loved ones. You know, I’m concerned about my nephew.
You know, my wife. I went to college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and she went to school in Salt Lake City. And we took, you know, we compared notes about racism. We grew up completely different. Like economically she grew up middle class, you know, and I grew up below the poverty line. But our experiences in turn, the racism, are like near identical. And so, when I was in school and I was taking night classes, I would come home and she would still be awake. And she was an early to bed, early riser. And I said, “Baby, why, why are you still awake?”
She’d say: “I just want to know that you got home safe.” She wasn’t afraid of me being killed in like a drive-by shooting or anything like that. This was during Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. And she was like: “I just want to know. I’m afraid. I think about you being pulled over. And it not going well.”
She shouldn’t have to think about that. Right? And so she would literally stay up till, you know, a couple of hours passed her own bedtime. So, now she’s also sacrificing herself. Because she needs that rest. She needs those hours of sleep. And now she’s stressing and sacrificing her physical well-being because she’s sacrificing sleep for me.
Stuckey: You said something while we were walking earlier, about how the initial response for money on this initiative focusing on Black men’s health was slow … but after the murder of George Floyd, it’s different. It’s different?
Wade: Oh, definitely. COVID interrupted our ability to fundraise, to do an in-person fundraiser. And it’s hard to do a virtual fundraiser when you’re a grassroots startup, nonprofit. Right? And no one’s ever heard of me and me saying, “Give money to my organization, right now.” But now people are giving [money].
Stuckey: So I’ve always been a Malcolm X person, even as a child. That has always been my guy. One of my favorites of his is how he called the March on Washington “The Farce on Washington.” Because he said (and I’m paraphrasing): “This is for white people, so they can feel better.”
Malcolm said, “they let Martin Luther King speak but they didn’t let Jimmy speak.” Because James Baldwin would have been articulate in a different way, ya know? He would have said things to make white people look inward instead of telling people to look outward, to a far-off land. So all of these statements from companies, and money exchanging hands, commercials, signs in yards, etc. etc.
Because if you look back, Malcolm wasn’t necessarily wrong about it being a farce on Washington because we’re still fighting for the same shit today. So is this another farce?
Wade: Only time will tell. [long pause]
Whether it’s a farce or not? That’s a question I don’t think I can really answer.
Because in my opinion… [long pause] America, essentially, has an unforgivable debt to Black folk. And it’s accruing interest.
You know, I’m thankful for the contributions. But … because here’s the thing. If it’s based in guilt, it’s not sustainable.
Guilt’s not sustainable.
Because what happens is, that support will dry up as soon as people feel like, “oh, racism over.” And then until you see the next Trayvon Martin or George Floyd, and then they will be like “oh.” But just like you said, it’s happening in small towns that we’re not hearing about.
Stuckey: To switch gears just a bit to the initiatives. What do you have on the calendar for 2021 with Black Men’s Wellness?
Wade: We’ll have a healthy eating workshop. We have a kayaking stand up, paddle boarding workshop that we’re working on. And then I would like to do a second round of the coloring event. Especially when things open and it’s hot. And the meditative color event, that eventually can spread, spread nationwide. Right. You know what I’m saying?
And all the events are free. When I say I’m fighting for wellness, I’m really fighting for access to wellness, you know? But I also wanted to mention one way to manage stress. I’m learning about meditation more. Look, everyone doesn’t live in the Pacific Northwest and have these mountain views.
I was on a panel with a brother from Dallas and he said, Well I don’t have the green space, what can I do?”
You can meditate. You can wake up in the morning. Even if you just turn on some chill, instrumental music from Dilla and you can just close your eyes, even if it’s short. Just to focus on your breathing and get centered for the day. You know, even if it’s five minutes, it makes a huge difference. It’s, you know, to help with stress reduction in terms to lower blood pressure. Right? And if you have access to a park near you, you know, some sort of green space helps.
Stuckey: OK, money is no object. What’s your Black Men’s Wellness event??
Wade: I would love to do a retreat…any place that is densely populated, internationally, by Black folks, whether it’s the Caribbean, the Virgin islands. The African coast. I would love to do a wellness retreat. I would love to take brothers on a retreat to Barbados. Because I suspect, and I can’t prove this, but I suspect that the health and wellness of Black men and women internationally is drastically different than it is in the United States.
Stuckey: The last question is, what’s the future? We’ve talked about high blood pressure, what you need to do to lower stress levels. So what’s the future of Black men’s health…mental, physical…what’s the future look like for us?
Wade: Like I said, I mean, I think the capacity to forgive and forget is something, I don’t think has been exhibited by any culture in the world.
Stuckey: I would say in the history of mankind.
Wade: In the history of mankind.
Stuckey: So that future?
Wade: [longest pause] It’s hard to say.
It’s hard to say.
I do think we’re seeing a normalization of health and wellness in the Black community and in Black men. And I think, thankfully, because it started with this mass awakening.
So I think the future [of Black men’s health] is normalization. That’s been one of our biggest barriers.
And so I’m just, I’m hoping that the future of Black men’s wellness, it’s just the normalization of wellness itself. You know what I’m saying? And doing all facets.
I’m hoping that as we introduce people. That is the goal. To introduce Black men to various forms of wellness that they will then take on themselves.
And then say. What else do I want to try? Maybe I want to try snowboarding. Maybe I want to try getting therapy. Right? You know, maybe I want to do this, like, meditation.
I think a lot of us rely on substance abuse, you know, unhealthy relationships, and that’s our form of wellness.
So, you know , stepping out of our boxes. That’s what I’m hoping. The future of Black men’s health and wellness is a normalization of it.
Let me tell you something true.
I remember, back when I was six years old,
Daddy said the world’s so cold,
There is something that you should know.
You’re so gorgeous, nothing’s really worth your time,
But someday soon you just might find,
The truth about the world’s design.
To be beautiful is to be hunted.
I can’t change the truth.
I can’t get you used to this.
– Childish Gambino, 2020
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.