In her book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, documents the under-reported and highly successful activism undertaken by the Black Panthers and their People’s Free Medical Clinics of the 70s.
The BPP believed that healthcare was “a right and not a privilege,” and so put their beliefs to work with the formation of free clinics that offered poor communities across the country access to health services, coupled with preventative education.
It was this legacy of radicalism and community activism that inspired artist and sculptor Simone Leigh to curate a temporary Free People’s Medical Clinic for Creative Time’s exhibit Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, a live art exhibit that opened on Saturday.
“I felt like creating a clinic to pay respects to the Black Panther Party and to honor the legacy of black radicalism,” said Leigh.
For the installation, Leigh has converted the Stuyvesant Mansion– the former home of the late Dr. Josephine English, the first African-American woman to have an OB/GYN practice in the state of New York– into a temporary space that explores the beauty, dignity and power of black nurses and doctors, whose work is often hidden from view.
There’s a table set up at the entrance outside where passersby can receive free blood pressure and hypertension screenings. Nurses and other women volunteers are dressed in the garb of the 19th century medical pioneers, and young male medical assistants and peer educators conduct healthcare enrollment and HIV testing.
“These are all Brooklyn-based practitioners who are volunteering here, so with this exhibit, I hope people think about the legacy of black nurses and the history of this community.”
The clinic has four areas: a waiting room where patients can read the Waiting Room magazine, featuring poetry, fiction and non-fiction work concerning black people and medicine, or view performances by music artists throughout the day; a relaxation and restoration room for yoga, dance and acupuncture; a room where patients received assistance in Obamacare enrollment and private HIV testing; and a room upstairs for Ob-Gyn care.
No sooner had the clinic’s doors opened than people began wading inside– some out of curiosity, others interested in taking advantage of the free medical assistance.
“My friend told me about it, and I guess I was seeking community sessions like these that are more POC-oriented,” said Akeel St. Vil, 22, of Crown Heights. “I’m a Brooklyn native, but I haven’t been involved in community activities as much as I wanted. So I wanted to come check this out.”
“I’m hoping that the takeaway is that people are reminded about the many efforts that African Americans have made at self-determination and creating their own safe spaces,” said Leigh.
The Free People’s Medical Clinic is located at 375 Stuyvesant Avenue in Bed-Stuy. It is open Friday – Sunday, from 12:00pm – 6:00pm until October 12.
For more information on Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine, visit their website.