Black and White Health Differences Explored in Art

Health disparities between African-Americans and Caucasians are nothing new. An art exhibit in Winston-Salem, N.C., lets patients demonstrate the disparities themselves through photos and writing. Rose Hoban of member station WUNC reports.

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A conversation with the director of the new movie, “Dreamgirls.” But first, minority groups received poorer quality healthcare than whites according to recent research. For many of us, these gaps are abstract. But now, an exhibit in Winston Salem, North Carolina, clarifies these disparities among African-Americans in words and photos.

From member station WUNC, Rose Hoban reports.

ROSE HOBAN: Vera Jordan(ph) was only 11 years old when she began to develop skin lesions, and her hair mysteriously began to fall out.

Ms. VERA JORDAN: We didn't have the medical coverage. We didn't have access to medical coverage because of my mom. We grew up poor.

HOBAN: A few years later, Jordan was diagnosed with discoid lupus, a disfiguring autoimmune disorder. By then, her face and scalp were discolored and scarred. But today, seeing Jordan, you'd never know it.

Ms. JORDAN: In the mornings when I get up, I have to take my medications. But a part of my healing is the make-up, make sure the wig is on straight, make sure - I mean if you look at me, most people they - oh, that's a wig. I can't believe it, you know.

HOBAN: Jordan bared her secrets for a photography exhibit that's currently being shown at the Delta Arts Center in Winston-Salem. Jamie Hunter is a researcher from the Maya Angelou Center on Minority Health at Wake Forest University. She says the exhibit called ”Voices of African-American Health” is itself a form of field research.

Ms. JAMIE HUNTER (Wake Forest University): Typically, research involves researchers like myself going out into the community and doing something -having some kind of intervention or collecting some kind of data then leaving. And the community, you know, they provide a service to us as researchers but they never truly get involve. They never truly have ownership of the research process.

HOBAN: In this case, the research process included giving several dozen African-American subjects, cameras and journals to record the experiences they had as patients or caregivers. Over 700 photos were taken and curators selected around 40 that most vividly highlight health disparities between African-Americans and others.

The rest of the photos are archived at the Maya Angelou Center. Hunter says the photos get beyond the statistics. Nationwide, African-Americans are more likely to die from heart disease and diabetes. And African-Americans have higher rates of infant mortality.

Show curator and collaborator Diane Ceasar(ph) says one of her favorites is a photo taken by someone who lost her baby.

Ms. DIANE CEASAR: It's a sanded playground with kind of a hobby horse, duck and just you see this lonely little duck surrounded by this sandy playground - just desolate.

HOBAN: Ceasar reads from the woman's journal entry posted next to the photograph.

Ms. CEASAR: When my milk came in, I wished I was dead. Breast-feeding meant so much to me. I had the hormones, no baby. I had the milk, no baby. I had the wounds, no baby.

HOBAN: Ceasar and Hunter say that during the project, they heard stories from participants about discrimination, about lack of access to healthcare, about being shut out of medical decisions that affected them. Many used the project to come to grips with these issues.

Participants used photography and journaling as a way of coping. William Hill was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2004. He took a photo of the IV bag hanging over his head as he received chemotherapy. Hill reads from the journal entry he made the day he took the photo.

Mr. WILLIAM HILL: Today, is a five-hour treatment day for me. The medicine is already flowing into my body. I sit there and watch the slow drift of the IV in it. I am continuously amazed that the number of people who come for treatment. The center buzzes with people from 8 to 5, five days a week. Why do so many people have cancer?

HOBAN: Hill's wife, Charlayne(ph), has been caring for her husband for the past two years. She was also recently diagnosed with diabetes. She's been taking photos too, including one of a detour sign on a lonely road.

Ms. CHARLAYNE HUNTER: What I saw then, I thought, well, this is a lot like life. You know, it just happens. You're going along and there's this detour, reroute.

HOBAN: Is this your journal?

Ms. HUNTER: That's my writing, yes.

HOBAN: Would you read that for me?

Ms. HUNTER: There's a detour sign at the top of the drive. One of the bridges crossing a small lake is being repaired. Temporarily, traffic must turn at the side street. Unexpected illnesses and loses are much the same. Life is redirected. Dreams and plans are postponed, if not cancelled permanently; major, minor, inconveniences, disappointments, unanswered questions, what ifs, anxiety.

HOBAN: On a recent day, hospice worker Rachel Burrel(ph) is visiting the exhibit. She says many people who don't work in hospices or with very sick patients can't understand why she loves what she does. She says these powerful images get that across.

Ms. RACHEL BURREL: You just meet such wonderful people which such courage. I mean this is not a morbid exhibit. This is an inspirational exhibit. It's like this is real people in real life, you know.

HOBAN: “Voices of African-American Health” continues through the end of the week in Winston-Salem. The organizers hope it will become a permanent exhibit in a local hospital.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Hoban in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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