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Sick and Tired: Being Black, Woman, Poor, Sick, and (Uninsured)

In 1964 at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer said, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired . . . Now, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Even though these words were distinctively about Southern racism, I find myself unconsciously gravitating to these words to talk about the current health care debate and what it means for poor women of color, like my older sister, Trina. Right now, my heart is heavy because for the last eight years my sister has battled various infections, muscle diseases, fevers, weight loss, weight gain, swollen hands and swollen feet, relentless body aches and chills while working at jobs that either did not provide health insurance or provided health insurance only after 12 months of full time labor.

Not only has she battled infectious and muscle depilating diseases mostly uninsured, but she also has to contend daily with the demands of her pink collared job and the invasive downright dehumanizing practices of the welfare agency that says, “You cannot make a certain amount of money and receive food stamps.” So, my sister like many poor women of color must make tradeoffs meaning only one parent can work and the other must stay at home and watch the child because daycare is expensive and to receive food stamps and health insurance for your children you must live on the poverty line. Isn’t this maddening. Isn’t sickening. I feel sick. I tell you, there are days when I do not even have to look at my sister to know she’s sick and she’s tired of having to negotiate the demands of living at the crossroads of poverty, labor market’s demands, blackness, femaleness, being a wife, being a mother, being a recipient of governmental aide, being a survivor of parental domestic violence, and at the end of the day being the uninsured sick.

So my heart is heavy.

So, my question is what do you do when you’re not only sick, but tired, black, woman, poor, and uninsured? How do you survive? What is your fate?

Perhaps, it’s my sister’s fate enduring the inconsistent findings of clinic doctors who are often over burdened with caseloads. Or, perhaps it’s my mother’s fate where you simply ignore the pains and pretend your weight loss is because of your new diet and that it has nothing to do with the boil on your leg. Perhaps, it’s the fate of my aunt who simply uses other people’s prescriptions to ease her bodily pains. Or, perhaps it’s the fate of countless numbers of black women who die from Cancer because they catch it too late and can’t afford premium healthcare. Perhaps, these examples are tad bit dramatic and may deviate from most black women’s everyday reality. However, it seems quite likely that these examples are widespread. You ignore your sickness. You find cost effective strategies to buy medicine. You simply die because you don’t get treated. It’s pretty unfair that only those who can afford health care should be healthy.

Well, I started this post by talking about my sister because for the last week she’s been in the intensive care unit and I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how she got to where she is . . . always fighting for dear life. And it finally dawned on me that it was not just that she was uninsured most of her life, but that other variables are at play like how her receptionist job exploits her labor making her work long hours without “adequate” compensation, like how society looks at her as if she’s a bad mother because sometimes she feeds my niece and nephew McDonalds, like how her social welfare caseworker test her truthfulness every time she walks though their governmental door, like how she had to grow-up way before most children do to become a surrogate mother for me and my siblings often neglecting herself, and like how she had to endure an education system that prized her athletic skills and not her ability to excel academically, and countless other “like how” variables.

Yes, some of you are saying that this post is about healthcare why add other variables? My response is simply this: “Walk a day in my sister’s shoes and tell me what you see. As you walk burdens weigh down on you making you more susceptible to disease perhaps even becoming sicker than she.” Yes, this is a wee bit dramatic, but the point is simply this that many oppressive things converged to make my sister in the timeless words of Fannie Lou Hamer, sick and tired.

Perhaps, this national health care debate is not simply about granting governmental run health care, perhaps its about examining the mutli-layered physically oppressive nature of being at the intersection of poverty, sexism, and racism.