Over the last five years, the resurgence of movies and plays about the great Nina Simone made me critically examine this classically trained pianist who dared to challenge all norms of her time.
With her natural hair, her dark skin, big lips, long neck, and diva aura, she took on America’s status quo of inequality with the revolutionary words of “Mississippi Goddam.”
Throughout history, we see Black women and Black men define what brilliance is for their generation. In the era of civil rights, she put her talent in her songs. In 2016, we would discover her again. Pre-Covid, I enjoyed seeing a play about her life at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. It took four talented Black actresses to recreate her one powerful voice. The pandemic decimated the world of the arts, turning off the lights of Broadways, destroying the dreams of theater workers all over the world. A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by a Black woman to open on Broadway was created by Lorraine Hansberry. At the tender age of twenty-nine, her fame and our struggles as Black people in pursuit of the American dream were laid bare for White America to see.
In the play, a poor Black family wants to escape the ghetto and move into a white neighborhood; they had worked hard to finally buy a piece of the American dream. They felt that their ability to live depended on not living in a dirty crowded apartment anymore. They needed grass, cleaner air, and to get away from the violence around them. The need for people to have better housing was actualized as a public health issue with the creation of the Federal Housing Act of 1946, after WW2 and the great migration north.
What Black families who left cotton fields to come to the industrialized north did not realize was that institutional racism based on racial zoning and redlining would keep them in areas of cities that would rapidly deteriorate, condemning them to inferior housing, poor education, and limited access to healthcare.
Nina Simone, who was a trusted friend of Lorraine Hansberry, related very deeply to this story of racial injustice. Nina was born Eunice Waymon in a poor rural community, and migrated north to go to the Juilliard School of Music. Later, with all her talent, her application to get into the Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected even though the audition was documented as stellar; the school would later give her an honorary degree. Believing in herself and her craft, she would put this humbling experience in her music.
She took Lorraine’s autobiographic play’s title and wrote an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement; “Young, Gifted and Black.” The words, “to be young, gifted and black,” would be belted out by Black students inside the halls of majority white colleges as doors of educational opportunities opened across the nation. We demanded access to better schools, housing, and education. Generations to come would see in the 1970s and 1980s policies that would shape the lives of people as children like our current Vice President Kamala Harris. On her quest to be the first Black female president she recounted that as a little girl, she had to take a bus to school as part of a Department of Education order to integrate public schools in California.
As Black parents of the young and the gifted fought to have their children educated, we are always reminded of the obstacles faced in the pursuit of education. We have to remember that since slavery it was against the law for us to read or be taught to read. Education is liberating. It is also a social determinant of health.
The pandemic is making the pursuit of education for many Black families a tough choice to make. Virtual learning in the primary school setting has forced many mothers out of the workforce due to loss of childcare and after-school activities. Young adults have chosen to defer college due to the inability to learn remotely; combined with those who had to drop out due to the expense of college or personal reasons, Covid-19 has thrown our educational system into disarray. This disruption in our educational system threatens to make the already shrinking pool of college Black graduates—and hence future professionals like more Black physicians—a critical situation.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, between 2019 and 2034, the U.S. non-Hispanic White population will decline by about 0.9%, the non-Hispanic Black population will grow by 13%, the Hispanic population will grow by 32%, and the non-Hispanic population of all other minority races will grow by 36%. Hence, a growing proportion of health care services will be for racial minority and Hispanic patients. This underscores the importance of increasing racial and ethnic diversity among the physician workforce. But AAMC data for 2019 estimates taht there 68% of physicians were White; 23% were Asian; 2.6% were Black or African American; 0.4% were American Indian or Alaska Native; 0.4% were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and 3.8% were Hispanic, Latino, or of Spanish descent. During the 2019–2020 academic year, the breakdown of race/ethnicities of medical school enrollees was 49.8% non-Hispanic White, 22.5% Asian, 7.3% Black or African American, 6.5% Hispanic, and the remainder, other or multiple race/ethnicities, 12.9%.
In 1995, when I applied to medical school, the enrollment of African American students was about 6.5%. Two decades later African American students still lag severely among students enrolled in medical school. The barriers come up early in the educational process, from finding our way into competitive colleges, being discouraged to major in STEM, and finding mentors to guide us through the application process. We also struggle with the cost of higher education. We are projected to be underrepresented through 2034 while the demands for physician services by Black patients and other underserved groups continues to grow.
Covid-19 has created a perfect storm for our young, gifted and Black students to fail if there is not a shift in educational policies that genuinely seeks diversity and inclusion and targets Black students. One step colleges can take immediately is create support programs that seek to retain all Black students, not just the first-generation ones. All institutions of higher education will need to get creative with a generation of minority children who have experienced a disruption of their educational process. As we emerge in this post Covid-19 world, we do not know the magnitude of destruction this pandemic has had on the educational process for Black youth. What we can count on is that the young, the gifted children, and the Black children who are determined will find a path forward.