A Day in the Life of Whittier Street Health Center
While Dr. Alexis was preparing the needle with the latest version of Novocain to numb my gums for drilling, I went into my story about Toussaint. Dr. Alexis is Haitian, and I love to talk with Haitians about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the greatest of known leaders of revolutions by an enslaved population. “Toussaint led the only uprising in the history of humanity where the enslaved population completely displaced the slavers, and became their own government… I named my second son, Toussaint…”
Dr. Alexis was already a very warm presence — in other words, she was warm before I told her I named my child after the greatest known Haitian in history. Have you ever associated “warm” with a dentist? She was kind and gentle, and as she came with the drill, and following it with the grinder (which makes that terrible sound like a car engine), I was totally comfortable. Instead of clenching my fists, I felt relaxed and I had a sense that I was in good hands. She engaged me on the subject of Toussaint, and we went into the dastardly deeds of the French, who once having been defeated, went to the extreme of devilishness by executing Toussaint during a so-called “negotiation” meeting. They were already routed. They were removed from the island by the organized ex-slave population. Yet, they felt compelled to murder the first President of a newly independent Haiti.
The Spirit of Intimacy According to the spiritual practices of some of the peoples in West Africa, we are each born into an element — fire, water, mineral, nature and earth — and depending upon which element you were born into, your purpose in this life is determined (Sobonfu Some, The Spirit of Intimacy, p58). I am a fire person, born in 1952, and according to the precepts of this spiritual tradition, fire people’s purpose is to connect and reconnect us to our ancestors, to the spirits of the dead. Dr. Alexis’ dental practice takes place in Whittier Street Health Center which resides in the middle of Boston’s African America. Her assistant told me his name was Celso — he’s from Cabo Verde. I talked to him about the great champion of the people of Cabo Verde because Amilcar Cabral may be the single most important mentor of mine during the transition from childhood to adulthood — i.e., one of the people most responsible for making me conscious of the values which would guide me in adulthood.
But, I also raised up his name because Amilcar Cabral shared with Toussaint the strange way of exiting this planet. Cabral was the outstanding founder and leader of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea [Bissau] and Cape Verde), and of the guerrilla army which defeated Portuguese colonialism in that part of West Africa. Long after the defeat of the Portuguese, Cabral, like Toussaint, agreed to negotiate with the former colonizer, and the Portuguese devils took the opportunity to assassinate him. Again, the war was over; the formerly colonized people had gained their political independence, and, as an act of graciousness and diplomacy, Cabral agreed to negotiate with the former slavers. Celso was young, maybe 25, but he was able to clearly enunciate the pride he had in having one of the greatest, if not the greatest political leader of any country in Africa, be the leader of his people.
On autopilot I talk about the ancestors with the peoples — since long before I learned from the Dagara (indigenous people of West Africa) that my element was fire, and that my purpose was to connect people to the spirits of the dead. Dr. Alexis, for her part, was so loving in her way, so genuinely caring, to the point that I have come to look forward to our appointments. Who looks forward to appointments with their dentist?
A Day in the Life of the Best Health Center Ever Whittier Street Health Center is the best health center I have ever been a part of. It is the most Black health center, maybe on planet Earth. On any given day, when you walk in, you are greeted by the manager of security at the Security Desk. Leighton, who is Jamaican, can give you information on all subjects regarding the operation of the Center, well beyond issues of security. (Beyond the Center, Leighton is a published poet, writing on issues of the African diaspora in the era of the reign of the West [https://medium.com/@alexandersjeunity/i-have-always-pondered-the-authenticity-of-self-hence-953f116d3a49].) The Director of the pharmacy, Eyobe Behre is Ethiopian, and the eye doctor, Jennifer Le is Chinese. The eye surgeon, Sampson Nosike, OD has a way similar to my dentist — gentle, assuring, giving the patient the impression that you are getting special attention. He is Nigerian and speaks five languages: In addition to English, he speaks Ibo, Yoruba, Bendle and Hausa. In other words, under his care clients from numerous cultures can be spoken with in their first language.
The clerk in the Eye Care Department is an African American Brother whose father goes to the same Narcotics Anonymous meetings that I go to. My therapist, Donna Socha is Jewish. I go to the lab for blood work, and the assistants behind the counter are Nigerian, Sudanese, Armenian and Croatian. As she took blood from my arm, the Armenian assistant and I talked about the efforts of the powers-that-be to “revise” the Armenian genocide out of the history books. I tell her that my sister, Gabrielle, is named after one of the leaders of the Armenian resistance. I teach ESOL, and Siranush, this Armenian Sister, asked me how she could get into the program at which I teach; and I was able to hook her up.
The President and CEO of Whittier Street, Frederica Williams is from Sierra Leone. Also part of the management of the health center is Chidi Achebe, MD, MPH, MBA, who is published on the subject of racial disparities in health care provision. He is Ibo, the heritage of my father. The child psychologist, Hesham Hamoda, MD is from Kuwait. Meltem Yalcin, MD, internal medicine, is from Turkey. The Director of Public Relations is Trinidadian. My dentist, Mireille Charles Alexis, DMD speaks four languages and her hobbies are painting and sewing. Francisca Tan, RDH is Cambodian.
We love places that employ Black people, you know, beyond McDonald’s, Home Depot and Kentucky Fried; but this place is “black” well beyond the color of anyone’s skin: It is Black in its ways. The walls are adorned with paintings from many cultures, but mostly Africa. In each department, music is playing, and it is our music, music from the peoples all over the world — particularly from the continent of Africa and from African America.
In the Adult Medicine Department, while in the background is playing some kind of music from Latin America — it sounds Puerto Rican — the NP, a Haitian Sister named Jessica Esteve, finished her examination of me, and she passed me to her Dominican assistant. She in her turn had to converse with other members of the medical team to get my prescription. This conversing between three of the staff took place in Spanish. I speak enough Spanish to get some of what they are saying, but that’s not the point. I love the fact that they are speaking in the language they feel comfortable with while they serve their patients.
The People’s Republic of Massachusetts I am a socialist, and therefore a devotee of universal health care. On one side, there is no doubt that the presentation of it here falls far short of genuine socialist countries like Cuba. But then, like I said, Cuba is a genuine socialist country — the government of Cuba is not run by multinational banks and gigantic monopoly capitalist insurance companies.
Whittier Street has a Fitness Center — everything you want to partake in including fitness classes, work out and weight rooms, a nutritionist, trainers, Yoga classes: for $10 membership fee/month! An African American Brother runs the Silver Slippers Yoga class, for white-hairs like me — he’s going right at the pace I need. Brother Michael’s class is a meditation. Under his regimen Yoga is a spiritual (not religious) practice. He has 14 classes per month. Again, Yoga, plus anything else you want, for $10/month.
On the other side, the cynic in me has not thoroughly investigated it, but something inside me tells me that the reason why I have at least two appointments/week among the eight or ten departments which have been serving me over the last year, is because every time I sign my name to any procedure, meeting, or treatment, the Center gets paid. Again, universal health care via capitalism is not completely straight. But, I’ll definitely take it over not having health insurance in this country. In Cuba no one needs health insurance….
Don Pedro and Lolita Lebron On this day, I was with my granddaughter, Kamara, and my dentures broke — split right down the middle. This is an emergency: Being a teacher, there is no class that I know of that I can stand in front of for 2 hours with no teeth! Therefore, we descended on the Dental Department with the demand, “This is an emergency; tell Dr. Alexis it’s Brother Alexander.” There is already a full house in the waiting room. Now, I know that some readers of this story might object that it is hardly socialist of me to try to cut the entire line. But my logic goes like this: Being a communist in this vile culture has so many disadvantages; at the top of the list is the madly difficult time we have maintaining employment. After all, we are usually organizing against the employer! We talk about Amilcar, Toussaint and the other great fighters in our ancestry to get across the message that we must continue to have each other‘s back. That Dr. Alexis told the front desk to let me through, and she put me in the orthodontic chair immediately, was about a compassionate person having this socialist’s back. As Celso looked at the mess which was my dentures, Dr. Alexis informed me that they would try to get them “cosmetically OK” for the month that it will take to make new ones. “But, Mass Health [health insurance for poor people in Massachusetts] only allows dentures for free once-every-seven-years. You have five years to go. The replacements are going to cost you $1,600.” Kamara, my nine-year-old, gasped, “This isn’t good, Papi. You don’t have $1.60.”
At this point in the examination, in walks Jahaira, Dr. Alexis’ other assistant. “What is your nationality, Sister?”
Jahaira, who is about 26 years old, replies, “I’m Puerto Rican.”
“I hear that. My God-parents are Puerto Rican. My God-Father, Don Pedro was the President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Before he was jailed by the US occupiers for life, he was the mentor to Fidel Castro. Fidel modeled his early organizing for the revolution in Cuba after the teachings of Don Pedro Albizu Campos. My mother named me in honor of him (after his father, Alejandro Albizu Campos).
“Really, I know a little about him; they…, you know, I didn’t learn it in school, of course.”
“Don Pedro is known all around the world by freedom loving people. The only people who don’t know about him are people in the United States. They tortured him to death in Atlanta federal penitentiary; they experimented on him with electric shock torture [1950’s-1960’s] — they disintegrated his entire nervous system.”
“Wow. I didn’t know that.”
“Yes, Lolita Lebron was one of my mother’s closest friends. She was at my mother’s bedside in the hospital when she gave birth to me. Do you know her history?”
Jahaira looked like she was going to try to say “Yes,” when I went on: “She was the Vice President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. This was in 1952. In 1954 the US Air Force carried out bombing raids on the mountain stronghold town of Jayuyu, slaughtering women and children. You and nobody else in the US know about this, because it was not reported in the news. So, Lolita led three of her compatriots from the Party into the Gallery of Congress [at that time, 1954, spectators could sit in the gallery of Capital Hill and observe the deliberations of the high priests of US politics.] From there they took out guns and shot five of the Congressmen who had voted for the bombing of the innocent civilians in Puerto Rico….”
Kamara, recognizing the state of emotion I had reached, admonished me, “Papi, please don’t start crying.”
As tears began rolling down my face, she looked over at Jahaira who was on the verge of tears, and said, “See, Papi, I told you.” Jahaira broke out in affectionate laughter.
It was at this juncture that Dr. Alexis instructed Celso to change my prescription: “Call it ‘irreparable damage.’ Alexander, you’re getting your teeth for free.” (As one friend of mine explains, “Everything having to do with government in this country is discretionary…”)
I looked at Kamara and continued: “Lolita is known world-wide by the peoples. You need to know her and have pride in the gigantic stature of such a dignified peoples’ champion.” (Think about our Feminists who claim that People of Color cultures are more patriarchal than White culture. In 1952 Lolita Lebron was Vice President of the most popular organization of her people, and three of her charges, all men, followed her on the military assignment which she planned and prosecuted.)
Fire, Internationalism and People’s Health Care Fire is connecting with the spirit of the ancestors (Some, p14). Don Pedro used to tell the peoples: “The United States is so scared of the peoples, it walks around with a bomb under each arm-pit and one between its legs…” Whittier Street is my favorite health center because the spirits of the dead, the spirits of the peoples are alive and well throughout the establishment. As internationalists (communists), we honor, uphold, support and utilize such community centers, because they are one of our sources of strength as we fully intend to withstand the disintegration of Western Civilization. As they create larger and larger bombs to parallel the stories the President of the United States tells us about the size of his penis, we need centers for the support of life, like Whittier Street. Life is being augmented and nurtured here. The peoples are able to be who we fully are at Whittier Street. It is not merely black in color; it is Black and internationalist, supporting humanity in our indefatigable pursuit of health and wellbeing.