Health in the Hands of the People

By Marissa Spear

Point six of the Black Panther Party’s 1972 iteration of the Ten-Point Program clearly states: We want “completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.”[1] The Black Panther Party’s ideology and programming around health was my first foray into their organizing. 

What started out as a simple research project to trace the history of Black organizing around health from slavery to the Panthers, highlighting their People’s Free Medical Clinics, Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, and People’s Free Ambulance Service, turned into an undergraduate honors thesis about the Baltimore women of the Black Panther Party, and a lifelong investment in their political project. What I did not know was that in the midst of writing this thesis, the Panthers’ mission to put health and medicine in the hands of the people would become the guidebook for my own quest to find the source of my body’s pain.

I have dealt with some level of manageable pain since I was 12 years old. Excruciating periods and a constantly upset stomach were regarded as normal happenings in me as a growing young girl. Eleven years and five doctors, countless blood tests, gastrointestinal workups, a colonoscopy, an endoscopy, pelvic exams, and multiple ultrasounds later, I finally received a diagnosis: Endometriosis. 

What I thought was a finality, a diagnosis, was only just the beginning. I soon was forced to grapple with seemingly intense life decisions at a time when all I wanted to do was wander in my post-graduation existence. Would I ever live in a body without pain? Would pain management medication be enough for the rest of my life? Was surgery the right option? Did surgery have a high enough success rate? Could I afford to have the surgery? How many surgeries would be necessary over a lifetime? Would it be covered by health insurance? How would this affect my fertility? Did I want to maintain my fertility? Would I ever be intimate again with anyone?

In the midst of this questioning, weeks after I had defended my Panther thesis, I realized I needed to return to the book where my interest in their work began, Body and Soul. Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination traces the history of the Panthers’ health mission, painting it as part of a larger picture of Black resistance in the name of health. While reading, I thought about all the lessons the Panthers had taught me before I was able to name my body’s illness.

First and foremost, the Panthers taught me that to know your body, to know your pain intimately is not a disadvantage, but rather the strongest advantage I could equip myself with. The Panthers also knew that placing expertise or power in medical professionals only worked to oppress their communities more. 

They sought to create self-help healthcare in the creation of their free clinics and by increasing patients’ agency, encouraging them to ask questions of healthcare professionals and to learn technical skills from trusted professionals in their community.[2] They saw the individual as tied to the whole collective. Each body “belong[ed] to the revolution.”[3] and thus needed to be taken care of. Their political project was both a tactical strategy towards revolution and a re-imagination of the definition of community.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I took up their call two-fold. I have engrossed myself in medical literature, reddit threads, patient forums, and illness narratives, wanting to become the sole knowledge source of my body’s dysfunction. I trained my brain to become acutely aware of pain, where it was, how to describe it, how long it lasted, its coincidence with food or exercise, so that I could gather evidence. 

I did not want there to be a line of questioning or thought process I could not follow in my next doctor’s visit. I wanted doctors to prove their knowledge to me, not feed it to me blindly. At the same time, I enrolled in phlebotomy courses, wanting to gain a technical skill that would grant me entry into everyday clinics, striving to engage with a skill essential to my own quest.

I began to see just how many people in my life were dealing with chronic illness, or some type of chronic pain.  My friends with chronic pain became this ever-growing network, colleagues in our concurrent journey to become experts of our bodies. Sometimes our text conversations read like doctor and patient, exchanging symptoms and possible explanations, medications, and healing practices. 

One friend and I wrote emails back and forth, asking ourselves questions about what it meant to have a diagnosis, did we identify as chronically ill, was this mission to make sense of ourselves going to consume us? I held on to the writings from illness narratives like they were my favorite childhood toy, hoping that maybe their stories would give me strength or a way forward.

I began to embody what I had once set out to study. Although the Panther model may not look the same, my friends and I, the people around me, the people in the greater chronically ill community are employing many of the same tactics the Panthers created. 

The most prominent manifestation of this is the community-based information sharing in the online chronically ill community. Following other sick women online was how I first learned the true definition of endometriosis. It’s where I found crowd-sourced and accurate information on symptoms, available medical treatments and their side effects. It’s where I learned what questions to ask when meeting with gynecologists, and even how I found an excision surgeon, via a worldwide map of expert “endo” surgeons.  

We swap ideas on pain management from supplements to nutrition changes to “endo-friendly” clothing brands and CBD products. We comfort each other on days when being sick feels like it’s our only identity. This community of people around me has built the knowledge-base, has done the research, has literally saved each other daily because of a medical establishment that neglected their disease and failed to teach the doctors we are so blindly taught to trust.

We are not building clinics in our communities, but the revolutionary idea is the same: to demystify the bourgeois medical expertise that oppresses all of us and most intensely, the poor and marginalized, we must privilege the everyday experience of what it is to exist in a body, in our bodies. 

In order to have self-determination in their communities and their health clinics, the Panthers believed first and foremost in self-determination over one’s own body, a radical idea then and now in the context of our profit-driven health care system. To live in a sick body means living beyond the confines capitalism creates. It means defying the structures that oppress us just by existing.

There is no foregone conclusion or magical cure to living in a sick body. Laparoscopic excision surgery offers the best treatment for endometriosis but it’s costly and often requires surgery every two years. As I sit here writing this, a heating pad is scorching my abdomen and I feel lost in a fog of exhaustion. 

For now, I will live day by day with the words of the Panthers fresh in my mind, specifically those of Norma (Armour) Mtume. It is her story I want to end with and honor, for her fight and words keep me going. Norma joined the Party in L.A. and eventually became manager of the Berkeley chapter’s free clinic and later minister of finance for the Panthers nationwide.[4] 

Like other Panther cadre, Mtume learned to give injections, draw blood, conduct clinical exams, as well as pap smears,[5] a skill that allowed Norma to detect her own cervical cancer early on.[6] Her words are the words I live by, the words that mark the cornerstone of the Panthers’ self-help clinics, that remind me I am the only one who lives in my body, that I am all the evidence I’ll ever need. They are the words I leave you with, for they are the closest thing to hope I know. “Know your body. Know thyself.”[7]


[1] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 49.
[2] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, 89.
[3] Quote from Norma Armour in Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, 94.
[4] Yohuru Williams and Bryan Shih, “The Black Panthers’ Overlooked Revolution,” The Nation, September 22, 2016,  https://www.thenation.com/article/the-black-panthers-overlooked-revolution/
[5] Yohuru Williams and Bryan Shih, “The Black Panthers’ Overlooked Revolution,” The Nation.
[6] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, 89.
[7] Quote from Norma Armour to Alondra Nelson in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, 89.


Marissa Spear is a community health researcher, evaluator, and advocate from Northwest Arkansas living with endometriosis. She is currently working on expanding her thesis about the women of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party into a book.