One afternoon eons ago my adolescent self arrived for a routine dental exam. My dentist began the twice-a-year probe, then paused and launched into a lecture lauding the many benefits of the Pritikin Plan Diet. He credited the fat and cholesterol free regimen with banishing the symptoms of heart disease that had begun paying him visits.

He returned his attention to my teeth and posed a question.

 “Do you know why Black people have such a high rate of hypertension and cardiovascular illness?”

I didn’t attempt to respond because my mouth was filled with the hydrator, a couple of those log-shaped absorbent mini-pillows, and the little vacuum that periodically sounds like it’s snoring as it sucks up the liquid from the hydrator.

No matter. He knew the answer.

“It’s dietary,” he stated. “They eat too many fried foods.”

Two thoughts struck me as I willed my right eyebrow into a skeptical arch.  

First, why did he say they to my brown face? Was it his attempt to sound less accusatory by separating me from everyone else in my race? Second, my mother never fried anything. She always prepared and served us healthy, balanced meals. She modeled a nutritional habit which I practice to this very day. Sure, she always provided us dessert, and certainly I practice that every day as well. But she did not fry meat, vegetables, fish, egg, bread. Nada.

Geneticists propose that our enslaved ancestors’ physical and emotional defenses to the inhumane conditions of the middle passage and enslavement caused changes in our DNA. These changes, one of which is the body’s tendency to store sodium, have been passed on from one generation to the next. 

A few springs after my enlightening dental visit, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The sorrow I felt as I watched his televised funeral and the anger that arose in me as I watched the coverage of cities on fire brought me a flash of insight. I realized why so many of us experience cardiovascular issues, why some of us begin our journey with heart disease before we’ve entered adulthood, and why some of our bodies give in to hypertension as the price we pay to approach normalcy in a world where we are not treated as normal, ordinary human beings/ is decidedly not normal.

That said, I’m aware that the cost of hypertension is cheap compared to the price paid by:

Fred Hampton, Oscar Grant, Daunte Wright, Lt. Caron Nazario, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland,

Jordan Davis, Rayshard Brooks, Rev. Clementa C. Pickney, Corey Jones, Elijah McClain,

Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Stephen Clark, Bothan Jean, Atatiana Jefferson,

John Crawford, Tshyrand Oates, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, George Floyd,

Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Daniel Prude, Aura Rosser, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray,

Tanisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tanisha Anderson, Tyree Davis, D’ovion Perkins,

William Howard Green, Jaquyn O. Light, Kevin Aldphe, Etonne Tanzymore,

Tommie Dale McGlothen, Jr., Desmond Franklin, Kanisha Fuller, Steven D. Taylor,

Joel Acevedo, Joshua Johnson, Jonas Joseph, Rumain Brisbon, Eric Harris, Walter Scott,

Adam Toledo…  

…And all the others whose names we do not know, whose blue bullet-riddled souls floated off into the cosmos as we swallowed more meds to lower our collective blood pressures.  And all the others who will pay the life-ending price for Derek Chauvin’s conviction.

What must we do, and how must we do it?

I’ll appreciate all suggestions.

Painting by Faith Ringgold, from her series, The Flag is Bleeding, 1967

Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector of the GCLS 2019 award-winning anthology, Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices From the Gay Bars. She is one of four recipients of the 2019 Alice B. Readers Award. Her newest book, Between a Rock and a Soft Place, was named February 2021’s “Book of the Month” by “I Heart Lesfic.”   http://www.reneebess.com

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