A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Kidada speaks with health reporter Julia Craven about health and wellness for African Americans, both historically and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They explore how health outcomes are influenced by systemic forces and not purely the result of the personal decisions people make on a daily basis, as well as the responsibilities of individuals to make an impact within the larger framework of public health.

They also touch on the relationship between capitalism and mental health, and how that is a contributing factor to the recent Great Resignation.

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Kidada E. Williams: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. When Julia Craven was growing up, Sunday mornings belonged to Muss, her great grandmother.

Julia Craven: Every Sunday, that woman was up and she would be shuffling around and it was just like she was going to make rice, green beans—usually—and chicken before we went to church and it was always just like these perfectly balanced meals. And she was also very active. Like, she mowed her own yard up until she was in her 70s, I kid you not. It sounds ridiculous, but she was! Like, she was in pretty good shape, pretty much up until the end of her life.

And as for spiritualism, one thing that she taught me was that any four walls where you can sit and worship God, that is a church. Like, anywhere that you do it, God lives within you, spirit is within you, whatever higher power you worship is within you. And that isn’t contingent upon what you do once a week. It’s based on what you do all the time. 

KEW: These days Julia works as a health reporter, and she credits Muss with teaching her about wellness, spirituality and the importance of community. Julia still writes about Muss a lot. She told me that she can see Muss’ lessons in the scientific literature she reads for work: move every day, eat balanced meals and get plenty of rest.

JC: And so I often do draw back to her because none of that learning for her was formal. It was all just generational. It was all just passed down to her and she passed it down to me. 

KEW: In our companion narrative episode, we looked at how Black activists rallied for adequate public health care in the first half of the 20th century. On today’s episode, Julia applies Muss’ lessons to life during the COVID 19 pandemic, from our personal responsibilities to keeping others safe; what public health for communities looks like during a pandemic; and what the Great Resignation can teach us about our relationships to work and our bodies. 

[To Julia:] On your website, you pointed out that we’re often taught to think of health and well-being as direct results of our own personal choices, which ignores the reality of how societal systems affect our bodies all the time. How much control do we actually have over our own individual health?

JC: I’m glad you asked that. I was actually just ranting on Twitter about that. And I actually—I had to stop myself because I get on Twitter all the time and I just go raw about this particular thing. Because I look at everything systemically, which is, I think, something else that I got from my grandma, too. She was very keen on the bigger picture and how bigger forces influence what we do every day. So everything we do is influenced by systemic forces. Every single thing.

We can’t think of our health as being purely the result of the personal decisions that we make every day, even though those decisions, they do matter—like sure, getting up and taking a walk or deciding to have spinach instead of French toast—those little things, they do matter and they do add up. But ultimately our health choices are informed by access to information, access to health care, how much money we make, where we live, et cetera, et cetera…whether or not those doctors listen to us, whether or not they’re apathetic.

And what I’ve found in my reporting, in my reading, is that people in power, they default to individualism and personal responsibility because they don’t want to answer these bigger systemic questions of like, why aren’t I as a Black woman getting the same treatment from the same group of doctors as the white woman down the hall from me? So obviously, I’m not getting that treatment or my health is worse than that person’s, not because of growing up poor, not because of living—or suffering from food apartheid, rather—but because I just wake up and choose to eat unhealthy, unnutritious foods every day. Or I don’t take a walk in my neighborhood or I, I, I, I, I…when in reality there are bigger forces at play that boil down to the decisions that I make.

KEW: And that’s not new. It’s something that Black communities have been dealing with historically. In the narrative counterpart to this episode, we talk about this in terms of the fight against tuberculosis. People—because they don’t know how it spread—there are certain things that they believe that individuals can do to stop the spread, but they don’t acknowledge the ways that the larger structural system makes or puts Black people in positions where they’re much more vulnerable to catching TB and then dying of it. 

JC: Absolutely. And you see that spread across any type of public health issue, right? I did a story early last year and I was interviewing a woman who is the head of a food bank in D.C. and she was talking to me about the false choices that are available to the people in the community that her organization serves. And the example was if someone has $5, right, and they can spend it on a bag of kale or they can spend it on a jar of spaghetti sauce and some noodles, nine times out of ten they’re going to choose the sauce and the noodles. 

And they’re not doing that because they don’t see the value in kale. Like, of course they know that kale is more nutritious than spaghetti and sauce, but the spaghetti? That’s going to feed more people and it’s going to feed them for more meals. So of course, when you’re put in a position where there’s only so much you can do, eating is better than not eating, right? 

And so, yeah, I definitely think we see that TB example just across the board. And when you don’t have access to good quality housing, when you don’t have access to clean water, your concerns aren’t these bigger public health problems. 

KEW: And so thinking about this, it reminds me of this exchange I had with a white friend’s mom. Someone famous had recently died and we were talking about it, and she was trying to remember the cause of death. And so she said, “Oh, they died from that thing that Black people die from.” And so I said, “Oh, you mean racism?” And she was searching for the word. And she kind of paused and said, “No, not that.” And you know, she was still trying to come up with the word. And I said, “Hypertension from the racism?” But I wanted to tease out the overlapping structures that shape Black people’s health outcomes, which aren’t new. 

JC: No, not at all, and the fact that [laughs] the fact that this person was just like, “oh, that thing that Black people die from” is just like, what? What do you mean, that thing that Black people die from? Because until—I believe, until the pandemic, unfortunately, the number one killer of Americans was cardiac disease. But it is so telling to think that that’s a quote “thing that Black people die from.” 

KEW: Like TB, which had been called the Negro Disease, as if Black people were the only ones who died from it. They weren’t. Not by a long stretch. The people who are dying of TB are overwhelmingly crowded into cities and poorly ventilated buildings, or they have no access to health care in these rural communities because they’re sort of withering under tenant farming and sharecropping. And so it’s the larger forces of racism that play a role in them suffering disproportionately from TB. It’s not anything that they do, it’s not anything that they can magically cure. The bigger issue is the racism. 

JC: Right. And so early during the pandemic, very few people were talking about what it means to live in a multigenerational household, right? And so that was another thing that caught my attention, and also just linked back to me growing up because I was raised by my great grandmother and my nana, who was my grandma. She stayed like through the woods—you know, like, we’re country—she stayed through the path, through the woods, behind our house. So she wasn’t very far away.

So it was just very shocking to me to see how many experts in this field really had no concept of what it means to live in a house with multiple generations. There’s this massive disconnect between the reality of Black life and how people perceive it and how that fits within this larger context of health consequences. 

KEW: What did you think wellness meant pre-pandemic, and what do you hope it will look like once we come out of the other side? 

JC: Before the pandemic—and I think even now, still—wellness was about control. It was about being able to have some type of sense of power over your day-to-day life. I think it gets very, very much about control and about producing a certain result, whatever that result may be. Usually that result is weight loss. 

So that’s primarily what I think it looked like before. After, I hope it looks like listening to your body. I hope it looks like rest. I hope it looks like taking your mental health days. I hope it looks like eating food that makes you happy and that makes you feel good. So, yeah, those are the broad things that I hope come out of it.

KEW: Starting in January of this year, we saw a lot of people say that they were “done with COVID,” which feels related to this question of control, but it also straddles the line between individual and public health. How much control do we actually have over public health, and what are our responsibilities to public health? 

JC: So individually, we don’t have as much control as we would like to think that we do. So really, when it comes to public health crises like this one, what you can do is mask and use the best quality masks that you have access to. Hopefully, that’s a KN95, but those are expensive. So if it’s a surgical mask, great. If it’s a surgical mask under a cloth mask, even better. So, you know, you do what is within your realm of power on that. And of course, you know, getting vaccinated. 

But, this pandemic, we’ve just seen a massive public health crisis being brushed off as something that individuals alone can fix through their behavior, and that’s just not true. None of us individually can go out here and stop the spread of COVID. It’s a collective effort. And in this country, in this context, collective efforts have to be backed by policy that bolsters that collective effort. 

So our responsibilities to public health is to participate as much as we can, and also just having a community oriented look on things. I remember early in the pandemic, someone I interviewed was just like, you know, a big part of getting through this is going to be a younger person on the block going out to the grocery store and getting food for their older neighbor who is scared, or who honestly shouldn’t be going to the grocery store anyway. And this was in April 2020, so this was when COVID was still new new. And so really just being a part of a community, and figuring out how you can play a role in that community protecting itself is also going to play a really big part in that too.

KEW: I think part of what we need to do is to get people thinking about that, and to get people to shift from thinking or asking, “How can I protect myself?” to “How can I avoid harming others?”

JC: Yes. Yes, that is a very big shift. Because, for example, COVID might not have a bad effect, per se—and I use bad very, very loosely considering what we know about the virus—but it might not have a detrimental effect on my personal health.

But that doesn’t mean that because it doesn’t have a bad effect on me that I should just be out here, you know, living life and just going about my way because, “Oh, well I feel fine. I’m not…I can go to the store, I can do this, I can do that,” because it’s not about me; it’s about the woman I get in the elevator with, right? It’s about the elderly woman who lives down the hall from me, where if I get in the elevator at the same time as her and I forget my mask or whatever—which has happened a couple of times—it’s about me being like, “All right, she’s on here. I’m going to get back off and just go get my mask. You know, whatever’s outside, it’s just going to have to wait. I need to run back and get this.” 

KEW: At the beginning of the second year of the pandemic, you told your Twitter followers to DM you if they were vaccine hesitant and you’d talk to them about it. Without disclosing anything too personal, can you describe the responses that you got and what you told people? 

JC: The biggest theme in the responses was “I am not an anti-vaxxer” and then they would follow up with, “but I’m confused about this.” “I’m worried about this piece of misinformation that I saw.” “I’ve had my own prior awful experiences with medicine.” “I’ve had bad experiences with doctors.” There were a couple of people who were pregnant and they were just like, “I mean, I’m worried. Like I don’t know how the vaccine works in relation to the baby or, you know, my pregnancy.” Really, people were just confused. 

And another thing that I think is really important here is that our government didn’t take a step back to reckon with why people don’t trust them. We’ve essentially been living through a years-long breaking news event. Like the guidance changes constantly, and there’s been no clarity on that. It hasn’t been, “Hey, so these things change, and we need you all to just be patient and work with us because the science is going to change. The recommendations are going to change as we move forward and as we learn more about the disease.” 

But instead, it’s been very much “We’re the CDC or we’re this or we’re that and you should listen to us. And if you don’t listen to us and if you don’t get vaccinated, well, then it’s your fault. All of this is on you.” And that’s just a very crass, very cruel way of handling this situation. And of course, there are a lot of nuances in there. I mean, anti-vaxxers are real and the spread of misinformation is real and it’s serious. And so I’m not necessarily talking about that so much as I am just like a person who isn’t an anti-vaxxer but who has every viable reason to be skeptical of the information that they’re receiving. 

KEW: Right. Or they have low access to information. And as you said, we can’t sort of whistle past the very real problems of communication from not just one presidential administration, but two. And I also think when I talk to people, what I realized was one consistent thing: they didn’t have their own doctors. So they couldn’t ask those doctors some of the really specific questions about their own health situation. And they knew that there was information online, et cetera, but it wouldn’t be the same thing as if they were potentially talking to their own doctors, which they didn’t have because of the realities of the health care system. 

JC: Right. And so I did run into that at times, and what I would do is I would just be like, “Hey, so I have a lot of doctors who follow me. I have a lot of people in this space who thankfully pay attention to what I have to say. Is it OK if I tweet this out without any identifying information, but just get as granular as possible and tweet this out and see if anyone responds and see what they have to say?” Which is not the same as them sitting down with their own doctor, but I was like, “We’re going to get as close as we can get. We’re going to get as close as we can get.” 

It was just important for me to be able to use the platform that I’ve built and the privilege of having these doctors follow me and interact with me and care what I have to say. Being able to use that and just hand it back to people, because that’s all I really want to do is I just want to take information. I want to be like “Bet” and hand it back to the community. And I’m glad that I was able to do that. 

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. Today, many people are facing high levels of burnout and are finding their workplaces incompatible with how they want to live. We’ve even seen people quit their jobs and divest from institutions in this moment we’re calling “The Great Resignation.” 

Journalist Julia Craven is one of those people. She left a full-time position at Slate in January of 2022. And while she isn’t leaving journalism behind, she’s thinking about how to be a health journalist in a way that’s more sustainable for her own wellness. 

JC: You know, honestly, I mean, I get why people are leaving their jobs. [laughs] But you know, I did love being on staff as a reporter. As I branch out into just being a writer, more generally, I still in a lot of ways see myself as a reporter. But I also felt very bogged down by the daily demands of being a staff reporter, and a lot of health ramifications came with that for me. I was stressed out. I already have bad anxiety—it was getting worse—and I have really debilitating chronic migraines. So if I get a migraine, that’s it, I’m out. I’m out—hopefully, I’m out for a day. Sometimes it can be two or three. And so I just always felt tired, I was always fatigued, and it was just too much for me to keep up with. 

And I also just had this overwhelming feeling that because I couldn’t keep up with the demands of journalism—the output demands, the always paying attention to the news—like, I couldn’t keep up with that. And so I had this very overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t good enough to be a reporter. Once you start spiraling, it is pretty hard to stop. And so with therapy and a good support system, I was just like, all right, I’m going to take off and see what happens.

KEW: So I think that’s amazing. But what I also think is interesting is that I view the news from the perspective of a consumer, and so even on—like I’m on Twitter, and I have to take diligent, consistent breaks because of the stream of information and news. And so I can’t imagine being someone who’s responsible for producing the news, reporting the news. So I can’t imagine having my livelihood, or the stress of having my livelihood tied to this constant stream of news and having to be on and do this work all of the time. 

JC: Yeah, I mean, to be frank, I don’t—well, I’m not going to say what I would say because I don’t know if y’all allow cursing on here—but it just, it sucked. Like, I mean, for me it just wasn’t how I wanted to go about it anymore. And I have so much respect for my peers who find it within themselves and they just have that motivation to do it every day. 

And I remember I had a breakdown in therapy, and I was just like, I have…to this point in my life, I have hinged my career, my well-being, on being just this scrappy, dogged reporter. And now I can’t do that anymore. And I was just like, what does this say about me? What does this say about how I view myself? What does this say about how I view my worth? Because I mean, worth is inherent if you’re a human being. So it’s not so much about that as how do I see that. 

And so my therapist was like, “So you’ve come to terms—like, you’ve realized that, so where does it go from here? And from here, you need to prioritize what’s best for you.” And she was like, “I know that money is a concern. Like, it’s a concern for everyone.” But she was like, “You have to trust me when I tell you that there are other jobs out there.” [laughs] Like, “There are other ways for you to make a living for yourself. It doesn’t have to be contingent upon the daily grind of reporting.” 

KEW: So one of the things that I know is that a lot of people are thinking the same thing, but are afraid. And so what do you think that fear reveals about our relationships to work and health? 

JC: I don’t think it’s so much the relationship to work and to health as it is our relationship to capitalism and wanting to stay alive. And by stay alive, I mean have money to house yourself, have money to eat, have money to have fun, have money to go out and have drinks with your friends. Because that’s a part of health too, right? Like, that’s a part of wellness, is being a part of a community. 

And so it’s less about how we see work, because I actually think a lot of people see work as what it is. Like, it’s a necessity. It’s just the thing that I have to do in order to be able to survive. I don’t think most people become so enmeshed with their career. But still, it’s very scary, right? Like, the thought of not having an income is terrifying. And so it’s a lot of privilege to be able to save the money to feel at least a little bit more comfortable taking that leap. And that’s not something that everyone is going to be able to do. And that says a lot about our society. 

KEW: Ida B. Wells-Barnett is everywhere in our season, and so I’m thinking about what wellness and safety look like for Black journalists—or Black women journalists, specifically. Is there someone you look to—a fellow journalist, a thinker, a whole movement, maybe—that you look to as an example of wellness, well-done?

JC: bell hooks, because love and community, that was obviously the thrust of the work that she did, but she also was so big on taking care of yourself. Like, I’m reading “Sisters of the Yam” right now and as I’m going through it I’m just like, oh my God, this woman was a wellness guru. Like, she knew that taking care of oneself and doing so within a community was valuable, and it’s really more important than anything. But when we live in a society where our worth and our value is based upon how much we produce—What can you do? What do you do? What do you contribute?—you know, it’s very easy to get separated from that. 

KEW: And it reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Salt Eaters”, where she asks the question, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Just so’s you’re sure, and ready to be healed, because wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”

And I think that Black women in particular have this understanding of wellness and health, and what’s needed and what’s not, and how you have to protect yourself from these realities of the world. 

JC: Yeah, we do, and I also…I do look to Muss in terms of wellness because, one thing about her, she was going to walk away from a situation. She was going to take a break. She was not going to hang around. [laughs] She was very much, “I’m out.” It was very foundational for me to see that because so many Black women don’t see that, and so many of us don’t do that. So to have just this prime example of like, “Yeah nah, just nah” was amazing. And I think that that has saved me a lot throughout my life. 

KEW: Right. Because you have to know that you have the option to walk away. You know, I will bring love to this situation. But when the love disappears from the situation, I am packing my stuff and I’m leaving.

JC: Right, exactly. So many people see us as—I mean, they do—they see us as the mules of the world. They do. And so to be raised by a Black woman who is just like, “Look, I ain’t nobody’s mule. I am not anybody’s mule. That’s not flying here.” And then my nana’s the same way. And so is my mom. Like, all of them are like that. They’re just like, “Nah, I’m not doing this.” 

So to just have those three very powerful examples, I’m grateful for that. Especially as I left home and went out into the world and saw that so many of us weren’t allowed to have that energy. And I’m just like, I’m going to hold on to it, and I hope that I can inspire other people to have it too, because baby, leave that job. Leave that job, leave that relationship, leave that situation, leave that church… 

KEW: Leave it all behind, right? Tell them they can keep it. 

In March 2020, you asked Dr. Uche Blackstock what was at stake, and she said, “Humanity. If we don’t think about the most vulnerable members of our society, what kind of society are we?” So, what kind of society do you think we have become in the last three years?  

JC: Yeah. That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot with the work that I do, because I tend to dig into just these heavy, just “ugh” topics. And one question that I do get a lot during the editing process is, well, what is the alternative? What is the hopeful piece of this? What is the—how do we make it look better?

And, you know, sometimes people have an idea. But what I’ve found is that it’s actually not really that difficult. You know, there are things that we can do. So I, also early last year, I wrote a piece called “It’s Not Too Late to Save Black Lives” and I went into that thinking, there’s way too many resources available. Like, this cannot be an impossible task. And it’s not, and often it isn’t an impossible task. It’s just a matter of do the people in power want to do it? 

KEW: And how we also need to change our thinking to understand that maybe we can also experiment with ways to see what works that’s different from what we have. You know, the system that we may need may not already be in place, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built. 

JC: Right. Exactly, because the current systems were built. [laughs] Like, the way that things are now, it has not always been this way. It’s possible; it really is possible. It’s just a matter of effort, and also improving the collective imagination, that the world that better serves everyone can exist. 

KEW: This season, we’re asking a number of our guests what they think and hope free Black futures look like. Do you have a vision, and how we get there? 

JC: So my vision of a Black future is one where equity is just the essence, right? Like, I want a future where Black people can just be—where they can just exist, where they can do whatever they want, where they have the access and the resources to do whatever they want— as long as it’s not harming anyone; you can’t do that in my future. [laughs] So no harm, but that’s really it.

I really look for a future where everyone has access to resources. Everyone can build the life that that best suits them, and people can take time off from work and they don’t have to run themselves into the ground and they don’t have to grind and they don’t have to fight for everything that they have—particularly human rights, like health care and like access to clean, healthy housing. And I think all of that would be possible if we just prioritize funding in that way—like cutting the defense budget, just for example.

KEW: Just for starters.

JC: Just the start. My goal is to live in a world where my job—as a journalist, as writing about these awful, terrible things that I write about—where that job is no longer necessary. I want to be able to write about cat videos or recipes, or—I saw this video of a baby elephant playing in a swath of butterflies one day, and I was just like, now that’s joy. That’s what I want. I just want a world where people are happy and healthy, and it seems so simple, but that’s really it.

KEW: That was Julia Craven. You can find her work at juliacraven.com. She’s also on TikTok at rocketjuju and Twitter at juliacraven.

Episode Resources

The following resources were utilized in the research and creation of this episode:

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart