Wrapping up February and an apology

I’ll start with the apology. One month ago, I made a commitment to share information on my Facebook page about a Black change maker each day in February in honor of Black History month. Like so many other things in my life, I started strong and made sure to highlight a new person or resource every day. As February went on, life started happening as it often tends to do, and I started making allowances while still fulfilling my commitment. An example of this was the few days following receiving the COVID vaccine, I felt weak, achy, and tired; so instead of posting something original, I shared posts from other accounts. I’m not apologizing for that – the information was still valuable. Then Texas was hit with a monumental snowstorm (relatively speaking for Texas), and our power grid was exposed as garbage. While I was fortunate enough to not lost power, thereby making keeping up with my commitment possible; I suffered mentally and emotionally (and I really can’t even explain why) and withdrew from any and all social interactions: especially online. When we got past what could have been a much larger catastrophe, but shouldn’t have been a catastrophe in the first place, I tried to get back on track; telling myself that I would feature as many people as days I had missed and go forward from there, only I didn’t. I did pick back up with sharing about historic and current Black change makers daily for a few more days, and was hopeful that I would honor my commitment, and have a total of 28 people honored by the end of the month. Only I didn’t. My last post was on February 23 when I reflected on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on that day one year ago.

I think there are a few responses to this. There’s the “February was a rough month – you did the best you can” response, or the “don’t be so hard on yourself – no one really reads this blog anyway” response. But to be honest, it’s not any phantom reader that I am really apologizing to. In a sense, I am apologizing to myself. I made a commitment that the only person holding me accountable for is me, and I failed to honor that commitment. Again. Self care practices suggest that you treat yourself as you would treat another person, and that includes honoring commitments. I am known for being reliable to other people and following through with things I agree to do, but when it comes to following through with things that require internal accountability – forget it. And so, I am sorry, self, for not honoring this commitment to you (me?), and I will work harder to do better next time.

I am also apologizing to any member of the Black community that does read my blog because Black History Month matters. It’s important for poeple of all races to acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices that have been made by people of color not only throughout history, but currently as well. It’s vital that we look back through the our history through a lens of diverse of experiences, and not just the whitewashed version that we have generally been exposed to.

As a farewell to February, I am listing all the resources that I did post about throughout the month as well as links to learn more. Today is the first of March, but let’s not stop honoring Black voices. Life is a cumulative test and it’s not enough to forget the content because the unit is finished. Listen to diverse voices, invest in Black-owned businesses, read authors outside your realm of experience, watch movies that feature customs and cultures that aren’t yours, and most importantly, believe the experiences these diverse voices tell you about. Resist the urge to pushback, argue, gaslight, or defend. If the conversation makes you uncomfortable, embrace it – it’s a sign of growth.

*Resources I posted about throughout February (a microscopic sample of amazing Black change makers)*
Marah Lidey
LaTasha Morrison
Rachel Cargle
Austin Channing Brown
Vivien T. Thomas
Amanda Gorman
Kizzmekia Corbett
Thurgood Marshall
John Lewis
Simone Biles
Cicely Tyson
Black Lives Matter
Toni Morrison
Luvvie Ajayi Jones
James Baldwin
Malcom X
Ibram X. Kendi
Nannie Helen Burroughs
Bayard Rustin
Pauli Murray
Ella Baker
Claudette Colvin

Ahmaud Arbery

Where Black History Month and American Heart Month Intersect

With February being Black History Month, the majority of my focus has obviously been on highlighting the accomplishments of Black Americans (this has been going on over at my Facebook page). This will continue throughout the month of February, but February is an important month to me for another reason as well. February is known as American Heart Month, a month aimed at raising awareness to heart health, and as a mother of a child born with congenital heart defects, this is an issue that hits pretty close to home. So while I want to continue to focus on Black History Month, I also want to make sure I am bringing attention to National Heart Health Month as well. I was sure there had to be a number of history making Black cardiologists, which would allow me to highlight both worlds, and a quick Google search introduced me to my new hero: Dr. Vivien T. Thomas.

Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas (From The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions; photo subject to copyright restrictions)

Vivien Thomas was born in 1910 in Louisiana. He graduated high school with honors in 1929, and got a job as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt University under the surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock. Blalock tutored Thomas in anatomy and physiology, and began teaching him complex surgical techniques, which Thomas mastered quickly. Despite the complexity and scope of the work Thomas did for Blalock, because of his race, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Thomas did not let that deter him, and he continued to assist Blalock in groundbreaking research in treating Crush syndrome, which occurs as a result of toxic chemicals released when muscles are crushed.

Blalock and Thomas began studying vascular and cardiac surgery, and exploring the concept of opening the heart to operate on it. In 1941, Blalock was offered the Chief of Surgery position at Johns Hopkins University, and he brought Thomas on board with him. In 1943, Blalock was approached by Dr. Helen Taussig about finding a surgical solution for a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, often referred to as Blue Baby Syndrome. Over the course of the following two years, Thomas experimented on re-creating, and correcting a similar condition in dogs to prove that the congenital condition in a human could be corrected safely. In 1944, Blalock implanted the first successful Blalock-Taussig shunt, with Thomas standing on a step stool behind him, instructing him through the entire procedure. Being a Black man in the 1940s, Thomas was, of course, not only allowed to assist, but also never credited for his work.

Vivien Thomas went on to develop more cardiology surgical techniques and trained many young surgeons and lab technicians, despite not being qualified to perform surgery himself. He was paid so little for his services, that he often made money serving attendees at parties of the very man he worked alongside, Alfred Blalock. Eventually, Blalock went to bat for higher pay for Thomas with the powers that be at Johns Hopkins University, and Thomas became the University’s highest paid technician, as well as the highest paid African-American to hold any position on the University’s payroll. In his more than 15 years at Johns Hopkins as director of Surgical Research Laboratories, Thomas mentored many other young, Black lab technicians, as well as the University’s first Black cardiology resident, Dr. Levi Watkins, who implanted the first successful automatic defibrillator in 1975. In 1976, Tomas was awarded an honorary doctorate degree (though it was not a medical doctorate), and was appointed to the Johns Hopkins faculty as an instructor of surgery. He retired in 1979, and began writing his autobiography, which was published just days after he passed away in 1985 from pancreatic cancer.

Ok, so Vivien Thomas obviously contributed a lot to the world of cardiac surgery, and he did it in a time when institutional racism was the norm. He made life-saving discoveries, and huge advancements in the field, and he did it with absolutely no credit and very little pay. I don’t think anyone would argue his remarkable accomplishments or the quality of his character. Here’s why he grabbed my attention, specifically though: My oldest son was born with the congenital defect Tetralogy of Fallot 24 years ago. His first operation was at less than a day old, when he was fitted with a Blalock-Taussig shunt. Because of the efforts of Vivien Thomas, my son is alive today.

How do I celebrate Black History Month as a white girl?

Full transparency here – Black History Month is one of those things that I’ve always read about and admired quietly. If I’m being honest, there are a lot of things like that. I’ve never really been sure if it’s ok for me to celebrate Black History Month as a white girl. I think I’ve always been concerned that because it’s not my heritage, it’s disrespectful for me to take part in it – like I’m afraid to do it wrong. What I have decided in the last couple years as I have spent more and more time trying to educate myself on things outside of my comfort zone is that I would rather get it wrong and learn from my mistakes than remain in my own ignorance.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m reading books and articles by Black authors, I’m following Black social media accounts, I’m seeking out how to better support Black owned businesses, and basically learning as much as I can about Black history, culture, and community. I’m sharing a resource every day on my social media accounts just in case someone actually follows me and might want to learn along with me.

Here’s what I’m not doing. I’m not asking Black people to educate me and answer questions I can find the answers to using my own resources. They are not my Google and it is not their job to rescue me from the whitewashed history I have experienced growing up. If I am called out for getting something wrong (as is likely), I will not take it as a personal attack, and instead use it as an opportunity to further learn.

I am also committing to continuing my education beyond February 28, because Black culture and all the things we have to learn from it can’t be fit into one month. I welcome input, constructive criticism, and productive conversation. If you’re white, I invite you to follow along and learn with me (my social media accounts are linked to this page). If you’re Black, I invite you to follow along in whatever way you feel led.