On any given day in Harlem, one can count probably 1 to 10 middle-aged to senior citizens surprisingly using a cane or roller walker to maneuver down the street. Every year some efficiently reported study manages to release statistics on how disadvantaged African-Americans are particularly when it comes to the state of their health.
How many times is it stated that diabetes is the highest epidemic amongst blacks with Sickle Cell Anemia as the resident black disease alongside Lupus. Heart disease is the number one killer of black women – hypertension is top killer of black men. And HIV/AIDS is simply annihilating Black women at alarming rates. Of course there are the other communicable vices of drugs, disabilities, cancer, and the sleeping taboo of mental illness.
Enter Terrie Williams, legendary talent and PR guru to the who’s who of black Hollywood from Eddie Murphy, Prince, to Sean P. Diddy Combs. She comes with a new mission on the surface of her more punctuated calling as mental health advocate. This new initiative is the New Legacy Leaders Project. As she presented it last month at the Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, she uniquely employs the talent of friend, colleague, and veteran actress Madeline McCray who penned and performed a riveting one woman show in tribute to Bessie Coleman – the first African-American to get her aviators license. As the performance concluded to a rousing applause, the evening entered into its next phase.
As the Q & A panel emerged onstage led by Williams, she was also joined by McCray, her son Terahshea McCray and a special appearance by the legendary athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. So the evening commenced with the announcement and purpose of the Legacy Leaders Project. Williams expressed the idea that for most in the urban community their dreams go unfulfilled because of poor health and their inability to mobilize towards their own productivity. McCray alongside her Williams professed that this new movement is to empower people towards health, wellness, and fitness.
Hence Madeline drove home the point that “when you’re not taking care of yourself it’s not just about you – it’s about the effects on your family as well. It’s important to raise the level of consciousness about dealing with our health which is the main message of the New Legacy Leaders Project. Madeline’s son Terahshea seated next to her on the panel dove out plenty of tips on strength training, physical fitness, and nutrition as he transformed himself from battling his own health struggle. As a personal trainer, he is a living example of victorious health turning it into an everyday weapon of armor.
As Terrie continued to moderate the panel she directed her questions towards Jackie Joyner Kersee who revealed a long struggle with asthma which started in college as a budding track star. She reminisced about the hard decisions she had to make as she was clutching success toward Olympic Gold. Kersee recounted losing her Mom to a malignant disease that caused the internal bleeding of all her internal organs over a period of time. The death of Jackie’s mom at a mere 37 years-old had an indelible impact on the young athlete. So Kersee’s appearance on the panel is a triumphant testament to how we can overcome any obstacle to our health which Sports Illustrated confirmed by declaring Jackie the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century just ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias!
So then an exchange of health advocacy took place as various audience members asked questions while others along with the panel provided answers and resources. A representative from Healthfirst drove home the idea that health insurance in general doesn’t fund preventive measures for sickness and disease just the treatment for it. Which many noted as a problem because for a lot of people of color, it’s often too late especially if they can’t afford it. But as each audience member stood there seems to be a testimony of overcoming along with a new resource to pursue better lifestyles in healthy living. Established and noted Chef Kenny Minor informed the attendees of his new venture at the YWCA on 135th in Harlem which will be to teach nutrition and healthy cooking to youth is necessitated by the fact that as a community we’ve lost the art of” home economics” - the basic cooking skills we use to get in school. He noted that when he prepares dietary menus for certain black clients, their response is often ‘that’s white people’s food’ gimme real food.’
So on that revelation, Williams charged everyone to change their mindset towards living and eating healthy. The awareness to making sure we can all access the resources necessary to make sure we can live better is just one of the goals of New Legacy Leaders. She then delved into that unspoken taboo of mental illness which is also crippling our urban communities. She stressed the importance of abolishing the taboo of seeking help and talking about your problems. Depression is real and should be dealt with like any other illness but it also takes education and understanding to empower a community to embrace its right to seek mental health. So there were many in the audience who emerged quietly citing issues with mental health.
But Madeline McCray reminded the audience of why she actually chose Bessie Coleman in the first place. “She was quite the acrobat doing those legendary stunts on flying planes which demonstrated ultimate fitness. Bessie was very much ahead of her time as a young woman. She would often tell black chauffeurs that in order to extend their employment for their White bosses they should learn to fly. Diversifying one’s skill was key to always staying on the job therefore more black pilots became licensed.
Williams ended the evening extending an invitation to give inspiration then used Pharrell’s current hit anthem of “Happy” as marching orders for healthy pursuit. Terrie continues bring awareness with various books she’s written including her most acclaimed “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.”
Picture Credit (r to l): 1) Jackie Joyner Kersee & Terrie Williams. 2) Panel (Kersee, Williams, Madeline McCray, Terahoshea McCray). 3) (Kenneth Braswell, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Terahshea McCray, Madeline McCray, Kenneth Todd Nelson Terrie M. Williams, Susan L. Taylor, Elmore James-(Group photo by Will Vaultz) ). 4) Kersee and Essence Magazine Founder Susan Taylor