Atlanta is a warm, southern, Georgia city known for its richness in African American history and culture; also an ideal home for a thriving mockingbird. Brandon Tonge and I agreed to have our conversation at a local restaurant tucked in a quaint neighborhood surrounded by perfectly perched brownstones and fine landscaping.
We both enjoyed a warm cup of coffee cradled between our palms with a hint of soft jazz looming overhead. After our first round of appetizers touched down, the mutual comfort level of sharing a plate was unclear (given the complexities of the COVID 19 pandemic). It was time to break the ice.
Mockingbird: Are you vaccinated? Brandon took a slow sip of his coffee before offering an answer.
“I haven’t taken the [COVID] vaccine. The development was a little too fast for me. Even though it’s probably safe, I’m more so concerned about the efficacy of it—especially with the recently reported possibility of a booster. Thankfully, I haven’t contracted COVID. My plan is to continue living a healthy lifestyle and do my best to weather the storm.”
Mockingbird: Let’s talk about your relationship with healthcare. When do you first remember going to the doctor?
Tonge: “I got sunstroke. I was out in the yard and the next thing you know I was in the emergency room in the children’s ward.”
Brandon’s father (pictured below on the left), a man of Caribbean descent, was employed by a telephone company that offered private health insurance, which covered himself and his son. The family’s diverse network included physicians, but as research suggests, they also maintained a balanced respect for holistic treatments as a part of their cultral norm.
Part of Brandon’s extended family cohabitated in the Bronx, where his beloved grandmother, a Jamaican immigrant, had a necessity-based relationship with the healthcare system. She eventually began to seek medical treatment for heart issues.
Mockingbird: Do you feel your grandmother received effective medical treatment for her condition?
Brandon paused and looked upward in deep thought for a moment.
Tonge: “Yes! She got the medical care she deserved [only] because she worked for a wealthy Caucasian man in Long Island who helped out,” he recalled, referring to his family’s Matriarch who passed away in her 50s from a heart attack.
Brandon believes his grandmother may have had hesitation related to more frequent doctor visits due to the healthcare access climate at the time of her immigration to the U.S. as well as her Caribbean roots.
Years later, Brandon moved to Atlanta, Georgia with his father, studied at Morehouse College, and became a professional counselor. Although he does recognize its challenges, Brandon describes his relationship with the healthcare system as, “trusted.”
Mockingbird: Has your family had difficulty with quality care or access to healthcare services?
Tonge: “Fortunately for me, many members of my family have postsecondary degrees. They are fortunate enough to have the knowledge, means, exposure, and network to connect themselves to the access necessary to acquire quality healthcare services. That’s not the case for a lot of people in our community.”
Mockingbird: How has this helped some members of your family strengthen their connection to quality healthcare?
Tonge: “Having a certain level of economic status, being surrounded by professionals and having the time, opportunity and resources to explore important information can all play a role in a person’s health situation.”
Tonge went on to note, “if someone is working a 9 to 5, a second job with kids who have homework, those can become limiting factors for healthcare hoops you have the bandwidth to jump through.”
Mockingbird: What happens to black people who don’t have the education to understand how the healthcare system works or the means or resources to do the research you described?
Tonge: “People become subject to whatever or whoever is available to them. Many times in black communities, that could mean longer wait times, less friendly service, older technology and perhaps not getting the most cutting edge treatments for their condition. That has to change.”
Mockingbird: Do you trust the government to ensure quality delivery of healthcare specifically to African Americans?
Tonge: “No. Knowing that the healthcare system has failed people of color and continues to fall short on the need for health equity gives me a little pause. Also, the government as a whole hasn’t had enough experience in providing expansive, quality healthcare services to the general populous. There’s some work that needs to be done before we arrive to a place of entrusting this important work representing our lives to the government.”
Mockingbird: Do you think the regulatory systems that have been set into place will keep black people from experiencing experimental medical treatment without their knowledge?
Tonge: “The Tuskegee Experiment was an outrage and it traumatized the black community in a way that continues to resonate generations later. Unfortunately, there have been many medical atrocities committed against black people. There are members of the Black community who find it difficult, at best, to believe that reversing age-old systematic oppression and trauma in healthcare is a top priority of our government.”
Tonge noted the African American community’s history as second-rate citizens (as a rule of law), which points to an intersectionality between the US government and the healthcare system.
Brandon went further to recall the way in which black people during the Civil Rights movement were trampled in the streets (while standing up for their own human dignity). Many were forced to enter through back doors of medical facilities to endure lengthy, unnecessary waits for low-end triage services, medication, and treatment after suffering serious injuries.
Mockingbird: Do you think that a white doctor would handle your medical care differently than a black doctor or vice versa?
Brandon: “Because I live in Atlanta, there is an improved sense of credibility in healthcare among black people. Since there’s a larger population of black people here, non-black providers are likely to be trained and adapted to people of color. It’s my understanding that this isn’t always the case in more rural areas.”
Mockingbird: That being said, would you prefer to have a black doctor?
Tonge: “I’d prefer to have the best doctor.”
British Journal of General Practice
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Common Wealth Fund
Equal Justice initiative
Food & Drug Administration
Healthy People 2030
National Institutes of Health
University of New Hampshire