The Unusual Tale of Acupuncture, Racism, and African American History in the USA

By Tenisha Dandridge /

The Unusual Tale of Acupuncture, Racism, and African American History in the USA

As a person of color (POC) living in the current climate of racial tension in the United States, I’m proud of the many people who have finally been motivated to take a stand. I am bitter that it has taken so long to rouse the people of this country, again. I took a stand years ago when I decided to become an acupuncturist. Yup, I fight one tiny pin at a time (we will come back to that statement at the end).

I took a stand because I was tired of fighting the medical system. A broken medical system that didn’t care about me or people who looked like me (if this is news to you check out medical apartheid). Confused? That’s because you probably didn’t know that acupuncture was brought in part to the USA by Mutulu Shakur, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords in the 1970s. That’s right Acupuncture and Oriental medicine are a part of African American history that has nearly been lost.

Let me explain.

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If you do a quick Google search for the history of acupuncture in America, it will get you a few results. Most notably is the popular Nixon era story.  In 1972, President Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, traveled to China.  A journalist for The New York Times, James Reston, accompanied him.  While in China, James Reston ended up in a Chinese hospital requiring an emergency appendectomy.  Doctors used acupuncture to relieve his pain, thus opening up advancements for acupuncture in the United States.  

You will also discover how acupuncture was introduced most likely in the 1800s by early Asian immigrants. You might even discover early American doctors experimenting with needles, nerves, and electrical stimulation (man that sounds like it hurt!).

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What you won’t read about is on November 10, 1970, The New York Lincoln Detox Center: The People’s Drug Program was born. Not only was it the first drug rehabilitation treatment center to incorporate acupuncture in the USA, but it was also the first mass use of acupuncture by a private institution in the USA.

A group of the Young Lords, Black Panthers, and members of the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (a mass organization of health workers), with the support of the Lincoln Collective, literally walked in and took over the Nurses’ Residence building of Lincoln Hospital and refused to leave. Dissatisfied with methadone maintenance as just swapping one drug pusher for another the health care providers wanted anything else to help people take back their lives. And guess what they found something - acupuncture.

The Lincoln Detox Program was recognized as the largest and most effective of its kind by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Acupuncture Research Society, and the World Academic Society of Acupuncture. This was in spite of the fact that the Lincoln Hospital was a little shop of horrors for patients before the takeover. So much so that we now have a Patients' Bill of Rights.

Where does Dr. Shakur come in? I’ll give you the short version but you can read more here. Brother Mutulu Shakur (as in Tupac's step-father) is a Doctor of Acupuncture. As an acupuncturist and health care worker, Brother Shakur worked for and lead the Lincoln Hospital Detoxification Program in the Bronx in New York from 1971 to 1978. Then, from 1978 to 1982, Dr. Shakur was the co-founder and co-director of the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America, also known as BAAANA and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture. Hundreds of acupuncturists were trained thanks to the work by Dr. Shakur.

He didn’t just treat addicts. He made regular, quality, low-cost health care available to everyone in the area. The people of color in Harlem, like in most major cities then and now, were victims of all manner of home soil terror attacks. This spawned from racism and racist policies like COINTELPRO. Food deserts leading to poor nutrition, lack of adequate health care, as well as the drugs being pumped into the communities, red lining, and the reality of PTSD and PTSS from the everyday stress of living in such subhuman circumstances were exacting a heavy price out of the community. Acupuncture was used as a low-cost effective solution that was provided for POC.

This became the foundation for the current community acupuncture movement. Soooo, what happened to it? Same thing that has happened to all of our great African driven institutions: dismantled, destroyed, and diluted.

Unfortunately, if you fast forward to today, most African Americans have never heard of acupuncture and have no interest in trying it even if they have. In the midst of Black History Month, my people have no idea the impacts this medicine has had on our history let alone on the body. It's viewed as a luxury item for “other” people. Heck, I can’t even get most people to admit they are stressed out beyond their capacity and need help dealing with life. You don’t have to deal alone!

Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AOM) is a complete system of medicine that includes, cupping, moxibustion, herbs, diet therapy and more. One of the hallmarks of AOM is its ability to effectively deal with negative emotions (like stress, anger, depression, anxiety, grief) and the direct effects these emotions have on the body. Extreme emotions are in fact an etiology of disease as well a sign of disorder in the body in AOM.

People of color have the unique disorder of having unnatural high levels of stress especially living in the USA. The long term effects of living in a world that denies your basic right to equality and inalienable rights as a human being leads to a cornucopia of physical and mental health concerns. AOM is a safe effective method that can be used to help people cope with these effects without adverse side effects.

Ok, so let’s jump back to my statement: I fight one tiny pin at a time. I fight nutricide one pin at a time. I fight racism one tiny pin at a time. I fight big pharma one tiny pin at a time. I fight racism, bigotry, and yes a very functional COINTELPRO one pin at a time. I fight genocide one pin at a time. I fight against all of the societal ills one pin at a time. Healthy, strong, calm, rational, not chemically dependent (yes I mean your birth control pills and hypertensive medicine too) people are the warriors we need for this fight. And I have an arsenal that grows daily at your disposal. Most acupuncturists do. Who am I? I'm your friendly neighborhood pin lady, Tenisha Dandridge LAc. #getpoked #TuneUpYourTemple

This article was originally published on Dr. Tenisha Dandridge's blog and is used her with her consent.  You can read more of Dr. Dandridge's blog work or schedule a session with her here.

After a chance meeting with an OBGYN trained in Chinese herbs, Dr. Tenisha Dandridge L.Ac. fell in love with acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Dr. Dandridge has been in private practice for more than 11 years. Her current private practice is Everyone’s Place in Sacramento, CA, the region's only mobile provider. She is co-founder of BlackAcupuncturist.com, and is passionate about closing the Racial Health Disparities gap in the United States. Dr. Dandridge has also done extensive research into the topic of the utilization of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in the treatment of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. You can reach her at tenisha@everyones-place.com.

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