Co-Editor of The Hood Health Handbook, Absalom Alife Allah Masse, speaks on health wisdom from and for Black & Brown communities, Hip Hop inspiration, system change, playing in the park, and his personal journey into health justice work.
“When we talk about “Food Deserts”… A desert is a natural phenomenon, so you starting to think ‘this is just natural, the hood is supposed to be like this’. No! It was actually set up this way, this is just an extension of the larger paradigm of white supremacy, of inequity, it’s all connected.” - Alife Allah
American culture is fantastically individualistic, which can be a great thing when it comes to innovation and following your dreams, but when it comes to the health of people and their communities… the focus on individual responsibility for wellness, seriously misses the mark. Many of the factors that impact health, such as poverty, stress, and pollution are actually rooted in systemic problems created by centuries of policies and social norms that prioritize profit over people, and white lives over black and brown lives. So when we tell people to just exercise more, eat better, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we are putting all the responsibility for wellness on the individual, rather than a shared burden for change, that also involves transforming the systems that bad health actually stems from.
Today’s guest Alife Allah aka Absalom Masse is trying to do something about this. In 2010, Together with his co-editor Supreme Understanding, he published The Hood Health Handbook volumes 1 and 2. Faced with the reality that Black and Brown people in America are several times more likely to die from health related diseases than white people are, these two saw that health solutions specific to communities of color were needed. Drawing on writings and practices from a large network of health practitioners of color, as well as hip hop music and culture, The Hood Health Handbook and website ThisHoodHealth.com focuses on natural and affordable approaches to improving health in Black and Latinx communities.
“You don’t have to do the whole phd thing to talk about health, because most people who are sick don’t have phd’s.” - Alife Allah
Alife grew up in New Haven, CT, and his journey into health justice work has been expanding over the past few years. He trained to become an environmental leader with Outdoor Afro, participated in the Black and Latinx Farmer’s Immersion at Soul Fire Farm, has been leading workshops and public speaking at schools and universities such as the Yale School of Nursing, and started the Hood Health Podcast. Alife is at a pivotal moment in his journey, stepping into his full passion in this work. “It’s important for people to hear directly from us, verses someone who just writes a thesis on something they haven’t experienced.” he said.
The importance of hearing people’s own stories in their own words cannot be overstated, and that’s exactly what we strive to do on The Table Underground. Throughout this interview, Alife speaks not only about the “for us, by us” wisdom in his Hood Health work, but also the various aspects of his journey to learn and develop his own skills. When I asked him what he wanted to speak about, he went straight to herbalism and some of the knowledge he got from his mother, which he’s is not trying to expand on by learns from folks like those at Boogie Down Botanicals. He also got very riled up about the demonization of soul food: “For many people, Soul Food is the root of all sickness in the black community, and I’m like ‘NAH!’ The soul food as it is presented today is not the soul food that we connect with our ancestors who were enslaved….Soul food is demonized, for the same reason anti-Blackness exists, it’s all about ‘You guys are harming yourselves, it’s your fault… pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ ”
Another important component of Alife’s off-line work is encouraging Black folks to get outside and enjoy nature, even though there can be barriers for many people. “There is a whole big chunk of history that is related to the black body in outdoor spaces. There is historical trauma….The outdoors is a place where tremendous violence has been done against the black body, in terms of lynching and violence against black people, but also places where people ran away and created maroon colonies and grew food… but it’s important to really acknowledge that there is trauma...and yeah, we gotta take up space, because it’s just death the other way, literally.” Alife started a “Doing it in the Park” series where he got people outside playing fun games from childhood like jax, jumping rope and more…knowing that in addition to addressing trauma or fears, it’s also important to have fun and bring the joy.
Throughout everything, Alife brings it all back to Hip Hop. “It’s important to build a sense of community and let people know they are not alone…. To get back to the root of the breath, breathing is just so important...and it’s important from a hip hop stand point… the greatest Mc’s have breath control, so it’s important to learn how to breathe, to be present. These seem to be simple things, but it’s amazing to see that…people’s fears and notions of self worth are not affirmed...it’s part of the larger narrative [for Black and Brown people], ‘just deal with it’ ”. At the root of all of the Hood Health work that Alife is doing is this: giving people resources to actually deal with the spectrum of challenges related to living as a Black person, so people can make change for themselves, AND to the systems that are causing the problems.