Black literacy matters

Dr. Asha Fields Brewer

As we return to school, literacy in all its forms will be a major objective for many classrooms. Reading and writing are the traditional forms of literacy that we’re exposed to throughout primary and secondary school. Digital literacy has become a requirement for college campuses. Financial literacy has been woven into life skills curricula at various education levels, and cultural literacy is rising to the top of workplace conversations. However, have you heard of “health literacy”? 

Health literacy is the ability to read and understand health-related information. The US Department of Education-Institute of Education Sciences assessed health literacy for the first time in 2003. As part of this assessment, participants completed various tests and were placed in one of four categories: proficient, intermediate, basic, and below basic. Let’s see where you think you fall. Starting from the lowest level:

• “Below basic” means you can read a set of short instructions and identify what is permissible to drink before a medical test. The key skills at this level are read and identify.  

• “Basic” means you can read a pamphlet and give two reasons a person with no symptoms should be tested for a disease. The key skills at this level are read and reason. 

• “Intermediate” means you can read instructions on a prescription label and determine what time a person can take the medication. The key skills at this level are read and determine. 

• “Proficient” means you can use a calculator to determine your share of health insurance cost for a year. Notice that it is assumed you can already read the health insurance information. Therefore, the key skills at this level are read and calculate.  

The foundation of health literacy at all levels is the ability to read and truly comprehend what you are reading. Secondly, you must be able to take a specific action based on what you have read. Keeping this in mind, 28 percent of Whites are at the two lowest levels: basic and below basic health literacy. On the other hand, 58 percent of Blacks are at the two lowest levels. This should be concerning to you because what this really means is that over half of Blacks can’t read a prescription label and determine when to take their medication. Over half of Blacks don’t understand their health insurance.  And over half of Blacks aren’t really sure what’s on going on with their health. So, I ask you to consider, “How can we take care of ourselves and each other, when we can’t comprehend what ‘care’ truly means?” While there are several other factors that contribute to health literacy, such as reading comprehension, language comprehension, etc., 58 percent is too high of a percentage to take lightly. 

Even the Bible underscores the importance of literacy. Proverbs 3:13, 16, NIV, share, “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding … Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” 

If we want Black families to be healthy and well, we must commit to improving Black health literacy. Make it a priority in your family to:

1. Practice reading. Read aloud, read to others, read to yourself. This doesn’t have to be limited to health information. This can be any information at all.

2. Practice asking questions. If something you read doesn’t make sense, ask. Ask your doctor, your nurse, your therapist, or anyone else connected to your care. No question is a stupid question, especially when the answer can save your life.

3. Practice understanding. If something you read doesn’t make sense or something you hear doesn’t make sense, look it up. Then discuss what you read with a professional. Once you have clarity on the matter, explain what you’ve learned in your own words. There’s nothing more powerful than hearing your voice speak wisdom when you finally get it! 

Be intentional about emphasizing health literacy in your family and in your community. For as Proverbs 4:6, NIV, emphasizes, “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you.” You can take an active role in Black health by promoting and celebrating Black literacy.

Dr. Asha Fields Brewer is a creator of healthy conversations. As a national speaker and published author, she teaches the busy and overwhelmed how to live life abundantly. She is the owner of Temple Fit Co. wellness agency, which is home to 25-plus wellness speakers and fitness instructors. Tune in to “Temple Fit Devotions with Dr. Asha” on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. on Hallelujah 95.3 FM.