By Dr. Olga Idriss Davis

(Originally published – Arizona Informant June 12, 2013)

A few weeks ago, the Phoenix community lost two stalwarts of creative brilliance and political stratagem: Larry Wilson and A.J. Miller, respectively.  Their community membership transitioned in their homegoing ceremonies of ritual and goodbye. Both men were African American and made their mark on the local and broader communities in ways that made reverberations in the social, political, and cultural circles they represented.


Larry Wilson, in the artistic realm of transforming art and expression, raised the consciousness of minority presence throughout the city and established a model that would serve as a gold standard for youth and community art programs in Phoenix, while A.J. Miller, known for his strategic prowess in political discourse and campaign management, helped to shape the contours of minority presence in the political milieu of state and local government.


I found myself sitting at their funerals and asking, “How do we as a community address the needs of health among Black men in our community?”


It seems to me, that if we think of the world from the perspective of pot liquor and malt liquor, these two metaphors can shed important light on the issue of Black men’s health. Pot liquor suggests a heritage of culture from the kitchen, where our mothers and grandmothers gave  us rich nutrients of collard greens, mustard greens, kale, ‘chard, spinach, and while oftentimes mixed with salt pork and fatback for seasoning, it was in the juice of the greens that provided  nutrients and healthy sustentation.  On the other hand, malt liquor is an alcoholic beverage often associated with Black culture in advertisements, commercials, on the street, in the hood, and amongst the brothas. Malt liquor symbolizes the social, cultural, and economic determinants of health disparities in our community. Malt liquor can have adverse effects by raising blood pressure and requires cautionary use in men with hypertension. Malt liquor represents a choice to ignore health sustainability, while pot liquor takes us back to a culture of healing through understanding and communicating the health and nature of our bodies.  Environmental spaces in African American communities such as liquor stores, convenient stores, fast food chains, and minimal recreation and walking areas, all speak to the disparities and lack of healthy living related to Black men and the lack of knowledge of good health. How do we get back to a pot liquor lifestyle rather than a malt liquor existence?  The answer is in the Black barbershop.


“A change is gonna come,” says former soul singer Sam Cooke. I believe that change is upon us. The culture of the Black barbershop is a folk tradition, a gathering place in the male community, a site where knowledge can be traded, disputes resolved, and wisdom transferred from generation to generation. And, the Black barbershop is transforming into a health care space where barbers are becoming community health advocates by promoting among their customers health responsibility of African American men.


It is a place where men and their barbers are finding new ways to address cardiovascular disease (CVD), prostate cancer, and sexually transmitted diseases that are claiming the lives of Black men at record proportions.


For example, African American men in the U. S. have the highest rate of blood pressure, or hypertension, of any population in the world (American Heart Association, 2007).  In Arizona, among the top six health concerns, African American men lead in deaths associated with heart disease and stroke (ADHS, 2010).


Hypertension is more prevalent in African Americans than in Caucasians and African Americans experience more rapid progression of end-organ damage from this often "silent" disease than do Whites. In the U.S., nearly 50 million people have high blood pressure, of which 40% are African Americans.


Among African Americans, the disease is more common, develops at a younger age, is more severe and is a leading cause of early disability and death from heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and kidney failure.  African American males are particularly at risk because they often are unaware of the disease, do not receive treatment, and/or do not adhere to a treatment regimen if one is prescribed. Management of cardiovascular disease in African Americans is complex and requires consideration of the unique aspects of our culture and of our community.


Barbers hold a unique place in the African American community and can promote communitywide dialogue about heart disease and stroke in an effort to reduce risks associated with hypertension.  Black men and the African American community at large, lack the knowledge of risk factors and preventive factors concerning this disease.


At the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center (SIRC) of Arizona State University under the direction of Dr. Flavio F. Marsiglia, we are designing culturally grounded health interventions through community-based collaborations with barbers that address health literacy, communication, and awareness of cardiovascular disease in the Black community. Out of this need to address the disparity of heart disease in Phoenix, our Center has created a research project led by Dr. Olga Davis called, the African American Cardiovascular Health Literacy Exploration, designed to partner with Black barbershop owners to determine what are the health concerns of their customers, to increase health literacy, and to create an Advisory Steering Committee of Barbers for health sustainability of African American men in the community.


Sponsored by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), the African American Cardiovascular Health Literacy Exploration project is unique to Phoenix, by its focus on developing partnerships with owners to address Black men’s health.


I encourage Black barbershop owners who are interested in the health of their clients and increasing knowledge of cardiovascular disease, to please contact me, Dr. Olga Davis, at the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center at Arizona State University, 602-496-0700, or at If you know of a barber, who would be interested in this project, please encourage him to make contact with me. Let’s find ways to return to our cultural roots of pot liquor – sustaining African American men’s health for the future of our community. If you are a patron of a Black barbershop, please encourage the owner to participate in this program. 


Dr. Olga Idriss Davis is associate professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at ASU and principal investigator of health literacy at the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center, Arizona State University. She also serves on national grant review boards for the National Institutes of Health.