On Monday a client asked me to come to her house to do group acupuncture for her and a group of friends. I treated six people in the comfort of her living room, and sat for an hour listening to their gentle slumbering as they drifted off to Acu-land. When it was over and I was un-pinning the last person I heard one of the participants talking about how amazing the experience had been for them, especially since most of the group was comprised of queer folks of color. I smiled quietly, thinking to myself, “This is exactly why I went to acupuncture school.”
Acupuncture is medicine for the people. I came to acupuncture working at a non-profit natural healing center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin called CORE/El Centro. We offered natural medicine modalities in both English and Spanish, including acupuncture and Chinese medicine, to a largely Hispanic and low-income clientele. To me, acupuncture was clearly a powerful kind of folk medicine that was incredibly useful in it’s simplicity, portability, and low overhead. It was truly medicine for the people, crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries, and it filled in the gaps inherent in the conventional medical model I had learned as a pre-med undergrad. I was enamored.
But when I moved to Portland and started school I found a different reailty. Most of my classmates where white women and our school served mostly white patients in the main clinic. When I talked about serving other communities my peers wondered if “they” would be interested. Ironically, “they” are some of the most interested in acupuncture.
The history of acupuncture in this country is spotty at best. Unfortunately, what we are taught in school usually centers around the history of acupuncture as it relates to the white, mainstream American medical consciousness. But, the range of people who spread the influence of acupuncture is much broader than that. Miriam Lee had such an important influence that she is one of the only non-white practitioners mentioned in schools. She was an incredible Chinese practitioner in San Francisco who had a lot to do with legalizing the practice in California. Her patients lined the courtroom when she was charged with practicing medicine without a license and their political pressure caused Governor Regan to start the legalization process. But, there are more revolutionary ties to acupuncture in this country as well. In the 1970s members of the Oakland Black Panthers traveled to China to meet with Maoist nationalists and and received training in acupuncture. Dr. Tolbert Small, who was a part of that contingent, used acupuncture in his practice in Oakland when he returned. On the East coast, as a part of the Black Liberation Army, Mutulu Shakur (Tupac’s father) came into contact with acupuncture in New York City and later received his doctorate in the medicine. He returned to New York, started a school in Harlem and a Black acupuncturists association, as well as a free clinic for drug addiction at Lincoln Hospital that later beget NADA, the leading organization for acupuncture use with trauma and drug addiction.
These social justice ties to acupuncture are not surprising when we consider the way our conventional system fails to serve folks of color, women, and other minorities, including sexual minorities. But, just like growing and buying organic food or breast feeding, using folk medicine was first relegated to unpopular status and then brought back into mainstream popularity for the upper classes. To me, utilizing acupuncture for health is a revolutionary act because it is self-care in a society where racism, sexism, homophobia and other systemic oppression makes simple daily life stressful for people of color, women, and sexual minorities.
I think too, that these revolutionaries saw the potential of acupuncture to heal communities, not just individuals, because real healthcare requires that communal link. I believe that group acupuncture has an additional healing element because of this, implying subtly, “You are not alone, we are all connected.” In a world of divisions, gathering with fellow humans in a space of healing is a powerful thing. And, in a city like Portland, with rapidly changing economic and racial demographics, it might just be revolutionary.