Jerrie Johnson as Tye in Harlem by Sarah Shatz. Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

First Wives Club creator and Girls Trip co-writer Tracy Oliver didn’t know she and her team would put a spotlight on fibroids in her latest series Harlem on Amazon Prime Video. For a series starring Meagan Good as the center of a tight group of longtime girlfriends that also includes Empire’s Grace Byers, Jerrie Johnson, and Shoniqua Shandai as they all navigate life, love, and career in the storied New York City haven, fibroids is not the natural go-to. Instead, that change, Oliver told the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) Virtual Roundtable, happened “organically.”

“One of the Black women writers in the room was dealing with (fibroids) and that kind of sparked a very honest, vulnerable discussion of all of the stuff that we (as Black women) had been silently dealing with,” Oliver explained. To bring awareness to the very real health challenge fibroids present, Oliver and her team incorporated it into the storyline for Tye. As founder/CEO of her own tech company, where her dating app is the main push, Tye definitely fits the “strong Black woman” archetype prone to suffer in silence.

Uterine fibroids, or leiomyomas, as they are medically known, are non-cancerous tumors or growths made of fibrous tissue like muscle that grow in and around a woman’s uterus. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that 20-25% of reproductive age women have fibroids. Black women are hit especially hard, with up to 80% experiencing some form of them by age 50.  Prompted by the lack of awareness and urgency dedicated to the common chronic disease, then Senator Kamala Harris offered potential help by introducing the Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act of 2020. In the bill, Harris proposed $30 million in annual funding to the National Institutes of Health to expand fibroid research. It also called for money for a public education campaign as well as to the Centers for Medicare and Medical Services to boost up information about fibroids in the chronic conditions database.

Heavy bleeding during periods and beyond is a common symptom. Many women also experience growths resembling a pregnancy. Infertility or difficulty conceiving are also often the result of fibroids. On the December 7, 2021 episode of the Tamron Hall Show, rapper/actor Eve shared her journey with fibroids and her resulting infertility. That struggle, she revealed, was the main reason she was then stepping away from her new ABC series Queens. Cynthia Bailey and Kandi Burruss are also sufferers who have each shared their struggles on their hit reality show Real Housewives of Atlanta. Burruss even cited her challenges with fibroids as the prompt for choosing surrogacy to expand her family. 

Even though awareness of Black women and fibroids is building, it is rarely incorporated into scripted drama storylines. And, as a masculine-presenting queer woman, Tye helps to underscore how pervasive fibroids are among all Black women. Towards the end of Harlem’s first season, the driven tech founder finds herself in the hospital where her longtime friends surprisingly learn she has fibroids. Raising awareness of fibroids is a storyline that hit home for Jerrie Johnson who plays Tye. 

“I have an aunt who has fibroids who struggles to this day,” she shared. Plus, as someone who studied African American Studies, Johnson also can’t help but think about the role white supremacy has played in controlling Black women’s bodies, especially as erroneous information is continually dispensed and hysterectomies removing the reproductive system are routinely pushed. 

“Imagine having different people exploring your body telling you, ‘Oh, no, that doctor was wrong. We’re going to do this.’ But the doctor already took this out of my body. So now you’re gonna do this? So, you’re continuing to get second opinions from the same kinds of people who don’t care about the longevity of Black womanhood in America to begin with,” she beckoned, reminding all that gynecology as a practice in this country came as a result of frequently nonconsensual experimentation on Black women’s bodies.

“I wanted to highlight (fibroids) because it’s an actual issue that affects Black women. And a lot of times, when Black women go to doctors to get diagnosed or get help for it, they’re either misdiagnosed or sent away or dismissed in a way that other women are not,” Oliver explained. 

As we have seen in other areas, representation, indeed, does matter. So, with Tye’s fibroids storyline on Harlem, Oliver is making a statement that Black women’s health is also important in ensuring that Black women are seen.