In my journey to decolonize my mind and my thoughts, I started reflecting on my professional journey to become both a public health specialist and social worker specializing in gender work. In my #MPH program, we briefly touched on the Tuskeegee experiment in which African Americans with the disease were intentionally denied treatment (without being told) in order to allow the progression of the disease so it could be observed in all stages, but other episodes are less well known to the general public. Then I started to dig deeper when my aunt Deidre Cooper Owens published “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. Not once was this #unethical bullshit discussed in any of my public health training.
How can we dismantle our system and offer true healing alternatives and reproductive justice if we do not understand the foundations of the oppressive system that we are still a part of today?
Here are a few examples of some of the atrocious crimes in the history of Medical Apartheid:
When I lived in Baltimore, I briefly learned about the origin of the HeLa cells and how The Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of only a few hospitals to treat poor African-Americans. In 1951, scientists took a Black woman’s cancer cells without her consent. The cells of Henrietta Lacks proved invaluable for research, and labs and companies gained financially from using them for decades, with nothing for her or her family.
If you are a public health professional of any sort, we all have a responsibility to learn about these less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.
I encourage you all to read Medical Apartheid. It is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities.