Medical Apartheid – Harriet A. Washington (2007)

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Subtitle: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Well, this read left me a bit shattered, not because it’s so graphic, but because it’s so true and it hasn’t stopped – even in this day and age. This is a well-researched look at the history of medical apartheid, which means, basically, the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the era of slavery to the present day. It’s an incredible read about an important (and much neglected) topic and although it was one of the hardest reads I’ve had in a long time, it’s an important addition to the history of African Americans here in the U.S.

I think that most Americans are aware of the Tuskagee syphilis experiment  from 1932 to 1972 under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service. This was a long-term experiment to observe the natural progression of syphilis in untreated subjects, but under the inexcusable idea that the subjects (i.e. the people in the study who had syphilis) believed that they were getting medical care when in fact, quite a few weren’t – and just so medical professionals could see what happened in the lifetime of a poor syphilis patient.

These patients were severely economically disadvantaged (mostly sharecroppers) and poorly educated, and included 600 people who believed that they were receiving free medical care, meals and free burial insurance for participating in this study, a study that even gave 201 participants syphilis (who didn’t have it before), and none of whom were given penicillin (despite all the evidence that this fairly new antibiotic would cure their disease). (Sorry – that’s a rather long sentence, but I trust that you can keep up.)

(It’s insane that this happened, and continued to occur until the 1970’s. My god. I don’t even have words to put here to describe how PO’d I am at this situation. It’s beyond my vocabulary.)

And you know what’s worse? That the medical establishment has continued to abuse this population ever since slavery, and it’s happened over and over again. (And when you read this book, I hope you’ll feel as disgusted as I am.)

One more example that’s more modern: there are several examples of medical studies looking at new technology (e.g. artificial medical devices or treatment approaches) that are totally based on studies filled by African-American participants. And yet when the final device is approved and comes to market, the population who tested it for the manufacturers are actually now least likely to afford access to its benefits. Grrrrrrrr.

Back to the book: Washington has done an excellent job writing this book through the perspective of her journalistic lens, and the book’s divided into three parts: the first is about the history of medical experimentation wrt the African-American population; the second is about more recent cases of medical abuse and research, and the third examines how this history has impacted African Americans and their current views on the (mostly) white medical establishment of today.

I worked for almost a decade in public health at the local City Health Department, and when we would offer medical screenings, some folks would participate but there were times when our services were not as well attended as we had hoped, and frankly, after reading this book and learning this history, I fully comprehend any hesitation to do so. I, too, would be careful with any of my interactions with health care workers as well if I had grown up knowing this history of continued racial and medical discrimination against my friends and family.

And this book carefully covers decades and decades of continued abuse of the African American population. It wasn’t just in the “olden days” – it continued up until close to the end of the 20th century, and actually, probably continues in some places to this day if you consider who continues to populate medical studies offering “free health care if you’ll help us with our studies”.  (It’s usually the highly disenfranchised, socially and economically disadvantaged people with few options for health care. Don’t even get me started on the availability and access to effective dental care….)

The Tuskagee study is usually the most famous study that characterizes this trend, and due to the whistle blower who let the cat out of the bag on that*, there is now an Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and federal laws and regulations requiring Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that are meant to protect human subjects in studies. (The OHRP is under the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services now.)

So – as you can probably surmise, this was a powerful read for me and it just underscores how tough and amazing the African American population are: these guys survived slavery, medical discrimination, civil rights injustices and more. Just imagine how different life for African Americans could have been without this century’s continued discrimination in almost every aspect of life. Goodness me. I’d also be very very careful when dealing with the medical establishment (or the white establishment in general) if I’d grown up learning this history and yet still continuing to thrive despite the odds.

There is nothing that I can say to make this right, so my advice would be to read this, let it in sink in, and then look at your own communities to see how you can impact them in a positive way somehow. I’m not sure that I really like the direction of this country’s administration right now (understatement of the year), but how to change that? (1) Vote. (2) Make your part of the world more just, kind, and fair in any way that you can.

This was an amazing and thought-provoking read. I hope it is for you as well.

* Someone had to whistle-blow on this study??…

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Where in the world…?

hello-600x400Well, hi. I’m here in the world, but have not been able to work on my blog with the regularity that I like due to overload at work and home. Spring tends to be the busy time at work, and then in my non-work time, I’ve been researching a trip that I’m taking with my lovely old mum and twin sister which is fun but does take up some time and energy. (It’ll be worth it in the end, for sure.)

And you know – I have been reading. I’m just about to finish up a non-fiction called “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by medical scholar Harriet Washington. Goodness me. This has been a very difficult and serious read, not because the content is complex but because the content is true and almost too horrible to contemplate.

Washington’s thorough research seems to cover almost every instance of when the U. S. medical system has experimented on the African-American population over the years, with the (white) medical establishment doing everything from giving an unnecessary and unwanted HIV vaccine to healthy infants (without the parental consent) to digging up bodies to sell for dissection at medical schools, from lying to study participants about receiving treatment (the infamous Tuskagee study) to hideous other well documented incidents of other abuses to a population with no recourse to change any of this.

Obviously, this is a tough read for me (as it would be to anyone), and I’ve had to take some breaks – how can people be so horrible to each other (specifically to African-Americans)? – and at the same time, I think it’s important to know this history, and I’ve also been under a tight deadline to finish this since it’s an unrenewable inter-library loan. (And yes – I could have forked over the cash to buy my own copy, but I’m on a book-buying ban AND I’m learning that I’m better as a one-book-reader than trying to juggle several).

Long story short – it’s been an intense reading week and so not much time or energy for putting together a blog post. But trust me – one will be coming on this particular read as I think everyone who is aware of social justice in any form should learn about this issue. One must know the past to influence the future, I think.

I’ve also been reading “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit which is a series of hard-hitting essays on how activists have changed the world for better, even when it’s tough to see the progress. (It’s been helpful to balance the terror that has been coming out of the WH lately.)

So – some hard hitting books here, and once I’m finished with the Washington book, I’m probably going to be heading for some lighter reading to balance things out. It’s astonishing to me that there are years and years of this documented medical abuse and yet no one did anything about it. No wonder that the African-American community tends to stay away from the American health care system. I would as well if I knew that history.

So – that’s where I am at right now. What’s new, Blue’s Clues?

Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier – Dayton Duncan (1993)

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In the past few years, I’ve become really interested in the history of places (both the place that I live and also those of the places that I visit), and I enjoy learning about the different narratives that make up the more complete picture of a place. So, when I came across this title at one of the FoL book sales, I was intrigued.

I’d also been interested in seeing how many of the titles that I’d purchased at last year’s FoL book sale I’d actually read, and realized how very small and paltry that number was. And — I’ve also started my Fall Book Buying Ban which means making a concerted effort to read more titles from my own bookshelves. I did this last year and it was pretty fun so thought I’d start it up again.

Plus I’m heading to England next month and I can always find some interesting titles over there. Need to get some space freed up in the shelves for those treasures who cross the Atlantic on the home trip.

So, all this to say that reading this particular title was good on several different levels!

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This title is one that examines America’s contemporary frontier (as in the “Wild West” frontier). As the publisher writes in the back cover copy: “[T]he sparsely populated American frontier – declared as “closed” by Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago – remains open…” and this book explores the history and current (as in 1993 current) status of “frontier counties” (i.e. counties that have fewer than 2 people per mile population distribution wise). In other states across the U.S. and if you live in a metropolitan area, this stat may sound impossible to have in this day and age, but for a lot of Western counties (a la old cowboy film scenery), it’s very much of a reality.

I live in West Texas (in the Panhandle, really), and the county where I live was one of those frontier counties until a few years ago. You may have heard of the saying, “Big Sky Country”, and that is where I live. The topography is pretty flat, you can see for miles, and the sky is huge and uninterrupted across the horizon. There’s a joke around here that says “the country is so flat, you can see your dog running away for two weeks!”… Arf. Arf.

I love it here, and miss the view when I visit cities (especially NYC which I love but is also claustrophobic for me after a while). I’ve lived here for quite some time, but there are still some days when the region catches me by surprise (e.g. if I see a working cowboy complete with spurs and hat at the grocery store like I did the other day). When that happens, it’s like seeing a living piece of history and I really appreciate the link to the past.

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Driving around the Western states, author Dayton Duncan introduces the reader to some of the people who choose to inhabit these frontier counties. Most of his focus stays on the more typical pioneer states (such as those in Texas, New Mexico and others), but he does include states as far away as Oregon and California since they were the destinations for many of the families who traveled the Overland Trail in their covered wagons and on horseback.

(It’s amazing when you sit down and think about it. The pioneers and their families knew that they would probably never go back from where they came – how brave is that especially when one considers the complete lack of information that they were working under!)

As he drives around to meet the folk who live here and to cover some of their history, Duncan maintains his respect for the townsfolk without having to resort to stereotype and lazy reportage. As the miles go by, he writes about topics as diverse as the extinction of the buffalo herds and the process of choosing where to put a SuperMax prison facility to the known history of the nation’s First Peoples and Billy the Kid (both the legend and the evidence that’s left). Billy the Kid was a real person, but it varies as to how long he lived, where (and how) he died, and what his legacy may mean. (Actually, the place touted as his burying place is on our way west to the mountains near the Texas/New Mexico border.)

This was published by an academic press, so it wasn’t an easy read (in terms of how dense the material was), but it was really interesting to me. There was a lot of overlap between historical events at the time (slavery and pioneer travel for example), and a lot of the history that Duncan relates was new to me and I found it fascinating. (For more about one particular African-American frontier town in Kansas, see here.)

I’m very glad that I pulled this off the shelves to read, and am now digging around my TBR to see what other little treasures that I can dig up….

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Dr. Cornel West rocks.

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Wow.

Dr. Cornel West visited our campus last week as part of the African-American History Month, and wow. He was a fantastic orator. You can tell that he has experience as a spoken word performer and you can tell that he is probably one of the smartest people you’ll ever hear from. (Huge vocabulary!) It was great.

cornelDr. West’s talk was along the lines of how African-American lives have been changed (or not) during the Obama administration and I had been expecting to hear how great President Obama has been and all that jazz. Instead, we heard a fairly diluted message of support for him, and a lot about how it’s much more important to be the best person you can be, regardless of color. Great message. However, Dr. West was also very astute in his biting commentary about how racism still exists for African-Americans in the U.S. and he particularly focused on the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. It really got me to thinking and linked nicely back to Ta Ne-Hisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me. (See my review here.)

(I had expected the lecture hall to be as packed as it was with Black Violin , but instead (and rather disappointedly), it was only two-thirds full and mostly with older white people. I was saddened because Dr. West was rather a coup for our university to secure. He’s an important intellectual activist and his messages crosses boundaries of all kinds. They missed out is all I can say.)

So – to the talk. Instead of focusing on President Obama’s eight years in office, Dr. West revolved his talk on the problem of systemic racism in the U.S. and linked that with four questions from the African-American writer, W. E. B. Du Bois:

  • How shall Integrity face Oppression?
  • What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception?
  • What shall Decency do in the face of Insult?
  • What Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

(Du Bois had some other questions as well, but these were the four that Dr. West chose to focus on for his talk.)

It was a powerful talk. Dr. West is a fiery and passionate speaker and covered a wide swath of issues. He addressed some uncomfortable realities (at least for me, as a privileged white person) and the advice that he gave to address these four questions in an honorable and powerful way was dead on.

It was really a good lecture, and if you should ever get a chance to hear Dr. West, then please go. It was a thought-provoking and energizing talk from one of the leading activists and philosophers in the U.S. Highly recommended.

(I’m also going to look for some of Du Bois’ writing at a later date. It looks v interesting to me.)