I remember in grade school, we were taught that our nation is built off the notion “the land of the free”. As poet, Langston Hughes said so eloquently in his poem, Let America Be America…
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
Where is the liberation they were promised? Langston Hughes dreamed for freedom, and struggled to fight for it. In present day, the lines around freedom for people of color are still blurred. As I observed in the documentary “The 13th”, author Michelle Alexander of The New Jim Crow expressed that “African-Americans were never truly granted freedom”. Alexander stated that “African-Americans have repeatedly been controlled through social and racial constructs that appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of that time”. She followed her interview with comments about slavery and how it’s past affects the present. Alexander unpacks that after the collapse of slavery, followed a Jim Crow system where African-Americans were relegated to a permanent second-class status. After the falling of the old Jim Crow, a new system was born decades later. In our time, we live in a system of mass incarceration that strips millions of people of color of their rights that they are entitled to.
Our country’s criminal justice system is perhaps the clearest example of institutional racism in the United States. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the overwhelming burden of contact that has fallen on communities of color. According to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Black men make up 6.5% of the human population, but 40.2% of the prison system”. African American men are five times more likely to be imprisoned than white American men. This is structural racism at it’s prime. In the eyes of the oppressor, African-American were portrayed as vulnerable, stigmatized beings. They were seen as caged animals, even coerced into medical experimentation. It was as if they lives weren’t worth living.
In ties with Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans by Harriet A. Washington, Chapter 10 documents the maltreatment of African-American inmates in the medical community. The father of Chemistry, Robert Boyle proposed that “testing human bodies” would be the most appropriate way to ensure his findings (Washington, 242). His influence inspired the medical community to turn jail inmates into experimental subjects. Why were prisoners universally desirable subjects for medical research? African-Americans have always been dramatically over-represented in jails and prisons. Prisoners were powerless, uneducated, poor, feared/hated by their communities, and expendable. According to Washington, “Prisoners had been commonly used as research subjects, and after the Civil War, the United States was the only nation in the world continuing to legally use prisoners in clinical trials. Federal, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic companies’ money catalyzed a thirty-year boom in research with prisoners” (p. 249). Inmates were only seen as steady influx of profit. Unfortunately, wealth not culpability, shapes outcomes.
The most insidious and dangerous experiments included injections, flash burns from heat radiation, drugs that would cause hallucinations, and skin tests that produced painful rashes. Edward Anthony, a black Holmesburg inmate during the mid 1960’s attests to his experience and stated that, “Some drugs caused temporary paralysis or helplessness, or even placed [me] into a catatonic state, from which [I] could neither communicate nor react to [my] surroundings. Others caused prolonged nausea… and provoked long-term violent behavior” (p. 251). Despite the history and evidence of using black bodies as caged subjects, jailed African-American research subjects “remained largely invisible in the medical and popular literature until the 1960s” (Washington, 254). The same exclusion of black history exists in our educational system. I can conclude that our land is not free. It is owned by the majority, a luxury that people of color can’t afford.
Throughout my entire educational career until attending SUNY Geneseo, It is hard to comprehend that I never learned the core history of my people. I can only remember learning about civil rights, the civil rights movement, and noble activists like Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Sojourner Truth. I always knew my teachers weren’t telling me everything. It was just what fit into the curriculum or speedily taught during Black History Month. Even though I was frustrated with my history classes and it’s lack of learning material, I honestly didn’t know what to do. I wanted to know the ugly truth about black history, which included their pain. While reading Medical Apartheid and shifting through the themes of the books we’ve read in class, I’ve found that most of the information I’ve learned alarmed me, yet challenged my original thinking. Thankfully, the truths I have learned in Beth McCoy’s Literature, Medicine, and Racism class have come far beyond the material I learned in my prior classes.
History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We seem to forget that fact. We can no longer choose to ignore the truth neither the omission of it. We must become more knowledgeable of our nation’s past, even if it’s make certain people uncomfortable.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.