Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, is a book by Harriet A. Washington — and it was literally on my wish list for about three years before I finally got it the other day. It sounded interesting when I first came across it, but it didn’t really grab my attention the way it has lately; I wish-listed it and sort of forgot about it for a while until more recently. What I’ve realized is that the difference between then and now is that since I’ve began exploring more areas of critical medical breastfeeding and birth..? (if that’s what you call it when you’re more interested in raicalized politics and other justice issues than practical areas), I now look at this history through an entirely different lens than I would have then. Then, I wouldn’t have really known what to do with the information. I wouldn’t have been ready for it.
From what I’ve uncovered so far, Harriet Washington’s extensive research provides details about how the vast amount of scientific experiments leads us to what we have seen for generations, with the mistrust of healthcare professionals. I knew of this mistrust, but like others I knew of select case such as the Tuskegee experiment, for example, where over a 40-year time span, Blacks visited doctors, and believed they were receiving treatment, but instead researchers were only gauging the effects of untreated syphillis. I also knew of a few others, and I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, whose rapidly reproducing cancer cells were taken without her knowledge and have been used in countless experiments in medical research facilities across the world (and in space), for the past 50+ years, to create vaccines, find cures for diseases, along with a slew of others; these cells have impacted and in some way helped save my life, yours and the life of everyone you know. Harriet Washington tells us most people view these types of incidents as isolated and sporadic, but the reality is that this anti-Black racism has been at the foundation of this society, and the history of experimentation is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the U.S. healthcare system, and has been ongoing for hundreds of years.
From the reviews I’ve read, many people talk about how unsettling the narratives are. I’ve heard the author talking about this book on a few occasions when I’ve found videos online — one is embedded below (she does not provide gory details in this video, btw, just in case you are concerned). I’ve also heard about some of the procedures performed on Black people, often without anesthesia that she highlights. This is probably the reason I’ve also read by others, that Medical Apartheid is one of those books you pick up, read a couple of pages, and put it down for some time before getting the courage to continue. If this is the case, at over 500 pages, I won’t expect to finish anytime soon. And I admit I am a bit nervous about the coming chapters; I’ve laid awake many nights before, after reading about things like women being stripped naked and whipped near death by a slaver for accidentally burning his toast at breakfast, just as one example, so I only imagine what I’ll feel learning about the information in this one.
I’ve put a lot of thought into the ways Black people have been abused by the medical system, and the effects of this continued legacy; I think about the ways Black women have suffered greatly, and definitely around areas of breastfeeding and birth. This is also why I am so angered at the idealism that surrounds this area, and how birth workers keep disregarding the blatantly obvious — that this is not some long lost idea that happened in the very distant past that has nothing to do with us. It’s happening now. And it affects each and every one of us.
One of the reasons I am so thankful I became a doula, trained by a Black midwife, who centers Black women’s experiences, is because of this. One major benefit of doula support in addition to successfully increasing breastfeeding, is that it reduces the rate of cesarean sections, so women can have a natural vaginal birth, instead of the major (and debilitating) surgery that c-sections are. Being in this role ensures that I am actively working to resist the ways our bodies have been commoditized and mishandled, used-up and disposed of, and it gives me a direct hands-on approach in challenging this legacy. Because I think we’ve been experimented on and cut into for too long.
Have you read Medical Apartheid? What are your thoughts?
What are some ways we can use the information to raise awareness and work towards solutions inside of the healthcare industry as well as outside of it?