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The truth about the Tuskegee Experiment

Today is the last day of Black History month in the USA, I used to feel some sort of way about getting the shortest month of the year until I grew older and realized we celebrate our history every day of every month of every year! Living bold and beautifully and in our truth at this point on our timeline really is a celebration of who our ancestors fought to become, fought so hard for their children and grandchildren to taste the sweetness of freedom. They had the audacity to dream that one day, children born into their family line would not taste the bitterness of slavery, and so it is our blessed burden to live large in what they have created for us. That includes understanding our history in order to make a brighter future and we are not limited to 28 days on a calendar. Our history predates the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade and I have the audacity to believe that our futures our going to be wilder than we ever dreamed.

I recently heard Reverend Al Sharpton speak with the lovely Joy Reid regarding the COVID vaccination in the United States of America. The discussion circled around the fact that white Americans are receiving the vaccine at a much higher rate than People of Color throughout the country. Many experts continue to bring up equitable access to the vaccine but secondarily many POC do not trust vaccines and are hesitant to get one, even if it is available. This fact stresses me out because our people have unequitable access to healthcare and as a result suffer from “pre-existing conditions” that can make COVID even more deadly for us, we need this protection for our families and for our futures.

Imagine my surprise when I heard Rev say that at 897 years of age he was not completely aware of the truth about the Tuskegee Experiment and recently had to research further. I was thankful that he was wise enough to search out the information he knew he was lacking but I wondered: how many others don’t know the really story? So, on this last day of Black History month I have decided to honor my ancestors and embrace their spirit of lifting others through education and providing the truth of the Tuskegee Experiment. My hopes is that with the full understanding of our past in this country, you can make informed decisions for a future that looks how you want it to look.

The truth about the Tuskegee Experiment is that it lasted 40 years; it began in 1932 with the US Public Health Services promising 600 Black men free health services, as well as compensation, to participate in the study. The premise was that the health agency would be treating 399 black men with the venereal disease and 201 without the disease for what was called “bad blood”, at the time this could indicate any number of illnesses including syphilis. Syphilis is an STI that shows up as a tiny spot that may not even hurt but if left untreated can develop into a rash and furthering into fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches, and fatigue. Today syphilis is easily treated with penicillin however prior to this discovery in 1947, if left untreated syphilis could lead to organ failure, difficulty coordinating muscle movements, numbness, blindness, and even dementia.

This study took place in what is known as Alabama’s “black belt”, so called because of the high population of African American sharecroppers. After the civil war ended many African American families entered into a sharecropping agreement that allowed Black families to plant “cash crops”, the white land owners who would “share” a portion of the crop in exchange for the families to live on the land. Black families who started with nothing saw this as an amazing opportunities to enrich their family’s lives, they were free from enslavement and could finally enjoy the building their own futures, but the unfairly high costs often imposed by white landlords often left Black families under enormous debt and the inability to move on for better opportunities. Many Black families in this region were undereducated as a result and it is estimated that 227 out of every 1,000 African American was unable to read. It is also documented that during the early 1900’s the medical community trafficked in scientific racism with the belief that African Americans had primitive neurological systems, under-evolved in comparison to their white counterparts. As a result many medical professionals held the understanding that African Americans were physically over-developed, with larger reproductive organs that felt less pain, but inherently less-moral with a higher sexual appetite that just so happened to be pervasively aimed at white women. We were, essentially, a different species entirely but close enough to test on to see if the white medicine worked.

The truth about the Tuskegee Experiment is that participants were NOT given adequate medical care, although the 600 Black men (and eventually women and children) who volunteered were offered free medical care, food, and burial insurance. Those conducting the experiment harbored the belief that less-moral, sexually pervasive, fundamentally flawed beings wouldn’t naturally seek medical care for an illness so they conducted the experiment as a form of observation of the natural progression of syphilis within a community that wouldn’t seek treatment. They lied. During the occasions of observations participants would receive medical exams, x-rays, spinal taps, and medications containing too small a dose of medicine to be effective. The study was meant to last for 6 months but the researchers, who actively prevented treatment for their test subjects, extended the trial for 40 years until a whistle blower had the study results published in the New York Times.

The truth about the Tuskegee Experiment is that our government treated Black Americans as if they were lab rats for 40 years; more than half of the participants died, their wives and children were also infected. There is no evidence that the participants were ever given a choice to leave the study and they were prevented from getting effective treatment to save their lives. This sits so heavy on my spirit and so I live my life and I make choices for my family with this, and other things, in mind. My prayer is that you do the same, our planet becomes a better place when each person makes an effort to become better educated and make better personal choices.

If you’d like to read the full article that I gathered this from follow the link below.

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