To the Doctors Who Used Us
To the Doctors Who Used Us,
I was sixteen when I first knew of the damage you could do. It was also when I first learned her name.
Growing up in Texas, I can’t say my high school was ever particularly interested in teaching about the complexities of black history (outside of the obligatory February black history month). Sure, they pelted us with quotes about peace from Martin Luther King Jr., briefly mentioned the likes of Malcolm X, and preached about the bravery of Rosa Parks. But in all of their lamenting about the ways black historical figures fought back, they seemed to avoid actually talking about what they were fighting against. Racism was always talked about in broad strokes and ideas as if it was some foreign notion or concept that only occurred hundreds of years ago and only captured by black and white photographs. My teachers didn’t want to say the obvious. That the beast was always lurking around the corner. That their grandparent would’ve spat on mine given the chance. That the knit cardigans their parents wore on their thin frames did nothing to hide thinly veiled disrespect posed as compliments. That our very school and the racism we endured from our rivals (“Farmers [our mascot] pick cotton!”) was built on the legacies of southern racism.
I’d spent my early years getting my history lessons on my culture from my family and black cinema, but still — -I was sixteen when I first learned how far the roots of bigotry and prejudice stretched beneath the soil. Racism had embedded itself in every aspect of our lives. It wasn’t just water fountains and segregated schools. Surely that would be enough. But instead, the effects of racism impacted education, housing, food, safety, and survival. A country built on the backs of enslaved people, progress dependent on their pain, white supremacy had ensured its survival by violating everything and everyone. And one person in particular.
At the time, I’d been putting together a binder of black poetry for an upcoming speech and debate tournament. This small binder, with woven words of poets like Dudley Randall and Countee Cullen, would push me to explore more about my culture. The Ballad of Birmingham in particular was a poem about the bombing of an Alabama church and I can remember reciting it in the mirror and picturing the ruins of religion. It was in confronting the prolonged cruelty of white supremacy upon the black community through poetry and prose that I found Henrietta.
Henrietta Lacks was born August 1, 1920. She grew up a Black farmer and mother of five. In 1951, she went to the hospital over of concerns about vaginal bleeding, and during this hospital visit, was devastated to find out she had a tumor growing on her cervix. While receiving treatment, Henrietta’s cells were found to be incredibly different than any other. Immortal. They were taken without her consent and used for research, and even after she died, following a long battle with cancer, doctors cultured her cells without permission from her family and continued to use them without pause. It was only 20 years after she passed that her family even knew the cultures, the research, and the absolute violation even existed.
I can remember reading about her life. Reading about them. How they justified the violation of her body. They cosigned the destruction of her dignity. All in the name of “progress.” I’d grown up as a Black girl, knowing the danger that can hide beneath fancy titles like a judge, teacher, and president — but somehow the notion of a monster lurking beneath a white coat escaped me. And they — you, Doctor — called it science, dressed it up as progress and hope, but really it was an assault wasn’t it? It was a violation of a black woman deemed necessary and crucial because of the good it could do. But they couldn’t even bother to tell her family. I think that’s what struck me as a teenager. That the violation could go, unchecked, unsaid, and without consequence for 20 years.
And then I learned about him.
The “Father of Gynecology” they called him.
That word, Doctor, is funny. Father. When I picture my own father the first things I think of are his hands. He has these massive hands that used to fascinate me when I was younger. I would push my fingers beside his and compare the size. Aligning our thumbs and pinkies, and balking at the difference. One of my earliest memories is of those hands picking me up and over a large puddle on Halloween, my ballerina costume fluttering in the October air. And my dad’s hands holding me up. I could never picture those hands hurting me. A father.
Dr. Sims was not the same man. He was a man who tested on enslaved women. Poking and prodding and performing surgery on them without anesthesia. This “Father of Modern Gynecology,” this man whose work came at the pain and expense of black women. Whose lives and dignity were put on the line for medicine that would serve to benefit their white counterparts far before that of their own community. And isn’t that still true today Doctor? We talk about his tools and techniques, how women today are safer for it, but in the same breath Doctor can we talk about how quickly we are dying? Black women, the very women used as sacrificial lambs to the slaughter so long ago — and still today if we’re keeping count — are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than that of their white counterparts according to the CDC. The CDC goes on to say that when considering the cause of this alarming number, “multiple factors contribute to these disparities, such as variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism, and implicit bias. Social determinants of health have historically prevented many people from racial and ethnic minority groups from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health.”
And so it seems, as black women of the past were violated in the name of science, black women today die despite or because of it.
The manipulation and exploitation of black and brown bodies in the name of “research” and “science” at the hands of those meant to help us is not unheard of. It does not begin and end with Henrietta or the unnamed enslaved women who were victims of Sims. We can trace it in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and find it lurking around the body of Sarah Baartman. We can see how our history has tainted our future.
The true destruction of medical racism is in the silence. Whispers surrounding our medical institutions and an outright refusal to make concrete changes that would actually save lives for fear of admitting what we already know to be true. Medicine was built on ideals that shape how doctors treat black and brown patients today. Our past has shaped how they are taught to administer medicine, how they are taught to listen and believe in their black patients. In her 2018 article, Kathleen Bachynski writes “Racist health beliefs have proven remarkably durable not only because they were at the core of medical advances such as VVF repair but also because of an ongoing absence of “critical thinking and writing on racism and health in mainstream medical journals.” For example, the belief in biological differences in pain tolerance between black and white patients continues to affect American medical practice today — just one of a number of troubling beliefs about biological racial differences plaguing modern medicine.”
And today, in a time where vaccines are politicized and testing becomes a commodity, we ask the Black community why they do not trust the white coats. Doctor, you cannot scratch your head and shrug your shoulders, wondering why my cousin refuses to trust in the medicine. All the while forgetting the past. Forgetting that for a long time the medicine was not made for us. We were tools to be used — tongs, a speculum, a black woman. Speak on it.
Doctor, I believe in the science. I believe in the medicine. But I have seen the danger. I have seen the cruelty. I have seen the violence. I have seen your history. Perhaps it is time to use your history — the dark and twisted bits — without shallow explanation and halfhearted apology, to decolonize the emergency room.
To the Doctors Who Used Us