Black History Month is for
All of Us
We need Black History Month because names like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Booker T. Washington are some of the only Black American names that I learned of when I was in school. An important few—but that’s it, a few.
Growing up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania essentially whitewashed my history lessons to the point that I had a profound underappreciation for the contributions of Black Americans to our society. I was never taught about Alice Ball, a young African American chemist who found the first successful treatment for leprosy; Katherine Johnson and her critical contributions to space flight, dramatized in the 2016 movie
Hidden Figures; or Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, who was a pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease.
These are only some of the remarkable people who deserve a place in our history books.
Who knows how much more progress might have been made in science and medicine if these great thinkers and activists had not operated behind the iron veil of oppression?
How much further would we be if systemic racism—those systems embedded deep in our society that perpetuate racial inequality—wasn’t still present today?
We don’t need to look far to find it; there are reasons, rooted deep in our country’s soul, that Black people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19, that Black mothers are more likely to die as a result of childbirth, that Black people are more likely to die from cancer than white people, and that the medical field is made up of a disproportionately low number of Black medical school graduates. I believe social determinants of health, those conditions and social structures which encompass our lives, have a direct impact on the disparities we see.
While there are many actions we must take to end systemic racism, it begins with acknowledging the problem.
On February 17, 2021, the American Medical Association
announced that it had removed the bust of its founder, Dr. Nathan Davis, from its glass-enclosed place of honor and removed his name from an annual award—acts that were long overdue. While Dr. Davis’ contributions to the medical field may have been considerable, he also contributed to prolonged segregation and exclusion of Black physicians in the medical community, all while some of his contemporaries supported integration. He had an opportunity to stand on the right side of history, to change history, yet he perpetuated a culture of white—and male—dominance.
The removal of Dr. Davis’s bust comes a few years after the removal of a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims from Central Park in New York City. Dr. Sims was known to most in the medical community as the “father of modern gynecology.” Only in recent times did it become a well-known fact to white people that Dr. Sims perfected his surgical techniques on nonconsenting Black female slaves—without anesthesia. It is believed that at least one woman underwent up to 30 separate procedures performed by Dr. Sims, often while other physicians “watched and learned.”
We cannot pretend that medical apartheid did not occur.
To do so is to further dishonor the men, women, and children whose lives were physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatized by medical barbarism. It is also critical that we understand it because it still affects the Black community today.
A few months ago, I had the privilege and honor of speaking with Queen Quet, head of state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. The Gullah/Geechee people are descendants of African and Indigenous people living between Jacksonville, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida. During that
interview, she shared that some people in Black communities would not get COVID-19 testing done because they believed it was akin to another Tuskegee experiment.
The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” ran from 1932 to 1972. It began when no effective treatment was available to treat syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service intended to study the progression of the disease. When penicillin was found to effectively treat the disease in 1947, it was withheld from the men in the study. Many men experienced severe health problems related to lack of treatment.1 Without treatment, syphilis can affect the brain, eyes, and other internal organs. Symptoms include blindness, dementia, paralysis, and loss of muscle control. Some individuals die from the disease.2 Even when someone from inside the U.S. Public Health Service expressed concerns in the 1960s, the study continued until it was finally leaked to the press in 1972.1
We may be quick to respond and say that would not happen today, but you cannot just dismiss these fears. They are based on a very real, very horrific history. I was born in 1973, the same year that a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the participants of the Tuskegee study. I did not learn about this in nursing school in the 1990s or while getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees many years later. I did hear about it during the late 1990s when the presidential apology made the news—but how many others entering the medical profession after that have heard of these atrocities? We need to make sure they do. It is our responsibility, as healthcare professionals, to understand the fears and the distrust of the people we care for.
As healthcare professionals we need to start by doing two things: educating ourselves beyond our sometimes-narrow view of history and asking how to build that bridge.
We must ask—not assume, not tell, not pretend to know—ask those we serve how we can serve them better and ask those we work alongside how we can support them.
When I spoke with Queen Quet I asked her what medical professionals and hospital administrators can do to support the Black communities they serve. Her answer: “Be active. Be involved. That’s the greatest investment you can ever make. Your behavior will follow where your heart goes, and if your heart is really going out to Black, Indigenous, people of color’s communities, you will then call in your colleagues to do the same with you. Support scholarships for our youth to enter the field of medicine. Now is the time to do more than talk; it is now time to walk the walk.”3
I could not agree with her more. One of the most critical factors in trusting another individual is knowing that individual. We do that by being active and engaged in our communities. Building relationships with the people and leaders of the communities we serve lays the foundation for being able to ask the questions that allow us to start building those bridges. Ask what barriers exist that limit access to care and work together to overcome them. For example, do they tell you some members of the community lack reliable technology? Are there low-tech alternatives available? Is transportation an issue? Is a mobile clinic feasible? Providing financial support to help elevate our local communities is another tangible gesture of intent. Little tells more about what is important to us than where our money goes.
It is my hope that one day we will eradicate disparities in healthcare. Every hospital administrator, every clinician, every community leader has the ability to make this problem better or worse starting right now. What side of history will you stand on?