The Tuskegee Experiment and the Road Forward

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I can remember learning about the “Tuskegee Experiment” as a young man, listening with perked ears and a betrayed heart as I heard that the United States government had injected Black men with syphilis in the Tuskegee, Alabama. I recall older men telling me, “and that’s why I don’t go to no doctors.” These revelations left me mortified, but also misinformed. As the nation gets reintroduced to the Tuskegee via the major theater release of Red Tails it is important to explore the history of the Tuskegee Experiment. In revisiting it with a vigilant eye, we can understand not just  our history but our future.

“The United States Public Health Service’s Syphilis Study at Tuskegee” began in 1932 and contrary to widespread belief, no participants were ever injected with the disease. The study was set to trace the effects of syphilis on 399 Black men in Macon County, Alabama who were already infected.  However, from the beginning the men were not told they had syphilis; instead, they were diagnosed with “bad blood.” This misinformation meant that the men passed syphilis onto their wives, other sexual partners and even their children. When penicillin was identified as a cure for the disease in 1947, the US Public Health Service opted to continue the study without giving treatment to the infected men, which resulted in 128 syphilis related deaths among the men in the study. This dark moment in history and its shadow are traced thoroughly in a new book which examines the lasting impact the study has had on how and what Black people think about going to the doctor and receiving medical care.

[READ: RECONSIDERING BOOKER T. WASHINGTON]

People of color across the planet are no strangers to governmental medical malpractices which often are concentrated on the most vulnerable populations: the poor and women. In recent months, states like North Carolina have come back into the spotlight for involuntarily sterilizing over 7,600 citizens; in Puerto Rico women were sterilized for decades; in Guatemala, US government doctors injected prisoners with sexually transmitted infections (including syphilis); and Native women were sterilized by the Indian Health Services. While the Tuskegee Experiment has become emblazoned in the heads and memories of many, each year, more cases of medical mistreatment emerge.

While skepticism towards traditional health care is certainly part of the Tuskegee legacy, a case can be made to say that the horrors of the experiment inspired many Black folks to take on the role of advocating for better health care, culturally competent health care workers, and healing our communities. Body and Soul by Alondra Nelson (Columbia University) meticulously chronicles the Black Panther Party’s health activism. Using archives and information not widely known she spells out how the Black Panther Party were more than just politically radical, but were radical rethinking and working on the health of Black communities.

There is a saying that “A rumor travels halfway around the world before the truth gets a chance to put its shoes on.” In the case of Tuskegee Study, the rumors of forced injection and misinformation about the experiment certainly run deep in the Black community. What I have come to know about the experiment and the responses of communities of color to medical malpractices has helped me to realize that a vigilant eye towards the biomedical world is necessary, but not sufficient to creating a healthier Black community. If we aspire to wellness, then we must train, develop, and demand what is needed for the health of our community, not let our misunderstandings of the past dictate our future. We must be ever cautious about the past, but also proactive about the future of our health.

Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website