COVID-19 vaccination rates in Black communities are still low, and understandably so. Consider America’s medical history of violating the safety of African Americans, the Tuskegee experiment, and statistics of how medical professionals in totality treat us. I was in middle school when I first learned of the Tuskegee experiment through a 1997 film titled Miss Evers’ Boys. Based on the true story of the Tuskegee experiment, the film showed how Black men were deemed ignorant and poor—so in the eyes of medical professionals, their lives not only didn’t matter, they were treated as human guinea pigs.
The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was a racially and ethically abusive study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study’s purpose was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis in African American men. The men selected for the study were poor sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Of the 600 chosen men, 399 had latent syphilis and 201 men were not infected. The men were promised free health care from the federal government for their participation, but were deceived and never informed of their diagnosis. Instead, they were told they were being treated for “bad blood.”
The Public Health Service started the study in 1932 in collaboration with Tuskegee University (then the Tuskegee Institute), a historically Black college in Alabama. PHS never informed subjects of their diagnosis and disguised placebos, ineffective methods, and diagnostic procedures as treatment. The men were told that the “study” was going to last six months; instead, it lasted for 40 years. After funding for treatment was lost, the study was continued without the participants’ consent or the notice that they would never be treated. This, despite that by 1947, penicillin, the antibiotic used to treat syphilis, had become widely available as the standard treatment for syphilis.
Under numerous PHS supervisors, the study continued until 1972, when a leak to the press resulted in its termination. By hiding the diagnosis and withholding treatment, the study caused the deaths of 128 of its participants, either directly from syphilis or related complications. The 40-year Tuskegee study is arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history and an extreme violation of medical standards. In 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families, resulting in a $10 million out-of-court settlement in 1974. In 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the United States to victims of the study, calling it shameful and racist. The last member of the Tuskegee experiment, Ernest Hendon, died on January 20, 2004, at the age of 96.
While the Tuskegee experiment was taking place in Alabama, in Baltimore, Maryland, Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died at the age of 31 from aggressive cervical cancer, was being taken advantage of by doctors as well. Months before her passing, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took samples of her cancerous cells while diagnosing and treating the disease. Her tissue was given to a researcher without Lacks’s knowledge or consent. In the laboratory, her cells turned out to have an extraordinary capacity to survive and reproduce. The researcher shared them with other scientists, and they became a workhorse of biological research. Much of modern medicine today is because of HeLa cells; they’ve been involved in fundamental discoveries such as cancer, immunology, and infectious disease. Lacks’s cells have essentially become immortal. (One of their most recent applications was included in the research for the COVID-19 vaccine.)
For years, Lacks’s family did not receive compensation for her cell usage. Her story is yet another example of the misuse of Black bodies, dismissal of Black pain, and concern of hospitals’ treatment and preservation of Black life. None of the biotechnology or other companies that profited from her cells gave any money to the Lacks family. For decades after her death, doctors and scientists repeatedly failed to ask Lacks’s family for consent—even after revealing her name publicly, giving public records to media, and publishing her cells’ genome online.
I have a great deal of distrust in medicine as a Black woman. Still, for my family and myself, I decided to vaccinate.
An array of medical, emotional, intergenerational, and racial trauma is present in Black communities. Yet America continues to approach the low COVID-19 vaccination rates with ignorance to the reality that this is not just about Tuskegee. This is bigger than Tuskegee. Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, and structural racism and bias are at the core of those statistics. Additionally, a 2016 study found that white medical students and residents often believed falsehoods about Black people. Many mistakenly thought that Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s, their skin is thicker than white people’s, and their blood coagulates more quickly than white people’s.
As you can imagine, in many Black homes and communities, taking the COVID-19 vaccine is not up for discussion. Personally, I live a lifestyle centered on holistic health. I have a great deal of distrust in medicine as a Black woman. Still, for my family and myself, I decided to vaccinate. Why? My grandparents had COVID-19, one of my best friends lost her father-in-law to COVID-19, and I’m a Black woman in America in the middle of a global health crisis that’s killing Black people at higher rates. I want to live, so I got vaccinated, and I have no regrets.
In tandem with these statistics rooted in generational trauma is the reality that COVID-19 has impacted Black and Brown communities more than anyone else. According to the APM Research Lab, as of mid-September 2020, “1 in 1,020 Black Americans has died (or 97.9 deaths per 100,000).” More than 600,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19, and a disproportionate number of them are Black. Black Americans have disproportionately higher rates of preexisting conditions, including heart disease and cancer, which are associated with more deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19. Black Americans are also more likely to work in jobs that are considered “essential,” which requires them to go into work and risk exposure to the coronavirus. Due to redlining and systemic racism, housing segregation also put Black Americans in neighborhoods with limited access to clean water and air, which has created long-standing health disparities.
I want to live, so I got vaccinated, and I have no regrets.
Black leaders, health-care professionals, and faith leaders have been at the helm of Black communities, encouraging them to get vaccinated. My mother, Thurselle C. Williams, is one of them. Quarantining with your family, let alone your mother—who serves as the Executive Pastor of The New Hope Baptist Church in East Orange, New Jersey, a Black Baptist church in an inner-city—was a different experience. Her daily calls with the Interfaith Action Movement, a collective of interfaith leaders in the state of New Jersey, were filled with discussions of strategy to support the sick at the start of COVID-19, to find local testing sites, and now to identify vaccination locations.
Initially, when she asked me to get vaccinated with her, I refused. In fact, for months before, I told her not to ask me because the answer was no. The day before she was vaccinated, she barged into my room. She said that she received a call that there were appointments open for leaders and families to get the vaccine at a local supermarket, and I declined. I’m sure she was annoyed, but I wanted to decide on my own terms and process what it would mean for me. Three days later, I decided I was ready after research (and, if I’m honest, prayer). I signed up to get the vaccine somewhere I felt safe, and I went with a friend that held my hand the entire time. Two months later, my entire immediate family is vaccinated, I was able to hug my grandmother after a year of distance, and my mom is focused on her own testing site and event she named “Grateful for the Shot,” a pop-up testing location in North Jersey that offered the Pfizer vaccine to residents of East Orange.
As more churches, community centers, and other familiar places become vaccination sites, I’m hopeful that Black and Brown communities feel safer getting the vaccine in places that they know. Despite what decision you make, the goal should be to educate yourself, your families and decide what’s best for you. My initial reservations aside, COVID-19 is something we have never seen before, and I wanted to ensure that my body and mind had a fighting chance to return to the world. Before you have a conversation with your family about the vaccine, remember this.
- Racial and medical trauma is real, so do not gaslight them. Listen to their perspective and encourage them to make an educated decision.
- Research each vaccine and local testing sites, and contact a medical professional for additional questions.
- Protecting yourself against COVID-19 is your right.
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