Friday, December 16, 2011

Heroes & martyrs, defiled


I've been reading Harriet A. Washington's searing, infuriating, important book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Although you'd think it would be na├»ve to be shocked by any given piece of information, any new revelation, about the depraved depths this country's racism has reached, I can't come up with any other word but shocking for what Washington presents here. Over years of painstaking research that must have been extremely difficult on many levels, she unearthed indisputable evidence of massive systemic institutionalized crimes against Black people from slavery times right up through today—crimes committed by and in the name of medical science, most of which had been until now either forgotten or deliberately concealed. These crimes are horrific. They range from unethical experimentation to malign neglect to forced medical and surgical treatments to intentional inducement of illness or injury to outright murder to grave robbing and unauthorized post-mortem uses of the stolen cadavers for training and even entertainment.

In reading about this latter issue, how the bodies of deceased people of African descent have been taken without their or their families' consent and used for everything from medical-school education to circus display—and not merely on occasion, no, systematically, such that most U.S. doctors right up through to the present day can assume that these were the bones and tissue they trained on—I came across two particularly devastating instances that filled me with rage.

The first was in 1859. This paragraph comes in a discussion of how bodies were procured for 19th-century medical schools:
Newspaper descriptions of executions regularly noted that as a matter of course, the bodies of black, but not white, criminals were to be dissected. One account read: "The execution of Cook and Coppic, white men, Copeland and Green, colored, took place at Charleston [Virginia] on Friday last. … The bodies of Cook and Coppic were taken to Harper's Ferry in a train which was waiting at the depot. The bodies of the negroes have been given to surgeons and medical students."
Cook and Coppic, Copeland and Green! Even before the reference to Harper's Ferry I recognized the names. For these are four of the heroes of the historic October 1859 raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper's Ferry, planned as the initial attack in what was hoped would swell into a widespread guerrilla war to end slavery and led by the great abolitionist John Brown. Black and white lived, planned, fought and died together—only to have the bodies of the Black heroes desecrated. You can find more details about this despicable final affront here.

Lest anyone think this practice is a thing of the past, Washington's book also reports this, perhaps even more upsetting: In 1998, almost 35 years after 13-year-old Addie Mae Collins was murdered, one of the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., two of her sisters arranged to move her grave to a better-maintained cemetery.
However, workers who opened the grave recoiled in shock: It was empty, devoid of casket and corpse. Addie Mae's body, like so many buried in black cemeteries throughout the South, is missing. No one can know with certainty who took the body or why, but many are convinced that her body joined the untold thousands of anonymous black cadavers on anatomists' tables.
In the book's introduction Washington tells of how she was warned off this project by various powers that be in the medical establishment. She courageously carried on and has made a major contribution to the anti-racist struggle.