Confronting a Shameful History
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” —James Baldwin*
In October 1619—four hundred years ago this month—a ship called “The Lion” landed at the English settlement at Point Comfort, in what would eventually become known as the state of Virginia. It carried a cargo of “some 20 and odd Negroes,” who were immediately sold to raise funds to replenish the ship’s food supplies.
These individuals had been kidnapped from their homes in Angola, and they were destined to be the first of more than 12.5 million people who would be shipped from West Africa to North America, the Caribbean, and South America in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which did not formally end until the 1860s. It is a shameful history that continues to shape American society—including the health of our communities.
As healthcare professionals, it is important that we are mindful of this anniversary. Among the racial ideologies that were developed along with the slave trade were the erroneous assertions that blacks were medically different from whites, that blacks descended from a different species than whites, and that, being somehow less than human, they could justifiably be considered as “chattel,” mere property, or slaves.
The vestiges of these false ideologies that continue to exist in our culture are deplorable, and we must confront them with honesty and candor in our work. We must also recognize that these dishonest ideas and practices were harmful to black people and are responsible for much of the fear and mistrust of medicine that we can sometimes see in the Black community. It is certainly a factor in the health disparities that exist among blacks today.
Writing in the October 2019 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Stephen B. Thomas and Erica Casper state, “If we are to succeed in the quest to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities to achieve health equity, we must bring to the foreground a history that, because of the magnitude of its shame, has been too often ignored in discourse about the pervasive influence of racism in the fields of medicine and public health.”
Dr. Thomas will be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Adventist HealthCare Research Conference on October 11. Dr. Thomas is professor of health policy and management and director of the Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. The keynote address will deal with the role of research in health equity.
The lessons of history are vitally important, and they can help us in the fulfillment of our mission “to extend God’s care through the ministry of physical, mental and spiritual healing” in all the communities that we are privileged to serve throughout the Washington, D.C., region.
*James Baldwin, “No Name in the Street” (1972).