My mother had been frustrated trying to get pregnant with a second child. I was her first. In desperation, she would visit her doctor. I remember a white man in a suit who would smile at me, compliment my manner and dress, and offer me a lollipop. In later years, she confided that he also would counsel her to stop at one child. He explained that there was no reason for her to have another baby because she already had me.
Two years after my birth, she believed that she had been pregnant and, as time passed, more and more convinced that her doctor had prescribed a medication that caused a miscarriage.
Until her death at 88, she grieved for the baby in the telling of this story. Eventually, she changed doctors. I have a brother four years younger than me and three other siblings.
At first, I reserved judgment of the doctor whose office was in his mock Tudor house in Queens, New York, with a fountain out front. Had the man with the inviting home and sunny demeanor committed this heinous act? I did not want to believe it. As a Black person in America, there is always something. This was too much at the time. Acceptance would have buried me in the pain and burden of being Black in the country of my birth.
Then, many years later, my parents and I saw Mommy's former doctor on television news. He had been found guilty of preventing and thwarting the pregnancies of many Black women. We said little. Our silence echoed loudly in a canyon of sadness.
African Americans are more distrustful of COVID-19 vaccines than other groups, although we are affected disproportionately by the novel coronavirus. A Pew Research Center survey, which was conducted from November 18 to November 29, showed an increase in the share of Americans who said they plan to get a vaccination. Overall, 60 percent of Americans said that they would definitely or probably get a vaccine, up from 51 percent in September.
However, once again, Black Americans stood out as less inclined to get vaccinated: 42 percent (32 percent in September) would do so compared with 63 percent (up from 56 percent) of Hispanics, 61 percent (up from 52 percent) of white adults, and 83 percent (up from 72 percent) of Asian Americans.
“It really is a process of trying to dissect out what the reasons are for the skepticism and to try and address them, fully respecting the underlying skepticism that you have every reason for having for historical reasons,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in a videoed conversation with Howard University’s president, Dr. Wayne Frederick, who is a surgeon, and Ambrose Lane, Jr., who organized Blacks Against COVID-19 (December 9), for the Black American community.
Among other factors, Fauci was referring to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1942-1972) in which 600 Black men, mostly poor sharecroppers, were told that they were getting free federal health care but were, in fact, left untreated for the study of the disease’s progress.
However, Tuskegee is, simply, the representation of our precarious existence in American. Dig deeper and I am certain that many of us have personal experiences that cause us to distrust the medical community. It is easier to cite Tuskegee than to mine our private pain. Yet, as Fauci said, we have to face our reasons for skepticism before we can address them.
Unrecognized emotional trauma from medical experiences will give us a bad feeling about a vaccine. It will make us reject it instinctively. And it will block us from receiving any information about it.
“The terrible things that happened a long time ago are inexcusable, but it would be doubly tragic if the lingering effect of that prevents you from doing something that is so important to your individual health, the health of your families, and the health of the community,” said Fauci in Making It Plain: A Conversation with Dr.Fauci, earlier this month.
The discussion with Dr. Fauci was coordinated by a committee of medical and healthcare organizations: Blackdoctor.org, The Black Coalition Against COVID-19, Howard University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, National Medical Association, The Cobb Institute, National Black Nurses Association, National Urban League and National Institutes of Health.
Blackdoctor.org and the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 (BCAC19) feature Fauci’s one-hour video on their websites.
BCAC19’s website also offers a 3-minute Love Letter to Black America from Black health professionals, who have “a higher calling to stand for racial justice and fight for health equity.” The salutation and opening sentence touched me:
“Dear Black America,
"WE LOVE YOU.”
It felt good to read “Black” and “love” in the same breath.