Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

C453A6E7-C6C0-4746-BDF9-2E68F8A3D081Before I share any of my thoughts, here is a little bit about Harriet A. Washington’s book.

Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities. Shocking new details about the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment are revealed, as are similar, less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.

This book is a major accomplishment on Washington’s part. It took her years of schooling and preparation to even be able to learn the correct way to speak of these medical abuses. You can sense her passion on the issues that are brought forth, and her immense understanding of all the forces at play. This book is ambitious and vast, and for that I am eternally grateful to Washington’s patience.

Aside from exposing the many atrocities against Black bodies, one of the most important things this book does is give context to the common idea that Black people are scared of medicine and doctors. Iatrophobia is the fear of doctors and medical treatment, and after reading this book you will come to understand that the Black communities fears are well founded.

The detailed language and intricacies of this book are admirable, however they do not make for an easy read. I really struggled to get through this book. Not only because the subject matter is devastating and infuriating, but also because the book is dense. Medical Apartheid is closer to reading a text book than anything else. It is a detailed history, and Washington takes herself and her subjects seriously. While there is great care to make sure the reader understands the medical jargon, there are plenty of statistics and clinical terms through out this book. There is a lot to get tripped up on. I made it through this book, but I had to work hard. I had to earn it.

The reward is an extremely well written expose on medical practices that target Black Americans. We are led from Marion Sims’ experiments on his female slaves through to governmental chemical attacks on Black neighborhoods in the American South. There is much that has been hidden away about the racist treatment of Blacks in this country, this book scrapes the surfaces of these events.

If you’re not sure you’re ready for such a dense look at a deeply troubling topic, you might consider reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which deals with one example of medical malpractice and theft of Black patients. Another book about racism in America is Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. I think Stamped from the Beginning (you can see my full review here) makes a great companion read with Medical Apartheid, as it dives into racism in America in a way that I have not often seen in books about race.

I recommend this book to anyone who is passionate about understanding anti-Black racism in The United States, anyone who works in fields where they conduct experiments on humans, or anyone passionate about medicine. Give yourself time, and be patient. This book is worth it.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 8, 2008)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Medical Apartheid on Amazon
  • Listen to Medical Apartheid on Audible (for your free 30-day trial and audiobook download click here)

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

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I have never read an advice column in my life. It is not something I seek out, or something that I have any interest in. Well, now that I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, that has all changed. Now, I love advice columns, but only if Cheryl Strayed is giving the advice.

If you’re not familiar with the Rumpus magazine’s Dear Sugar column here is a little of what you can expect from this book.

This bestselling book from the author of Wild collects the best of The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar advice columns plus never-before-published pieces. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

This books is special. It is full of advice. That at once seems obvious and still unique and is specific and still universal. Strayed does a thorough and compassionate job of answering the letters. She is never condescending and seems to always come from a place of working it out the best you can. Which is often harder than it sounds. She reminds people they know the answer, or she guides them toward what she thinks is right, or she shuts them down, or she builds them up. She seems to know how much of each ingredient her response needs and takes her time to doll it out.

If you don’t know Strayed, which at the time of writing to “Sugar” these people in need of advice didn’t. You assume the woman answering the questions has her whole life together, and always has. But if you do know Strayed, you know thats not true. I won’t spoil her life for you (you can read it all about it in Wild or watch Reese Witherspoon in the movie), but she has lived a big life. Its what makes her advice so precise and potent.

I don’t think I related to a lot of the letters, but some of them might as well have been written by me. I would imagine everyone who reads this book feels that at some point. Some, perhaps the best ones, are questions you’d never think to ask, but you’re so glad someone did because you needed to hear the answer.

I’m grateful to this book, I have suggested it to a lot of people. I have even mentioned it on The Stacks podcast (Ep.9 at the 39:30 mark). Everyone who has read it has enjoyed it, found it interesting at the very least and some have found it life changing. I’m grateful to this book for helping me, and those I love to see life in a new and special way.

I listened to this book, and Strayed reads it. I fell in love with her voice and her cadence and if you’re so inclined this is a fantastic audiobook. I went back a few times to listen to my favorite ones again and again. Hearing Strayed say “sweet pea” is better than I could’ve imagined.

The best news is, I just found out (and I realize this makes me very late to this party) that there is a Dear Sugars podcast, with Cheryl Strayed and the Sugar before her, Steve Almond. So once you’ve read the book go listen to the podcast. More Sugar to go around.

Read this book. Share it with a loved one. Chances are they will take something meaningful away from this book, and thats a tiny beautiful ting indeed.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

IMG_6194 2Have you ever picked up a book thinking, this is “my kind of book”? Before you read it, before you even hear other people’s opinion of it, you know this is a book for you? Well, thats how I felt about New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a group of novels written based on Shakespeare plays.  I knew it was going to be a hit with me, I love Shakespeare, so I even made it a pick for The Stacks Book Club. The only problem is, I ended up not liking the book at all.

Here is a little more about the book, before I dive into my thoughts.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds – Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant ‘girlfriend’ Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

Even re-reading that blurb of the book, makes me excited about all its potential. However, Chevalier does not deliver. The racism and bigotry in this book is handled as if it is no big deal. Its a lazy and inaccurate depiction of how prejudice works in America and on the school yard. The teachers, refer to Osei as the “bla— new boy” as if they are caught in the urge to say black, but must be PC. Considering how overtly racist these characters are, these seems like a unrealistic, false modesty. Its contrived at best. The book would be better off being more direct, the title should be Black Boy. The teachers should call Osei “colored” (as they would have in the 1970’s) and the current political correctness should be done away with.

This is the root problem with this book, there is no punch. There is no edge. There is no hurt. Its all a little too clean, and kind. If you’re talking about racism, lets talk about it. Its too big of a deal to get polite and shy away. Shakespeare certainly didn’t. IMG_6171

There is another major flaw in the story telling. There is no where for Osei to fall. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, those who end up as the tragic characters (Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet etc.) start off high and end in utter disrepair. The plays start off as near comedies, and then there is the fall. Othello, is leading ranks in the army, beloved by his troops, newly married, and off on another great battle. In New Boy, Osei is hated from the moment he walks on the school yard. Students notice him and shun him right away. He is nothing and therefore has nothing to lose. There are no stakes. The same is true of the Iago character, Ian. Ian is hated by all the kids, everyone is terrified of him, and he is known as a bully. Why would anyone ever listen to or trust him? In Othello, Iago is constantly called “honest Iago” and people love and trust him. This is what makes his betrayal and lies so devastating. We don’t see any of this in New Boy.

The book takes place over the course of a school day, this also diminishes any chance of building real emotions and consequences. How could any one of these children want to destroy one another after just a day? Chevalier really belittles her efforts by narrowing the time frame and the characters in this way.

This book minimizes the many characters and their motivations. It also neglects to embrace the complexity of racism and the feelings of entitlement that are clear in Shakespeare’s original. Chevalier has successfully stripped away much of what makes Othello great, and leaves us with the most simple and trivial version of what was once a complex and nuanced narrative.

I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you’re planning to read through all of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection to compare the work of many contemporary artists, and to see how they each dive into Shakespeare’s source material. The good thing is that New Boy is very short, and an easy read. Its too bad the content isn’t any good. There are so many books on race, alienation, betrayal, and entitlement, that I can not suggest you spend time on this one. Honestly, you’re much better off reading the original (you can find my full review of that here).

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (February 13, 2018)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy New Boy on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

The Stacks Book Club June Picks

790DB80A-4D74-426E-B8D9-052C6E9265FA.JPGHere are the next picks for The Stacks Book Club. These books will be covered in the month of June on The Stacks Podcast. Make sure you read the books and then join us for our in depth conversations.

June 6th, I’ll be joined by actress, Vella Lovell and  we will discuss Tracy Chevalier’s  New Boy. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which contemporary author’s reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. New Boy, is a retelling of Othello, set in a 1970’s suburban Washington School yard.

On June 20th join founder of Black Arrow FC, Aaron Dolores, will join the show to discuss How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer. This book uses soccer as a lens to reexamine the most pressing issues of our day, from globalization to racial and cultural dynamics. We’re reading this book at the start of the World Cup, to help contextualize the most popular sport and sporting event on the planet.

Once you’ve read the books, don’t be shy. Please send over your thoughts and questions so we can incorporate them into the podcast. You can leave a comment here, or find us on our Instagram @thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.