Bringing Together #histSTM and #FergusonSyllabus

In late August, historian Marcia Chatelain started the twitter campaign #FergusonSyllabus as a response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of 18-year old Michael Brown at the hands of local police. For Chatelian, an Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown, #FergusonSyllabus was a way for teachers and scholars across the country to crowdsource ideas about how to address the events of Ferguson in their own classrooms. Rather than ignore such a pivotal moment, and all of the racial tensions it brought to the surface, participants in #FergusonSyllabus were committed to engaging with these issues head on. The tragedy sparked conversations about the historical roots of white supremacy, discriminatory housing practices (such as redlining), and systemic economic and educational inequality, all issues that have shaped the contemporary urban landscape in St. Louis as well as in cities across the country. This experiment in academic crowdsourcing produced a diverse list of sources – historical, literary, musical, and artistic – that provide rich context for the struggles facing the people in Ferguson today.

In the weeks since, the #FergusonSyllabus campaign has lost steam, along with the mainstream media coverage of the events in Ferguson (although protests continue). As the semester gets busier, it feels that the urgency of the #FergusonSyllabus moment is already fading away, pushing aside the issues that Ferguson had forced to the surface. But #FergusonSyllabus remained in my thoughts as I read two major pieces of history related news this week. 

The iconic slogan of Ferguson protestors


The first was this editorial, by American Historical Association director James R. Grossman, about the controversies surrounding the introduction of “revisionist” history into American high school curriculum. Tension emerges between those who believe high school history should be a patriotic celebration of American accomplishments, versus those who think students should be taught to think critically about the more disturbing episodes of American history. Can we imagine selections from the #FergusonSyllabus being incorporated into high school as well as college curriculums? I think it is worth thinking about how these kinds of conversations can happen at every level of education, and not just among those who have the privilege of sitting in a college classroom.

The second was this interview, linked to in our Weekly Roundup, that reveals how very old ideas about inherent (read: biological) racial difference have been inscribed onto seemingly objective medical technologies. Author Lundy Braun  (a professor of Africana studies and medical science at Brown University) explains how the spirometer – a machine that measures lung capacity – was designed to adjust for race of the patient. The design of the spirometer draws on a centuries old belief that African-Americans have a lower lung capacity than whites do. Such ideas have been passed on uncritically, cited as scientific fact and integrated into medical practice so seamlessly that many physicians are not even aware of the instrument’s racial dimensions.

Although I did not contribute to the original #FergusonSyllabus, the Grossman article and Braun interview inspired me to think about the ways in which we, as historians of science and medicine, might contribute to this conversation. I am a strong advocate for the integration of history of science and medicine with American history more broadly. Thinking about the history of science and medicine as a field apart from American history, as many historians do, is to the detriment of both fields. Science and medicine do not happen at the fringes of society. Scientific and medical ideas about race have been repeatedly deployed to justify the enslavement, segregation, and oppression of African-Americans and other racial minorities. It is also essential to understand how modern health disparities have their roots not in biology, but in decades of discriminatory policies that prevent entire communities from accessing health care.

In this spirit, I suggest four history of science and medicine books that would appear on my #FergusonSyllabus. There is a strong bias towards the history of medicine because so much excellent work in the social history of medicine has addressed these questions head on. I would love to hear from readers in the comments: What would your picks be?  How they might we envision the history of non-medical science and technology, broadly construed, as fitting into this conversation?

My list, in no particular order:

1. Susan Reverby, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

An instant classic and an obvious choice for this list. Not only does Reverby provide the authoritative account of the complex history of the Tuskegee syphilis trial, she traces how stories and memories about the trial continue to circulate in African-American and biomedical communities. Reverby takes the collective trauma of Tuskegee very seriously, even for those who were not directly impacted by it. The stories we tell about Tuskegee matter just as much as the facts of the case. The last section of the book, Traveling, explores these many afterlives of the Tuskegee trial.

2. Steven Epstein, Inclusion: The Politics of Medical Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Epstein’s book really gets at the tension between biological explanations of racial difference, on one hand, and the very real health disparities created by segregation and poverty, on the other. For many years, clinical researchers used white, middle-aged men as their primary research subjects. As a consequence, white, male bodies became the standard to which all other bodies were compared. It also meant that drugs in clinical trials were not accessible to anyone who didn’t fall into this category. This changed in the early 1990s, when activists called on the NIH to require clinical researchers to recruit a diverse subject pool that included both female and non-white subjects. This inclusionary impulse, however, runs the danger of reinforcing our belief in racial essentialism, without grappling with the fact that many supposed racial differences are social, not biological, in origin.

3. Jim Downs, Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering and during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Reconstruction is perhaps the era of history most maligned in traditional historical narratives. It is also a time period which has largely been ignored by historians of medicine. Downs recounts the devastating consequences of emancipation for the health of many freedpeople, as they were left to contend with the fallout of the Civil War with few resources and limited access to medical care. Severe epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever, not to mention malnutrition and exposure, crippled communities of freedpeople trying to establish themselves in Southern society.

4. Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Broadway Books, 2011)

Perhaps this is a controversial choice, as it is one of the most dynamic stories of late 20th century medical history as told by (gasp!) a journalist. Skloot recounts the story of the HeLa cell line as created from the tumor of Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. Lacks was a young black woman living in Baltimore when she passed away from cervical cancer, and her family had no idea that biological material removed from her body would go on living without her. What I think Skloot does so well here is to capture the uneasy relationship between Henrietta’s family and a biomedical giant like Johns Hopkins. Skloot’s emotional engagement with members of the Lacks family hammers home the irony if the HeLa cell line generating billions of dollars in profit (and countless medical breakthroughs) while Lacks’ children are unable to access the most basic medical care. It is a eye-opening contrast between world class, high-tech biomedicine and the atrocious or non-existent level of care only a few blocks down the road.

What books would appear on your #FergusonSyllabus?

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3 thoughts on “Bringing Together #histSTM and #FergusonSyllabus

  1. Evan

    Here's an article: friend of the blog Michael Barany's article “Savage Numbers” (http://bit.ly/1updkxr). From the abstract:

    This paper identifies ‘savage numbers’ – number-like or number-replacing concepts and practices attributed to peoples viewed as civilizationally inferior – as a crucial and hitherto unrecognized body of evidence in the first two decades of the Victorian science of prehistory. … Moreover, they provided a simple and direct means of conceiving of the progressive scale of civilizational development, uniting societies and races past and present, at the heart of Victorian scientific racism.

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  2. leah

    Fantastic post, Jenna, I really appreciate how you've invited us to think about ways that histsci can speak to the contemporary even in cases that are not so manifestly rooted in science and technology. I would add some environmental history to the list! Linda Nash's Inescapable Ecologies immediately comes to mind, especially for her discussion of environmental justice in the context of the modernization of farming techniques in the Western United States. Karl Jacoby's Crimes Against Nature is fantastic in its investigation of the invention of the “White Indian” as a racial category during early 20th century American wilderness conservation projects. (His new work, An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History, is on the top of my to-read list at the moment and would also speak to the Ferguson Syllabus.) This list has me wondering: do you think the Syllabus would need to tell a uniquely American story?

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