I don’t remember how I learned about the Tuskegee Study. It was just always there. Maybe I picked up on rides in the pickup truck with my great uncle down dirt roads to see his doctor. Maybe my dad, then the fledgling historian, taught it to me in a library somewhere between drafts of his dissertation. Maybe it was barbershops or through clandestine cigarette-smoking with street guys on the way home from junior high; who knows? Like my innate discomfort around police and my knowledge of “how to act” in mixed company, the Tuskegee Study and an anxiety about a malevolent medical system became part of my language for navigating and understanding the world from the earliest, and I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
As a black man from the South, that anxiety—a wariness built on an embedded knowledge of hundreds of poor black Alabaman men who were exploited and led to their deaths by an unethical government-sanctioned project—shapes my current beliefs about medicine and my own health more than I care to admit. I still have trouble trusting physicians and have declined participation in some health studies that probably would have been useful for me. That’s even after studying the study in college as an undergraduate public health minor. That’s even after working at Morehouse College as a research assistant to Dr. Bill Jenkins, one of the CDC whistleblowers that called attention to the Tuskegee Study and later the manager of the Participants Health Benefits Program for Tuskegee survivors. My wariness still comes after years of research in trying to quantify that same wariness in older black men and trying to figure out ways to get them to overcome their own suspicions.