Medical Apartheid Poems

For another one of my classes, we were assigned chapters out of a book called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, and it’s sparked a lot of horror and also a lot of topics I’m interested in exploring as poetry. For example, I was really interested in the term “resurrection man,” used to describe a man who unearthed bodies for illicit dissection; these men often happened to be African American men plundering black cemeteries, which complicates the history even more. Another snippet that got my attention was learning that the body of Addie Mae Collins, one of the girls who died in the Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, was missing from her grave. Neither casket nor corpse was found in the grave when her sisters decided to move her to a better cemetery thirty years after her death; she had been buried in an all-black cemetery. The author writes that “many are convinced that her body joined the untold thousands of anonymous black cadavers on anatomists’ tables” (119). The double sucker punch of that: to be killed at thirteen because of the color of your skin and then to have your body stolen and used for studies in anatomy.

This is all to say: I’m interested in writing a series of poems based off this book and other records like it, but I’m also hesitant. It’s a sensitive topic and it’s racially charged. The last thing I want to do is appropriate the experiences of these people and turn them into spectacle or entertainment (further exploitation). It’s tricky ground for me–I want to tell their stories, but I’m unsure of the best way to go about doing so.

What do other people think? Ideas for treading this ground carefully? Hesitations?

2 Replies to “Medical Apartheid Poems”

  1. I think that subjects like these need to explored and written about, particularly in poetry, which I think has the tools to deal sensitively with issues like these. Sure it’s hard to write about and it’s a touchy issue, but I don’t think that means you should be afraid to do it–if anything, just be careful and conscious of the way you’re telling these stories (and include a bit of that consciousness in the poems). These issues need to be talked about, and they need to be able to be talked about by everyone, I think.

  2. This sounds like a really interesting topic to write a series of poems about–it’s something I (and I’m sure other people) don’t know much about. Of course this is a situation where you have to tread carefully, but there is never going to be someone perfectly qualified to write these poems without having to be sensitive to the topic. It might help if you talk to some historians who are knowledgeable about the subject–chances are they’ve had to write papers using the same sensitivity that you will need. Overall, I would just be careful when leaning more towards persona–like we talked about in class Tuesday, this sometimes requires a lot more consciousness than a poem that isn’t taking on a specific identity.

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