The old Negro in me, raised on hardship and always on guard for racist enemies, was struck with wariness when I saw a news article about a drug that is being tested specifically for blacks with heart failure.
As a friend similarly struck said, “Why? What special physical attributes do we have? . . . Why do you think that we would be the ones who could use this? Does this tie in with sickle cell, because we have a particular genetic trait? Why is it not good for everybody?”
The old Negro that lives in me and many of my friends knows about Tuskegee. It’s one of the first things to come to mind. For those who are not old Negroes, let me fill you in. For several decades, starting in the 1930s, poor, illiterate black men were used as guinea pigs in a bigoted and devastating clinical trial involving treatment of syphilis. Only a few years ago did the federal government acknowledge this and apologize.
The old Negro in me is still scarred by the past, still misty-eyed when reading a story such as a recent Orlando Sentinel piece about the efforts to raise money to send a black high school marching band to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Initially, just the white band was sponsored; then visionaries made it a joint effort that got blacks and whites dealing with each other as peers. The captain of the Jones High School band was my friend Carl Maultsby. He told the Sentinel, “That trip made me see that the future was at hand.”
But 40 years ago is not all that long ago, and it’s a willed struggle to let the new black woman emerge from the albatross hindering forward movement. I think of black astronauts soaring heavenward, even as folks of my Big Mama Shipp’s generation remain convinced that it’s all a Hollywood hoax and there is no such thing as space travel. I think, too, of black people from “up North” moving—voluntarily!—to places like Stone Mountain, Ga., which we avoided when I was a kid because it was the home of the Ku Klux Klan. Now buppies move to Stone Mountain and environs, oblivious to its past. Who’s to say that’s not a good thing?
But back to that drug, BiDil, which seems to work on black people with heart disease more effectively than on others. And back to my friend’s questions, including: Why us?
“You have to think about it,” Rep. Ed Towns, a supporter of the BiDil clinical trial, said about Tuskegee. But, he added, given the safeguards—and the monitors involved, including blacks in medicine, academe and politics—“we’ve really hit on something here that will extend the lives of African-Americans.”
This is a tricky business, singling out people by race or ethnicity or gender for health care. Even Dr. Clyde Yancy, a Texas cardiologist and member of the Association of Black Cardiologists as well as the steering committee that oversaw the trial, told a newspaper, “There are many who believe that this is a dangerous slope to begin to define treatment decisions according to race. I don’t disagree with that.”
But, he told me, Tuskegee is almost irrelevant now, especially with more blacks and others sensitive to ethical issues having a voice in “investigative medicine.” More relevant, he said, is that 20 percent of Americans with heart failure, about 1 million, are black. And health benefits, he said, certainly outweigh racial politics.
According to Kathleen O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Lexington, Mass.,-based NitroMed, which produces BiDil and sponsored the black heart failure trial, prior to their efforts less than 3,000 blacks had participated in such experiments in a decade.
New black woman aside, I’m still too much the old Negro to let go of my trepidations. But, maybe, as Carl said of that giant step Orlando took in 1964, this is a sign that the future is at hand—and in the hands of people like Dr. Yancy. I’ll be watching.