Science, Now + Beyond

Black women in science have never belonged – unless they served as bodies on the anatomy dissection table

Can you imagine going to visit your grandmother and seeing the upturned earth, a sacred place disturbed, and her body gone?

Dead bodies are my thing.

I know that may sound vile and disgusting to some people, but it’s true. I’ve always been a lover of dead things and from a young age, I knew that I wanted to study forensic science. Since then I’ve spent my time looking at dead bodies and analyzing bone fragments.

My love for the craft has never waned.

The irony of my love is not lost on me, however, when I consider the dark and horrific history that exists between blackness and science. For centuries, Black bodies have been used as property and things to be experimented on. From Henrietta Lax having her ever-growing cells stolen from her and then used as a blueprint for medicines with no credit, to the euthanizing of thousands of Black women by companies like Planned Parenthood.

This country that I call home will continue to use and abuse me until there is nothing but dust left and then they will sell my dust for a dollar. Click To Tweet

So each class I take that praises famous racist scientists, each time I fight for Black women to have space in these fields, each moment I stand with Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive rights – each one of those comes with a caveat.

Despite that, my resolve has remained strong, because these things are important to me and the only way to combat them is to keep pushing my way through.

However, a recent New York Times article entitled Beyond the Slave Trade, the Cadaver Trade, had me questioning my love for science in a way like never before.

This article highlights this cadaver trade and explains how famous medical schools across America would take the bodies of executed criminals and unclaimed persons and use them as specimens. The bodies served as practicing tools for students and for classroom demonstrations.

When those resources ran out, they would force the slaves they owned to go and rob graves for cadavers.

Forcing slaves to unearth the bodies of their loved ones.

Can you imagine going to visit your grandmother and seeing the upturned earth, a sacred place disturbed, and her body gone? Click To Tweet

Can you imagine going to visit your grandmother and seeing the upturned earth, a sacred place disturbed, and her body gone? Such evil is unfathomable to me.

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Many popular schools have since come out and confessed their role in this 19th-century cadaver trade that was just as elaborate as the Atlantic slave trade. Some of these schools include Harvard, Yale, Brown, William and Mary, and Georgetown. The University of Virginia held a seminar highlighting their dark history in an effort to be transparent, but to me, it’s all just a cop out.

It’s a little too late to be transparent when you’ve profited off of Black bodies for centuries while simultaneously denying them entry into your institutions. These schools are only renowned because of their abuse of Black bodies and yet still can only do the bare minimum to fix it.

What a metaphor for American history.

Universities have made money off of our ancestors, deny us entry and then when they do let the 7% of us in, we have to work for them once again to afford tuition. Click To Tweet

I can’t help but reflect on my college experience, scrounging for money to pay for an institution that has already made money off my body before I even decided to apply.

And as I now apply to graduate school, I can’t help but think of all the many schools that will deny me in favor of “more exceptional candidates” who are also just profiting off of the resources built on our bodies that we are continually denied access to. I can barely afford my one college education, let alone afford activities that set me apart for graduate education, like field school, study abroad and research.

These universities have made money off of our ancestors, deny us entry, and then when they do let the 7% of us in, we have to work for them once again to afford tuition.

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If we ever hope to end the cycle of abuse between Black people and science, it’s time for science history to be accurately depicted for the evil it was and for schools that profited to actually do something about it.

Symposiums and seminars are nice but what is really needed is programs for Black students. We should not have to pay for tuition because we have already paid well and beyond.

There need to be programs and resources that allow us the opportunity for field school and internships.

There need to be reparations.

And when those resources are advertised it needs to come with the explanation that it is a way to rectify their wrongdoings to Black bodies, so everyone has a clear understanding of why this is needed.

I'll do whatever I can to see that I or my future children will get what we are owed. Click To Tweet

The cadaver trade has been artfully covered up like all things in American history that show white Americans as the villains.

You see, white people are the ones in control of the narrative, writing the textbooks, releasing the studies and findings in their research, they can paint whatever picture they like. I’m glad this story came out because it just reminds me that this country that I call home will continue to use and abuse me until there is nothing but dust left, and then they will sell my dust for a dollar because they think I still owe them something.

In reality, they owe me and I’ll do whatever I can to see that we get what we are owed.

Tiara Jenkins

Tiara Jenkins

Studying physical and medical anthropology at the University of Florida and minoring in communications. A proud womanist who's passionate about equal representation for black women in...everything, especially nerd culture. Loves reading, napping, and is an avid believer that frozen yogurt is inferior to ice cream.

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