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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/31/20

Enslaved people's health was ignored from the country's beginning, laying the groundwork for today's health disparities

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Enslaved people's health was ignored from the country's beginning, laying the groundwork for today's health disparities

Slave Memorial
Slave Memorial
(Image by D-Stanley from flickr)
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Some critics of Black Lives Matter say the movement itself is racist. Their frequent counterargument: All lives matter. Lost in that view, however, is a historical perspective. Look back to the late 18th century, to the very beginnings of the U.S., and you will see Black lives in this country did not seem to matter at all.

Group of men and women being taken to a slave market
Group of men and women being taken to a slave market
(Image by (Not Known) Wikipedia (commons.wikimedia.org), Author: Author Not Given)
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Foremost among the unrelenting cruelties heaped upon enslaved people was the lack of health care for them. Infants and children fared especially poorly. After childbirth, mothers were forced to return to the fields as soon as possible, often having to leave their infants without care or food. The infant mortality rate was estimated at one time to be as high as 50%. Adult people who were enslaved who showed signs of exhaustion or depression were often beaten.

As a professor of social work, I study ways to stop racism, promote social justice, and help the Black community empower itself. A relationship exists between the health of enslaved Blacks and the making of America.

'Racist medical theory'

White masters, often brutal and violent, dehumanized the enslaved people who worked for them and became wealthy from their work. Slaveholders justified their treatment by relying on the widely accepted view of Black inferiority and the physical differences between Blacks and whites. Racist medical theory, the racist notion that the blacks were inherently inferior and animal-like who needed maltreatment to be sound for work, was a critical element.

Enslaved people were poorly fed, overworked and overcrowded, which promoted germ transmission. So did their housing - bare, cold and windowless, or close to it. Because they were not paid, slaves could not maintain personal hygiene. Clothes went unwashed, baths were infrequent, dental care was limited, and beds remained unclean. Body lice, ringworm and bedbugs were common.

This treatment began in slave dungeons, built by Europeans on the coastal shores of Africa, where enslaved Blacks awaited shipment to the New World. In Ghana, for example, perhaps 200 were cloistered in tiny spaces where they ate, slept, urinated and defecated. Archaeological research has shown the dirt floors were soaked in vomit, urine, feces and menstrual blood. Conditions within the dungeon were so deadly that cleaning them was discouraged; those who tried risked smallpox and intestinal infections.

A dungeon for enslaved females at the Cape Coast Fort in Ghana.

Eric Kyere, CC BY-SA

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Assistant professor, social work, IUPUI

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Enslaved people's health was ignored from the country's beginning, laying the groundwork for today's health disparities

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