Legacies of American Slavery in Medicine

Guide for faculty and students exploring the legacy of American slavery in medicine

The books in this collection were selected by faculty whose teaching and courses involve the medical humanities from their disciplinary lenses. There was an open call to faculty across the university to help with this project. Ultimately, we are are PWI, and the people who worked on this project are White. Since finalizing the project, we have engaged in discussion with some of our Black colleagues and colleagues of color about how to move this work forward. 

This research guide was made in collaboration with Jesse McClanahan and Amanda Albert. 

This work was made possible by a mini-grant from the Council of Independent Colleges Legacies of American Slavery: Reckoning with the Past Initiative.

Legacies of American Slavery

Getting started

This medical humanities collection centers the legacy of slavery in medicine and includes scholarly monographs, non-fiction, and fiction titles. This collection and work was made possible by a mini-grant from the Council of Independent Colleges Legacies of American Slavery project. It is a collaboration between the Department of Humanities and the University Library. We are grateful for CIC's ongoing support. 

- Dr. Corinne Mason and Amanda Albert, MSLIS

Featured Books in the Legacies of Slavery in Medicine Collection

My Grandmother's Hands

The body is where our instincts reside and where we fight, flee, or freeze, and it endures the trauma inflicted by the ills that plague society. In this groundbreaking work, therapist Resmaa Menakem examines the damage caused by racism in America from the perspective of body-centered psychology. He argues this destruction will continue until Americans learn to heal the generational anguish of white supremacy, which is deeply embedded in all our bodies. Our collective agony doesn't just affect African Americans. White Americans suffer their own secondary trauma as well. So do blue Americans -- our police. My Grandmother's Hands is a call to action for all of us to recognize that racism is not about the head, but about the body, and introduces an alternative view of what we can do to grow beyond our entrenched racialized divide.

Birthing a Slave

In the antebellum South, slaveholders' interest in slave women was matched by physicians who wanted to assert their own professional authority over childbirth, and the two began to work together to increase the number of infants born in the slave quarter. In unprecedented ways, doctors tried to manage the health of enslaved women from puberty through the reproductive years, attempting to foster pregnancy, cure infertility, and resolve gynecological problems, including cancer. Black women, however, proved an unruly force, distrustful of both the slaveholders and their doctors.  Birthing a Slave is the first book to focus exclusively on the health care of enslaved women, and it argues for the critical role of reproductive medicine in the slave system of antebellum America.

Fearing the Black Body

There is an obesity epidemic in this country and poor black women are particularly stigmatized as "diseased" and a burden on the public health care system. This is only the most recent incarnation of the fear of fat black women, which Sabrina Strings shows took root more than two hundred years ago. Strings weaves together an eye-opening historical narrative ranging from the Renaissance to the current moment, analyzing important works of art, newspaper and magazine articles, and scientific literature and medical journals; where fat bodies were once praised; showing that fat phobia, as it relates to black women, did not originate with medical findings, but with the Enlightenment era belief that fatness was evidence of "savagery" and racial inferiority. Fearing the Black Body argues convincingly that fat phobia isn't about health at all, but rather a means of using the body to validate race, class, and gender prejudice.

Carte Blanche

Carte Blanche is the alarming tale of how the right of Americans to say "no" to risky medical research is eroding at a time when we are racing to produce a vaccine and treatments for Covid-19. This medical right that we have long taken for granted was first sacrificed on the altar of military expediency in 1990 when the Department of Defense asked for and received from the FDA a waiver that permitted it to force an experimental anthrax vaccine on the ranks of ground troops headed for the Persian Gulf. Since then, the military has pressed ahead to impose nonconsensual testing of the blood substitute PolyHeme in civilian urbanities, quietly enrolling more than 20,000 non-consenting subjects since 2005. The erosion of consent is the result of a U.S. medical-research system that has proven again and again that it cannot be trusted.

Sex, Sickness, and Slavery

This study of medical treatment in the antebellum South argues that Southern physicians' scientific training and practice uniquely entitled them to formulate medical justification for the imbalanced racial hierarchies of the period. Challenged with both helping to preserve the slave system (by acknowledging and preserving clear distinctions of race and sex) and enhancing their own authority (with correct medical diagnoses and effective treatment), doctors sought to understand bodies that did not necessarily fit into neat dichotomies or agree with suggested treatments. Expertly drawing the dynamic tensions during this period in which Southern culture and the demands of slavery often trumped science, Weiner explores how doctors struggled with contradictions as medicine became a key arena for debate over the meanings of male and female, sick and well, black and white, North and South.

Take My Hand

Inspired by true events that rocked the nation, a profoundly moving novel about a Black nurse in post-segregation Alabama who blows the whistle on a terrible wrong done to her patients, from the New York Times bestselling author of Wench. Montgomery, Alabama, 1973. Fresh out of nursing school, Civil Townsend has big plans to make a difference, especially in her African American community. At the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she intends to help women make their own choices for their lives and bodies. But when her first week on the job takes her down a dusty country road to a worn-down one-room cabin, she's shocked to learn that her new patients, India and Erica, are children--just eleven and thirteen years old. Neither of the Williams sisters has even kissed a boy, but they are poor and Black, and for those handling the family's welfare benefits, that's reason enough to have the girls on birth control. As Civil grapples with her role, she takes India, Erica, and their family into her heart. Until one day she arrives at the door to learn the unthinkable has happened, and nothing will ever be the same for any of them. Decades later, with her daughter grown and a long career in her wake, Dr. Civil Townsend is ready to retire, to find her peace, and to leave the past behind. But there are people and stories that refuse to be forgotten. That must not be forgotten. Because history repeats what we don't remember.

Art of Medicine

Comic called Complicit: person in traffic jam

How Well Do We See White Supremacy as a Source of Harm in the Culture of Medicine?


Complicit is a comic that investigates cultures’ limitations in identifying and investigating their own blind spots. In health care, for example, medicine is a culture not always well equipped to see its capacity to harm patients or to save itself from harm incursion mechanisms endemic to White supremacy, which medicine has long promoted, intentionally or not, throughout its history.


AMA J Ethics. 2022;24(8):E815-816.



Racism in Health: the Harms of Biased Medicine

A podcast about the ways people have injected biases into modern medicine. Excellent source list includes sources cited in JAMA, bmj, Clinical Science, The Lancet, and Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases among others.


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