I love to read novels and works of non-fiction in concentrated sittings so I can really lose myself in what I am reading. Because I am so busy during the course of my work-a-day professional life I rarely have such luxury. This is why vacation for me means a time when I can find a few really interesting books on my reading list and just devour them. Having recently returned from vacation and being overdue for my AMBI Blog, I thought I would share a few thoughts on my vacation reading, and even see if there is a lesson for bioethics.
This summer my reading was unusual in that it was all non-fiction, which included “The Return of George Washington” by Edward J. Larson, “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I really didn’t plan to be reading these books together. But as it turns out, after finishing all three, I found a theme of interesting, often disturbing, questions about the past and present treatment of African Americans in the United States—questions that challenge the moral foundation and integrity of American democracy from its origins to the present.
In “The Return of George Washington” we learn about the transition between Washington’s resignation as general and commander-in-chief of Continental Army following its victory against Great Britain in 1783, to him being sworn in as the first president of the United States in 1789. It is surprising that these 4-5 years have not received more attention from historians, since in many ways they represent the significant period of our nation moving from a revolutionary upstart, to a viable democracy, and a symbol of a new kind of hope for human freedom and possibilities throughout the world. In gaining a sense of the larger-than-life character of George Washington during this time, the reader comes to clearly understand the unique stature and regard he enjoyed throughout the colonies. But it is also noteworthy that, unlike our contemporary leaders, Washington did not directly seek fame and power. Like his Northern Virginian friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Washington was a plantation owner and cherished his time presiding over his large farming enterprise, including about 300 enslaved African Americans at Mount Vernon. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1783, he soon realized that the loosely connected 13 colonies under the Articles of Confederation could not secure his property, which included vast land holdings in Western Pennsylvania and others, long distances from Mount Vernon, as well as provide people of his ilk a stable financial system. He and many others of like mind believed only the power of a strong central government could do that.
The movement toward establishing a strong central government based on a new constitutional system was gaining momentum. And it was clear who the leader of the Constitutional Convention would be. Beginning in 1787 there were many agonizing and contentious meetings of delegates who divided themselves into the camps of the federalists and the anti-federalists. It was interesting to see how polarized political discussions were then, and there was no doubt whose side Washington was on. Though he often had serious doubts about whether the federalists would be successful in forging a new constitution as the basis for a new political order, the momentum was on his side and his influence was crucial toward this end. Many people were supportive of the federalists’ cause simply because of George Washington, as though no reasonable person could question his good judgment. Moreover, all along there was no doubt who would become the first president of this new nation—about this question, there seemed to be no dissension, not even from the anti-federalists. In his inaugural address, he praised the new government as a fundamental change of government from all past forms. “I rejoice in the belief that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were made for the few; and that they will not continue slaves in one part of the globe, when they can become freemen in another.” The United States of America would ostensibly be a model to all other forms of government for representative government and the promotion of human freedom.
There is no little paradox between those inspiring words and the historical life of George Washington whose personal and financial interests were grounded in the political structure of the new nation. Washington was a slave owner and failed to free his slaves upon his death. It is also striking that African Americans were counted as 3/5 citizens for the purpose of representation—this was a huge issue in apportioning representation in the states, as about 1/3 of the south were African Americans. It is striking that those gaining representation in this new system of government were male landowners. Women, many men, no African Americans, and obviously no Native Americans, had any immediate political stake in terms of being able to vote. To the extent Washington’s inaugural words were to have any application in real historical conditions, it would be for future generations of this grand democratic experiment. The next two books provide a moving and often disturbing perspective of the legacy of black Americans who were not included in this original experiment.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” is a remarkable book by Isabel Wilkerson, which had to be a labor of love. It is most succinctly a detailed narrative description of the lives of three remarkable individuals during the Great Migration of Blacks escaping the oppressive Jim Crow south for more progressive cities in the North and West. Wilkerson conducted over 1,200 interviews, including multiple interviews with the three main characters beginning in the mid 1990’s, which continued up until their deaths. All three were in their 70’s or beyond when the interviews began, and all had vivid memories of their lives growing up in places like rural Mississippi, Northern Florida, and small town Louisiana and their journeys out of the south. Ida Mae Gladney, with her husband and growing family, leaves the backbreaking work of cotton farming for Chicago where they face years of difficult challenges finding adequate work and housing. Because of their perseverance, they eventually carve out lives for themselves and their family. George Starling leaves the fruit groves of Northern Florida and his disappointment for not being able to continue his college education for New York City. Being industrious and a strong presence in whatever he does, he finds a job on the railroad as a porter and travels up and down the east coast during the entirety of his work career, which provides support for his wife and family. Robert Pershing Foster is a gifted student from Monroe, Louisiana who makes his way to Morehouse College where he marries the college president’s daughter upon his graduation. He then goes on to medical school and becomes a physician/officer in the U.S. Army, and eventually has a successful medical practice in Los Angeles.
Looking at the lives of these three individuals externally, they are in many ways typical Americans. They struggled to build lives, have families, find work and homes, and, while dealing with losses and disappointments, fulfill many of their hopes and dreams. But these are black Americans who grew up in the harsh conditions of southern racism during Jim Crow. Their lives were constantly at risk because of the caste system that had rigidly defined the social order since the end of Reconstruction. A man could look the wrong way or say the wrong words to a white woman, or not step off the side walk as a white person walked by, not to mention take up for themselves in workplace settings, and quickly be physically beaten or killed. Blacks in the south in the Jim Crow era watched their every move, as their lives were at constant risk from the hatred of white mobs. They did the most menial, backbreaking work at the lowest possible wages. Stories of what others had discovered from Northern and Western cities represented a new world of hope and possibility—in short, the chance to live like a normal human being.
Blacks first left the south during WWI when there was a shortage of Eastern European immigrants available to take the jobs others didn’t want or wouldn’t do. The migration continued in subsequent decades and by the late 1960’s some 6 million or so blacks had left the south seeking the warmth of other suns. It would be nice to say their lives got much better and their hardships were similar to those of white Americans. But that wasn’t the case. Each of the main characters and their families faced a different kind of caste system in their new cities. Blacks were not able to live freely in all neighborhoods, mix with white people in schools, or pursue work of their choice. Robert Foster was not allowed to care for white patients in Los Angeles hospitals when he first arrived in the 1950’s. So their lives involved dealing with less overt violence and risk but still there was the disappointment and stress of not being treated with full respect as an American citizen. Yet, none of these individuals gave up or became violent. They persevered and overcame the odds. Along with many other similar black migrants, they showed how baseless were the typical assumptions made by many white people that blacks brought with them social pathologies that became the plagues of inner cities in subsequent decades. In fact these were the brightest and most motivated of people who were often better educated than the average white population of their northern and western cities. In fact many of the problems that were attributed to these new immigrants resulted from the overreactions of whites that fled their communities at the first suspicion that black families were moving in. This eventually quickly left large segments of inner cities entirely black and soon bereft of businesses, transportation, and opportunities. Much of the disappointments of people like Ida May and George related to the devastated communities in which their children grew up which created harsh conditions for finding viable opportunities and employment. Yet the reader of this book is left with a newfound respect for the contributions of these original migrants, not only to their own lives and families, but also to what they gave to our country.
“Between the World and Me” is an enlightening book to read for a white American. It shows the harsh reality of what it means to live and navigate a life in a black body in America. Written as a letter to his 15 year old son, Coates does not sugar coat his message nor pin his hopes on the possibility of a fundamental change in America—either in the hearts of individuals or in the basic structure of society. Coates often refers somewhat cynically to the American Dream, what he takes to be the made-up reality of white America that expresses their hopes and dreams, often at the expense of blacks. In fact, he tells his son, “…it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Can one possibly disagree with this claim?
As one learns from the previous books, the American dream at the outset of our nation was for wealthy white, privileged men. Blacks were at the lowest social position and in fact not viewed as fully human in those days. This basic paradox at the heart of our nation played out for decades in the tensions between the North and South over slavery and culminated in the Civil War and the emancipation of blacks in the south. If only the story ended there. After the war, the progress made during Reconstruction was encouraging at first, but it was clear that real freedom for black southerners was far from a reality. By 1877, the North gave up on the expected changes. Reconstruction came to an abrupt end and the harsh Jim Crow laws enacted in many southern states immediately following the Union’s victory over the Confederacy took full hold of the social order. The caste system became fully institutionalized in the 1896 S.C. case Plessy v. Ferguson which upheld “…the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal”.” The social rules for proper behavior were implicitly clear to everyone in the South and blacks that appeared to be out of line with regard to those rules were often hanged. The institution of slavery may have ended, but blacks were still forced to live as second-class citizens.
The motivation of blacks to explore new lands during the Great Migration made complete sense, but their hopes would still not be fully realized, for there were continued implicit, discriminatory social rules that disadvantaged blacks. And one wonders, how much has changed since the Jim Crow era? Since 1980 we have seen the growing incarceration of black Americans at a staggering rate—over 2 million currently in prison—often for petty, non-violent crimes. More recently we have seen videos of police officers showing blatant disregard for black lives by using unnecessary, deadly force and police charging blacks for petty fines as a way for an economically strapped town to raise funds. It is this continuing legacy of ill-will and mistreatment of whites toward blacks that Coates is not willing to forget that guides him in teaching his son life lessons about living in America as a black male. The question that lingers, which Coates never attempts to address, is whether or not the United States of America will ever get beyond its past sins and accept people, as Martin Luther King said, based on the content of their characters, not the color of their skin? After reading his book, I can understand how he would be skeptical.
Maybe I didn’t realize all I was getting into when I chose these books. But I am reminded of the risks of making assumptions as a white American about how the democratic dream of freedom and opportunity has been for everyone. It has not. It also sickens me to hear comments from whites criticizing blacks for their “intergenerational dependency” on the government—as though they have always been looking for a handout. If anything, historically, it is the reverse—white America has been dependent on black for free or cheap labor and, on that basis, has built vast wealth and unprecedented privilege for white America.
I will be pondering my summer readings as I continue to work as an ethicist in a medical center. Our fields of bioethics and clinical ethics are guided by principles like respect for individual autonomy and beneficence. But I am left feeling we should be more sensitive to the disparity between our ethical ideals reflecting respect for all human beings and the historical reality in which many blacks and other Americans have not received their just deserts as citizens in our country and as patients in our healthcare system. Ethics is nothing if not the quest to narrow this gap.
We should all make a greater effort to understand historical plight and suffering of the people, to which our ideals apply, but who were not included in the founding of our nation. We cannot allow the American democratic experiment to give up on its promise to reverse the ancient tenet that “the many were made for the few”. My hope for bioethics is that it will become a field where this overarching ethical concern will receive more attention in all areas of our work.
The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.