Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness - Heart of Darkness: AIDS, Africa, and...

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Heart of Darkness: AIDS, Africa, and Race Philip Alcabes Heart of Darkness: AIDS, Africa, and Race Philip Alcabes In 1832, with cholera causing great mortality in US cities, both lay officials and clergymen asked President Andrew Jackson to declare a national day of prayer and repentance in hopes of halting the epidemic. In those days before the bacterial agent that spreads cholera had been isolated, the disease was widely blamed on the despised races: blacks, who were deemed to invite cholera by their lazy habits, and the Irish, who were numerous among the urban poor and famously Catholic (read: too many babies, too much alcohol). Jackson refused to call for nationwide prayer, and was vilified by officials both secular and lay. In 1849, when cholera returned, then-President Zachary Taylor reversed Jackson’s stance, quickly declaring a National Fast Day for “prayer and humiliation.” Race, as much as science, has been central to the growth of medicine and public health as professions in America. Nineteenth-century physicians distinguished themselves from their competitors in the healing business, cornering the market in part through their embrace of scientific approaches to cure; today, similarly, the medical profession holds off competition from alternative therapies by indulging in “evidence-based medicine.” But, from early on, one of medicine’s less publicized attractions was its capacity to tender rationales for our obsession with race. White people’s suspicion that blacks were morally inferior was perfectly satisfied by prominent physicians’ assertions that African Americans had a greater propensity for disease, imaginary as that propensity turned out to be. Disease remains tangled with both moral uprightness and race, even today. For instance, history was made in the fall of 1997, after several young women from around Jamestown, in upstate New York, tested positive for HIV and then identified a young African- American man from Brooklyn as a sexual contact. A New York State Supreme Court judge in Chautauqua County authorized public officials to divulge the name of the man, Nushawn Williams, even though Williams (officials claimed) knew himself to be infectious. The media were inflamed: Williams was an “AIDS predator,” a “monster,” a “dirtbag,” a “maggot,” the “bogeyman incarnate.” He had “hundreds of partners.” He “preyed on schoolgirls.” He was a “guy who . . . shot a number of people with a different kind of bullet.”
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The legal ruling—the first and, to my knowledge, only breach of New York’s HIV confidentiality law—was justified, said the jurist, as it would allow Williams’s sexual contacts to testify against him, enabling prosecutors to “remove [him] from the community” through application of the state’s public health laws. New York’s HIV law already contained extensive provision for anonymous notification of sex partners. That is, once an individual was identified as having HIV, officials were legally empowered to
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This note was uploaded on 03/18/2010 for the course HIST 242 taught by Professor Carlson during the Spring '10 term at Canada College.

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Heart of Darkness - Heart of Darkness: AIDS, Africa, and...

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