Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tuskegee Experiment

Race has always been one of the most troubling questions facing America. Blacks for many years were seen and are still seen by some people as inferior to whites. Films are sometimes used as simple tools of diversionary entertainment, but films often provide an excellent lens at looking into society especially when they give a look into America’s race problem. Films can be studied on a deeper psychological and cross-cultural basis to see the values and way in which a society treats its members. The 1997 film “Miss Evers Boys” which was based on the famous Tuskegee Experiment in which the American government did a research project on African-American males without fully informing them about what they were doing is an excellent example of a film that captures the deeper issues that film can capture.

The Tuskegee Experiment was an experiment that took place for 40 years from 1932-1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama. The goal of the experiment was to test what would happen for untreated syphilis in Black males, and to see if syphilis affected Blacks differently than it did for whites. The subjects of the experiment were never fully told what was going on in the experiment. At the time when the experiments began, Alabama was under Jim Crow law. Blacks and whites were segregated in almost all aspects of public life, and were treated as second class citizens throughout Alabama and other Southern states. The film “Miss Evers Boys” is based on the experiences and point of view of a Black nurse who worked on the study named Eunice Evers who knew what was going on but failed to let the subjects of the research know that they were misled by the government. The film shows her struggle to “care” for the patients despite the fact that she did not truly care for them because if she did she would have informed them about what was really truly going on. Miss Evers helps the men out of a sense of duty as she feels as though she can’t abandon them, though the government has already abandoned these men.

The role of culture and gender played a key part in the film in examining the actions of Miss Evers. The time period when most of the experiment took place was before the rise of the feminist movement. Traditional women stereotypes were more prevalent in American culture then and Miss Evers was expected to follow them. One gender role Miss Evers was expected to confide to was the role of conformity and obedience. Miss Evers had to conform to the way of life in the South and expected to obey the rules and wishes of the doctors conducting the experiment. As Matsumoto and Juang wrote in their book, “In short, females were expected to conform to decisions imposed on them by males or by society In general.” (Matsumoto, 2008, p.161) Despite her willingness to do more to help the subjects, Miss Evers was ultimately constrained and followed the norms of society. Bronfenbrenner’s theory of development and the chromosystem theory can also help to gain an insight into the film. Miss Evers was directly affected by the changing sociohistorical influences of her time. As a Black woman living in the 1930’s-1960’s there was not much she could to stand up. But, by the time of the Senate hearings in the 1970’s, the changing scene of America had opened up new rights for Blacks and for women and she could speak out more forcefully and advocate why she did what she did. And the movie can be seen through the lens of showing the importance on racial relations to America. Blacks were not seen as the equals of whites and therefore it was not a big deal to conduct such an experiment on inferior people. It was highly unlikely that such a deceptive study would have ever been performed on whites or allowed to last for as long as it did. Despite race being a social construct, that social construct played a huge role in how Blacks were treated even by members of their own race.

In watching this film on The Tuskegee Experiment it showed me the dangers of just going along with conformity to expected roles. Miss Evers had the chance to stand up and do something more brave and change the way how things are going and she didn’t. The enculturation process that people go through is so lasting and permanent that it’s hard for many to do something different and take a stand. The movie also helped illustrate just how hard it is for those who change society, because it’s so much easier to go along with the flow.

Matsumoto, David & Juang, Linda. Culture & Psychology 4th Edition. Wadsworth, 2008.

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