Friday, August 19, 2011

A Forced Eugenics Survivor Speaks Her Truth

When North Carolina's Eugenics program ended in 1974 more than 7,600 people were sterilized.  North Carolina had one of the most coercive eugenics program sterilizing people for "epilepsy, sickness and feeblemindedness."  Though the aforementioned were the stated reasons they also sterilized for promiscuity, homosexuality and so-called criminal intentions.

The Winston-Salem Journal obtained and examined thousands of these documents. It found that:

  • More than 2,000 people ages 18 and younger were sterilized in many questionable cases, including a10-year-old who was castrated. Children were sterilized over the objections of their parents, and the consent process was often a sham.

  • The program had been racially balanced in the early years, but by the late 1960s more than 60 percent of those sterilized were black, and 99 percent were female.

  • Doctors performed sterilizations without authorization and the eugenics board backdated approval. Forsyth County engaged in an illegal sterilization campaign beyond the state program.

  • Major eugenics research at Wake Forest University was paid for by a patron whose long history of ties to science had a racial agenda that included a visit to a 1935 Nazi eugenics conference and extensive efforts to overturn key civil-rights legislation.

  • On March 8, 2011, Governor Beverly Perdue established the five-member, Governor's Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina's Eugenics Board. The following is the testimony of Elaine Riddick who was sterilized at the tender age of 14 when she became pregnant after being raped by a much older neighbor.  Not only was she sterilized but she was deemed promiscuous.


    Elaine Riddick: I had to have a child at the age of 14 and when I had my son, they went into me at the same time they gave me a cesarean birth and they took my child they sterilized me.  What do you think I'm worth? What do you think I'm worth?
    Reporter: Elaine Riddick was just 13 when a neighbor raped her, then she endured what she refers to as her second rape.  State officials declared Riddick feebleminded and unfit to have children.
    Elaine Riddick: The main reason, reasons is because I was poor and out and Black. I believe that with all of my heart.
    Reporter: Based on the pseudo science of eugenics, over 30 states passed laws regarding the sterilization of so-called defectives. The goal was to rid society of certain undesirable traits.
    Charmaine Fuller Cooper (victim advocate): Some of those traits that they listed were epilepsy, feeblemindedness, promiscuity, criminal mentalities.
    Reporter: Researches believe that as many as one hundred thousand Americans were victimized. By the time that North Carolina ended its own eugenics program in 1974, it had taken away the reproductive rights of 7,600 people - most like Riddick were poor. Tony Riddick still lives close to his mother's town in the coastal plane. He says she doesn't come home often.
    Tony Riddick: They used to call it little Korea, yeah little Korea. The reason why is cause it was very violent you know, coming up.  She grew up in a very very abusive home. My mother's life and my life by any measure would have been, should have been, could have been totally written off, but the fact of the matter is God still prevails and I'm grateful for that, very grateful.
    Reporter: Riddick's mother would be grateful for justice. She drove from her adopted home in Georgia to testify before a North Carolina task force considering compensation for sterilization victims.
    Elaine Riddick: There's nothing that the state of North Carolina can do to justify what they did to me, what they did to these other victims.  You know, it's not my grandmother's fault that she uneducated. It's not my mother's fault that she was abused by her husband. It wasn't my fault that my environment that I was raised in - that I was brought up in this kind of environment; I had nothing to do with that. I was a victim. God said, be fruitful, multiply, replenish the earth in his image you know.  I always told everybody, "how can you ever get to see the image of God when you are killing it off"?
    Reporter: Riddick is tired of feeling like the victim but she'll have to wait until next February to see if the tar heel state will give her and 2, 000 other eugenics survivors justice.
    Elaine would go on to say:
    "Why didn't they just sew me up, just sew me up, period? I felt like I didn't have a sex .... I wasn't a male and I wasn't a female. Just asexual. I didn't have a sex, because if I was a woman I could have children," she said. "I hide. I hid. I think I'm sort of still hiding, but there's nothing I can do. It made me dislike myself. And I don't ever think I can like myself. It is the most degrading thing, the most humiliating thing a person can do to a person is to take away a God-given right." (emphasis mine)
    This is exactly what this eugenics board wanted women of colour to feel.  Not only did their actions directly attack the Black community, it furthered the project of creating Black women as an 'unwoman' when juxtaposed to White women.  This heinous program ended 37 years ago, and it is only now that the state is considering some form of justice. This speaks loudly about the fact that women of colour are still devalued.  Not only are these women due monetary recompense, they are due a public apology by the government.

    Many White reproductive activists cannot relate to the experiences of Black women.  They have never had to fight for the right to be mothers, or fight for the right to keep their children off the auction block.  Unless the reproduction of a woman of colour is directly sanctioned by Whiteness, it is deemed an irresponsible act.  Such language continues to occur in discussions of so-called third world Brown and Black women. Mommy continues to be defined as White, middle/upper class, able bodied, straight, soccer mom in a mini van. Undocumented workers are routinely accused of having anchor babies to secure citizenship, but when this is played out in the media, they most certainly aren't refering to the undocumented workers from countries that are considered White.  They mean the dangerous Brown and Black wombs reproducing at will.

     Women of colour are construed as a project in need of being saved, as long as the process does not mean truly acknowledging the role that race and class have played in our continuing oppression.  Innovations like the pill and Depo Provera, that have been touted as life saving, and important to the advancement of women's rights, were tested on women of colour, long before they entered the precious bloodstreams of White women.  Yet, this history is erased to praise the ability of women to control their reproductive process. Once again, advancement for women was carried on the backs of women of colour. Even as I am writing this, I wonder how many blogs dedicated to reproductive justice have ignored this story and its historical significance, because it would mean confronting the horrible truth that reproductive justice is about far more than access to birth control, the right to have an abortion and supporting Planned Parenthood; its about validating the idea that women, and by women I mean women of colour, have paid the brunt of the cost in terms of violation due to the intersection or racism and sexism.

    I don't think that justice can ever truly be delivered to these survivors and no monetary award can ever return to them that which has been lost.  The only way to honour them is to ensure that in the future that women of colour have a seat at the table of plenty and are valued for who they are. If that small lesson cannot be learned from this atrocity, then their sacrifices have taught us nothing.