The ‘Gander’s Ellen Chamberlain decided to ask her father how he felt about receiving the COVID vaccine. His answers surprised her.
FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich.—My father delivered some surprising news on his 74th birthday.
“Sign me up for my vaccine as soon as it’s available,” he proudly declared to me over the phone in December.
I was in utter shock.
The old man was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. His was the generation that lived through the evil and inhumane Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
The deceptive study began in 1932 with 600 Black men residing around Macon County, Alabama, including 399 men suffering from syphilis, for which there was no cure. The men were told they were receiving treatment for “bad blood.” And rather than last for six months, the experiment lasted until the men died, when an autopsy could be performed to determine how the disease affected their bodies.
The experiment was suspended in 1972, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in the 40 years since, the US government has only further eroded the wafer-thin trust a large portion of the Black population have had in it.
Despite this, my father sees the coronavirus vaccine as separate from the history of medical abuses against Black people.
Today’s virus is not being allowed to fester in the bodies of Black and brown people in order for the scientific community to learn how to end the pandemic. Instead, researchers have raced to understand this virus and find an effective inoculation, and public leaders have explicitly acknowledged the need for it to be available in Black communities, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
My father says this is how he sees things, and not through a lens of distrust.
Who Is William Chamberlain, Sr.?
My father was born in a small, central Florida town in 1946. At the time, Black people did not have the right to vote; Jim Crow laws ruled the South, forcing segregation and mistreatment of anyone who wasn’t white; and women couldn’t open their own bank accounts.
According to my father, most of that didn’t matter in the heat of Winter Haven, Florida, then known to be “the citrus capital of the world.” The Florence Villa community—affectionately known as “The Villa”—was close-knit, his parents showered their five children with love, and—aside from the tragic accidental drowning of his sister—he had a happy childhood.
“The majority of the businesses in Florence Villa were Black-owned,” he told me. “And you don’t see a lot of that now, thanks to what we now call gentrification.”
A tenacious one, Dad took an avante garde approach to life after high school. He was intelligent, charismatic, and ready to serve his country in the war that had been raging in Vietnam for nine years before his 1964 high school graduation. He delayed his service, however, to attend college as an ROTC recruit and enter the Army as an officer.
The choice may have saved his life as a Black man fighting a war for a country that largely failed to recognize him as a man.
Meeting Uncle Sam
Florida A&M University (FAMU) has always been the premier educational institution for Black (and now all) students in the country—just ask US News & World Report. And for young Floridians like my parents, it was the gateway from the Old South to future possibilities.
In the ‘60s, FAMU—with its Afro-wearing, bell bottom-clad, platform-balancing student body—educated my parents beyond the master’s degrees they both earned there. They learned to live “Black and proud” like the 1968 James Brown record proudly declared.
That year, Dad wrapped up undergrad.
But as he readied himself to begin his graduate studies, it became clear that America needed more bodies to help in the Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) conflict. Dad’s number was up.
“I always knew I was going to Vietnam” he said, recalling the dozens of boys from The Villa who were drafted into the war.
“I was called to serve and I was able. So, I did.”
No Reason to Doubt
Dad’s been out of the Army for the entirety of my lifetime. After being honorably discharged, he served in the Army Reserves, now known as the National Guard. He’d taken Vietnamese language classes, had to skydive directly into action, and scuba dive to skirt the enemy undetected for an entire year.
When he finished school, he was offered a comfortable corporate job and relocated to Michigan. He lived here for more than 30 years before retiring back to his hometown.
My parents were realizing the American dream.
I can call my dad many things, but “typical” has never been one of them. As such, he regularly engages with his doctors and has always been in annoyingly great health (stereotypes about Black men say they do not see doctors regularly).
He walks several miles each morning, simply because he feels like it (I mean, no weight-loss goals or anything) and eats pretty clean for a guy born in the middle of the soul-food-heaven-South.
Unlike many other Black people from both of our generations, he says he is not fearful or distrusting of the provisionally approved vaccines.
“If I got a call today telling me I had exactly 30 minutes to get to the location to be inoculated, I’d tell them I’m on my way,” Dad joked with me good-naturedly during our birthday chat.
Next, the old man admonished me for my own misgivings and distrust of the vaccine, even despite some doses coming directly from our beloved Michigan, thanks to the work of Pfizer manufacturing in Kalamazoo. I had seen the data, but I also understood history. The two had made it difficult for me to decide whether I would choose to be vaccinated once it was my turn.
“Your generation didn’t even live through Tuskegee,” he said, pointing out the obvious. “If anyone should be mistrusting, it’s us.”
I understood his point.
His was the generation that heard of a promise for free medical exams and some financial relief for those who participated in the “innocent” Tuskegee experiment. His was also the generation to learn of the government’s deceit. Mine saw the fallout to come; the mistrust and the pain of feeling continually cast aside.
There’s also the fact that for Dad’s 10 years in the Army, he says he was inoculated against one foreign pathogen or another every 30 days.
Perhaps the old man had a point.
According to my dad, the US government, by way of the Army, never lacked opportunity—and never took it. Dad was serving some logic I could actually stomach (this, coming from a man who routinely answered my childhood questions with, “Because I said so.”).
“You should really get over yourself and look around,” he said. “We’re not [as] safe without this chance, and I’m not going to miss mine.”