My Vaccine Paranoia Didn’t Begin With My Grandmother’s Death

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

My favorite person in the entire world died of cancer. Not only did it shatter me irreparably, it didn’t make sense. Although my grandmother was the epitome of Black Southerner (besides walking miles to receive an education as a child and baking cakes and pies with sorcery as an adult, her first name was Virginia), she was one of the healthiest people I’d ever known. Her breakfast was normally light — toast or small bagel with tea sometimes, but mostly coffee (heavier breakfast items like grits and biscuits were saved for the weekend). In the summertime, her diet consisted primarily of colorful plate-sized salads accentuated by the tomatoes she grew in her backyard. She’d never eat late at night. My grandmother was supposed to live until 100. Instead, cancer sent her home in her mid-eighties.

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My family is convinced that the American government is at the root of my grandmother’s cancer. Although grandma was one of the most humble and genuine beings to have walked this Earth, she was quietly vain. She loved to look good. She made certain that her hats were as regal as her deaconess title and waistline belied her age. Unfortunately, as a younger woman, her vanity and healthy lifestyle were preyed upon. In the 1950s, Americans were introduced to “diet” foods and beverages. My grandmother’s favorites were the sweets and sodas. Years before the Diet Pepsis and Diet Sprites hit the market, there was the very first sugar-free Ginger Ale: No-Cal. Coca-Cola was the first major soft drink brand to target dieters. Assuming the catalyst was Coke’s fear of healthy pop failing and staining the brand, the beverage giant launched the alt can, TaB. Its tagline: How can just one calorie taste so good?’

Riding the initial success of TaB, Coca-Cola introduced a grapefruit-flavored diet soda named Fresca in the early ’60s. The dominant ingredient in both TaB and Fresca was an artificial sweetener called cyclamate. In 1969, it was discovered that a heavy intake of cyclamate could cause cancer. TaB switched to saccharin until a decade later, when that too was discovered to be potentially cancerous. These are decades of poisonous federally approved products being relentlessly sold to Americans, to my grandmother.

After decades of drinking TaB, grandma eventually switched to Diet 7Up. In the ’80s, she began eating diet candies. The sweet appetite suppressant Ayds was her go-to. They initially came in chocolate, caramel and butterscotch flavors. The chemical in Ayds that repressed appetites was benzocaine, an anesthesia that lessened the sensation in tastebuds. While benzocaine was deemed safe by federal standards, there have been reports of terrible side effects. Makes sense since its primary use is topical treatment — everything from ear wax removal to mosquito bite treatment to dulling penis sensitivity to lessen the risk of premature ejaculation. Doesn’t exactly scream delicious.

Grandma’s only unhealthy intake was diet products, which she believed to be in accordance with her healthy lifestyle. She believed this because they were authorized by her government.

My grandmother never drank alcohol or smoked a day of her life (and boy can my family drink and smoke). Her eating habits were impeccable and regimented. Grandma’s only unhealthy intake was diet products, which she believed to be in accordance with her healthy lifestyle. She believed this because they were authorized by her government. Yet had my grandmother — a lifelong educator — considered the biological history of Black people and the United States, she may have been a bit apprehensive. Perhaps, she may still be alive.

She wasn’t alive in the 18th century, when British military colonizers gave blankets and linens to Native Americans in the Pittsburgh area. Presented as gifts to combat the colder months — during peace treaties, for the record — the bedding was weaponized as Trojan horses. It was infected with smallpox, for which Native Americans, at the time, lacked immunity. My grandmother was in her teens when the Tuskegee Experiments began. More than just offerings for warmth, Alabama advertised to mostly poor Blacks free medical treatment for syphilis — at the time, one of the most deadly illnesses for African-Americans. The initial targets were sharecroppers. Then, for 40 years, the medical industry targeted unaware Blacks as guinea pigs for experimentation. They were never given any of the proven remedies for syphilis (i.e. penicillin). They were instead strung along in one of the sickest games of slow torture.

I am glad that my grandmother didn’t see certain events. That woman spent her life seated on top of the news. (She had a heavy influence on my path into journalism.) For certain, she would’ve been all over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. She didn’t need to see that. It was confirmed that the city’s water system contained a high contamination of coliform bacteria, which lead to cancerous chlorine, and then lead. State officials knew that consistent ingestion of lead contributed to psychological, physical and cognitive ailments. In Michigan’s Black communities like Detroit, children at the developmental stage were terribly affected. The first detection of sullied water came in 2014. It took years for the issue to be considered a crisis (Obama wouldn’t declare it a disaster, but instead a state of emergency worth $5 million dollars in aid). The state’s Emergency Manager was a contributor to the snail-paced progress of the water crisis, conveying that economics matter more than Black lives. Many have insisted that had the toxic water affected more Caucasian sectors of the state, the issue would’ve been resolved in half the time.

The fact that certain people are perplexed by the cynicism of people of color towards a COVID-19 vaccine beams a nation ignorant to its biological treatment of minorities. For years, as in Michigan and the ’60s, we’ve learned that the health of poor people, especially Blacks, are not the priority. America will continue to poison Brown and Black communities with solids and liquids. Acts of medical benevolence may yield new or prolonged diseases or worse. In 2020, how can Americans expect people of color to embrace a vaccine promised to prevent a disease that the United States has yet to identify with scientific certainty? That puts America’s poor population at risk of decreasing. And who could possibly want that?

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