In 1721, Boston was facing an outbreak of smallpox. Onesimus, a Black man originally most likely from what is now Ghana, then kidnapped and enslaved, told his enslaver of a practice common in parts of Asia and Africa for centuries, of inoculating an individual with matter from a healing smallpox lesion to prevent them from getting the disease, a practice known as variolation. A physician was convinced to try it, and it helped mitigate the outbreak. This was 75 years before the much more widely known English physician Edward Jenner developed the technique of preventing smallpox by inoculation with matter from a cowpox lesion (also known as vaccinia, hence the name vaccination).
Many people see Black History Month – established in 1976 and observed in February – as a chance to learn about people like Onesimus and his achievement. I certainly appreciate learning about and celebrating the many ways that Black women and men, both individually and collectively, have enriched and contributed to the history of this nation. But its significance is far greater than that. It is a time to reflect on why, for example, I have known about Edward Jenner since middle school but only learned about Onesimus this month. It’s a time to reflect on why we need a Black History Month.
I recently finished Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a 2020 book by Isabel Wilkerson. (This is where I heard the story of Onesimus.) She provides a compelling framework for understanding the answer to that question, and for understanding much about the persistence of systemic racism in the US. In short, she draws on the work of numerous scholars to show that America is a caste society, one where the defining characteristic determining caste is race. For centuries, Blacks were kept in the lowest caste by legal means: at first slavery, then a host of discriminatory laws collectively referred to as Jim Crow, economic and physical segregation, and acts of sanctioned violence. These were reinforced by many social conventions designed to buttress Blacks’ inferior status. This included denigrating the intelligence or attractiveness of Black people through humor and popular culture, and enforced deference and subservience on the part of Black people toward Whites.
Since the 1950s and 60s, when the legal means of suppressing Black people have largely evaporated, it is left to these social conventions – the many insults, overt and subtle, we now refer to as microaggressions – to prop up the caste system. I have to admit that I have wondered why microaggressions have been such a focus of antiracist action. After all, it’s not as bad as segregated facilities and poll taxes, right? Understanding the outsized role microaggressions play in maintaining White supremacy in an era where the laws are (at least technically) race-neutral, helped me appreciate the importance of confronting them.
The fact that Edward Jenner is widely known while Onesimus is generally ignored is one of those microaggressions. Highlighting the historical achievements of White people while downplaying those of Black women and men is a way to reinforce the heinous myth of White superiority and Black inferiority. Admittedly, Jenner’s technique was far safer and represented an improvement. But why did the supposedly inferior races in Asia and Africa have a method for preventing smallpox for hundreds of years before the Europeans figured it out? Better to distort the historical record than to raise an uncomfortable question like that. Black History Month is a step toward correcting the record.