The same way, a story about Dorothy Dandridge and a pool just fits: As the urban legend goes, the movie star was visiting a hotel in Las Vegas in the 1950s, and she dipped a single toe into the all-white swimming pool. This so disgusted the hotel’s management that they drained the entire thing. This story, which was also depicted in the HBO biopic about her life, has never actually been confirmed. But to anyone familiar with the history of America’s relationship with its Black citizens, the anecdote is believable. Maybe it ain’t true, but it also ain’t exactly a lie.
To question whether this bottomless skepticism is justified is like asking whether a cow has cause to be wary of butchers. From redlining and gerrymandering to the Tuskegee experiment and Cointelpro, the proven conspiracies against Black Americans are so devious, so deep and so absurd that they blast open pathways for true-sounding non-truths to enter, too.
The terrible spoken word poems I wrote in college (“We’ll never get justice, because justice for just-us just-aint-for-us”) habitually referenced the so-called Willie Lynch letter — an instruction manual for controlling Black slaves that I, along with many others, believed was written by a slave owner in 1712 and contained deep insights into modern race relations. The truth: Willie Lynch never existed and the document was forged. I believed that the government conspired to track my thoughts and movements — as if my flaccid stanzas and banded collar Wilsons Leather biker jackets were a threat to the state. I even once allowed myself to entertain an argument that the natural color of milk is not white, but brown. (Don’t ask.)
The term “hotep” has become a catchall among Black people to describe other Black people who still believe some of these easily debunked stories — but the reality is that most of us have some hotep in us. And not because we don’t know how America really works, but because we know too much. The lack of trust in our nation’s systems and structures is a force field; a bulwark shielding us from the lie of the American dream. And nowhere is this skepticism more justified than with the institution of medicine.
I don’t trust doctors, nurses, physician assistants, hospitals, emergency rooms, waiting rooms, surgeries, prescriptions, X-rays, MRIs, medical bills, insurance companies or even the food from hospital cafeterias. My awareness of the pronounced racial disparities in our health care system strips me of any confidence I would have otherwise had in it. As critics of a recent Saturday Night Live skit suggesting that Black people are illogically set against getting vaccinated pointed out, the vaccine hesitancy isn’t due to some uniquely Black pathology. It’s a direct response to centuries of anecdote, experience and data. (Also, the demographic among the least likely to get a vaccine? White evangelicals.)