Saturday, March 7, 2015

Wartime Harlem got its "Double V" victory --- sort of

WWII's famous "Double V" campaign --- a military victory over Axis evil abroad and a moral victory in truly welcoming human diversity at home -- was led mainly by black Americans - many of them from Harlem.

Most black Americans back then (and most historians today) think the campaign basically failed.

But the story on the ground in Harlem itself, a story told from the point of view of the Nash Building and the Lutheran Hospital, suggests a different and more ambiguously hopeful story.

What capped the overseas military victory, in most peoples' eyes, was the autarky-oriented American-only atomic bomb dropped over Japan, based on gaseous diffusion technology developed at Harlem's Nash building.

(A technology that produced most of the world's cold war nuclear weapons that still threatens our world.)

Despite this effort being set in Harlem, only one black American, scientist James Forde, worked in that building, helping perfect the Bomb's technology.

 This was a clear sign of the wartime Allies' failure to practise at home the kind of acceptance of human diversity that they preached in their overseas propaganda.

But a few hundred metres away from the Nash, at Harlem's old Lutheran Hospital, a happier story was being played out.

For just days after the July 1943 Harlem Riots revealed to the world the Allies' racial divide, a young crippled Italian-American surgical resident broke all the rules to try and save the life of a dying baby named Patty Malone.

After twelve shamefully silent years, the good news story of potent life-saving powers of penicillin finally broke wide, virtually overnight: broke Stateside and Worldwide.

That young doctor, Dante Colitti, was inspired by the example of another crippled (in fact dying) doctor from his own neighbourhood -- Nova Scotia born and raised Martin Henry Dawson.

Dr Dawson worked at the world famous Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre, just a little further up the hill from the Lutheran Hospital.

Since September 1940 he had been growing his own hospital-brewed penicillin, to try save young patients with invariably fatal SBE - patients that the wartime Allies sentenced to death by not-so-benign neglect, because they deemed them not of military or economic significance.

SBE was also a disease that disproportionally hit minorities and immigrants the hardest - 'The Polio of the Poor'.

(These two facts are not coincidental .)

Dawson had given the world's first injections of penicillin, ushering in our present Age of Antibiotics, to a black from Harlem and to a Jew from the Bronx.

This too was not coincidental .

It was Dawson's way of protesting  the medical elite's determination to use the claim of war necessity as an excuse to ignore the illnesses of the poor, not to heal them.

He wanted to save these SBE patients for their own sakes --- but also to put teeth into the Allies' claim that they were committed to the welfare of all humanity unlike the uncaring Axis.

It was Dawson's way of seeing that the victory over the Axis abroad was hastened by - and matched by - a moral victory over hatred at home.

Dawson won his fight - Allied attempts to patent penicillin and limit its wartime use to only those they deemed worthy to receive it failed.

Thanks to Dawson and Colitti, wartime penicillin was mass produced in Brooklyn and send worldwide, in a Christ-like spirit of 'open commensality', to try and save all those dying for lack of it - whether white or dark, rich or poor, friend or enemy.

I believe that it is past due time that Harlem re-examined its significant role in 1945's ambiguous "Double V" victories.

Because the mixed lessons those twin victories sent out to postwar kids everywhere still shapes our now boomer-led world, as it faces another global crisis in the SIXTH EXTINCTION ...

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