Sickle Cell and Slavery: Souljahs on the Run

The Slave Trade

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the transatlantic slave trade is thought to have transferred over twelve million enslaved Africans to the Americas, according to various estimates.

It was also likely a significant contributor to the spread of Sickle Cell Disease. During this period, the second stage of the triangular trade took place. 

Goods were brought from Europe to Africa, Africans were transported to the Americas, and coffee and sugar were sent to Europe from America. Slavery—and the slave trade—in Africa had a disastrous impact on the entire continent.

Slave trafficking was made more profitable by the money the many different warlords and tribes who inhabited the continent made off it, which increased lawlessness and violence. 

Economic Impacts of the Slave Trade

Many parts of western Africa were unable to flourish economically or agriculturally, partially because of a lack of people to serve as a workforce, paired with a deep-seated fear of captivity.

A significant proportion of the abducted population consisted of women in their reproductive years, as well as young males who were likely to be starting a family at the time of their kidnapping.

The people who were least able to contribute to their communities’ economic well-being were often those the European enslavers left behind, such as the aged, crippled, or otherwise dependent. They were of little value as slaves. 

Historians have long contested the extent of the involvement of European and African slave-capture agents in capturing slaves. Africans enslaved during tribal battles were commonly purchased by the Portuguese, which is likely the cause of a high rate of the disease found in Brazil.

The Spread of Sickle Cell Genetics Through the Slave Trade

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is believed to have originated from countries in western Africa such as Benin, Togo, and Ghana as well as the Middle East. People were brought to the Americas during the slave trade era, with most of them showing no symptoms but acting as carriers of the gene since their bodies were resistant.

Haplotypes are genes that are inherited from one generation to another. SCD is an example of an inherited haplotype. While this disease is widely distributed globally, it is more commonly found in certain races. African Americans are the most identified group to inherit the sickle cell gene. As mentioned, they are considered the cause of the disease’s increased spread in Brazil. 

According to Solovieff, 2011, when African Americans reproduce, the gene is inherited by their children. However, this is not the case when reproduction occurs between an African American and a Caucasian. It is thought that this could be due to African Americans carrying one gene each compared to Caucasians. 

Sickle Cell Disease as a Result of and Form of Slavery

I’ve only found one narrative in the sickle cell literature that alludes to a slave having sickle cell disease and showing symptoms. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a slave, but to be a slave and live with sickle cell disease, would be even more shocking. 

Often, I describe my pain as similar to slavery. It’s like the genetic trauma lives within my veins and now projects out sickle cell experiences. Sickle cell is not a “black disease,” but rather a genetic disorder. 

It is also a subjective experience, and all I can do is express my theory of sickle cell disease-related pain through a patient’s—my own—perspective. When I do this, it always brings me to make a reference to slavery, where my blood is the master and my spirit is enslaved. I feel like I have no control over my body and even my choices at times.

The sickle cells link up in vessels to become a chain, and the pain feels like I’m being whipped with a cat o’ nine tails against my spine with no mercy. It is excruciating. 

But what right do I have to compare my sickle cell pain to slavery, which I have never experienced? I can barely sit through films or media discussions about slavery without shedding a tear or feeling angry. I even cried at the end of Roots when they declared freedom.

The Case of the Absent Spleen—A Link to Sickle Cell Disease

 The single piece of literature I have uncovered that discusses a slave with sickle cell is also one of my favorite stories in the history of the disease. It is titled, “Case of the Absent Spleen” by Robert Lebby M.D., a surgeon, and I found the article in Southern Journal Medicine and Pharmacy. The article references a runaway slave named Jack who who was on trial for murdering another runaway. 

However, when they autopsied the body of the deceased, the doctor found it strange that the body was a victim of murder because he found that the man’s spleen was missing. Spleen complications are quite common in sickle cell disease, and many individuals must have it removed. Surprisingly, in some cases, it may even disappear on its own. 

Charles Jackson—Sickle Cell Symptoms, Runaway Slave, an Original Gangster

Interestingly, Sickle Senses also ran an article on sickle cell and slavery and found that Louisiana State Gazette, a local New Orleans newspaper, published an advertisement on July 10, 1846, which is now one of the exhibits in a moving exhibition entitled “Purchased Lives,” curated by Dr. Erin Greenwald. 

The advertisement was about a runaway slave named Charles Jackson. It described that the slave felt pain and limped whenever it rained, which are common symptoms individuals with sickle cell disease experience. 

While this advertisement could have been describing another slave with sickle cell disease, or Charles Jackson, it was published around —1846.

I questioned if there was any correlation with Charles Jackson and Jack, if they perhaps could have been the same person. But Lebby’s article stated Jack was owned by a Mr. White; whereas, Charles Jackson was owned by Chauvin Delery. The narrative of Jack happened summer of 1834.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information about how Charles Jackson was caught, or perhaps if he died on the way. Regardless, the story of Jack and Charles Jackson are two of my favorite stories in the sickle cell cannon.

 When I first read their story, I was amazed. While it must be extremely difficult for someone to be a slave—especially one on trial for murder—it’s truly amazing and phenomenal to know that a slave with sickle cell disease was able to muster the strength to run away! 

That’s what I love about sickle cell warriors. They know how to fight even during their most painful excruciating times. Truly, they know they don’t have a choice in the matter. It’s during similar times in my sickle cell crisis, that I tell myself if my ancestors can do it, I can do it. This honestly gives me the strength I need to push through because I know the genetics my ancestors gave me are strong.

When it comes to sickle cell disease, I grew up feeling like I was the weakest, and the most incapable. It took a toll on my self-esteem and confidence. Then, the first time I read about the runaway slave with sickle cell, I began to question my own depression and negative thoughts. It made me appreciate life much more. 

Even though there was never any confirmation that this was, in fact, a case of sickle cell, and the disease was unknown back then, it is inspiring knowing that somewhere in history, I had an ancestor with sickle cell who was a runaway slave on trial for murder. Jack and Charles Jackson, the original gangsters… If they could be that strong, I know I can, too.

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