Alvin Hollingsworth (1928-2000) was a comic strip illustrator and painter who grew up in New York City. His focus was primarily on contemporary social issues such as the Civil Rights Movement, women’s issues, and various other controversial themes at the time [We’ve a full profile on Hollingsworth coming — Ed.]. One of his most famous pieces is a painting titled You’re Part of Art, featuring a pristine white couple in the foreground, while another white man speaks with a black couple in the background inside the box of a television set.
The racial coding in the painting seems pretty clear, and can still resonate with audiences today. In terms of media, we can still see that white people are still the priority over black people and other people of color. Shoved in the background, while being pacified by white men in power of the industry. Viola Davis called it for what it was when she won an Emmy for her performance on How to Get Away with Murder: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
Hollingsworth took every opportunity he could in order to speak on various social issues. In one of his comic strips, Hollingsworth takes on one such issue: paranoia. Specifically, how America reacts to the threat of disease and endemic. In D.D.T, diseases such as the Bubonic Plague, Typhus, Small Pox, and Cholera are drawn as ominous demons threatening the safety of the peaceful cityscape below. The reaction of Americans is fear and extreme prejudice. Right away vaccines are created, sanitary measures are taught and taken, and eventually a new “miracle” drug is created, Deadly New Insecticide, to prevent the spread of “foreign” diseases. All this, in a paranoid reaction to oversea diseases.
It’s very reminiscent of the US Ebola outbreak in 2014. Hysteria ran rampant, and revealed a strong string of racism that exists within the US healthcare system. In D.D.T., it is very notable that there are no people of color featured in receiving the care and attention when it comes to preventing these diseases. There’s an underlying fear of foreigners and what their diseases could do to the (white) American people.
Ironic, considering the fact that white American and white European doctors committed some of the most horrid medical crimes against people of color in history. Black people were routinely used as test subjects and medical guinea pigs for the advancement of medical research. Latina women were forcibly sterilized in a eugenics program held in California from 1903 to 1963. The documentary No Más Bebés details the program. In one of the most famous cases of horrid, inhuman medical treatments of people of color was Sara “Saartije” Baartman, who was sold into slavery, kidnapped, forcibly put on display for her “unusual” body, and eventually studied by medical scientists. When Baartment died, her brain and sexual organs were put on display in a French museum. It wasn’t until 2002 that her remains were returned to South Africa and buried under a memorial.
These are just a few of the examples of racialized medical experimentation committed on people of color in both Europe and America. I can’t help but see that history colors Hollingsworth’s work in D.D.T. The panels aren’t many, the comic only two pages long, but it speaks about the exclusion of people of color under the American healthcare system from early in it’s inception. Looking back, it emphasizes subtly how people of color were excluded from the system, and makes one wonder, “How did the US Army make D.D.T?”
When there’s so much history about the horrific medical experimentation on people of color—specifically black people—the thought of how the Army would have created such a miracle drug lingers. All in the name of protecting the white American populace from the demon-like diseases of foreign nations. Though the comic is old, Hollingsworth’s work remains relevant.