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‘Take My Hand’ looks at race, class, and a part of history we shouldn’t forget

Dolan Perkins-Valdez is the author of "Take My Hand"
Norman E Jones Photography
courtesy photo
Dolan Perkins-Valdez is the author of "Take My Hand"

A few weeks back, I talked about a novel that delivered a heartbreaking look at a recent event — Trump’s travel ban — by exploring the issue through the eyes of one family caught up in the drama. This week’s title is similar in that its characters illuminate a disturbing and largely untold episode of American history.

In “Take My Hand,” author Dolen Perkins-Valdez relates the story of Civil Townsend, a young Black woman fresh out of nursing school in Montgomery, Alabama. The year is 1973. People are just learning about a federally-funded medical study in nearby Tuskegee, in which researchers experimented on hundreds of Black men by leaving them untreated for syphilis. Civil goes to work for the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, where she hopes to help women make their own choices about their lives and their bodies.

Her first week on the job takes Civil to a run-down cabin, where she is charged with administering birth control to two young girls. Neither girl is sexually active. One hasn’t even had her first period. But the girls are poor and Black, and someone handling the family’s welfare benefits decided they needed to be on birth control. As Civil grapples with her role, the clinic she works for eventually causes irreparable harm to the two girls.

The novel was inspired by the real-life Relf sisters and Relf vs. Weinberger, a class-action lawsuit that exposed widespread abuses funded by the federal government. Perkins-Valdez balances moral complexities with deeply crafted characters that straddle the intersections of race, class and ability. It’s a timely story, especially given recent debates over reproductive choice, and it addresses a part of history we shouldn’t forget.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.