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Historical novel 'Take My Hand' focuses on involuntary sterilization of Black women


What does it mean to help people in need, especially when those people are also the most vulnerable to being victimized by the systems meant to help them? That's the question that protagonist Civil Townsend, a Black nurse in 1970s Alabama, has to grapple with when the federally funded clinic she works for causes irreparable harm to two of her young patients. "Take My Hand" is the latest novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Thanks for being here.

DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZ: The pleasure is mine.

RASCOE: So start by telling us about your main character, Civil Townsend.

PERKINS-VALDEZ: Sure. Civil is a recent graduate of the nursing school at Tuskegee. The year is 1973. And she gets her first job at a family planning clinic in Montgomery, Ala. She is the daughter of a doctor. Her mother is an artist. She's a Black, middle-class community member. And she's very excited about this job which she thinks is going to help women in her community control their reproductive lives.

RASCOE: This is your third novel, and it draws upon history for its premise. Can you talk about that true story that inspired this novel?

PERKINS-VALDEZ: Sure. So, you know, at this time, when birth control was becoming more widely available to women, it was sort of a double-edged sword for Black women because, on the one hand, it promised reproductive control and freedom, but, on the other hand, it was possibly going to be used as a form of repression and eugenics. So I remembered reading about these two young girls, the Relf sisters, who had been sterilized without the consent of their family. They were 12 and 14 years old. This young lawyer had taken up the case. And I had read in the Montgomery Advertiser a statement by the head supervising nurse at the clinic who had originally been sued along with the clinic - she said in her defense that sterilizing the girls must have been OK because all of the nurses who worked at the clinic were Black.

RASCOE: And the woman who was giving the statement was a white woman?

PERKINS-VALDEZ: Correct. I never found anything about those nurses, and I just wondered, who were they? What must it have been like to be a nurse working at that clinic and have something like this happen under your watch? I just needed to answer that question. And that's why I wrote this character, Civil Townsend.

RASCOE: And Civil Townsend gets caught up in this family - the Williams family. The two daughters that are victimized by the clinic are Civil's patients. Can you tell us about the Williams family? Because they're very different from Civil Townsend's family, right?

PERKINS-VALDEZ: They are. When she meets the Williams family, they are living in a shack on the back of a white man's property. They do not have an indoor bathroom. They're living in abject poverty. And she learns very quickly that one of the sisters has been put on birth control, and she hasn't even started her cycle yet. And it's very upsetting to her.

RASCOE: And, you know, Civil - when she meets the Williams, she's very idealistic. She's driven to help. You say at one point her ministry was to help these people. But how do you think that good people with quote, unquote, "good intentions" often get it wrong?

PERKINS-VALDEZ: Well, we see in the book that she becomes so carried away by her good intentions that she stops listening to what the family really needs. One way that we get it wrong is that we aren't listening. But part of her maturation process at this period in her life is understanding that she doesn't have all the answers. As educated as she is, as smart as she is, she does not have all the answers.

RASCOE: You know, this story takes place in 1973, and it's a year after the public became aware of the Tuskegee study, the government experiment where hundreds of African American men with syphilis went without treatment so researchers could study the effects.

PERKINS-VALDEZ: Well, the interesting thing that I noted about the Tuskegee experiment - you know, it came to light through the reporter from the Associated Press in the summer of 1972. And the interesting thing I noted in the archives is that people in Alabama were still reckoning with this terrible, terrible experiment, and still - some were still even learning about it and the extent of it. And this was being published in leading medical journals - the findings. So it was sort of an open secret in the medical world but not necessarily among local Alabamians. So I really wanted her to be digesting all of that at the same time. She's digesting what happened with those men, you know, right under her nose while she was a student there, even. She's digesting the fact that the clinic she works for may be not the clinic she thought it was. All of that is happening to her, and she's only 22, 23 years old.

RASCOE: Why do stories based on real events? Like, why not just invent things, you know, whole cloth? Like, why use real history to write fiction?

PERKINS-VALDEZ: I think I'm really attracted to silences in the archive. So I'll be reading something that is historical, and then I have a question. And that's usually where I enter a book. I'm looking at - and this, to me, is very specific about African American history. There are so many silences in the archive there. There are so many stories that need to be told. I use my own childhood. I grew up in Memphis, Tenn. I use the voices of my grandparents. In this book, I thought about my own two daughters, and I used my love for them. Those Relf sisters were close to my heart - not the sisters who are now alive and well and in their 60s but those little girls. And I try to hear, what was it about this moment that they wanted me to share?

RASCOE: Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of "Take My Hand." Thanks for being with us.

PERKINS-VALDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.