Luke Cage and the History of Medical Exploitation

Psychiatric clinic, c. 1930. Photo: PBS.
Psychiatric clinic, c. 1930. Photo: PBS.

The first story arc in David Walker’s Luke Cage run, “Sins of the Father,” sees Cage headed to New Orleans to attend the funeral of Dr. Noah Burstein, the man who experimented on Carl Lucas at Seagate Prison, turning him into the superhero Luke Cage. Once he arrives, Cage discovers a criminal plot and believes that Burstein did not commit suicide and that someone murdered him. However, it turns out that Burstein is not dead; a billionaire has taken him captive to have Dr. Burnstein make a superhero serum for profit. The story of Burstein and Cage recalls, to a certain extent, Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black, where, before Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, the government experimented on Black soldiers such as Isaiah Bradley to test the supersoldier serum. “Sins of the Fathers” tackles some of the same questions that appear in Morales’s and Baker’s book, and it is these issues and the way that Walker comments on the historical treatment of Black people in the name of scientific advancement that makes Walker’s Luke Cagean important series.

Upon first meeting Cyril Morgan, the focus of “Sins of the Father” comes to the forefront. Morgan tells Cage how Burstein saved his son, reversing the debilitating disease that confined him to a wheelchair. The serum gave Morgan’s son the chance at a full and healthy life, even helping him to walk. After telling the story, Morgan looks at Cage and tells him, “Luke, you are a magnificent specimen.” Morgan’s use of “specimen” is telling. With it, Morgan places Cage as nothing more than an experiment, negating his humanity and positioning him only in the service of the “greater good.”

Morgan’s comments seem eerily similar to the work of J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” who during the 1840s experimented on enslaved women in Mt. Meigs, Alabama, leading to the development modern gynecology. Sims’ experimentation, steeped in the belief that Black women had greater strength and a higher tolerance for pain than white women, worked, according to Deirdre Cooper, “largely for the benefit of white women’s reproductive health.” Morgan sees Cage in a similar manner. He perceives him not as a person but as a superhuman who Burstein experimented on so that a cure for his own white and privileged son could come to fruition.

In flashbacks, we see Burstein’s interaction with Cage. Repeatedly, he refers to Cage as “son,” and Cage even sees Burstein as a father figure in his life. At one point, we see Cage in his 1970s outfit talking with Burstein. Burstein tells him, “I’m a bit disappointed in you, son.” Cage responds by telling Burstein that he is a superhero like the Avengers, but Burstein simply says, “You’re hired muscle. No better than a mercenary, selling out to whoever meets your price.” He goes one to tell Cage, “You are more than a test subject–you’re  like a son to me, Luke.” Burstein frames his relationship with Cage as one of trust and love, yet, as we see, Burstein’s words are merely platitudes lacking sincere depth. Burstein’s paternalism highlights that he does not care about Cage; instead, he cares about what Cage’s success can mean for himself. Again, we see connections with Sims whose experimentation on enslaved Black women, as Cooper notes, led him to becoming “one of the country’s preeminent gynecological surgeons less than a decade after he began his gynecological career.”

Later, as Burstein tries to save the first person he experimented on, Mitchell Tanner, he tells Mornay that he needs to cut Tanner open to see about any internal damage because Tanner “is much too valuable of a specimen.” Burstein calls Tanner “son” as well, and like Morgan does with Cage, he also refers to Tanner as a “specimen”—nothing more than an experiment. Cage stands to the side, listening to Burstein and thinking about his own relationship with the doctor.

Tanner is akin to Henrietta Lacks. Researchers stole her cells, without her permission in 1951, and profited from the medical discoveries made from experimenting on them. Lacks’ cells have spawned over 17,000 patents that have “contributed to medical breakthroughs from research on the effects of zero gravity in outer space and the development of the polio vaccine, to the study of leukemia and the AIDS virus.” The Lacks family, along with Christina Bostick, are suing, on behalf of Lacks’ cells, John Hopkins for their rights. Tanner and Cage, like the enslaved women Sims held captive and Lacks’ cells, were reduced to experiments that could lead to medical breakthroughs benefitting the researchers at the exclusion of the research subjects.

Burstein’s words and actions cause Cage to realize that Burstein views him in the same manner. Cage thinks, “I watch him. I listen to him. I realize I’ve never seen the big picture when it comes to Noah Burstein. And that’s when it hits me–harder than anything has ever hit me before–not like the Hulk punching you in the face, but like the Hulk smashing your soul … I don’t really know Noah Burstein–I don’t know the truth of him, just bits and pieces of a truth.” A two-page spread shows Cage thinking about his past with Burstein. The pages move from the present with Burstein and Mornay working on Tanner, to the past with Burstein experimenting on Cage, and finally to panels depicting other individuals on whom Burstein has experimented.

In the panel that shows Cage in the chamber and Burstein standing over him, Cage thinks, “How can I know who I really am?” as Burstein proclaims, “You and I–we are changing the world.” Back in the present, Burstein comments, while working on Tanner, “I’ve always marveled at how quickly this one heals. Such an amazing accomplishment.” Burstein’s words deny Tanner humanity, and Cage notes this. He knows Tanner is not mentally stable, but he also thinks, “he’s still a person.” This thought causes Cage to wonder what Burstein thinks of him.

When he saves Tanner, Burstein again strips him of his identity. He tells Mornay, “Couldn’t afford to lose this one.” Key here, in understanding how Burstein views Tanner, is the phrase “afford to lose.” Tanner, for Burstein, exists as property or goods, as a model of his experimental process, and nothing more. Even the panel drives this home because we do not see Tanner. Instead, we see Burstein and Mornay peering at us as if we are in Tanner’s position. After this, the next panel shows Burstein introducing his wife Emma to Cage. Emma tells Cage, “Noah tells me about the work he’s done with you–Amazing!” Emma focuses on Noah’s “work,” not Cage. Interestingly, we only see Burstein, hand outstretched, and Emma. Cage stands off stage to the right. Like the previous panel, this positioning makes Cage invisible signifying that he is nothing more than a product.

Cage confronts Burstein about his faked death and their relationship. Burstein frames his response as a “big picture” meant to help humanity, and he even proclaims, “Where would you be without me? You would be nothing more than what you were–wasted potential living out his life as a thug, either still in prison or dead. You’d be nothing without me–I made you the man you are!” Burstein’s white savior mentality shadows his position with Cage and others on whom he has experimented. He does not care, as we see throughout the arc, about their lives; rather, he cares about their potential to further his research. Cage responds by telling Burstein, “You experimented on me. You gave me some really inspiring pep talks from time to time. But make me? You. did. not. make. me. I made myself.”

Ultimately, what Burstein’s comments and views highlight are historical incidents of white individuals experimenting on Black people, without their permission, for the “betterment” of (white) humanity. Herein again, Burnstein recalls J. Marion Sims. Burstein also recalls the National Public Health Service’s infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the theft of Henrietta Lacks’cells. Each of these historical incidents inform my reading of Burstein in “Sins of the Father,” and it is pertinent to think of them in this manner.

Burstein’s actions and comments also insist that we consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thoughts from Between the Word and Me and how our “legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relationsracial chasmracial justiceracial profilingwhite privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”  Ultimately, Burstein’s statements call upon us to realize that our society–through the law, media, education, etc.–devalues Black bodies except through the ability to derive profit. We see this everyday as is evidenced in a jury awarding Gregory Hill Jr.’s family $4 for their pain, suffering, and funeral expenses they incurred after St. Lucie County deputies fatally shot him in 2014. No one should be invisible. No one should be devalued. David Walker’s Luke Cage challenges this dehumanization through Luke Cage’s questioning of Burnstein’s motives and through Cage’s humanization of Mitchell Tanner.

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.