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First Bonnie Thornton Dill Dean’s Award Supports Doctoral Student’s Research on Black Americans’ Mistrust of Medical Profession

March 11, 2024 American Studies

Devon Betts headshot

Devon Betts, an American studies Ph.D. student, studies race, HIV prevention, queer theory, digital humanities and more.

By Jessica Weiss ’05

Devon Betts, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies, has been awarded the first annual Bonnie Thornton Dill Dean’s Graduate Research Award to support his research on how “paranoia influences Black Americans’ health decisions.” 

Specifically, Betts’ dissertation focuses on Black women’s mistrust of birth control from the 1990s through the present, and Black queer men’s contemporary aversion to PrEP, a set of HIV prevention medications. Combining critical history, cultural study and personal experience narratives, he will study ideas, emotions and stories surrounding these biomedical interventions. 

Betts hopes to contribute to fields including Black studies, queer theory, queer of color critique, women’s studies, gender studies, sexuality studies, history of medicine, medical humanities, and health humanities. 

The Bonnie Thornton Dill Dean’s Graduate Research Award, named after the pioneering scholar of intersectionality who served as dean of UMD’s College of Arts and Humanities from 2011 to 2022, supports graduate students working in the area of intersectionality, which is defined as scholarship that examines the interconnectedness of race, gender and inequality, in such areas as ethnicity, class, disability, sexuality, religion and nationality. 

Thornton Dill, a professor in the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, expressed her excitement to learn that the award will support Betts’ research and scholarship, which she said “proposes to utilize intersectionality as a tool for revealing how structures of power combine to create differing and complex sets of hopes, fears and protective strategies toward U.S. medical practices within the Black community.” 

Much of Betts’ work stems from his own upbringing. As a child, his family members were always wary of doctors and hospitals, he said; the Black women in his family resisted or altogether refused reproductive medicines. He began to think more deeply about the roots of this paranoia in 2015, when a doctor encouraged him—a young Black queer man—to take PrEP. “I was an ideal candidate but I just couldn't bring myself to do it,” he said. “And I didn't know why.” 

Around the same time, two other incidents captured his curiosity: his sister had a health complication related to her own mistrust surrounding an ectopic pregnancy, and he came across a news article about a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University over its role in the deliberate infection of hundreds of vulnerable Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s and 1950s. 

“I had this light bulb moment where all three of these things were happening in very close proximity to one another, and it made me think maybe they were connected. Maybe the experiences of paranoia that I was having other people like me were having; I wondered: ‘What are the similarities there, but also what are the differences?’” 

After receiving his master’s degree in Afro-American studies with a certificate in gender & women studies from the University of Wisconsin Madison, Betts arrived at UMD seeking to further develop ideas in the areas of race, HIV prevention, queer theory and the digital humanities. 

His focus on paranoia became even more poignant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some African Americans expressed suspicion about a COVID vaccine. As news outlets pointed repeatedly to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to explain Black Americans’ hesitation to the vaccines, Betts felt that was a gross oversimplification. (The study, conducted by the U.S. government between 1932 and 1972 on a group of nearly 400 Black men with syphilis, was to observe the effects of the—treatable—disease when left untreated. The men were not informed of the nature of the experiment; more than 100 died.) 

“It's not just a part of the past, it’s not just about Tuskegee; the atrocities are still ongoing,” he said. “I’m arguing that not only is African Americans' paranoia of the medical industry justified, it's not going to go away until the anti-Blackness that is at the core of American medicine is seriously dealt with. And that has not happened yet.”

Betts will begin interviews this summer, conducting individual interviews and focus groups across the region. Ultimately, he hopes his research can be used to prompt social change, informing efforts to create a more just and equitable system that takes paranoia into account. 

La Marr Jurelle Bruce, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of American Studies, who is Betts’ dissertation advisor, said he foresees Betts’ intersectional work being taught in schools of medicine, public health and social work programs in addition to in the humanities. 

“Mr. Betts’ work is deeply rooted in—but also extends beyond—the terrain of humanities and interpretive social sciences,” Bruce said. “His insights will prove invaluable for patients, patient advocates, healthcare providers, social workers and policymakers.”