Be Informed

Our course epigraph ““My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”–Dionne Brand, from notes that Beth during the question-and-answer session following Brand’s March 2, 2013 reading at the Northeast Modern Language Association in Toronto” (course syllabus), makes me think about all the things that I have never noticed and been blind to. I feel as though it is better to know than to not know, and I feel as though it is your job to be an informed citizen wherever you are. My whole life I have been blind to the fact that our modern medicine has gone through experimentation with the use of slaves without their consent. So many people have never questioned the history of our medicine and therefore have never known the horrors of how it came to be. This makes me truly upset, and one goal I have for this semester in this class is to learn as much as I can about how our modern day medicine has come about so I can be more informed and inform others. In the first few chapters of Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington I have learned so much more than I feel I would have learned about this matter in my whole life. I never knew that gynecological instruments were tried involuntarily on slaves. I also learned that there are many accounts of people of color going missing, and when they pass away their bodies are awarded or sold to medical schools for students to run experiments on. There was a man named Ota Benga, who was taken from his country and awarded to Samuel Phillips Vernon after finding that his family and tribe had been slaughtered. Benga was locked in the monkey habitat at the zoo and put on display for everyone to see. They locked Benga up so that they could show the theory of evolution. After attacking people they released Benga and the African American people of the community raised money so they could send Benga to college. He ended up committing suicide years later. Stories like this would never have been told if it were not for Harriet A. Washington writing this book. We learned in class that iatrophobia is the fear of medicine, and many people of color have this fear because of the horrendous history of how modern medicine came to be. I mean who can blame them? I find myself getting upset reading about all these things that have happened in our history that no one has talked about, none of this is common knowledge. Another goal I have for this class is to become informed, and inform other people. While there is not much we can do about the past now, knowing about all these things can keep from having history repeat itself.

Noticing

Upon reading the course epigraph, I begin to think about in class, noticing each other talking. In every class period, there is tons of conversation about the reading we completed for class. But these conversations are about noticing things from the text, and noticing what others are noticing.

In the book Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington, there is so much to notice. We can notice that there are so many horrible things happening to innocent people through out history. Many of these horrible things include using unclaimed bodies for scientific work, being used for medical experiments without consent, being exploited for having medical deformities, that many other humans have, just because your skin is different, and many other things. In class, we can notice these things and learn about them, but the real learning comes when we notice what others are noticing.

When we notice what others are noticing, we can learn their perception on the topic. Not only do we learn what we think about and understand, we learn about what others think. I can use this knowledge to set a goal for myself. This goal being that I want to notice what others see more often. I want to learn not just my own noticing, but what other classmates notice. Having more discussions about the text and really thinking about what others are saying, talking more and including my own thoughts to help others learn as well.

Noticing what others notice is how you learn more things. The course epigraph really gets me thinking about learning new things from my classmates.

Not yet.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Like everyone, he was more than a simple decision, more than a simple document, more than what he was most remembered by. He was a human being, with complexities and layers.

But he was a slave owner, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

It is May 2019. I sit in the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, NY, my hometown, Hamilton playbill in hand. I have been counting down the days until I finally got the opportunity to see this show — one that had so inspired me as a writer but also as a human being. When the lights go down and the show begins, I am filled with joy. The familiar first notes of the show begin to play. This story is one of triumph over circumstance, one of emotional complexity, told by a cast entirely composed of people of color (with the exception of the role of King George). In so many ways, it is groundbreaking. It is written by a Puerto Rican; it combines the art of hip-hop with the art of musical theatre.

An audience composed of mostly white people witness the jubilant, expressive show and receive it with hardly any movement or enthusiasm. It is impossible for me not to dance in my seat. I struggle to not sing (and terribly rap) along, I move my head to the beat. I smile, I laugh, and God knows I cry, too. The show reminds me just how powerful music and theatre and the arts can be. It reminds me of the bravery of the human spirit. It reminds me why I love being a writer so much. I feel out of place as I receive the show so intensely. The audience around me feels no different than the audience I watched A Christmas Carol with a few years ago.

There is a line in the show:

“Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.”

“Not yet.”

It takes place in a song about winning the war. It is one of the most important moments of the show in my eyes — not simply because of the events but because of the way the characters respond to them. The complexity of this victory is something that reminds me of things we are dealing with today. For example, when same-gender marriage was legalized in the United States only a few years ago, many people joyfully proclaimed, “the war is over!” Meanwhile, I got the news at a diner sitting across the table from my dad, sitting in a tiny rural town, knowing I was not yet out and knowing that I would be having a lot of conversations about this topic now today. Sure, a battle had been won, but there was work to do.

The complexity of these things is something that we have spent time discussing in this class so far this semester, and it is an important reminder that nothing is ever as simple as it may seem. For example, reading Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson prompted some interesting discussions about things I personally had never even thought about before. One of these was the complexity of experiencing the joys of life and being a human while also being forced into terrible circumstances/conditions that are out of your control. Fortune was a slave but also obviously felt joy and happiness, and the complexity of feeling that within the chains of slavery is so interesting to me. I am grateful to this class for being a place that allows these conversations to occur.

In the audience of Hamilton, I was thinking about a lot of things. But one of them was the complexity of these characters that were being portrayed by a cast of color. The show is composed of many characters who were most certainly slave owners, but the show is full of themes of freedom — the complexity of this show being performed by a cast of color is one that reminded me of the types of subject matter we were dealing with in this course. It is never as simple as what you see on the surface.

Reading Insightfully

Based on my experience in class over the past three weeks, I have discovered a few things about myself, my peers, and my classwork as it applies to my life. First, I have noticed that my reading fluency and comprehension varies from text to text. For example, Fortune’s Bones has a text laid out simply which allows me to quickly read through it but also allows me to go into depth more quickly. On the other hand, the Medical Apartheid takes me longer to read through and understand and I rely more on the class dissections to help me more fully developed my ideas that strap down the text and help us understand the book more thoroughly. Another self-discovery I have stumbled upon is that technology often hurts me more than helping me which is my fault alone. In order to better myself and allow this to happen less in the future, I must learn how to better use tools like the blog site on which I am posting this, as well as Canvas which holds all the information I need to help myself succeed in my classes. Second, I have learned that my peers all learn differently due to their different personalities, background experience, and knowledge of literature which creates our classroom dynamic. After thinking about this I realized that during class I need to be more assertive in my ideas, which still respecting and considering the perspectives of my classmates as well. During class discussions, it has been evident who has and has not read and analyzed the assigned text that we are set to discuss. I have accidently done this twice with readings that were assigned on canvas and I failed to discover. When there is a lack of knowledge going into the group discussion it is almost impossible to possibly contribute to the conversations when you have nothing to reference, no points to make, a lack of insightful questions to ask, and a lack of background information. Third, through the work I have analyzed for class, I have been able to find reflection. In Fortune’s Bones for example, on page 27, I found a few sentences that not only applied to the text and helped future my understand of the authors intentions but lead me to relate the book to our culture as it applies today. As an example, “What’s essential about you is what can’t be owned,” has provided me with so much insight and has been a line that has continually been stuck in my mind (Fortune’s Bones, page 27). The sentence reflects on the idea that a body is not all a person is. What makes each individual truly themselves, what no one else can control, is their personality, opinions, and choices. “You can own someone’s body, but the soul runs free,” (Fortune’s Bones, Page 27). This idea applies to the books we have been studying in which medical experimenters have destroyed the bodies of human beings both dead and alive, disrespecting their humanity. The idea of this quote reminds us that we are more than our bodies. Our body represents us, but the most important things cannot be physically destroyed. We still own ourselves to some extent. This idea can apply to today’s society relating to how we see so many conflicts arise based on physical differences, and the quote reaffirms that a person should not be labeled by that specifically. “What’s essential in you is your longing to raise your itty-bitty voice in the cosmic praise,” also comes from Fortune’s Bones page 27 and is very relevant in today’s society as well as the time period in which we are studying. So overall, the learning I have been doing so far in this class has room for improvement in areas but has also given me a lot of insight and allowed me into deep thinking relating all the things we are learning to the present day.

Slave or Enslaved?

Dionne Brand once said, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” To me, this quote is involving both concepts of observation and the act of understanding the things you notice. I feel as if this epigraph is asking me to look beyond my own views and to look as if I am a fly on the wall, looking in on society. The amount of injustice that has been carried throughout history since 1619 is extremely unfortunate, which still continues today. Reading literature such as Medical Apartheid and Fortune’s Bones, along with the view points of my classmates has given me a new perspective on these topics. 

Unlike some other classmates, I chose to be in this class out of interest. The ideas this class focused on was one I had never been exposed to. The ideas being expressed in this class have been foreign to me, combining the topics of literature, medicine, and racism. Although I have been exposed to different forms of literature throughout my schooling, I have never been thoroughly exposed to these different ideas. I feel as though my confusion is based solely on my lack of understanding from the beginning of my education career.. Although I may not be the most informed about many things, my interests have peaked and I am extremely interested in learning more.

I have been fascinated by medicine and the medical profession as a whole since I could speak. My interest in the realms of medicine is another reason I jumped on this course. Since I was young I always dreamed of being able to help others, figuring out their pain, their mental anguish, being able to lend a helping hand. Yet, while reading the first few beginning chapters of Medical Apartheid, I am left at a standstill. This career I have always dreamt of being apart of had once done this to the people they were trying to help? Was this going to hinder my knowledge and abilities to become apart of this profession now that I know about the acts of my colleagues? I have yet to answer these questions.

In Medical Apartheid, Washington explores the 19th century during the times when students in the medical field relied on black bodies to train the physicians.  Students used the bodies to conduct experiments, provide further medical research, and allow themselves to understand the human body and all it has to offer throughout the medical field.  Washington says, “Most physicians of the day also believed that blacks had low intellectual capacities” which opens discussion for the topics of genetics and predisposed disabilities. The use of African Americans for further medical practices has left me astonished. Since slavery began in 1619, when privateer The White Lion brought African Americans from the British colonies into the United States, African Americans have been belittled and degraded. Doctor McCoy has helped me develop new ideas, particularly using with the terms “slave” and “enslaved person”. I was never aware of the difference and the impact it had on the people it surrounded. I am shocked at the lack of knowledge I have about a time period that wasn’t that long ago. I feel as if my school has let me down, and the people they have hurt when teaching these subjects. To refer to someone as a slave, is demeaning, and is characterizing them by a term that they have no control over. The word is defined as, “a human being classed as property and who is forced to work for nothing.” While the word enslaved person is, “a human being who is made to be a slave.” Enslaved person offers humanity back to not only the one being spoken about, but the society surrounding it.

Importance of Repetition

In the beginning of the course, I realized that Dr. McCoy repeated one thing more than others almost every day of class.  It got me thinking and made me understand the true concept behind it. That one thing was repetition and if you continuously repeat something, it won’t have a chance to die out; make use of it or lose it.  This concept carries over to the novel Fortune’s Bones. This book explained and elaborated on the research process that occured on a former enslaved person who went by the name of “Fortune”. Fortune’s body was discovered in a museum in Connecticut and “has been in the town [Mattatuck] for over 200 years”.  Research was conducted on the remains by medical experts and newfound information was discovered. The researchers had discovered that Fortune was married, raised children, and had been baptized later on in his life. He and his family lived on a farm and worked for a man known as Dr. Porter. There, they planted/cared for crops and raised different animals.  Dr. Porter ended up preserving Fortune’s body instead of burying him because he felt that it could be used for future research purposes. The use of repetition was displayed here by preserving the bones and passing the remains throughout the generations to come for continued research and teaching purposes.

There was a line in the book that caught my attention the most out of all and that was, “You are not your body, you are not your bones.  What’s essential about you is what can’t be owned.” Although the book was based off of bones and bodily remains, this line was expressing how people are not just what they’re made of genetically and physically but how they present themselves and act towards others.  It’s all about your way of going through life and what you take out of daily situations that makes you, you; your bones don’t do that for you. 

It was quite eye-opening to see that one person, who happened to be enslaved, could contribute so much to medical research even 200 years after dying.  Fortune lived a hard, rigorous life while still being able to provide for his family; his wife and two kids. Although his remains were taken advantage of and invaded after his passing, Fortune provided a lot of information to medical experts to help society better understand the lives of an enslaved person.  It was interesting how you could find out so much about a person 200 years later based solely off their bones and how the remains were left.

The course epigraph of “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” plays into the role of my realization that repetition throughout life does have an impact on society.  In Fortune’s Bones, repetition had a vital impact on research tactics and how generations starting 200 years ago until now have had the same understanding as to how Fortune lived, died, and lasted during his afterlife.  Dr. Porter was the main source in beginning this repetitive cycle. He began this by leaving the remains for his children and grandchildren to do research and experiments on and allow them to also use the bones as teaching methods for more people to learn from and carry on the “routine” in the continuous years.  I believe that this eye-opening experience was vital to my life because I have a better understanding as to how just one enslaved person lived his life and that repetition is a key to getting through life in more than one way. It allows for something to be carried on for generations and never die because if you continue to use something, there’s no way it could ever die off and be lost in the past forever.

Where Our Power Comes From

The gains of society which have made based on abhorrent evils are significant. I find it deeply unsettling, just how much of modern medicine is based on human experimentation and non-consensual research. Entire fields of medical study being based on research which violated the human rights of so many leads to questions about how mankind has benefitted from its capacity for evil. The accounts read on Dr. Sims and his use of enslaved women for practice before utilizing what he learned to cure Caucasian women is a story which to me, encapsulates the disturbing long term moral dilemma of unethical medical research. When research can benefit all women for generations to come and save countless lives, are we right to benefit and prosper off of them so long as we recognize their evil origins? The answer is not so simple.

No doubt we have all benefited from the evil deeds of medical practitioners like Dr. Sims. Whether directly or indirectly, a large part of male and female population alive today can chalk up their high odds of survival to the knowledge gained by Sims. I think ultimately what is important is to not excuse the horrors perpetrated in this way by lauding the men behind the knowledge. While it is important to acknowledge the sources of our knowledge and the individuals who brought about their development, we should always keep fresh in our minds the evils done by those we learn from. We should celebrate the life saving techniques we have today and use them, but vow never again to utilize the sordid methods which lead to their realization. Professor McCoy’s acknowledgment of this was something which caused me to think a great deal about ends justifying means and how this is never a mindset which we should fall into. Fortune’s bones has had me thinking of just how important it is to be intimate and not to look away from the horrors done in the name of progress.

I sincerely hope that when Doctor Porter dissected Fortune and had to look upon the damage done to his body, that he came to terms with what he did, and understood the full extent of the wrongs he had committed. When he wrote “I enter Fortune and he enters me.” I believe that the Doctor did come to understand that he had hurt a person, a father, a son, and a brother, tortured him for a lifetime and done a truly horrible thing. I believe that this kind of intimacy is important, not only for those who committed the horrible crime of slavery, but for us in the modern world for whom slavery can easily and dangerously become a distant memory bound to history books. It is important for Fortune’s Bones and the deep scars they bare to be visible in a museum. Despite being dead, Fortune’s body is a living reminder of what mankind is capable of when we abandon morality for the possibility of knowledge. We should never forget where our foundation has come from. We must always remember the evils done in the past so that we do not repeat them.

The most important thing to remember is that the legacy of harm which left its marks on Fortune’s bones is not limited to them. The legacy of racism and the racial complexities of our time are things we must always work to overcome in our personal lives. We can do this by recognizing where our power has come from and treating others with kindness and empathy.

Awake or Woke?

Are you awake or woke?

Most likely, you’ve at least heard someone use the word “woke” as an adjective, in a social media post, or in activism.

The Merriam-Webster definition of woke is as follows: A word currently used to describe “consciousness”. “Being aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. It is truly powerful when someone is aware of the truth behind things “the man” doesn’t want you to know (i.e classism, sexism, and any other social injustices). The modern slang term is in use when you want someone to notice their privilege, complacency, and ignorance (sometimes unintentional). To be woke is to be well-informed of the problems and injustices in our country. Being woke doesn’t just apply to race. A person who is “woke” is mindful of racism and other forms of prejudice, and isn’t just going to turn a blind eye.

What does woke mean to me?

Continue reading “Awake or Woke?”

The Medical Practice of Consent

The quote from Dionne Brand as the course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” made me look at this course from a new perspective. I interpreted this as essentially saying everything that we do is a two-way interaction and should be treated as such. I think this has already been reflected several times in this course already. The primary example of this is the ENGL-101 Life Preserver.

The ENGL-101 Life Preserver has two things for us to pay attention to: “Both/And” and “Consent”. I want to put an emphasis on the consent aspect of the life preserver. We all have heard about consent before, but most of us have only heard it being used in limited contexts. Obviously, we know consent is incredibly important, but there have been countless times where, in various situations, consent has been and still is ignored.

Continue reading “The Medical Practice of Consent”

Slave vs. Enslaved Person?

Without a doubt, the topic of slavery is a hard pill to swallow. It is the sad truth to not only American history but to world history. One can also say when the topic of slavery comes up, two words are frequently used slave and enslaved. A slave is being a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey the owner. Enslave, or enslaved person is making someone a slave. Those words to the untrained eye may be used in a similar connotation. The idea never really occurred to me, that those two words are actually entirely different. In class, Doctor McCoy stated her views on enslaved person vs. slave. She expressed that she preferred to use the word enslaved person over a slave, suggesting that saying or calling one a slave is demeaning and strips away their humanity. In other words, Doctor McCoy believes saying enslaved person gives back the idea of humanity, how that person is a human being and not property. Although I agree with Doctor McCoy up to a point, I cannot accept her overall conclusion that we should use enslaved person exclusively over the word slave. This idea may look small and simple, but it’s not a simple black and white context. Overall, to truly understand history, we should not replace but re-use and become innovative.

If the idea is using the word enslaved person over a slave. My next question would be what happens to the textual evidence and biographies with such vulgar language? How will others respond? Are they ready to acknowledge the truth? Using censorship against the original language causes people to erase a part of their history. In the book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present, the author speaks on the abuse of black slaves in the medical field. “Each naked, unanesthetized slave women had to be forcibly restrained by the other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims, determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia” (Washington, 2006,p. 2). Within this quote, you see the hard and truthful language being used. Censoring information such as this leads to discrediting every account of the act(s) from that time, which will make it less believable for skeptics. We can not as a society, try to substitute the fact African American were slaves and endured a lot throughout that time.

In the article “The Language of Enslavement”, the author Lucy Ferris says “But I doubt the film title Twelve Years a Slave would be changed substantially had it been Twelve Years Enslaved.” I think Ferris is mistaken because she overlooks the concept of the title. The slight change in the title softens the story, it diminishes the true story of a slave. I want to elaborate on the fact of changing or using substitution only discredits the real story. In the movie Twelve Years a Slave, there are multiple occasions of someone calling or saying the word “nigger.” What if that word was censored? Not acknowledge. Substantially that is a larger difference. That is a pure example of watering down. Not showing the truth of what white southerners said about black slaves is demeaning and disrespectful to the black community. So why change slave to enslave? Changing the title of the story is like not acknowledging such a powerful and hurtful word such as “nigger.” Furthermore, not censoring history will lead to an understanding of our past. As well as grasping the realization that slaves were people held against their will.

But as I said before, I partly agree with Doctor McCoy when using the term enslaved person in the context of a conversation or in literature. We are no longer in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, language has changed and continues to. In the latest post, “Slaves vs Enslaved People-The Subtle, Strong Powers of Words” the author Andi says “By changing from the use of a name – slaves – to an adjective – enslaved– we grant these individuals an identity as people and use a term to describe their position in society rather than reducing them to that position. In a small but important way, we carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time. This is not a minor thing, this change of language.” Andi is right because when we use the word enslaved, we are acknowledging these individuals are humans and not someone’s property. In short, there is a need to use the term enslaved person to give back their human qualities, but it shouldn’t be the only option to describe these individuals.

All in all, when facing the discussion between using the terms slave or enslaved person, an enslaved person should not be exclusively used over the word slave. We need to continue the use of the word slave to keep the original language, censoring may only lead to disbelief. But on the other hand, we need to maintain the term of an enslaved person to identify these individuals as humans, not property. We need both terms in our vocabulary, we should know our history, while still giving respect to the ones before us.