Noticing Without a Name

When we are born, we are given a name to go by. That name will represent us for the rest of our lives, and even when some of us decide to change our names, that new name will impact how others define us as people. After a person dies, most within our society are buried with a headstone, making sure that we will always be known by our name. By acknowledging someone’s name, we are noticing them, just as the author Dionne Brand once said, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” My main concern is, what happens when a person is unable or unwilling to notice in the first place? When someone is no longer there to defend their body and show us a large part of who they are, how are we able to notice them at all?

As we have moved throughout this course so far, a large part of what we have talked about has to do with people being disrespected after their passing. In the case of Fortune, his body was taken and used for generations by his slave master in order to further their scientific understanding of the body. As it was passed down, the body became just that; a set of bones to be inspected, rather than the housing of someone’s spirit. Fortune no longer was in control of his body, and there was nothing to signify that it was once his. No one was able to notice who he was or what he experienced once his bones went unmarked. I feel that in this case, Dionne Brand’s quote can work in another way. If the people who owned slaves noticed that no one else was paying attention, or at least no one else was going to stop them, they were able to continue doing horrendous things to black people, both dead and alive.

When Fortune’s body was stolen, most slaves were unable to read or write, because that education was hidden from them. As a result, doctors were able to openly write about their manipulation of the black body after someone had passed, because people weren’t given the opportunity or the resources to realize what was happening in the first place. However, just because they were unable to solidify their worries in the texts being written does not mean they were unaware of what was happening all around them. Although the stories told about abusive doctors by African Americans are often seen as not being based in fact, “Researchers who exploit African Americans were the norm for much of our nation’s history, when black patients were commonly regarded as fit subjects for nonconsensual, nontherapeutic research. (Washington 2006: 13).” For centuries, black people recognized that they were being experimented on, and their loved ones’ bodies were being stolen in the middle of the night. However, they were unable to provide hard evidence in most of those cases, and even when they were they had no means to fight back against their oppressors.

As we move on, we are forced to look at the past and see the impact it has on our current culture. I should say, if we want to create a society where people feel comfortable and feel that they have equal opportunities, we need to address all of the trauma that has been caused in the past. We choose not to teach the full extent of marginalized groups within this country, whether that be Native Americans or African Americans. We have chosen as a society to gloss over the past and act as if we are unified, when that is not reflected in the world we live in. When Harriet A. Washington began writing Medical Apartheid, she was met with criticism from her white professor at Harvard of all places, who told her “It’s a terrible thing that you are doing. You are going to make African Americans afraid of medical research and physicians! You cannot write this book (Washington 2006: 22).” Despite the fact that this woman worked at Harvard, held a Ph. D., and was white, she still felt that her opinion on the topic of experimentation on black people was superior to that of a black woman who had experience working in a hospital, and who was researching for a book specifically on that topic. She was unwilling to look at our history as a country, and therefore is unable to truly notice the current state of our country, and more specifically the health inequities that currently separate us.

As we continue to move through this course, I feel that we must keep this question in mind: are we truly able to notice someone if they are not able to properly identify themselves to us? If we can’t determine who a person is, it seems almost impossible to do much more than theorize who they are, or in the case of a body, who they once were. In the case of African Americans who were experimented on, essentially tortured, or disrespected after their deaths, their impacts on the healthcare field are immeasurable, but the doctors who forcibly worked on them are the ones who receive credit and often praise. While we look at these bodies we need to be able to get past what their use was to science and identify who they really were as people, which in the most basic sense would mean learning and speaking their names.

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