Percival Everett’s “Zulus” and the Prison System

The conflicts that Alice faces in Zulus runs parallel with how prison inmates were medically treated during most of the 20th century. According to Medical Apartheid, the experimentation on prisoners in the United States was justified by the low social status of prisoners. An article in a 1910 publication of the Journal of the National Medical Association claimed that prisoners could atone for their sins towards society by becoming test subjects. (Washington, 245)This suggests that individuals in prisoners deserved to be medically tested on. It was the least they could do for being immoral. This attitude towards prisoners seems to be the one that the rebels in Zulus embrace. They target Alice for being the only non-sterile woman in their society, so she deserves to be treated like a specimen. Alice describes her first experience in captivity, “they put me in a room, a white room with no windows and they brought me food.” (113) This sounds almost identical to solitary confinement in a prison. Later on, Alice is decapitated at the camp and put on display in “a case, a cube, transparent glass on at least three sides.” (Everett, 183) What’s perhaps more disturbing than this imprisonment is the intentions of who she labels the “Body-members.” Rima asserts, “I’m going to get a baby from you. You will give the world a life, devil though you be.” (183) The insistence of the rebels to use Alice in a purely physical sense is similar to how doctors of the 20th century treated inmates. They stopped at nothing to take advantage of their test subjects, who were frequently African-American men. The lack of information provided to the subjects and the general public was a large factor in contributing to these injustices. Researchers often did not provide the “patient” their possible risks or details of the experiment. A level of deception was also required to ensure a smooth process for the investigators. Although test subjects at Holmesburg Prison were reassured that cosmetics products which were tested on them would only cause “minor irritation,” years later reports of baldness, skin scarring, and even internal organ damage were the reality. (261) Similar to the experimentation on slaves, this unethical research was not publicly known. With little education and income, the Black prisoners were essentially “legally invisible.” The medical treatments in prisons were yet another way in which African-Americans were kept confined in society’s birdcage. The secretive nature of the medical field, especially in prisons, causes such unfair treatment to prosper for so long. When Alice works at the hospital, there is also this sense of ambiguity in what the hospital really does. She asks Sue to help with the “medical supplies” but is dismissed to go back to work. Alice is nervous to talk about the smuggling of drugs, due to the unethical nature of it. Her only reassurance is provided in trusting the other characters. In the medical world, trust has been used by doctors to coerce their patients into dangerous treatments.

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