Segregation and Experimentation on African Americans: Lessons from Toni Morrison’s Home

Toni Morrison’s novel Home provides an emotional story of a man who grapples with a dark past, yet still strives to protect his beloved sister. While the characters and narrative itself may be fictional, the book illustrates the overt and institutionalized racism that pervaded American society in the mid-twentieth century. Ezelle Sanford III’s article “Civil Rights and Healthcare: Remembering Simkins v. Cone (1963)” explains how in the 1950s Southern Hospitals were segregated, while the documentary Race-The Power of an Illusion demonstrates how real estate in both the American South and North was segregated by race. Home likewise shows how African Americans were confronted with de facto segregation in the North, yet also describes the exploitation of blacks’ bodies in both regions. The long history of involuntary experimentation on African Americans and selling of black bodies to white medical schools included in Morrison’s narrative is validated by evidence utilized by Harriet Washington in her book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Thus, both literature and nonfiction works collectively signify the violence and hardships imposed by racist whites on African Americans in the American North and South. This was done to maintain a social hierarchy based on the artificial construct of race and to improve white American lives at the expense of African Americans’ wellbeing.

            The characters in Home experience the nonlegal, yet institutionalized system of segregation in the American North. This system subjected African Americans to persecution that was not unlike the separate and unequal treatment forced on African Americans by law in the South. For instance, the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend Lily attempted to buy a home with money she had earned working at a dry cleaners and an inheritance from her parents. However, her application was rejected by the realtor because the neighborhood only admitted white residents. The contract for the house Lily wished to buy stated, “No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or Asiatic race excepting only employment in domestic service.” This contract was not a fictitious product of Morrison’s imagination, but rather was based on the reality of the times. For example, Race-The Power of an Illusion uses interviews and archival sources to explain that African Americans were barred from purchasing homes in Levittown. This town was the birthplace of the American suburbs and was located in Long Island, New York. Despite the popular perception of the American North as a safe haven for African Americans, Home illustrated how blacks underwent enforced segregation in Northern neighborhoods.

In addition to Northern de facto segregation, the historic prevalence of hospitals selling African American bodies to medical schools is represented in Morrison’s novel. Early in Home, the protagonist Frank Money escaped from a psychiatric hospital and sought refuge in a church where he conversed with Reverend John Locke. After confirming that Frank was a hospital escapee, Locke suggested that the hospital was engaged in selling African American corpses to be used as cadavers for white medical students. For example, Locke explained to Frank, “They sell a lot of bodies out of there…To the medical school…doctors need to work on the dead poor so they can help the live rich.” Locke’s statement was not fueled by unwarranted paranoia. Instead, it reflected a common practice of hospitals that wished to profit off of their corpses by selling them to medical schools with a high demand for cadavers, but without any regard to the source of the bodies. For instance, Washington delineated, “A 1913 survey of fifty-five medical schools determined that a large majority obtained most of their bodies for dissection from almshouses; other major sources included hospitals and tuberculosis sanitaria.” Hence, Morrison’s novel provides insight on the justified fear of African Americans that even after death whites will continue to subjugate their bodies by conducting nonconsensual autopsies and dissections on them.

            While the involuntary desecration of black corpses elucidated in Home was sufficiently unethical, the novel also reveals the horrific experimentation performed by white physicians on African American subjects. For instance, in Home Frank’s sister Cee obtained a job nominally titled “medical assistant” yet the position was actually a decoy for an African American human guinea pig coveted by Dr. Scott. The doctor’s racist beliefs were indicated by his eugenics themed library observed by Cee including Out of the Night, The Passing of the Great Race, and Heredity, Race, and Society. These books likely influenced Dr. Scott’s disregard for Cee’s life and decision to exploit her in pursuit of medical knowledge. The invasive procedures executed by Dr. Scott were outlined by an employee of the doctor, Sarah. Morrison expressed Sarah’s reflection, “What she didn’t know was when he got so interested in wombs in general, constructing instruments to see farther and farther into them. Improving the speculum. But when she noticed Cee’s loss of weight, her fatigue, and how long her periods were lasting, she became frightened…” Experiments on unwilling African Americans such as these actually occurred frequently in American History extending as far back as the Antebellum period. For example, Washington argued that Dr. James Marion Sims, who is commonly credited with curing vesicovaginal fistula, made his medical progress through the nonconsensual violation and torture of black slave women. Washington quoted the historian Walter Fisher, “…it is most improbable that Sims and [his assistant] Bozeman could have established so remarkable a surgical schedule without the slave system which provided the experimental subjects.” Thus, in Home Morrison demonstrated how experiments were conducted by white physicians for the purpose of making medical advances to benefit their white patients. This was accomplished by psychologically and physically abusing involuntary African American test subjects.

            With an intriguing plot and complicated, yet relatable characters, Morrison’s Home is an entertaining novel. However, on a deeper level, it is also incredibly informative on the painful social history of the United States. By depicting segregation and nonconsensual experimentation on African Americans, the novel provides readers with a glimpse of the rifeness of racism in the American North and South as late as the mid-twentieth century. However, it is important to note that racism did not end in the 1950s, and therefore we must extend the lessons of Home to the present day.

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