Toni Morrison’s Home and the Dark Foundations of Gynecology

Depending on who you are, a person’s view of doctors is usually of admiration and that they can do no wrong. However, as this class is meant to show, there are racist underpinnings in the amount of comfort in receiving medical attention in regards to the patient’s race. In the book Home, the class continued the discussion of the dark history of African American medical practices through a fictitious work that was created through Morrison’s research. Specifically, this book deals with women’s reproductive health or the past gynecological experimentation on African American women.  

The character Cee in Home undergoes a traumatic medical experience that almost takes her life. Subsequently, Cee’s experience shows readers that this medical practice was part of a larger racist practice by doctors in the 1800’s who were eager to use their racism to excuse inhumane experiments. Admittedly, even after learning the horrors of African American gynecological experimentation, it was hard to confront the reality of this dark history due to its gruesome nature. The text refers to the racist doctors who used African American females to learn more about the female reproductive system through unethical, invasive and inhumane experiments on, more often than not, non-consenting and vulnerable patients. The intended goal was to invent new procedures that would make the doctor an acclaimed physician. The outcome was that his experiments were reaped to the benefit of the white women population, for these women did not have to suffer for the invention of new procedures. The father of gynecology, for that matter, is a man by the name of James Marion Sims whose practices are discussed at length in chapter two of the book Medical Apartheid. The secondary material used in class to bring together the literature and the medicine and racism study of the course is Harriet A. Washington’s nonfiction book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Doctor Sims shares similarities to Dr.Beau in Home through matching racist, damaging medical practices and experiments on women in the African American community. Cee, the protagonist in Home, is subjected to medical experiments conducted on her reproductive organs. In Home, Sarah mentions that doctor Beau gave questionable dosages of unidentified medicines to patients through shots and supplements on page 112 by stating, “he gave shots, had his patients drink medicines he made up himself”. In light of this, readers are given a gruesome description on page 113 of Dr. Beau’s medical practice obsession as observed by Sarah through her revealing, “he got so interested in wombs in general, constructing instruments to see farther and farther into them”. Therefore, it is clear on page 121 that when Dr.Beau “stuck her with a needle to put her asleep” that Dr.Beau, like Sims, used Morphine to subdue his patients to do destructive experiments, like the kind that lead to Cee’s health crisis and rendered her unable to have children in the future. Doctor Sims induced morphine addiction, noted on page 66 in Medical Apartheid, on slave patients not to ease the pain necessarily, for that was not an adequate anesthetic, nor was an anesthetic used on slaves, rather morphine “weakened their will to resist repeated procedures”.

An important note I would like to make is that before I read the book in class in conjunction with our secondary materials, I had read this book over the summer. The two reading experiences were quite different. A lay reader who has no understanding of the secondary material on African American medical experimentation may not fully grasp the content of the book or its reality to the history of the emergence of gynecology and its racist exploitative experimental origins. After rereading the book along with Medical Apartheid, I learned about the connection of the fictitious character Cee’s experience to real individuals like Anarcha, a slave in the mid 1850’s who underwent thirty operations to have a successful vesicovaginal fistula operation be effective. The founding of gynecology is credited to exploitative, racist doctors and women like myself should know the cost other women unnecessarily paid for the foundation of gynecology to be set.

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