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.  

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Who is allowed to consent?

Consent is a heavily discussed topic in today’s society. There are stories almost everyday in the news concerning topics involved with consent from medical surgery mishaps, to rape. The definition of consent, to put it briefly, is the agreement or confirmation to do or have something done. It can be withdrawn at anytime and is a requirement not only for legal purposes, but also to accomplish day to day life activities. Consent is not always verbal, as most people probably picture it to be, but can come from friends and family closest to the person if they are not able to provide it themselves. Who decides who is capable of providing such permission? 

In Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, she discusses what she titled chapter four, “The Surgical Theater.” Washington discusses the life of Sam and how he was a slave that suffered from severe jaw pain that was beginning to affect his ability to work. Many slaves during this time were immediately struck with fear when experiencing health related issues and for good reason! Sterile technique during this time was minuscule and surgery predated modern anesthesia. In Medical Apartheid, Sam refused surgical treatment for what was determined as cancer in his jaw because he was afraid of the pain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to Sam to make these kinds of decisions, and his owner decided to go through with the surgery so that he would be able to work as well as he used to in his prime. Sam should have been able to refuse the surgery without question since he didn’t give his permission to do so. Yet technically, one could say that this was acceptable consent at the time because Sam wasn’t considered “a person” and his owner gave the doctor permission to do so.

This is where the line between the definition that the United States has created for consent and what we individually feel is morally correct begins to blur. Sam by today’s standard, as long as he was over the age of 18, could make his own decisions about medical procedures without the input of anyone else. Where did this standardized age come from if these standards are constantly changing throughout the years? How do we know that 18 is the “golden age” where someone can make their own educated decisions when scientifically speaking, the brain isn’t fully developed until the mid twenties? These standards that are set for giving consent in the United States today are no longer based on freedom but on age. If our government couldn’t label black and white people as equals, as in the previous situation with Sam in Washington’s Medical Apartheid, than how can we put trust in their “opinion” that consent can be made at the age of 18 without any parental input? If a child under 18 years of age wants to refuse cancer radiation treatment but their parents disagree, how do we distinguish who’s right? Consent is also prevalent throughout Fortune’s Bones by Merilyn Nelson.

Nelson’s book delves into the life, more so after life, of a slave named Fortune. Fortune’s body was used for various purposes and started out as an avenue for “advancing” medicine. Nelson states, “The striated and smooth muscles, the beautiful integuments, the genius strokes of thumb and knee. In profound and awful intimacy, I enter Fortune and he enters me.” The skeleton of Fortune was manipulated by his owners when he was alive and continues to be manipulated after his death. Fortune’s consent to this simply doesn’t exist. No one thought to ask and certainly not to contact any of his family for permission. Nelson goes on to describe how Fortune’s narrative was lost and regained throughout the exchange of his bones, much like the policy and definition of consent throughout history. 

In a way Sam from Medical Apartheid, today’s not legally consenting under 18 year olds, and Fortune are being dehumanized. Sam was seen as less than human because he was a slave and was needed to work, today’s minors are seen as an age and not a competent being, and Fortune was seen as bones without thought or feeling.  So who calls the shots on consent?

The Use of Names in Zulus

“Race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.”

So it is with a name. Names carry with them enormous power though, like race, they don’t possess any substantive content. A name like “Julius Caesar” carries with it a host of different associations: Rome, Italy, Europe, war, barbarians, Egypt, and so on, but none of these things are representative of the name “Julius Caesar.” There is nothing in the essence of the person we know as Julius Caesar that suggests that this person is named “Julius Caesar”; rather, it’s the name he was given upon birth and has been passed down to us through history. Likewise, when we see the name of someone we know, we immediately conjure in our minds many things that we associate with that person, their voice, body, some history with them, and so on. So names are both not real and have a dramatic and obvious effect on the world, just as race does.

Titles like “Mr.,” and “Mrs.,” are also names which carry a great deal of meaning behind them, as they denote social status. We can be sure that a “Mr. Johnson” is a male whose surname is Johnson, that a “Mrs. Kim” is certainly a married woman whose surname is Kim. One’s social status is even more clearly displayed when honorific titles like “Sir” or “Lord” are used; both conveying a sense of elevation. Other titles, such as the epithets commonly attached to names in the Iliad and Odyssey, e.g. “resourceful Odysseus” and “swift-footed Achilles” largely exist for the sake of metre, but they nevertheless remind us of basic characteristics of who they’re attached to. In Zulus we also see such epithets used; Alice Acitophel is typically “fat”, Theodore Theodore is “tiny”, and Lucinda Knotes is “perfect.” Due to the nature of the novel not following any kind of metre to necessitate these epithets, it stands to reason that they have been put in to serve some other sort of purpose.

What then is the use of epithets and names in Zulus? The answer is: it isn’t at all clear. Lucinda Knotes’ name, for example, invites the reader to “note” something, or to think that Lucinda is the one “noting” something, but what exactly is being noted or by whom isn’t clear at all. Is the reader supposed to “note” Lucinda, in that we ought to pay careful attention to her, as she’s gradually revealed to be far in character away from her epithet “perfect”? Or is there something else? Why is Theodore Theodore’s name the way it is; what does the repetition imply in the context of the novel? In Fortune’s Bones we see a repetition in Fortune being named and re-named as his true name is forgotten and lost, and a clear connection is made between the loss of individual enslaved persons’ histories and Fortune’s name being lost, but in Zulus the connections are far less obvious and, unfortunately, rarely elaborated on. Perhaps the only place in the novel where names are given any kind of overt importance is in Alice’s debate with herself over the ethics of taking on the dead Esther’s name, but this is brief and seems to lack relation with the rest of the book. Even an overt reference to a name, like “June Imhotep” lacks clear relation to the rest of the story. Imhotep was a doctor; Alice was intended to be sterilized by the state, and to be taken advantage of by doctors by the rebels; June Imhotep herself was a patient in a hospital. “Imhotep” means “I come in peace” and, even if we allow the pun that Alice met June through her job collecting and carrying pee, what greater meaning does it have, if any?

Horace’s quotation in the book, “mutate nomine”—fully, “change only the name and the story is about you”—might be thought to provide some clue as to the use of names in Zulus, but it isn’t clear if that is at all the case. Rather, the use of the quotation in the book seems most closely linked to the theme of self-determination shown by Alice. Her quest to find meaning in her life is something that everyone can relate to, and the many obvious metaphors of entering and exiting caves and vaginal canals and of giving birth to herself make this clear. At the very least, we can understand Alice’s surname, “Achitophel” as a Biblical relation to the wise man who advised David, and we might imagine that Alice is “wise” because she is so bent on defining herself rather than letting those around her act upon her in that way, again echoing the main theme of the book. Theodore Theodore’s name, meaning “God’s gift,” might reflect Alice’s initial attitude towards him in the book as someone who is practically a saint to her, and one whom she falls in love with very quickly. Lucinda, meaning “light”, and relating to the roman goddess of childbirth Lucene, might suggest that Lucinda will be (or will try to be) responsible for the birth of Alice’s supposed daughter. Thus, perhaps, we’re supposed to “note” her first name and are given some foreshadowing for her later efforts to forcefully take Alice back to the camp to be used as a cow. But all of this is very unclear and I’m not sure, which is probably playing right into Everett’s hands with the amount of misdirection and teasing he does in Zulus.

Ichor: A Physical and Figurative Marker of Infection in the Human Body and in the Literature

In the novel Zulus, we read from chapter A-Z instead of the customary 1-26; this is one of many conventions Percival Everett breaks in his writing. He uses this technique as an opportunity to provide various allusions that coincide with each chapter’s assigned letter. Take chapter I, for example: “I is for ichor. ‘… there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores; they have not been closed …’” (Zulus, 111). I is for infection as well, and as I will explain, Ichor is the discharge that oozes from infected wounds. In Zulus, this infection is the rot and decay left behind by chemical and nuclear warfare. Two of the book’s protagonists try to eradicate this infection in very different ways: one by means of growth, and one by means of erasure. In our own medical system, we also have old wounds that need healing, and the choice is ours in terms of how to approach this challenge.   

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Commonalities in Percival Everett’s Zulus and Radiation Experiments on African Americans: The Issue of Informed Consent

Percival Everett’s Zulus follows the journey of Alice Achitophel as she confronts the hopelessness and cruelty of a postapocalyptic world devastated by the choices of humanity. While the narrative itself is largely surreal, the novel provides insight on very real and pressing issues that have beset American society from the nation’s earliest days to contemporary times.  One of these perplexing themes is the issue of informed consent. Throughout the course of the novel, Alice is subject to procedures and decisions without her permission. Many of the decisions that were made regarding Alice without her informed consent were related to her health. In this way, Zulus reflects on the radiation experiments performed on African Americans in the twentieth century. Harriet Washington’s book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present illustrates how experiments such as these were administered by white scientists who failed to fully explain the entirety of the studies to African American test subjects so they could provide informed consent. The denial of informed consent to African Americans is not directly discussed in Zulus. In fact, with the exception of Alice’s lover Kevin Peters being identified by his African American heritage, the concept of race itself is never mentioned in the novel. Nevertheless, as an African American, Everett is likely familiar with the mistreatment of black test subjects by white scientists. His knowledge of discriminatory experiments using African American subjects could be inferred as the reason he chose to emphasize the issue of informed consent in Zulus.

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The Deep Effects of Racism and Prejudice on the Body and Mind Analyzed through Toni Morrison’s Character in “Home”: Part 1- Frank

By Ashley Boccio

In Toni Morrison’s novel “Home” she develops flawed characters, Frank and Cee, that are thrown into situations that dynamically change them at their core. At the end of the novel, each of these characters are able to achieve an impressive level of growth and personal development. In this analysis of Frank and Cee, it is important to discuss the circular nature in which Morrison sets up the prose in her novel, strategically having her characters begin and end physically in the same location, yet emotionally they are entirely changed. One of the largest elements of the novel that incites this character growth, is the intense racism and prejudice that Frank and Cee have to endure. During this time period in America (1930s), it is impossible not to recognize the deep scars of racism and prejudice on society, and how they affected millions of hard working Americans. 

The novel opens up with a romanticized scene of horses freely galloping in a field, told from the perspective of Frank. Although the language used to describe the horses is beautiful, there are clear violent undertones to the entire scene, the beauty and violence perfectly foiling one another to represent the clear emotional coping that both Cee and Frank are developing. The truth of the memory is that young Frank and Cee had stumbled upon something incredibly gruesome and in doing so, they create this beautiful image of horses galloping in a field to deter their minds from what they are actually seeing; the burial of a man who has just been murdered. Frank states, “I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men” (Morrison 5). This opening scene is only the beginning to Frank and Cee’s growth from self denial and naivety. 

To begin this analysis we will take a closer look at Frank. Frank is an overprotective brother to Cee, and a veteran of the Korean War. After facing several horrors and losing his childhood friend Mike in the war, Frank is expected to come back to the states and learn to adapt to the society that he had left behind when entering the war. In returning, Frank recognizes that there is an entirely new front to fight on his home turf, racism and prejudice. We are introduced to Frank as he is frantically escaping a mental hospital, gathering only his army uniform and service medal. The first individual he stumbles upon following his escape is a kind reverend named John Locke. After Frank explains his situation, John Locke exclaims to Frank, “You lucky, Mr. Money. They sell a lot of bodies out of there” (Morrison 12). Here we are reintroduced to the dark motif of improper burial in Morrison’s novel. Diving deeper into this scene, it opens up the conversation that healthcare for people of color during this time period was almost entirely avoided as improper practice, experimentation, and lack of consent plagued the field of medicine. Frank had  most likely been found drunk and aggravated, and rather than caring for the lost veteran or considering his struggle with returning from the war, the police throw him into a “nuthouse” to be isolated from society. In 1963, we see one of the first retaliations of segregation in healthcare with the Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital case. Inspired by Brown v. Board of Education, the Simkins case is successful in finally legally recognizing the unlawful violation of unequal healthcare, that has caused generations of colored individuals to still fear medicine to this day. These obstacles that Frank has to face on a daily basis are in his mind worse than any hell he faced in Korea. Morrison is masterful at threading in these instances of racism through gruesome scenes that are witnessed through Frank’s perspective. For example, when Frank is on a train ride to get to Cee, he witnesses a couple of color get physically assaulted by a group of individuals and thrown off the train. In this scene it is important to note that it is Frank’s first run-in with the ghost-like “zoot-suit man” who is symbolic of the hard memories Frank has suppressed. Coming full circle, the zoot-suit man repairs at the end of the novel as Franks reaches acceptance and closure with himself and Cee.

Where we truly see Frank’s growth is in his own personal thoughts and realizations about himself. Morrison works in Frank’s personal thoughts into the plot by inserting every other chapter a diary entry of Frank’s, giving the reader a tid-bit of Franks inner-self. One of Frank’s most striking entries is when he opens up about a young child he encountered in Korea. In this entry, Frank tells us a story about a child who would sneak into their camp daily to take food from their trash. However, one day Frank witnesses the murder of this child, as she is shot in the head. It is clear that this scene had deeply affected Frank, scarring him emotionally, yet we don’t learn till later why he is so deeply affected. Circling back to this scene Morrison inserts an entry of Franks that reveals what had truly occurred in Korea. Frank finally admits to himself that he was the one that shot the child, and he is the one that let the child inappropriately touch him. This brings Frank feelings of deep shame and disgust with himself. However, Frank being able to admit what had actually happened is the first sign of his tremendous growth as a character. Going back to the scene with the horses, Frank had always pushed off bad memories in his mind and replaced them with others to distract himself from the hard truth. Yet here Frank is finally able to admit to himself what had actually happened, and face it head on.

To conclude the novel, Morrison has Frank and Cee go back to the site where they had seen the horses. There they finally accept what they had actually seen. As they dig up the body of the murdered man, they stand in silence both knowing what needs to be done. Together they collect the bones of the man and wrap him gently in a blanket to be buried with a head stone to mark his grave. A proper, humane burial to bring peace to the dead, and in doing so bringing peace to Frank and Cee. As the man is being buried, the zoot-suit man reappears, “…a small man in a funny suit swinging a watch chain. And grinning” (Morrison 144), completing his symbolic purpose in the novel. In my opinion, the zoot-suit man is the ghost of the man who Frank and Cee had watched be improperly buried as kids, his presence staying with Frank (on the train for example) until he can finally be put to rest, as demonstrated through the ghosts clear happiness at the site of this burial. As the “zoot-suit man”  is put to rest, so is Frank’s conscience, representing his indisputable growth as a character.

To be continued in my next post, I will be discussing Cee, and her development as a character in Morrison’s novel “Home.

Radioactive Oats, Anyone?

After my last blogpost, I found the question I pondered last time still lingering in my mind; how many other stories of exploitation are out there going without notice? In my journey to discover more under appreciated stories of those victimized by the medical field, I came across another intriguing excerpt in Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. This time, the story involves a group, not just an individual, being manipulated. Also, uniquely, the group is being undermined by professors. In this case, those victimized were a group of young orphaned boys.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Quaker Oats Company teamed up with Fernald State School to conduct radioactive experiments on the young boys the school housed (Boissoneault, 2017). The professors conducting the research gave the boys radioactive laced oatmeal and milk, specifically radioactive iron and calcium (Boissoneault, 2017). The boys at Fernald State School were also directly injected with radioactive calcium, as these experiments were conducted to see how the body absorbs and processes calcium and iron (Boissoneault, 2017).  At the time these experiments were occurring, Quaker was being backhandedly targeted for its products possibly inhibiting iron absorption due to the high level of phytate in the oats. Therefore, the company invested in the researchers conducting the radioactive experiments to prove the media’s claims invalid (Boissoneault, 2017). Quaker Oats Company provided the oatmeal that was then laced in the experiments (Boissoneault, 2017). As stated in Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, not only were these boys orphans, they were primarily African American, as revealed by video footage of the school’s housing (Washington 233).

It shakes me to my core to process this story, and I once again am questioning the world with how this is even possible. This story in Medical Apartheid baffles me and makes me want to dive deeper to uncover the details. How could researchers take advantage of such young boys that are without any form of parental representation? Those in charge of the experiments derived data that showed calcium enters the bloodstream and then quickly advances to the bones. They later claimed these results provided the foundation for osteoporosis research (Boissoneault, 2017). I wonder, was the advancement in medical knowledge worth the violation and exploitation of children? My animosity of this experimentation fuels my inquiry of the medical field and those who provide the data for advancement within it. When further looking into those who ran these studies on the orphan boys, I discovered the unimaginable; a research article was released for publication on these experiments in 1955 (NCBI).  Not only were these young orphans used as test subjects as they ate their breakfast, they were made into a publication. It appears the link between medical advancement and exploitation of human beings finds strength in not only unvoiced adults, but children as well.

The text we are continually revisiting in this course, Medical Apartheid, has brought this story of the Quaker Oats Company and Fernald State School to my attention. This book consistently raises awareness to these low-profile cases of those who are neglected through the medical field. I hope to repeatedly bring these stories to my readers’ attention so that they too continue to dig deep into uncharted paths. If we do not uproot these problematic tendencies of the medical world, who will? The lack of information available to us, the public, regarding these unvoiced stories is shocking and truthfully unacceptable. With these blogposts I hope to uncover even more stories like the one I have just discussed and provide them the voice their victims never had.

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.

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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.