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.

Character and Readership Intimacy in Percival Everett’s Zulus

In the book, Zulus Percival Everett arranges chapters with abecedarian excerpts. The theme of this abecedarian arrangement is a motif in the book and in the class. Alice, the protagonist of the novel Zulus, is an ambitious girl. Ambition is only a dream if it is not matched with a smart goal. Through the course of the novel, Alice sets goals consistently. Goal setting is symbolized through the abecedarian motif, while plot structure serves as the readers template for expectative goals that is commonly ingrained in readers. Together, the protagonist and the reader experience unrealized goals, thus creating the potentiality of intimacy between the reader and the character.

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Mutato Nomine

While reading through Zulus, I saw a saying that said “MUTATO NOMINE” in chapter R, page 112. I was reading quite fast when I saw this foreign saying and decided I could look it up later. I kept reading and eventually finished this absolutely insane book. As Professor McCoy said, “What the hell?”. This was pretty much the only thing I was thinking while trying to bounce what I just read around in my head. While frantically searching for answers, I remembered the mutato nomine saying.

Mutato nomine translates to “the name changed”. The named changed means about nothing in my head and I was not making any connections at all. I eventually found out that there is more to the saying than just mutato nomine. The whole expression is “Mutato nomine de tu fabula narratur” which translates to “with the name changed, the story applies to you”. I read this and thought “I know there is a connection, but I have absolutely no clue what this means.”

I, obviously, do not exactly know what the author, Percival Everett, was trying to portray with this expression or even the whole book but I sure do have some ideas. I am not sure when all of it clicked in my brain but at some point, I started to make lots of connections.

Alice’s head, as we established during a class discussion, is stuck forever in a glass case. The gas that will spread and kill all of humankind cannot get inside of a sealed glass container where her living head is. While every single human on the planet dies, Alice will live. However, should Alice have tried to stop Kevin from letting out the gas? She is now stuck forever in her head knowing that there is no other living human and the only thing she can see forever is the alphabet. If I were her, I would’ve thought about this before I decided it was a good idea to let some man kill my body and every other person on earth.

Alice is just like the average person in modern society today. Lots of people just sit down and avoid problems. Small problems of their own or even huge problems of the world, lots of people just want to avoid it and hope that someone else can fix it. I personally understand this. I like to avoid my problems and sit and hope they just go away. But my problems have never just magically disappeared, I have to fix them. Sometimes it’s laziness but sometimes it is fear stopping me from fixing my problems. But at the end of the day if I want something to change or I want my problems to be fixed, then I am the one who has to get up and fix them. This is the same way for huge world problems as well. We need people to stand up and want to fix the problems. People can not be lazy or scared and sit in their houses avoiding all of it. People are physically ruining the world every single day. We are polluting and contaminating the only planet that we can survive on at the moment. We use non-renewable energies in our everyday lives which is killing the earth. Just to make plastic we burn fossil fuels such as coal and gas all the time. Fossil fuels being burned is ruining the earth’s atmosphere. Every single day we are absolutely killing the earth, yet some people still avoid the issue. Yes, there are people promoting the changes and trying to fix the problem, but I think there are a lot more people avoiding it.

Another example of people avoiding problems would be when people knew the absolutely awful things happening in medicine years ago, yet they just kept letting it happen. Black bodies were stolen from graves to be tested on, people disappeared from hospitals to be tested on, people IN the hospital were being tested on instead of being helped. If you witnessed these things happening would you just sit there and decide that you could not do anything to help or would you try to fix this? While people were being tested in hospitals the nurses must have known. But were they trying to stop the problem or were they just watching it happen?

Alice tried to help at one point, but eventually just listened to Kevin and was convinced that the world would be better off without humans because they couldn’t fix it. If she would not have avoided the problem and conformed, then maybe she could have stood up and tried to fix things. There is always people who want to fix the world problems and I am sure if you get enough people you can eventually start to make some changes. However, Alice made her decision and now she will be stuck forever in a box thinking about how she could’ve changed all of this.

To me Alice represents all of us sitting here letting the earth go to waste. At some point it’s going to be too late to fix it and all we are going to be able to do is sit and watch it happen just as Alice is. I think the author is showing us this as a warning before it is too late.

Now going back to “Mutato nomine de tu fabula narratur”, if you change the name of the story then it applies to you. If we change the name of the story, then it’s our story. So, do you want to be stuck like Alice or do you want to at least try to fix our world problems? I know I would rather die trying than knowing I could have tried and didn’t.

Sick with Sickle-Cell

Harriet Washington, in Medical Apartheid, recounts the story of Walter Clement Noel. In 1904, Noel was a first-year dental student from a wealthy black family. He was admitted to a hospital for pain, bruising, and sores along with other symptoms. Noel was diagnosed with Herrick’s anemia, which is known today as sickle-cell anemia. At the time of the diagnosis, James B. Herrick the attending physician published the findings and also claimed “…Noel’s was a disease that struck only blacks” (Medical Apartheid, 155).  Unfortunately, this inaccurate idea was soon widely accepted in the medical community and set the stage for sickle-cell to be a facet of systematic racism in the medical field.

During my undergraduate education as a student majoring in biochemistry, I have had the opportunity to study sickle-cell anemia. I have become familiar with the molecular and evolutionary basis of sickle-cell. Sickle-cell anemia affects the hemoglobin of red blood cells and causes them to have an altered form. According to Meredith Wadman, of Nature, the sickle-cell gene is a mutant “S” gene that replaces the normal “C” gene. People that have two copies if the mutant “S” gene, exhibit red blood cells that have a “half-moon shape” and altered function.  Wadman also explains that people who carry one of the “S” genes do not typically exhibit symptoms of sickle-cell but are less susceptible to effects caused by the malaria parasite due to a slightly altered formation of hemoglobin.

Sickle-cell anemia in the early 1900s was wrongly used as evidence for the inferiority of black people as a race. Washington explains, “the erroneous belief that sickle-cell anemia strikes only blacks became fully entrenched, thus reinforcing belief in the inherent inferiority of African-Americans”(Medical Apartheid, 156).  Although sickle-cell anemia is characterized as a disease that disproportionally affects people of African descent, the high rates of disease are not due to any racial differences. The theory of evolution says that traits that are advantageous to the survival of an organism will have an increased frequency. The gene for sickle-cell is no different. People who resided in Africa, where the malaria carrying mosquitos are native, were more likely to survive if they carried one of the mutant genes for sickle-cell. Medical practitioners of the Noel’s time saw this condition as a disadvantage of the black race when really it is only present because it was advantageous. In addition, the sickle-cell gene does not exclusively reside in people of African descent but in all races. Washington describes it best by explaining, “…the common denominator of sickle-cell disease is not race, but living in proximity to the malaria bearing Anopheles mosquito”(Medical Apartheid, 155). Sickle-cell anemia is not based in racial differences but in ancestral location.

The idea that this disease was a physiological downfall of black people is not only incorrect but set up systematic racism in the medical community for years to come. In an article authored by Jennifer Adaeze Okwerekwu, the unfortunate truth about lasting systematic racism towards sickle-cell patients today is brought to light. As a third year medical student, Okwerekwu came across a sickle-cell patient in immense pain that had a fever and a cough that required treatments including fluids, pain medication and oxygen. She planned to ask her resident, her superior, to order these treatments. However, Okwerekwu then explains that she “… came to realize that she needed more than that: She had symptoms of acute chest syndrome, a leading cause of death for patients with sickle cell disease.” This may not seem that significant, but it shows the lack of urgency that medical professionals take with sickle-cell patients. Emergency room systems are supposed to match the most serious cases with the most experienced and competent physicians. Okwerekwu, who at the time was not a licensed doctor, raises the question “As sick as she was, why was I, a medical student, the first one to evaluate her?” The patient required urgent care by an experienced physician. The mistake of making the sickle-cell patient a low priority could have cost their life if Okerekwu was less capable and did not recognize the symptoms.

The medical care of the patient that Okwereku treated was simply not a priority for the medical staff. The racial history of sickle-cell anemia has caused a lack of priority in research and patient care.  In Okwereku’s article she comments on how research for sickle-cell is disappointing as well. “More people suffer from sickle cell than cystic fibrosis, but cystic fibrosis research gets 3.5 times the funding that sickle cell does.” Okwereku, as a doctor of color, states in her article that she is recommitting herself to treat patients equally and notice when her “attitudes have been wrongly shaped by racism, whether subtle or overt…” This lamentable story demonstrates one of the many ways racism remains present in our society.  Washington, throughout Medical Apartheid illustrates many ways in which racism plaques the medical community.  Hopefully, in the near future, more doctors will follow in Okwereku’s footsteps to continuing to notice and combat discriminatory practices.

The Treatment of Humans

Throughout the ages and advancements of medicine, the bodies of those experimented on have been treated with a lack of dignity and respect. From subjecting the unwilling to the very act of dissection after death, something seen as only fitting for the worse criminals (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) to the stealing from the graves, the final resting spot of those who have passed. Many of these bodies were African Americans, almost all were not returned to rest. Instead they were discarded in basements, the doctors done with them much like how a child throws aside a broken toy in favor of a newer one.

The treatment of bodies as toys, as something disposable, can be traced back to the times of slavery. If people are disposable why would there be any different? Slaves were aware of the time of year known as “dissecting season”, the time of year when it was cold enough that bodies were able to stay preserved. “Please God, I hope when I die, it’ll be in the summertime.” remarked an elderly Virginian slave, (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) who was very aware of what would await her body if she passed in the winter. This fear of one’s body being used as a toy, as a means to an end, even after death was not an unfounded fear. In Marilyn Nelson’s Manumission Requiem Fortune’s Bones she writes about an enslaved man named Fortune, who died, and whose body was denied burial. Instead Fortune’s body was dissected and passed through the generations of Porter’s, who followed the family tradition of being a doctor. Sally Porter Law McGlannan recalled playing with Fortune’s skeleton when she was a young girl, (Fortune’s Bones pg. 20). In this case, his body, his bones really were degraded to a toy. Fortune was no longer seen as human, but as a plaything. The basic dignity he was denied well alive, was further denied to him after death.

Author Percival Everett clued readers into these issues in his book Zulus. On page 171 Everett writes “So young, but lucky enough to be lying there in the ground rotting and worm-eaten instead of being forever preserved in some undignified toy vessel.” This is Everett giving his own commentary on the use of bodies being preserved for doctors to prod at, to be kept only as a toy for their research. The bodies of enslaved people and of freemen were taken from graves, stolen and used. To be allowed to stay at rest felt as if it was a rarity and not the norm. Because we know of these injustices, we are to correct them. That meant the making of informed consent, of making sure everyone had bodily integrity, and could decide what happens to their body after death. That also means being respectful of those who do allow their bodies to be used for medical and scientific purposes. No seeing people as a means to an end, no playing with their bodies, no lying to people to gain access to their body. Being honest through informed consent, and making sure we honor the sacrifice of those who lost their bodily rights so the past doesn’t repeat itself is how we move forward.

The Limitation of Reproductive Rights by Governmental Entities

In the fictional dystopia created by Percival Everett, fertility is a hot commodity, and nobody has it… except for Alice Achitophel. However, Alice’s capacity to bear children is not a superpower, but rather an ability that has not yet been taken away from her. The government-mandated sterilizations that set the stage of Zulus may seem like they would cease to exist outside of the surreal chapters of a fiction novel. Sadly, as I will begin to reveal, involuntary sterilization at the hands of the government is no new phenomena. In the 1970s the Indian Health Service is responsible for sterilizing staggering amounts of Native American women without their informed consent.

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Power of Sight

In the Fall 2017 ENGL 431: Octavia Butler class I took with Dr. Beth, we discussed the implications behind sight and seeing. We talked about how sight ties in very closely with the theme of consent; looking at something or someone without explicit consent, such as looking at another person’s diary, is wrong. We also discussed how sight can determine power dynamics; there is a power dynamic at play in situations where the one being seen is unable to prevent others from seeing them. I’m seeing similarities between what I learned back then and the concepts we’ve discussed in class so far.

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The Snap

In Avengers Endgame (2019), all of the main characters are going through a shared experience. They all have just been through the Snap, which got rid of 50% of the Earths population. Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye, and Captain Marvel are all debating on how to deal with life after this tragic event.

This can be related to the book Zulus, by Percival Everett. The main character Alice Achitophel and those around her are struggling to survive in a world stricken by chemical warfare, much like the Snap. No one is quite sure how to live in a world where the government is controlling everything, even your weight and if you can have kids or not. Alice is an outcast, she is both over weight and pregnant when no one else is. Just like the Avengers are unsure about how to make the world right again and have the outcast group that actually knows what happened and are trying to fix it.

The Avengers eventually are able to get back the other half of the worlds population, through a very large and intense battle, with many deaths and sorrows, as well as the success of getting rid of Thanos, who initiated the Snap. So far in the book Zulus, we have not seen the battle that the rebels will have, if any happens. There has only been conflict between the characters as they figure out what to do with Alice and the baby she is supposed to have. Even though, the baby Alice was supposed to have ended up being a skinnier version of herself. (That I have no idea how to connect to the Avengers)

As Easy As ABC

In my work with Dr. McCoy in English 203 last fall, we studied Percival Everett. Interestingly, the chapter headings for Zulus that we have been discussing in class come from a collection of poetry he wrote, titled re:f (gesture), published in 2006. They function in different ways in these pieces, and it has been interesting discussing them in a new context.

The poetry within itself was incredibly interesting to study. As a Creative Writing major, I was intrigued by the idea of structuring a poem (or collection of poems, depending on how you decide to see it) this way. It seemed to me like a lofty challenge, but it was one Everett pulled off. One of my favorite parts about the way he approached it was how eventually he would reference things that didn’t match the letter at all — for example, A being for something that doesn’t even start with A. We were prompted in this class to begin to attempt a poem of the same structure for ourselves. I ended up finishing mine. Although I don’t feel it is one of my strongest pieces, the challenge was incredibly fun to attempt and try my hand at, and I felt that I got a look into the process Everett went through while crafting this piece.

As we discussed in class, the alphabet is something that is very accessible to us. This can be seen in the fact that everyone in the room knew the ABC song by heart. Although it was lighthearted and humorous for us, college students, to be singing the alphabet in class, there was also certainly meaning in the fact that this many years after learning it, all of us still knew it. Of course we know the alphabet — it’s necessary for us to navigate the world in many ways. But we still know the song, too. And the song functioned for us as a vehicle to gain and retain that knowledge.

So utilizing the alphabet as a way to structure or organize something is a very accessible and tangible method. It is interesting to discuss the ways in which this piece informs the rest of the text, and to notice that it can function differently in different scenarios.