When We Lack Identity

Throughout the medical community’s history those used in experiments not only lost their autonomy but their identity as well. Many were not seen as people, and didn’t even have their name reported. This lack of identity was used to erase people’s ability to tell their stories and speak out at the pain they endured. Without an identity, these people could not be found, could not be traced, and at times could not say “no”. 

In Medical Apartheid Harriet Washington speaks on this lack of identity in several chapters, many spanning several decades. When speaking about James Marion Sims, Washington notes the name of two out of the eleven enslaved women Sims did his experiments on. Seventeen year old Anarcha and another woman by the name of Lucy. The other nine women are not named, even though the pain of what they experienced is (pg. 63-65). In another chapter Washington speaks about the 1960 bioterrorism inflected on the Carver Village, there she mentions this: “After the story broke in the 1890s, victims came forward, but news accounts tended not to name them. In 1959, for example, one unnamed black woman had fainted after a swarming ‘dark cloud of mosquitoes’ covered her thickly.” (pg. 361-362). The news not covering the names of those coming forward strips them once more of their identity, of them being able to say “this is me and this is what I went through.” It strips away a part of their humanity and their ability to be seen as human. Instead it kept them in the dark, unable to be seen by others. When speaking on the radiation experiments in 1944, Washington is quick to mention the code used for the unwilling and unknowing people involved. Instead of using the subject’s name they were designated as “HP” for “human product”, and then given a number to correspond to that. In the case of Ebb Cade, he became HP-12, a title that completely stripped him of his humanity (pg. 216-219). Cade in turn became a human product, one of many on a list of people who like him had become nameless, faceless, and a means to an end. A human product, yet the human part was ignored and the product emphasized. 

Many notable authors have made commentary on the loss of identity that leads to being dehumanized. Percival Everett makes note of this in his novel Zulus. Alice Achitophel, pregnant and held captive is visited by Body-woman Rima. Body-woman Rima, ignoring Alice Achitophel’s desire to leave, says “You are a vehicle and nothing more…” (pg 105) referring to Alice Achitophel only being a means to an end, in this case bringing forth new life. Alice Achitophel is not seen as a person to Body-woman Rima, and therefore she is only given the value that Body-woman Rima believes her to have. This reduction of value, to seeing Alice Achitophel as something less than human, mirrors the same way scientists and doctors striped their patients of value. Alice Achitophel is not given the proper identity and respect she as a person deserves, much like those who were forced into these situations. Later while running and hiding from these rebels, Alice Achitophel will take on the name of a dead baby. Alice Achitophel becomes Ester MacAree and loses her identity completely (pgs. 170-171). This allows her to blend back into society, but also keeps her from speaking about the truth of the rebel camps. That they saw her as just as much as an object as the state does. She lacks her true identity and with it the power of being able to speak on what happened to her. Alice Achitophel was an experiment to the rebels, as they waited to see if she would give birth to the baby they longed for. That was the only thing they cared about; not Alice, not her story, or her voice. Instead they ignored Alice Achitophel and her wishes, choosing to see her as a vehicle, a human product. 

Percival Everett was not the only author to notice this. Writing in memoriam of an enslaved man, Marilyn Nelson tells the story of Fortune, in her Manumission Requiem Fortune’s Bones. After death, Fortune’s body and bones were passed on from doctor to doctor, generation to generation of the Porter family. Nelson explains: “At some point-no one knows when- ‘Larry’ was written on the skull. Fortune’s name was forgotten for nearly a century.” (pg. 20).  The loss of identity that Fortune faces, in turn allows for what he went through to be obscured and forgotten. Identity is critical to being able to give these stories a voice, to put a person behind the pain, and acknowledge what they went through. Without that identity there is no way to give back and restore peace to the individuals who had to watch their own identity and rights be taken from them. How can we correct the injustices done to people like Fortune if we can’t even start with a name?

Recently on a blog post, I was speaking of a character and I chronically spelled her name wrong, erasing who she was and replacing her with someone else. I had taken her identity from her. Even off the page, we must ensure we continually work to protect other’s identity, make sure their voice remains attached to them, that way when they need to raise it and tell their story, they can. A lack of identity paves the way for a person to lose their rights, to be seen as a “human product” or a “vehicle”, a means to an end, no matter their wishes. Without us making sure this doesn’t happen, we leave the door open for history to repeat itself.

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