How I Learned to Notice: A Reflection

With our course epigraph which is  ““My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”–Dionne Brand, from notes that Beth during the question-and-answer session following Brand’s March 2, 2013 reading at the Northeast Modern Language Association in Toronto” (course syllabus), I wasn’t exactly sure where this class was going to go. To me, this was so broad and lead to an array of possibilities. What I noticed throughout the semester, however, was that it wasn’t as broad as I thought it to be. Instead, our course epigraph connected each piece of literature we read to each thing we discussed in class. With every new reading, when discussed during class we always found a way to connect it back to what we had previously read or talked about. This was, and still is a relatively new concept to me. This is the first class that I have taken that has come full circle in a meaningful way. Of course, we have our math, science and history classes that come around full circle but in all my years of education, I have never been more sure of a class sticking with me. 

The title of our class Medicine and Racism is what drove me to sign up for this class. I felt as though taking this class could truly teach me something that I had never learned before, and would not otherwise have known. To me, all English classes have always been the same. Read this book, answers these questions and write an essay, then get a grade and move to the next book. I have never taken anything truly new and enlightening, but this class offered me that opportunity. I learned about something new and when we moved on from reading one book, it wasn’t completely done because it always connected to another book, or while reading the books, we discussed things that I never would have picked up on that connected each book. 

With each new book we read, or each part of the book we read there was usually a corresponding chapter with our book Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. Our fourth week in this class has an example of this that I remember vividly. We had just started reading Home by Toni Morrison and we were assigned three-six and also Medical Apartheid chapter two. I read that chapter of Medical Apartheid before I started our other reading for that day, for no specific reason other than Home was on the other side of my room and I was feeling particularly lazy. In this specific chapter of Medical Apartheid, Washington discussed the medical experiments that were done on African Americans. She discusses one doctor in particular, Dr. Thomas Hamilton, who performed experiments on African Americans. Hamilton did many experiments on a man named John Brown who was eventually able to run away to England (Washington, 54). Hamilton used Brown to experiment on. He bled him, gave him blisters and had him sit over hot coals until he could no longer take it (Washington, 53-54). 

Washington also goes on to talk about James Marion Sims who was discussed in the previous chapter. Sims is responsible for experimentation on African American women that eventually led to the gynecological instruments that we have today. He would perform experiments on women’s genitalia with them being unanesthetized, restrained and often without their consent (Washington, 2). Other physicians would help Sims by restraining these women until they could no longer bear the copious amounts of blood, and the agonizing cries of pain, after this it fell upon the other women to help Sims by restraining each other (Washington, 2). 

These two chapters made sense to read before Home. In Home, Cee, one of the main characters, goes to work for Dr. Beau in chapter four. First, she is interviewed by his wife Mrs. Scott, who explicitly says she isn’t exactly sure what her husband does, but he does experiments and makes inventions to help people (Morrison, 60). No one in that house, servants or wife, know exactly what he does only the fact that his other assistants quit. When interviewing her, Mrs. Scott was asking her some very odd questions such as; if she is married or has kids (Morrison, 59). Reading this made me wary of what kind of doctor he was and I pictured him to be someone like  Dr. Hamilton or Dr. Sims, doing experimental procedures on women. Later in the chapter, Cee begins to admire the doctor for his work on poor women and girls, which made me think directly of Dr. Sims and the experients (more like torture) he was doing on African American women. Reading the end of the chapter, there is an instance where Sarah and Cee are discussing the male and female gender of some melons. Sarah goes on then to say that the female melon is sweet and juicy, then goes on to slice it in two with “anticipation of the pleasure to come” (Morrison, 66). I read this as clear foreshadowing of what is to come, we find out later in the book that Dr. Beau was doing experiments on Cee and she was getting sick and suffering. 

Not only did this connect to the chapter of Medical Apartheid we had to read for class that day, but it also corresponded with what we had read previously. This also brought up the topic of consent and lack thereof in our books. Something I noticed in every book we read was the missing consent between characters and things happening to them. This also played into the notion of informed consent. In every book, or article we read there was missing consent or informed consent was not present. In Medical Apartheid, Washington defines informed consent as “…not a signed piece of paper, but rather the fluid and continuous process by which research informs the subject detail of what he or she proposes to do, why it is being proposed, and what possible consequences the experiment carries” (Washington, 55). None of this was available to John Brown when experiments were being done on him, or any of the females Dr. Sims was experimenting on, or Cee during her time with Dr. Beau. 

The topic of consent and informed consent was not anything taught to me or discussed in any other class I had taken. While it is something that we come across in my everyday life, it was never something that I noticed, paid much attention to or talked about. If it were not for our first few readings, I am not sure I would have picked up on that portion of the course. When truly thinking about, and discussing our readings the idea of consent was quite upfront. Throughout the semester, I realized that our course epigraph was not broad but it connected every class meeting, with every class reading, and every class assignment we did. I have learned to slow down when reading and when writing so I can truly engage with the material and notice more than I normally would.

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