Dionne Brand’s course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” served as the foundation for ENGL 101: Literature, Medicine, and Racism. The epigraph is included at the top of the course syllabus and was highlighted as we discussed the syllabus on the first day of class. Dr. McCoy explained to us that the epigraph would be a trope in literature and nonfiction works on racism and medicine throughout the semester. Specifically, she encouraged us to pay attention to two issues associated with the epigraph that would act as “life-savers” as the semester progressed. The first issue is the idea of consent and particularly when consent is not obtained. Neglecting to ensure consent can refer to a blatantly non-consensual actions or not informing an individual of the dangers an action exposes them to. The latter example is known as a failure to acquire informed consent and is generally less obvious and more complicated than an outright non-consensual action. The second issue is the concept of “both/and,” which denotes the complexities inherent in the subjects of literature, racism, and medicine, yet can be generalized to all complex topics. “Both/and” indicates that a notion can have similarities to other ideas but can also be distinct from those ideas in certain respects. Therefore, the connections between the course epigraph and the tropes of consent and “both/and” act as the guiding themes for the semester.
On the first day of class when we were introduced to the course epigraph, I was perplexed due to what I perceived to be the epigraph’s ambiguity. Without any context, it was difficult for me to conceptualize noticing and noticing when others notice, especially in relation to the topics of literature, racism, and medicine. Likewise, the concepts of consent and “both/and” seemed to be incredibly complicated ideas with multiple interpretations, and thus I struggled to understand them in the circumstances of the class. Furthermore, as a history major who has not previously taken any English courses, I initially was both concerned how to use literature as a source of textual evidence and had unfounded doubts regarding the effectiveness of fictional works as sources. I infer that these baseless apprehensions were due to my inexperience with literature. In the history classes I’ve taken, fictional works were rarely used and there was an overreliance on nonfiction texts. Thus, upon entering the class, I was unaware of the value of literature as evidence for analytical arguments. Nevertheless, despite my uncertainty, I was optimistic that the assigned literature and nonfiction works, coupled with class discussions, would provide me with the evidence needed to clearly understand the epigraph. Consequently, as opposed to dismissing the epigraph as a result of its ostensible obscurity, I strove to comprehend its significance through the material contained within the course literature and nonfiction.
Nonfiction texts were used in the beginning of the semester to define key terms that would be used to notice racism in medicine. For example, we examined the professor of English and comparative literature Geraldine Heng’s definition of race. Heng defines: “’race’ is one of the primary means we have-a name we retain for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes-attached to a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups…race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.” Prior to the course I recognized race as a social construct, yet it was not until reading Heng’s definition that I noticed how race is used to produce differences among human beings for the purpose of hierarchizing them. Hence, Heng’s definition of race was the first instance in the course in which I noticed an aspect of a major societal issue that I had previously failed to perceive.
With an adequate understanding of what the term racism entails, it was possible to begin using literature to notice authors’ awareness of the prevalence of racism in medicine. For example, in the novel Imperium in Imperio, the author Sutton E. Griggs illustrates how she notices the historical pervasiveness of white physicians with racist beliefs. In the novel, a doctor plotted with white residents of his town to lynch an African American simply for the purpose of dissecting him. Regarding the white doctor’s thoughts, Griggs wrote, “To have such a robust, well-formed, handsome n_____ to dissect and examine he regarded as one of the greatest boons of his medical career.” Furthermore, in the novel Home, the author Toni Morrison notices the historic prevalence of hospitals selling African American bodies to medical schools. Early in Home, the protagonist Frank Money escaped from a psychiatric hospital and sought refuge in a church where he conversed with Reverend John Locke. After confirming that Frank was a hospital escapee, Locke suggested that the hospital was engaged in selling African American corpses to be used as cadavers for white medical students. For example, Locke explained to Frank, “They sell a lot of bodies out of there…To the medical school…doctors need to work on the dead poor so they can help the live rich.” Consequently, I noticed how Griggs and Morrison BOTH use novels to exemplify very real and pressing acts of racial injustice in the American medical systems AND how the different time periods examined by the authors reveals the tenacity of racism in medicine over time.
A nonfiction work that served as a reliable source for contextualizing literature as the semester progressed is Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Washington’s evidence concerning the historical and modern-day pervasiveness of racism in the American medical system substantiates Griggs and Morrisons’ novels’ depictions of historical racial prejudice in American medicine. For example, Washington uses statistics that validate Morrison’s discussion of the common practice of hospitals that wished to profit off of their corpses by selling them to medical schools with a high demand for cadavers, but without any regard for the source of the bodies. For instance, Washington illustrates, “A 1913 survey of fifty-five medical schools determined that a large majority obtained most of their bodies for dissection from almshouses; other major sources included hospitals and tuberculosis sanitaria.” Thus, I noticed how nonfiction sources can be used to vindicate evidence presented in literature of racial discrimination in medicine.
During the semester, I also realized the effectiveness of literary texts in elucidating the concept of informed consent in connection with medicine. For instance, in Percival Everett’s novel Zulus, the protagonist Alice was subject to a medical procedure in which her informed consent was not acquired. When Alice was first summoned by the Body, the governing council of the rebel camp, Body-woman Rima determined that Alice’s pregnancy would be verified without first obtaining Alice’s consent. For example, regarding Alice’s pregnancy status, Body-woman Rima demanded, “…we must have validation. We will have validation.” Rima denied Alice the opportunity to agree to or reject the procedure. Yet even if the Body-woman had asked for Alice’s permission, the pregnant woman wouldn’t have been able to make an informed decision due to Rima’s failure to explain what the validation technique entailed. As a result, Alice was confused and uncertain of the procedure. For instance, she reflected, “…what form verification of her state might take, whether she would be subjected to intense physical examination, probing, and prodding or merely questioned about her perception of changes within her body…” Hence, Zulus was instrumental in aiding my comprehension of the complexities of informed consent, particularly in the realm of medicine.
Literature coupled with nonfiction sources additionally facilitated my understanding of the notion of “both/and.” Specifically, BOTH Octavia Butler’s novel Clay’s Ark and modern-day myths regarding the cultural inferiority of African Americans exemplify bigotries displayed by whites in American society that are similarly unjustified and based solely on false preconceptions rather than any evidence of actual flaws. A Clay’s Ark character Rane despises one of the Clay’s Ark community’s children, Jacob, simply because he does not fully conform to her standards of a normal human child. For instance, in response to Jacob questioning Rane, “Why don’t you like me?” Rane replies, “Because you look different.” Likewise, children who are thought to have crack-addicted parents are stigmatized and stereotyped as being African American. For instance, Washington quoted the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer who described “crack babies” as a “race of (sub) human drones, [whose] future is closed to them from day one. Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority…the dead babies may be the lucky ones.” This is despite substantial evidence that refutes the presumed inferiority of children with crack-using parents. For example, Washington explains, “For more than seven years, Chicago’s National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research studied a group of three hundred children born exposed to crack. Researchers found that their IQ scores were the same as children who were not crack-exposed but who lived in similar environments.” Therefore, just as the community in Clay’s Ark was subject to persecution from Rane, African Americans in contemporary times are forced to confront myths that imply their subordination to whites.
However, one primary difference between the Clay’s Ark community and African Americans is that the infection does contain some negative features, whereas African Americans have no undesirable afflictions that are not shared by the rest of humanity. For instance, in Clay’s Ark, the alien organism induces negative symptoms in those who are affected, especially during initial contact, such as a drastically increased sexual desire, aggression, as well as general physical pain and suffering. Thus, despite the fact that BOTH the Clay’s Ark community and African Americans experience unwarranted discrimination, there are differences between the flaws of the Clay’s Ark infection AND the lack of particular flaws of people who are African American.
By noticing the convergence of racism, medicine, consent, and “both/and” through nonfiction and literary works, I recognize the invalidity of my earlier doubts regarding the use of literature as evidence of real, complex issues. Clearly, the literary evidence corroborated by nonfiction sources demonstrates the value of literature in developing arguments on the prevalence of racism and the issues of informed consent in medicine as well as the complexities of “both/and” in comparing and contrasting literary and nonfiction texts. Moreover, the present participle of “noticing” signifies the ongoing nature of the process of thinkING that occurs in linear and recursive paths. Thus, in the future I will strive to use both my newly developed skill using literature as evidence and my newly acquired knowledge concerning the complexities of very real and pressing issues of racism and consent to improve myself professionally and personally.