Reflection on Literature, Medicine, and Racism

The epigraph of this course is a quote from Dionne Brand, which says “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” This epigraph has helped guide us when reading and attempting to understand the material throughout the semester. As we have continued our understanding of the literature and built off of it in order to make connections, both between the literature and within our daily lives, there becomes a clear understanding of how this epigraph was meant to help us along the way. When the authors wrote these pieces, they were responding to the mistreatment that black people have been subjected to in the U.S., and continue to be subjected to in the present. While there are authors that may more directly bring up issues of race outside of the medical field, for the purposes of this course we were given examples that directly corresponded with the medical industry rather than other areas where black people may be systemically harmed. As the authors wrote they seemed to notice the abuse that had been done to them, and they wrote as a way to respond and mirror the issues that concerned them the most deeply.

 By going through these readings and connecting them to real life examples given to us in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid we were in many ways able to notice the authors noticing. By paying attention to conversations occurring between the fictional worlds being written about and the world around us we can reflect on what it all means. As we continue to see medical injustices being mirrored in these writings we are forced to realize that the systematic oppression of black people and the consequences on their health has not simply disappeared overnight. While we have to carefully read the text in order to understand what is being referenced, we must do the same thing when examining our surroundings as well. We cannot just passively acknowledge the horror of our past as a nation, but rather we are required to carefully address the concerning practices we see going on around us in order to actually affect change. Washington even says in the epilogue to Medical Apartheid that when it comes to medical treatment, “Although less rife, it remains a contemporary reality, and an ever-present one (386).”  This is why we have continually discussed the idea of thinkING as an active, not passive, process. Reflection is not just a process where you can understand the material and move on. In order to truly reflect you must go back and test yourself when you have learned from your experiences or from your intellectual growth. While Washington is aware of the history of the medical field, as well as the current practices that take place within it, she is able to reflect on what has happened and where it has led us today. If she had not been able to properly reflect on the crimes from the past and presented it to us, it may have been easier for us to judge those who were mistreated and sympathize with those who enacted these horrors in the name of “medical advancements.”

When we first read Home, it was easy for us to judge the characters and question their choices, but as we have moved on I think their actions and thought processes have become more understandable. The context of each situation is essential to understanding the motives of the characters, and although we had the opportunity to become slightly immersed in the material of Medical Apartheid, it was difficult to fully understand before hearing the narrative of Cee and Frank. When we learned about the structural systems that have caused harm within the medical field we were also given an example of how these systems could directly harm an individual. When Cee is discussing her short-lived marriage to Principal, she discusses her brother Frank, saying “That’s the other side, she thought, of having a smart, tough brother close at hand to take care of you and protect you- you are slow to develop your own brain muscle (Morrison: 48).” From the beginning of her narrative Cee sees herself as weak and simple-minded, but by the end of her story she proves to herself and those around her that she is strong and capable. I found myself judging her for putting herself down without recognizing the context in which she lived her life. Before it became clear to see the ways in which doctors harmed black people with no remorse it was easier for us to judge Cee for becoming part of the system of abuse.

During my time in college I have taken anthropology courses and have begun viewing things as I would view them in an anthropology course. In the field of anthropology ethnographic field methods are used in order to study cultures and people. Ethnographies rely on the researcher to immerse themselves into the culture they are studying for a long period of time so that they can come to understand the culture as best they can, and then present the information they have learned to the world. While we started off not wanting to believe what Home was trying to tell us, anthropologists rely on individuals to provide them with knowledge of the cultural context they find themselves in. Of course, they must also be well versed in the theoretical and methodological history of anthropology as a whole, but they would be doing a disservice to their research subjects if they were not willing to fully listen to them, and I could see that scenario being played out when many of us could not believe what we were being told by Cee and Frank. By not fully understanding the context within which Cee and Frank lived we are also unable to understand their narratives as people. Even within Home, we hear from Frank and Cee that their grandmother was a cruel, awful woman who mistreated them every chance she got. While her actions towards them are still cruel, it becomes easier to understand why she acted in those ways after we get to hear from her directly in her own chapter. After her first husband is shot and killed and she feels forced to move away and remarry, her experience is described by the following quote- “Just as Lenore began to safe and comfortable so far from Alabama, a passel of Salem’s relatives- ragged and run out of their home- arrived (Morrison: 87).”  As we learn more and more about the context of the situations throughout history we have to reflect on what we have learned and how it impacts our view on the matter.

Professor McCoy told us when we first started Clay’s Ark that Octavia Butler can play off of her readers’ expectations and biases as and make us examine them. Butler was able to notice that people make snap judgments and use that to her advantage. As we moved through Clay’s Ark, I found myself looking for someone to blame, but I couldn’t blame an organism. By not being able to place the blame on one single person or source I felt uncomfortable and unsettled. Going off of the same branch, we are unable to place blame on one singular person or situation when looking back on the course of our medical history. There are, of course, many people that we can blame for the torture and experimentation of black people, but this is the result of systemic racism, not one person’s will. Even in the case of the slave system that led to the experimentation of black people as a whole, we cannot find the first person that suggested or created it, or at least I cannot as an inexperienced historian and scholar. We can blame colonialism, systemic racism, and the institution of slavery as a whole, but we are unable to pinpoint exactly how far racism has permeated throughout our culture to this day. I have found it more difficult to blame a bureaucratic system for racism than to blame an individual for their wrongdoing. That is not to say that the structures have not been as harmful, but at least when an individual is harmful you can receive closure. When a system is harmful as a whole it is much harder to address and come to terms with, whatever that may mean to someone.

Even when we are able to contextualize the systems we are trying to understand, this does not guarantee that we will be in a position to actually understand what we are hearing. Reading the material this semester and discussing it in class has forced me to look at the privileges I have in our society under a more critical light. The discussions we have had have challenged me to look at my life and try to empathize with people who have experienced things I have never been through. If we were just expected to read these books and make connections between them I don’t think I would have learned as much as I learned from simply conversing with people and understanding others experiences and interpretations of what they were experiencing.

As Professor McCoy mentioned earlier on in the course, no one is able to reach the horizon. However much they may chase it, we will always fall behind it. I feel the same way about understanding and recognizing the medical torture enacted on black people from the perspective of a white person; I don’t think I will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like, but I can keep trying my best to empathize regardless. Although I will never be able to reach this horizon of fully understanding, I can keep chasing it, even while I know it will never be reached. If we are not all willing to accept these horrors on our past and try to understand the expansive reach of its impact on our world today then we are not really trying to address the consequences and reach the horizon. As the authors of the literature we have read this semester have noticed the inequities surrounding medicine and race, they have forced us to notice along with them, which I can only assume was their plan from the beginning.

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