A common thread throughout this course is drawing the current content of focus back to the past content. On the very first day of class, we focused on the epigraph which reads, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” (Dionne Brand). We were told that one purpose of this class was to read the literature given to us and see what it could mean in connection to this epigraph. The very first individual writing assignment for this class was analyzing this quote Within the essay asking ourselves are we focused on our ability to notice, the writers, or maybe the character’s ability? When you look outside of this question and think about the course there is an even broader question, did this epigraph feel relevant throughout the entirety of the course? Using the articles, novels, and other pieces of writing from the course these questions are easily answered. From the textual evidence of Medical Apartheid by Harriet A.Washington, Home by Toni Morrison, and Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson, I concluded that the epigraph is consistently relevant in all of these pieces and can be used to focus on our ability to notice while reading. Since I’ve established that our own ability to notice is a focus within the course how does this connect to GLOBE’s(Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education) requirement that as Geneseo students we need to be practicing the ability to reflect on how we learn over time and what these differences we see are? We can see a connection from this essay, it is asking us to look at the interpretation of the epigraph from the beginning of the semester and compare it to our opinions formed by the end of the semester.
The first literary piece read within the course was Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. This medical journal is the most factual writing we read throughout the semester. Washington takes her readers through the gruesome history of the medical world in relation to the mistreatment of Black individuals. Although this was the first work we looked at, we did not treat it like the rest of the novels we came to read. Medical Apartheid was not read in order of chapters, but in the order of which chapters connected to the other literature, we were reading at the time. This was the first time I had been in a class that approached a book in such a way. The effect that this had was interesting. Not only did it make the medical journal more understandable but it also made it feel more relevant. A quote that I found myself thinking a lot about is, “Dr. W. Montague Cobb…vociferously opposed abusive experimentation with blacks, but he defended Sims. ‘To refer to Anarcha and the five vesicovaginal patients whom Sims treated with her, as human guinea pigs would be grossly unfair… one of the great humanitarian as well as scientific landmarks of American surgery”(Washington 68-69). When I read this I think about the commonly used phrase, there is no black and white when it comes to good and bad, only gray. Although there is no denying that the lack of consensual experimentation happening was an act of cruelty, it becomes a tricky conversation when the medical advancements that come from it are monumental for the medical community. In this quote, Dr. W. Montague is not supporting the continuation of these experiments. However, he is acknowledging that medical advancements made from them should be appreciated and not only that the people who made them should be appreciated as well. This leads me to think about the epigraph, this literary work as I stated earlier, is a factual and historically accurate piece but the thinking it provokes goes beyond that. The thoughts I had led me to notice that there is no perfect way to look at history and no perfect way to villainize the people within it. The horrors found in medical history cannot be ignored but the advancements they made can also not be ignored. A simple way to interpret this book would be to see the names and the dates and memorize them as fact and move on. The epigraph pushed upon us encourages deeper thinking. It causes a much more important and difficult inner dialogue. Forcing us to deal with the possibility that there is no real answer on how to deal with the racist tragedies of the past.
The novel Home by Toni Morrison also deals with manipulative behavior in medical experimentation. This is why the quote used above from Medical Apartheid was read during the same time as Home was. Showing that the importance of connecting literature to outside works was emphasized consistently throughout the course. We were encouraged to notice that the works, although very different from each other, could be tied to one another. By connecting each novel to the other it paints a more detailed picture for me as a reader. The pain that we see the characters within Home experience is something many Black individuals in the real world had to experience in a similar or in a worse way. The character Cee in Morrison’s novel Home, finds herself in a situation where she falls victim to the horrendous acts of the medical community. A doctor named Dr. Beauregard “hires” her to perform gynecological experiments on her body. While she still worked for the doctor she has sickening thoughts such as, “How pleasant she felt upon awakening after Dr. Beau had stuck her with a needle to put her to sleep; how passionate he was about the value of the examinations; how she believed the blood and pain that followed was a menstrual problem- nothing made them change their minds about the medical industry”(Morrison, 121-122). With the information from Medical Apartheid and the events, we see Cee experience I was able to see the gravity of danger the Black community was in when surrounded by the medical community. The manipulation that took place to make sure these non-consensual experiments took place is clear. The only reason Cee agrees to “work”, although I’m not sure what Cee is subjected to can be considered a job, is because she was vulnerable. She wanted reassurance and love she did not get from her stepmother or her husband. Sensing this vulnerability Dr. Beauregard took advantage of it. Though not all experiments that took place came to be in this exact way there are similarities in most. To elaborate, some experimentation would take place because a Black patient was not aware of proper protocol. Another reason could have been a lack of options presented when needing to seek health treatment. These situations may not be identical, but they all have the common thread that systematic racism was present and that power was abused by the race in control. Looking at the novels Medical Apartheid and Home individually would allow anyone to gain some knowledge about the racist past of medical advancement. However, since our course revolves around noticing, and in my opinion noticing connections between literature specifically, we are able to take the two novels and gain a deeper and more detailed understanding of this past. I am able to know not only what took place but how it took place. I was able to see how power was abused to dehumanize these Black individuals.
A unique piece of literature we looked at this semester was Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson. This was the first requiem that I had ever come across in an English class. It was actually the first time I had come across the term at all. Merriam-Webster defines it in a number of ways, “a mass for the dead: a solemn chant for the repose of the dead: a musical composition in honor of the dead”(Merriam-Webster). Essentially it is a type of poem-like song made to honor someone who has passed. Nelson wrote Fortune’s Bones after a skeleton was found in Connecticut. After doing research about the found remains it was discovered to be the bones of a slave named Fortune, owned by the local doctor. Nelson wrote this to honor Fortune and the lack of identity he was given in life and in death. A powerful piece within the requiem reads, “Fortune’s legacy was his inheritance: the hopeless hope of a people valued for their labor, not for their ability to watch and dream as vee of geese define fall evening skies. Was Fortune bitter? Was he good or bad? Did he laugh sometimes, throw back his head and laugh? His bones say only that he served and died, that he was useful, even into death, stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh” (Nelson, 13). As I read these words for the first time the true gravity of the situation came into picture, this was a man who was reduced to nothing but a piece of property. A man who gave his body to the medical achievements of a man who disregarded his bones with no true appreciation and honor. Fortune lived in a time of slavery, Cee and many stories within Medical Apartheid take place years after slavery was abolished. The combination of these works of writing has once again painted me a bigger picture. The history of medical mistreatment towards Black individuals goes back centuries. It also does not end with slavery, the continuation of experimentation is as brutal if not more brutal. The lack of identity is something that also continues long after slavery. The people who gave their bodies unwillingly for medicine advancing are rarely named or thanked. Combining these three works I am able to notice how many identities we do not know and how many people go unthanked.
A word I use frequently throughout my essay is notice. Of course, the word is significant since the word is in the epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” (Dionne Brand). To clarify the points I have made, I feel I need to define what I mean when I am using the word notice. How I define notice is paying attention. When I make connections between all these writings I am paying attention to the way they are similar, the way they can build upon each other, or even how they contradict each other. The three works I mentioned throughout, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A.Washington, Home by Toni Morrison, and Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson, all connected to me because I paid attention while reading each piece. If I were to ignore the epigraph and read each novel as its own without referencing the others I would not have gained any of the knowledge I mentioned above. The importance of noticing things within the text individually was so important to fully utilize this course. It was the only way to get a well-rounded understanding of the content. As a student answering GLOBE’s question of how has my learning changed? I would say I thought the importance of noticing was something that needed to be done as a class. I now think the importance of noticing things as an individual is the main goal of this class, this way the class can compare thoughts and gain more interpretations overall.
Everett, P. L. (1990). Zulus. The Permanent Press.
A Geneseo Education for a connected world. SUNY Geneseo. (n.d.). Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.geneseo.edu/provost/geneseo-education-connected-world.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Requiem definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/requiem.
Morrison, T. (2013). Home. Vintage Books.
Nelson, M., & Espeland, P. (2004). Fortune’s bones: The manumission requiem. Front Street.
Paw Prints. (2010). Medical apartheid the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present.