Healing through Reading

One of the most important pieces of advice I have received came from my 7th grade ELA teacher who said “if you are going to read, make an attempt to understand it through the lens of what is going on in your own life and only then, will you be immersed in the author’s experience.” And he was right. Understanding literature is more complex than just reading it. It is important to pay attention to the importance of an author’s work during the time they published it and the impact they were hoping to make. This course, Literature, Medicine, and Racism, allowed folks to immerse themselves in the author’s experience by unpacking different events that occurred in different stories and making a connection between current events happening now. The course epigraph, “my job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” played a significant role in understanding our literature this semester and motivated us to take a critical look at the books we were reading. Everyone’s ideas, understandings, and processings of the texts we read were different. We all came from different academic backgrounds and provided different perspectives on the text we read. But, that’s what was wonderful about the experience. Our job was to notice. It was not only Dr. McCoy’s role or Kya’s. Their role might have been to facilitate our noticings but not to completely make it seen. This allowed us to develop leadership, and autonomy of our own learning and led to incredible peer to peer group discussions about the importance of different topics such as racial injustices, gender equity, self-perception, and most importantly, being able to differentiate when something was done in good or bad faith. But, it is important to note that “noticing” was only the first step. Our work this semester involved unpacking textual evidence, thinking critically about the importance of an author’s writing, and making key connections to society today. 

It’s difficult to summarize our work this semester in just one to two sentences, given the immense critical thinking that took place in our classroom, but my biggest takeaway this semester is that: 

“Healing is a continuous process that is enhanced by the reading experience and shared through meaningful discussions and unpacking of texts.”

Throughout this year, activism has heavily increased to challenge social injustices through social media, mass campaigns, and more awareness. This course contributed to Geneseo’s commitment to be anti-racist, but even more, allowed students to be a part of a dialogue that unpacked racial injustices. Primarily, through reading Medical Apartheid, Home, and Fortune’s Bones, we noticed the significance of unpacking history and becoming more aware. As a male of color, conversations of race become difficult to navigate simply because I am expected to know most of our “true history”, but that is not the case. I learned more this semester about the Black community than I have in previous courses or in my own learning journey. One of Geneseo’s GLOBE’s learning outcomes is for students to broaden their knowledge, intellectual and practical skills. Through thoughtful discussions each class period and through our collaboration processes, we were all able to demonstrate that despite having different disciplines, we were all working towards a common goal of understanding the texts we were reading through different lenses. This commitment to understanding, noticing, and unpacking helped us all strengthen our work. Despite our difficulties this semester, we were able “to participate in the social, political, and ethical dimensions of society, and to work toward a more just, equitable, and sustainable world” (GLOBE). 

Our learning about and healing from social injustices this semester began in September with a lot of discussion on race. Through reading Heng’s article on “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Age”, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of the concept of race and the importance it would have to our literature. Following that day’s learning, we were asked to fill out a Padlet response board and one Padlet responder said, “It is interesting to think about the way race has zero factual basis in science, but has been used for centuries to create hierarchies, giving and taking away power from groups of people based on appearance and culture.” Our ability to notice race relationships and power structures was extremely important to understand our first book, Medical Apartheid. Washington’s telling of different medical experimentations on Black Americans helped me learn more about the abuse of medicine throughout history and the impacts it can have now. During the COVID era, we saw firsthand how it disproportionately impacted different groups of people and the effects health inequity had. In fact, the CDC had to address the health inequities stating, “racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, play, and worship affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes, such as COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and death” (cdc.org). Learning about different stories of suffering and the ways Dr. Sims misdiagnosed his patients and used Black patients for his advantage made me feel ill – for one, because of what I read but secondly, because I did not know about it. It instantly reminded me of the many BIPOC folks I saw on the news dying because of COVID and the lack of proper services they were given to survive. Through reading different chapters on the exploitation of those who were enslaved, I felt the need to converse with my peers and unpack what we had just read. Although in-class discussions were great, they were also very short, which is why I attribute most of my “processing” time to my group collaboration essay. The first essay I wrote with my group was an opportunity for us to unpack Medical Apartheid and address the ways medical research has been unjust to marginalized groups. 

This semester, along with noticing, we also recognized. Recognition played a significant role in Fortune’s Bones as we unpacked the reasons why Fortune’s life was not valued. As my group wrote in our second essay, “At the time of his death, his body portrayed his life of servitude, and he was stripped of his identity by Porter when he was simply renamed “Larry.” Fortune’s life was defined by his work, and in his death, his body was nonconsensually used for medical research, further dehumanizing him. He was no longer an individual person, he served for Dr. Porter and he was not recognized as a man with his own life for years after his death. Fortune represents one of many instances where the life of a black individual is viewed as insignificant.” As we wrote these lines, we had a discussion on ways Black individuals have not been credited or have been silenced in society today. It was incredibly important for us to talk about the impact not recognizing Larry had on his life. 

One of the themes we saw this semester was medical malpractice due to racial biases. In Home, Morrison tells the story of Cee’s medical procedure that left her numb. During this event in Home, we see yet another story of a Black woman being traumatized and taken advantage of. On page 121, as Morrison describes Cee’s experience, she states that Cee remembered—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). As a woman, Cee lost autonomy over her body and gave Dr. Beauregard her trust – only to be deceived like many Black folks who have given their trust to medical practitioners. 

This semester was very impactful to me in many ways. First, I learned that good faith actions do not always mean it will be good for everyone. As we see in Washington’s text, Dr. Sims thought what he was doing was for the greater good of everyone, but he destroyed communities and conducted medical malpractice due to his racial biases. Second, I learned that it’s okay to process events, actions, and characters differently than my peers. My personal experiences impacted how I felt about the texts and ignited more passion towards social justice. At times I felt challenged because my peers were able to analyze, process, notice and unpack different themes of our literature before I could, but I had to remind myself that as a reader, it is okay to take my time. I eventually got to noticing different things mentioned in this essay and that was my biggest takeaway and reward. Last but not least, I was able to evaluate my growth this semester compared to my first semester at Geneseo. As a first-year student, I was scared of throwing myself into the literature waters but this semester, as a senior, I took more initiatives to bring insight into the groups I worked with. 

Works Cited 

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.

“Covid-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/index.html

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. 

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