Final Essay: What We Can Improve by Noticing

The epigraph for our course comes from Dionne Brand, she states that “ My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice. According to Dictionary.com, to notice is ‘ ‘ to pay attention to or take notice of” and “ to percieve; become aware of” (Dictionary.com). In an essay I wrote earlier this semester I reflected on how once we work to notice things we were previously unaware of, we become not only better scholars in the classroom but better human beings for everyday life. The most significant thing we have noticed and become aware of as a class this semester has been the very long and extremely unfortunate history of abuse towards African Americans by the medical industry. This has been made easier to notice due to the fact that the course epigraph forms a through-line for the literature and ideas we’ve engaged this semester. One of the works of literature we have studied this semester, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington goes in-depth into this part of American medical history and the author gives her readers a very thorough understanding of the abuses suffered by African Americans during this period. Once we are able to notice and understand these abuses, we will be able to understand why African Americans are hesitant to get the covid-19 vaccine as well as why the need for reparations is much larger than one singular event. 

Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington does an amazing job chronicling the history of abuse towards African Americans by the medical industry. The book is filled with countless examples of the horrors African Americans endured during this time period. Many of these examples are centered around James Marion Sims. Sims is an important figure in the history of abuse towards African Americans by the medical industry due to the fact that “he so well embodies the dual face of American medicine to which racial health disparities owe so much” (Washington,61). While it is true that Sims did great work in the cause for women’s health, he did so by conducting “years of nightmarishly painful and degrading experiments, without anesthesia or consent, on a group of slave women” (Washington,61). One example of Sims’ nightmarish experiments involved an innocent black infant, “He took a sick baby from its mother, made incisions in its scalp, then wielded a cobbler’s tool to pry the skull bones into new positions” (Washington,62). There are many more examples of these horrifying experiments conducted by Sims which sound more like crimes against humanity rather than legitimate medical research. Unfortunately, James Marion Sims was far from the only person carrying out these bloodcurdling types of experiments on innocent African Americans at this time. 

Some more examples of these horrendous experiments were found in the records of Dr. Walter F. Jones. These records detail how in one of his experiments Jones poured “boiling water on naked enslaved typhoid pneumonia patients at four-hour intervals” (Washington,60). He described one of these shocking experiments as follows, “The patient was placed on the floor on his face and about five gallons of water at a temperature so near the boiling point as to barely allow immersion of the hand, was thrown immediately on the spinal column, which seemed to arouse his sensibilities somewhat, as shown by an effort to cry out” (Washington,61). Tragically, nothing was gained from this awful experiment as Jones offered an absolutely terrible rationale for conducting them. He stated that “it worked somehow by “re establishing the capillary circulation”” (Washington,61). 

By working to notice and become aware of events such as these despite how awful they are will help us become better scholars as well as human beings. This has become especially crucial considering the recent rise of covid-19 cases due to the omicron variant. Horror stories of the medical industry towards African Americans have spread via word of mouth for centuries. This has unsurprisingly created a massive level of distrust towards the medical industry amongst African Americans. This distrust can help to explain why African Americans have been so hesitant to receive the covid-19 vaccine.  According to kff.org, “ CDC reported that race/ethnicity was known for 59% of people who had received at least one dose of the vaccine, among this group, nearly two thirds were white (60%), 10% were black” (kff.org). By working to notice as to why African Americans distrust the medical industry, we can work together to help build up this trust, get the nation’s vaccination rate up, and hopefully be able to move past this pandemic. 

By working together to notice these events previously unknown to most of the population, we can begin to realize that the need for reparation goes far beyond one singular event in American history. Most people view reparations as a solution to only slavery and do not take into account all of the other abuses African Americans have suffered throughout history. The events documented by Harriet A. Washington in Medical Apartheid don’t even begin to scratch the surface of abuses suffered by African Americans outside of slavery. If we are able to work together as a society to become aware of these abuses, hopefully we will be able to better understand the need for reparations and not be so hesitant to distribute them. It is also very important for us as students to work to notice these events due to GLOBE’s insistence that Geneseo students gain practice in the ability to “reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time”.  The epigraph for our course comes from Dionne Brand, she states that “ My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice. The most significant thing we have noticed and become aware of as a class this semester has been the very long and extremely unfortunate history of abuse towards African Americans by the medical industry. This has been made easier to notice due to the through-line formed by the course epigraph for the literature and ideas we have engaged this semester as a class. One piece of literature that we have studied this semester as a class, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington documents this history of abuse by the medical industry towards African Americans in great depth. Examples of horrific experiments carried out by James Marion Sims, Dr. Walter F. Jones, and many others towards innocent African Americans. Events such as these help to explain why there is so much distrust towards the medical industry felt by African Americans to this day. I believe that once we work to notice events like these previously unknown to us, we can move forward as a society by both improving our nationwide covid-19 vaccination rate as well as finally distributing reparations to those affected by these tragic events.

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