Note of Consideration

AJ Forte

Dr. McCoy

ENGL 111-01: DPP Am Lit: Lit, Med & Racism

September 25, 2023

Throughout these classes, I’ve experienced quite a few things that have brought light to how I perceive certain instances I am currently experiencing. It’s giving me a new perspective on topics and enlightenment on my thought process whenever the topic is relevant for discussion. The epigraph of the class is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”–Dionne Brand. First off, the main thing that has me thinking is what this quote truly means. From previous lessons in this class, I’ve learned that phrases and questions have a vast quantity of meanings. I feel that it means that Dr. McCoy’s main job is to analyze us and see if we are understanding and able to expand and bring context to conversations. 

Now, throughout all of the classes that we’ve had one thing I noticed is that I’ve rarely seen Dr. McCoy say that something is wrong. I wouldn’t be inclined to say that there are NO WRONG ANSWERS, but certain notes are heavily influenced by Beth’s deciphering or reemphasizing what a student has said. One of our first discussions in class was how Dr. McCoy will eventually be “irrelevant” or in a way, fade out of class discussions throughout the semester. Having us split up and reason why she would say such a thing, lead us to believe many things. What I mainly believed was that most of the class would be heavily group-based where we generally discuss the topic at hand and brainstorm most of the ideas ourselves to the point where Dr. McCoy is no longer needed to start discussions. We will eventually form a rhythm that allows us to know where to jump back into discussion to continue yesterday. But of course when I say this I truly don’t mean that Beth will become irrelevant. To further expand on my full meaning, she will always have a very important and involving role throughout the whole semester; I just feel that later on her role won’t be as impactful as it was within the first few weeks. To generalize, we came up with “independence, self-discipline, and freedom exploration”. In a way more simplistic way than the way I stated its meaning and in which many other students had similar answers. In the same class, we then moved on to what I felt was a more important point, and that is how areas of literature and medicine relate. This question had me stumped for a little and had me thinking. Thankfully for the members in my group unfortunately I’m really bad at remembering names but I believe it was Liv who brought up many great points, one on how both literature and medicine can be used to help and harm others in physical or mental ways. From there, the groups came together and added how literature is also a key component used in medicine. Such as describing what the medicine does for you or whether you think that literature is used to heal someone the same as medicine can. 

The next class was a little lesson about ethics that should be heavily practiced in class. These were put under two categories Good Faith and Bad Faith. First Beth started class with a story about “a student some semesters ago talked about a literary character in terms of CSA, which the student understood as standing for “Child Sexual Abuse” but I also understood as “Community Supported Agriculture”. Further, it gives the example of how people of different cultures can define certain things in many ways whether they’re hurtful or misinforming. Instances such as this have to be taken and accounted for and Beth said she should’ve been more descriptive to avoid offending the student and better get her point across. Then, we split into groups to first touch on examples and traits of good faith such as honesty, respecting others, using first names, admitting to falseness, etc. Moving on the bad faith, things such as interrupting, harmful intentions, ignoring, denial, etc. To little surprise, we managed to come up with more bad faith exercises than good. As said in the notes from September 8th, “Harm can be caused by right intentions.” I do agree with this statement because it is a difficult task to please people, and words stated can be viewed in many different ways. A very common saying that I think of a lot is that the “truth hurts”. Going back to Good Faith practices an example that was given was honesty, said in other was “honesty is the best policy”, which is a great thing to practice because liars are worse. But sometimes people are left in denial and even though it is the truth, it can be very hurtful to the person on many levels, so even though the intentions may be good, it can still hurt a person. 

Transitioning, we first touched on a book called The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages reading a small section called Inventions/Reinventions and how Heng, the author, refers to the word race, in her eyes described as “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, to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups” (Heng). In other words, race has a heavy influence on stereotypes and how some people are careless to even define a person by what they look like and not who they truly are as a person. With this topic in mind, this leads to a video shown later in the week with TED talk speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s presenting “The Danger of a Single Story”. Better explained by Nirmeen Shumpert from the University of Maryland “Adichie argues that single stories often originate from simple misunderstandings or one’s lack of knowledge of others, but that these stories can also have a malicious intent to suppress other groups of people due to prejudice” (Shumpert). The targeted stories touched upon by Adichie were children’s books and how it’s wrong to have such an intention to be placed in such books. With minds so young and undeveloped, want to learn grow and suck up as much information as they can, leaving them “impressionable and vulnerable” (Adichie 01:43). Then connecting with a book reading in class, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, on how medical researchers take advantage of African Americans in ways with medicine either not give them the same medicine as a white person or “Such research has played a pivotal role in forging fear of medicine that helps perpetuate our nation’s racial health gulf” (Washington 21). Relating to what Adichie has been talking about has proven how people take advantage of those who are unfortunately and unfairly considered weak. Children and at unjust times in history, African Americans, are treated differently by the way they look or their maturity levels.

One last book we went over is named Fortunes Bones by Marilyn Nelson which uses poetic honoring of the life of an 18th century slave. The story even relates to the last on how African Americans during those unfortunate times, were unfairly treated almost not even being considered a person in some lines. Coming back to the beginning, throughout most of these topics we have taken notes and in almost every class we break into groups to discuss the various topics I have mentioned throughout this essay. Relating to the class epigraph, it makes a lot more sense in the case that Beth is trying to see how much we can retain from this class from discussions we have to further prove to her that we can understand and notice improvement and overall understanding of the material we go over.

The Dehumanization of Human Bodies

In the course thus far, I’ve become most curious about the origin of the idea that one’s race would change the way their body works. This concept has been illustrated throughout medical practices with substantial coverage- perhaps not amongst the average population, but always in the scientific community. White practitioners have long harbored beliefs that suggest the anatomical difference of black bodies- but where exactly the first instance of this was is what I’m curious about. I also wonder if it was ever truly believed, or if it was just an excuse for extremely immoral, otherwise inexcusable practices.

As reflected in the latter half of chapter four, “The Surgical Theater,” of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, it was incredibly common for entirely white medical institutions to primarily use black bodies. Often, this was excused by the aforementioned idea that African Americans were medically unique. While these inherently prejudiced beliefs were also applied to other races, they were primarily held against African Americans due to the medical accessibility of their bodies. Enslaved persons were incredibly easy to get with a flashy license or some money- both of which were very easily attainable to a white medical professional. Washington also makes the point that a constant supply of black bodies was the key to medical success and breakthroughs. As early as the nineteenth century, it was commonplace for medical professionals of all concentrations to make public advertisements asking for enslaved persons- willing to pay hefty prices to obtain them. At this point, I don’t exactly find it necessary to specify ‘white’ practitioners, seeing as at the time, all medical positions were occupied by white persons. Except for the position upon the cold table, subject to the scalpel of morbid curiosity. It wouldn’t be until years after the incidents which Washington speaks of that African American individuals would be able to hold positions of any sort of power. While it’s easy to talk about how the concept of racial-medical differences has affected the industry, it isn’t nearly as easy to speak about its origin. Why was it believed that African American bodies were anatomically unique? Why were dissections- vivisections– so often performed on black persons in order to see the same organs that the white dissectors had in their bodies? Just because somebody may appear different externally- who were those men to suggest that their innards would differ as well? How little medical knowledge did they have to have to do what they did? Of course they knew

It is disgusting- to say the very least- that black families were deprived of their loved ones’ bodies and unable to give them proper, deserved resting places. Instead, they had to watch as their parents, children, brothers and sisters- lovers– were made spectacles. This was the case for the wife of Fortune- the real, othered, enslaved man honored in Fortune’s Bones, a manumission written by Marilyn Nelson, with notes and annotations by Pamela Espeland. “Dinah’s Lament,” a poem featured in the manumission, is told through the perspective of Dinah (Fortune’s wife) and describes in heart wrenching detail how she was made to dust and clean her late husband’s body. Her lover was made into a subject and only that by his former enslaver, a man named Preserved Porter. Another section of Nelson’s powerful manumission is told through the perspective of Porter, and it reflects the disturbing beliefs that were common in his career. The real question is whether Porter truly thought that Fortune’s body would be different when he began dissecting him- tearing his flesh from his body for his own benefit. Nelson writes from his perspective in a way that suggests he may have actually believed Fortune was anatomically different from himself, though. It is also possible that Nelson immersed herself so much in Porter’s mind that she included the aspect of him having convinced himself what he was doing was reasonable. The poem from Fortune’s Bones- “On Abrigador Hill-“ includes the repetition of the phrase “And I’ve been humbled by ignorance, humbled by ignorance.” This repetitive statement particularly sparks my curiosity. It is vague enough to theorize about, and yet so straightforward- at least, with it’s tone. Porter- or rather, Nelson’s representation of Porter- is coming to face something. Perhaps the fact that Fortune’s body is no different from his own, which he is realizing as he runs his hands over the arrangement of his organs- scrawls names on his bones. But one has to wonder, if he came to this realization, why did he continue? Why did he make a concerted effort to preserve Fortune’s remains- to keep them in the family so that future Porters could examine them as well? He had to have known what he was doing was grossly unnecessary and inexcusable. 

Whether we as the readers of both of these works are supposed to believe with certainty that nobody actually thought African American bodies would be any different from white bodies, or believe that maybe the concept may have even arisen from some misguided sort of good faith, is not explicitly stated. I’m almost certain that it was just an excuse so that medicinal institutions could get large amounts of subjects who had no legal power and would not be missed or defended by anyone with legal power. I picked this topic mainly because of Fortune’s Bones- and Marilyn Nelson’s presentation of Porter and his kind- white medical professionals. Nelson’s manumission had a profound effect on me as an individual. What we have read so far has been very influential overall, but poetry particularly strikes me as an individual. I think it’s interesting that supposedly, practitioners somehow ‘didn’t know any better.’ Somehow, even after taking apart millions of unwilling black people– these institutions were still curious. They still believed they were different- that they were inferior. Something that I brought up in class recently was that if these ‘scholarly’ persons ‘didn’t know any better,’ they wouldn’t have done what they did, and excused it in the same way every single time. As Washington mentions in the early-middle section of “The Surgical Theater,” medical students were specifically instructed on what to say and do in the case of being found out or accused of any sort of wrongdoing. They were told that what they were doing was wrong- or at the very least, that it was controversial. They should’ve inquired further as to why it was wrong, and surely, some of them did, especially coming to the end of the twentieth century. Now, the inherent racism of numerous medical institutions and practices is widely ignored. It isn’t addressed anymore. It doesn’t happen anymore- it’s a ‘different time,’ and racial-anatomical differences are an idea of the past. But they aren’t. Things still need to change. 

Curiosity Essay

Cristiana Nuzzi

Professor McCoy

Literature, Medicine & Racism

26 September 2023

Shining a Light on Forgotten Histories

“My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” (Brand 2013). In this class as well as my class on African Literary Criticism, we have read several pieces of black and African literature detailing the unheard stories of these communities. This also includes the falsities that Western society accepts as truth. Since the beginning of time, stereotypes have been placed upon groups of people. Oftentimes we welcome these stereotypes, never caring to learn the truth. Whether this is out of malice or pure ignorance, these harmful narratives cause great disdain, not only toward the unenlightened, but within the community. The works of these artists allow us readers to defend those who are unable to defend themselves, for if we do not notice, who will? 

When many of us think of Africa, we mesh our preconceived notions together, treating it as a single cohort, rather than a diverse continent. We may picture hazy deserts. Bare chested women holding baskets above their heads. Violence, whether it be between humans alike or jungle animals. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie touches on this in her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie begins the speech by talking about her Nigerian roots. She knew nothing else outside of her home besides the British and American books she had read. Subsequently she wrote only of white, blue eyed people who ate apples and played in the snow. Several characteristics that she could not identify with herself. Adichie goes on to explain how “impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” Like Adichie’s view of America, our version of Africa is so distant from the truth. Though when we are exposed to so little, it is difficult to break away from what you know. Adichie expands on her childhood, saying that the year she turned eight her family got a new houseboy, Fide. She knew nothing about him except that he was poor. One day she visited Fide’s village where his mother showed Adichie a beautiful basket the boy’s brother had made. Adichie says “It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor” (Adichie 2009). There is a comfort in knowing someone or something as a singular entity, lacking depth, and never straying away from this image. By putting Fide in a box Adichie is not only harming him, but herself. When we limit ourselves to the “single story” we are creating the same damage.

Meanwhile, in America we learn stories of slavery, the south, and the many atrocities faced by African American people, though it was not until reading Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid that I realized the extent of it. Washington talks about the full history of African Americans mistreatment being used as unwilling experimental medical subjects. Early on in the book Washington talks about Baron George Cuvier, a prominent naturalist and zoologist of the time. He described black people as having “their hair crimped, their heads squashed and their noses flat. Their protruding mouths and thick lips are strikingly similar to those of the apes. The peoples which compose this race have always been savages.” Cuvier’s comparison of black people to animals suggests that black people are less than. Though this is one man, Cuvier represents the majority on the topic. Still his words seem meaningless after reading the story of Ota Benga. Advertised as “The African Pygmy…Height 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds…” Benga was seized and sold after returning home from a hunting trip to find his village in ruins and his entire tribe slaughtered. Benga was locked in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. For weeks the man was subjected to countless visitors chasing him, jeering, poking, and tripping. The progression of dehumanization and a loss of identity is seen through each piece of work.

Similarly, Marilyn Nelson touches on the idea of dehumanization and a lack of self in her 2004 collection Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. The book acts as a commemoration of an 18th-century enslaved man named Fortune who was owned by a doctor. Postmortem, Fortune’s body was dissected. His skeleton was used to create an anatomy school for doctors to study the bones, though this was done without Fortune’s consent. Over the years Fortune’s skeleton was lost and found.  Nelson begins Fortune’s story with a poem through the lens of his wife, Dinah. Here she says “Since she seen Fortune head in that big pot Miss Lydia say that room makes her feel ill…I wonder how she think it make me feel? To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast…” By stripping Fortune of his autonomy, Dr. Porter caused more harm to those around him. For maybe taking away one’s sense of self when they are unable to defend themselves is the most vile act of all. Now Fortune’s body lays vulnerable for anyone to see. Nelson supports this idea with her poem “On Abrigador Hill,” which is through the eyes of Dr. Porter. It reads “Herewith begins my dissection of the former body of my former slave, which served him who served me throughout his life, and now serves the advance of science.” The language Nelson uses furthers the dehumanization of Fortune, referring to him as simply a slave, an object meant to serve. The conflicting views of Dr. Porter and Dinah makes you wonder if Dr. Porter truly believes in what he is saying about Fortune, that there was balance in the relationship between the two men. Maybe the true accounts have gotten lost in time, much like Fortune’s Bones. 

The dichotomy between Adichie’s story and the tale of Fortune’s Bones perfectly exemplify the harm that’s been created toward black people throughout the years. The escalation from false narratives to grotesque and violent acts is difficult to grasp. Though I think all three stories greatly relate to the way society treats specific communities. In my class on African Literary Criticism we talked about oral literature, stories passed on completely word of mouth, though maybe we are not hearing these stories straight from the source. If we do not open ourselves up to opposing narratives, who will?


“The Danger of a Single Story.” Youtube, uploaded by TED, 6 Oct. 2009, 

Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Doubleday, 2006. p. 512.Nelson, Marilyn. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. 1st ed., ‎Wordsong, 2004. p. 40.

I Don’t Notice Anything

SUNY Geneseo’s English 111 course; Lit, Med & Racism, features a central Epigraph from Professor McCoy. It is a quote, from poet Dionne Brand stating “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”. For a short time, I fixated on noticing. Before then I was too unaware to notice, and after, I had given up, believing it to be a fruitless task. In this context, I define the word “notice” as being aware of the plight of those in different situations from oneself. This word applies more broadly within this course, but I mean to use this word in a specific context. This course is centered around how black people have been systematically abused and mistreated by our nation’s medical industry. I realized if I had any hope of having success in this course, it would come from me noticing once more. I pose noticing as a bad thing, which it isn’t, but I failed, and since then I’d been hesitant to make a clear attempt once more. My struggle with noticing comes from two perspectives. Racism as a topic in American society and American culture is not only complicated and multifaceted, but simply depressing. It is not a fun topic for many to engage in. The other perspective comes from where I was raised. In a very white town, I, a white person, did not see what advancement would come with my activism, and truthfully I didn’t even have much of a medium in order to be an activist, or at least I didn’t notice whatever medium I had. And so I withdrew my consciousness from activism, and I noticed no longer.
But now I must notice. Not recreationally, but scholarly. And so I study the mistreatment of black people, specifically African-Americans, and the breadth of my understanding of racism, while not even close to complete, hangs over my head, and I am forced to reckon with the question: What do I do with this information?
The collection of poetry Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, by Marilyn Nelson begins with a preface. The preface, on page 13, begins as such; “Fortune was born; he died. Between those truths stretched years of drudgery, years of pit-deep sleep in which he hauled and lifted, dug and plowed, glimpsing the steep impossibility of freedom.” Fortune was an enslaved African-American who died of unknown causes, whose body was used in anatomical study, boarded up in a house, and then put in for display in a museum. There were millions of people like Fortune, who suffered immeasurably between those two truths. There were too many who had a similar fate to Fortune, becoming experiments, in life or death. There is an unending stream of misery sourced from racism. Almost everyone is aware of this truth, but how many of us think about it? Who’s to say really, but that’s besides the point. How much of a reminder do we need in our lives? How much do we let this pain and misery of the past affect us? How do you even quantify such a thing? For every Fortune, who gained posthumous fame for his mistreatment in death, there were hundreds of thousands who are forgotten to time. Their suffering brings us no enlightenment. I will spend much of this semester diving deep into our nation’s history of abuse of African Americans, just through the lens of medical mistreatment, and still I will see a tremendous amount of pain. A large portion of my semester will be directed solely towards this, and then I will maybe take another similar course or two or however many more, and in four years I will never have any academic commitment towards such thing’s again. So do I keep up to date, and continue to be haunted by the ghosts of our nation’s past, and the monsters who will remain in our nation’s present and future, when once again I am in my small white town, with no medium for my activism?
I am reading the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I am around a quarter of the way in. The novel is a Socratic dialogue between a relic of the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. By the 1990’s he is jaded and hopeless. He remains jaded in seeing an advertisement for a pupil who is interested in saving the world. The man, indignant after the counterculture movement provided no such world saving changes, goes to meet the teacher in order to ensure the teacher is a charlatan, as the man believes. The man is shocked when the teacher is a gorilla. Not any gorilla but a very wise one. After explaining how he had gotten to this point, the gorilla, Ishmael, say’s “The map. I have it. You don’t have to memorize the route. In other words, don’t if, at the end of the day, you suddenly realize you can’t remember a word I’ve said. That doesn’t matter. It’s the journey itself that’s going to change you.” I am not sure of the route, but I hope the journey will change me for the better.
Racism is at the course of this class and it’s given me reason to try and understand the racist actions I’ve been presented with. What is behind people’s racism? Is it inherent in people to want to find someone, or something to exclude? We see this with bullies and rejects. Is it just something of a misunderstanding that has just kept rolling down through the generations? Several generations of Americans could all own slaves, and all the baggage of those generations weighs more and more. How could you possibly think differently when your father, and his father and his father, and his father before that all found slavery, or discrimination, or racism to be fine? Especially when there is some incorrect scientific theory that you couldn’t possibly fact check backing your beliefs? Or is it really about exploitation? Is capitalism behind all of our struggles like some believe? Many defended slavery for years off of the basis that America’s economy would suffer without it. I am not sure, but I do believe these are some of the primary causes, and are all leading contributors to racism. In chapter 3 of Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid, we get an interesting combination of these three things with the case of Sartjee Bartman. Bartman, born in what is now South Africa, was taken advantage of, and shipped to Europe. In Europe, people used her in their theories that the Khoi people, the tribe that she was born in, were the missing branch between humanity and other primates. Bartman was considered very inferior, despite her obvious intelligence, as she could speak 4 languages. Bartman’s physique was analyzed endlessly, as it was unique in comparison to European women, and was excessively sexualized. At the end of her life, still in her 20’s, she was forced to act like a wild animal, while in a cage. Bartman spent her life mistreated, but was it more so because she was viewed as half human half animal? Or was it because her unique physiology caused her to be viewed as a walking experiment? Or was it because of the profits derived from her sexual exploitation? Well, clearly all three motives of racism were legitimate, but was was the driving force behind all of this? Or was there any in the first place, each motive just piling upon another? I don’t know. But at least now I notice.


Nelson, M., & Espeland, P. (2004). Fortune’s bones: The manumission requiem. Front Street.
Quinn, D. (1995). Ishmael. Bantam Books.
Medical apartheid the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. (2010). . Paw Prints.

“Fortune was born; he died.”

When we first started talking about the quotation used in this first line of Fortune’s Bones Preface, I was curious as to why we were spending so much of our class time on such minute detail. There was so much more to the preface, why spend so much time on punctuation? That was until we dove deeper into the meaning behind the punctuation, and what the author was conveying. The semicolon, in this context, was the author’s way of summarizing someone’s life in a sentence. The author summarizes Fortune’s life by saying the beginning and end of his life, the semicolon symbolizing everything in between. His life being summarized into a punctuation was the author’s way of showing that Fortune’s life, or the life of a slave, wasn’t important enough to elaborate on, and wasn’t worth talking about. That he was simply someone that lived and died. This exemplifies how all slaves were seen at that time, people who simply lived, died, and didn’t have any true essence. They were seen as objects, not people. Later in the preface, the author asks questions about what Fortune must have been like. For example, Marilyn Nelson says “Was Fortune bitter? Was he good or bad? Did he sometimes throw his head back and laugh?”(Nelson, 11) But all that was left of him was his bones, and no one remembered his life or his name. “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.” This topic of discussion has made me think about how valuable life is, as well as made me appreciate my life on a greater scale. My understanding of the value of life increased because of how easily someone reduced someone else’s life into nothing. This also increased my appreciation of my own life because my life is valued to its fullness. Furthermore, it’s a reminder to make sure that you don’t reduce others to something less than who they are. Another discussion in class that has had me thinking throughout my day to day life is the idea of bad faith versus good faith. I am constantly thinking of whether my actions are within good or bad faith. In relation to this, I make sure that the motives of my good faith actions aren’t corrupt. I think about why I do something, and if it is for the betterment or detriment of the other person. I have yet to experience a moment since that discussion where I acted in bad faith. However, I am positive that if I do find myself acting in bad faith, I will think back to that discussion and make myself aware of the fact that I acted in the wrong. Something else that I have been thinkING about from class is how reading aloud can help us understand a passage more clearly. I have been using this in my other classes, in addition to this one, and it is more helpful than I had anticipated it would be. When I read a passage over and I don’t understand what I’m reading, I think back to that discussion in earlier classes, and I apply that to difficult readings. For example, in my poetry reading and text class, our readings are by authors using old English, and though I have a general understanding of what they say, reading out loud has helped me tremendously when it comes to fully understanding the text. I think reading out loud during class is important for me to begin doing during class as well. This is because it will help me not only understand the text more clearly, but also increase my confidence in public speaking. Developing the confidence to raise my hand during class to read is something I am working on currently. I usually don’t have a problem with raising my hand to answer a question, however, it’s when I have to read out loud where my confidence falters. I realize that this is because I have a fear of embarrassment and failure in class, so I have trouble volunteering to read during class in case I pronounce something incorrectly. Lastly, my senior year of high school I had a project on the Tuskegee Syphilis study. A lot of what we are learning in this class is about racism and medical studies, which is what my project was on. Therefore, I am curious as to if I will be able to make connections to what I learned while making the project. I also watched the movie on Henrietta Lacks in senior year. I know that we are reading the book that the movie is about, and I am curious what else I have left to learn about it. I’ve been curious about what the book is actually like as well, since the movie is about the interviews from Henrietta’s daughter. I am curious to see how I have developed as a reader, writer, and person by the end of this course. 

Nelson, Marilyn. 2004. Fortune’s Bones. Front Street, Asheville, North Carolina.

The connection between curiosity and racism

The course epigraph “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” by Dionne Brand was given to us to get us thinking about the heavy topics that this course deals with. In this course we are reading books like Medical Apartheid by Harriet A Washington, and Fortunes bones by Marilyn Nelson. They talk in heavy detail about what enslaved people and people of color had to endure in the past. Medical Apartheid explains the painful procedures that were tested on black women. The epigraph makes me think, why did nobody recognize that this was wrong? And why did nobody ever try to speak out against these things? And I believe for many people it was normalized. Many believed what others had told them and copied what they did. If everyone else does it, it doesn’t matter right? This still happens everyday today. An example could be skipping class. If everyone else in your class starts to skip, you then think its okay for you to do as well, even though you might know its not a good decision.

In my previous years of school, I had learned about slavery, and the gist of what happened during it, and how it ended, but in just a few classes I have gained a whole new perspective on what life was like for an enslaved person. I knew that enslaved people were treated very badly but what we are reading is extremely inhumane and disturbing to think about how people willingly did these horrible things to other human beings. Most likely without having any remorse or regret for their actions. As scary as these things are to think about, I am glad I am learning about them, and gaining a new perspective. So that I am no longer ignorant as to how enslaved people were treated and how they lived.

One example of how enslaved people were treated is told in medical apartheid by Harriet A Washington, is in the epilogue on pages 1 and 2. A surgeon by the name of James Marion Sims would operate on enslaved black women and use them for research purposes. He wanted to find cures for Women’s disorders and opened the first Women’s hospital in New York City. He was heavily praised, some hospitals still use his name, and some still use the instruments he invented. Even with all of these accomplishments, the way he achieved these was wrong and immoral. He would restrain these women and perform procedures with no anesthesia. Some of the doctors would even have to leave because of how horrifying the scene was. (Washington, pg 1-2). Another example in this text is on page 103. Where a plantation worker by the name of Sam was in a lot of pain in his jaw. After years of pain, he could no longer work, and his owner brought a doctor to help him. The doctor discovered he had cancer and would need surgery to remove part of his jaw. Sam had said he didn’t want the surgery, but it wasn’t up to him it was up to his owner. It also mentioned that there were ten medical students and fifteen others that were interested in watching the surgery. The book quotes “when he finished, the surgeon noted with satisfaction that his surgical innovation had ‘proved its practicality… whether the patient is willing or not.” This shows that they truly only cared about their own accomplishments and benefits and had not care for the patient, who was the enslaved person. Almost like they didn’t even consider them human beings. These people were tortured for these doctors and medical students to learn, and for research to be conducted.

In class we have also read Fortunes Bones by Marilyn Nelson. In the preface the first line is “Fortune was born; he died” we discussed what the semicolon in the sentence means and how important it is. To me the semicolon holds his entire life. Being a slave Fortune’s life was taken away from him, and he was forced to do work and be owned by somebody else. So just like in the sentence the semicolon took away all the information about his life and about who he was as a person. After fortune died, scientists had studied his bones. They did not lay him to rest, and he served a purpose even in his death against his will.

Curiosity is something that I believe is so important for our lives. Curiosity fuels our desires, and passions. It also has paved the way for discoveries in medicine and in science. All discoveries that have been made in the past have all happened because someone was curious and asked a question. However, as I have discussed in this essay curiosity caused people to do some very inhumane things. Like Doctor sims, and how he would operate on enslaved black women against their will for his own curiosity and research purposes. And how Sam the plantation worker had part of his jaw cut off even though he didn’t want to, so that he could continue to do his work. And finally how Fortune’s bones were studied after he died. None of these people had a say in what happened to them, or how they were treated. They were forced to be the subjects so that others could develop and fuel their curiosities.

Works cited

Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid the Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Paw Prints, 2010.

Nelson, Marilyn, and Pamela Espeland. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Front Street, 2004.

Bringing Attention to All of the “Isolated Incidents”

Throughout all of my years of schooling thus far, and despite every science and pre-med course I’ve taken in college, not once have I ever heard of the concept called “medical racism.” That’s why I’m taking this course, because simply the name, “Literature, Medicine, and Racism,” made me curious about what topics we would learn about. Since reading a few chapters of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, the content she wrote about not only shocked me but also worried me. I couldn’t help but think, how is it that I’m just now coming across this knowledge? How many Americans know this version of the history of medicine from Washington’s perspective; or maybe the more important question is how many Americans don’t know this history? Throughout the last several classes I’ve been curious about how many more “isolated incidents” of medical racism have been surreptitiously silenced, hidden, or ignored during the history of medicine and healthcare in the United States. Furthermore, I’ve been wondering if the current institutions that produce healthcare workers and researchers have made students aware of the people who had suffered and never got recognition for their, usually uninformed and nonconsensual, dedication to science and research. I would argue that simply the acknowledgment of medical atrocities towards African Americans and other minority groups by the medical population in America could greatly change the relationship between doctors and their patients as well as the way medicine is practiced. 

One aspect of early American medicine that surprised me was how progress in this field of science was often due to the slave trade and the physician-and-planter relationship. Due to the mass importation of enslaved people to one general region of the U.S., Southern American medicine boomed for nearly two and a half centuries. Immense progress in medicine was due to, as Washington puts it, “clinical material” (Washington, 2006). Enslaved people were viewed as clinical material by planters in the South. Enslaved people served as training material for many physicians and researchers, which caused physicians to foster a strong relationship with planters. This relationship seemed to be mutually beneficial; physicians could practice and experiment with medicine without moral conduct, and the planters could keep their enslaved people alive in order to continue working for them. The usage of Black people during this time period objectified them and denied them of having any bodily autonomy. Out of everything I’d ever learned about slavery, the involvement of enslaved people in medicine was never mentioned. It’s disappointing to learn how little care physicians and researchers had for enslaved people but instead saw them as objects and projects. Perspectives like Washington’s help to provide crucial context to the bigger picture. The fact that doctors across the country saw Black people as “clinical material” clearly shows that these were not even close to isolated incidents.

Looking deeper into the physician-and-planter relationship, Washington describes instances where owners of enslaved persons restricted medical care due to accusing sick Blacks of malingering. On the other hand, owners of enslaved persons would bring in medical professionals to examine their slaves to figure out if they malingering. According to the definition from Oxford Languages, to malinger or malingering means to pretend to be ill, or feign illness in order to escape duty or work. Physicians and planters doubted the legitimacy of the claims their enslaved people made and were more concerned with putting them back to work. Planters often didn’t believe them and didn’t put forth any effort to take care of their mental well-being, but only cared about their physical, and mechanical well-being. In many cases, enslaved people did not receive medical care until it was too late, the medicine given made their conditions worse, and they often noticed physicians would provide the same “cures” for multiple different ailments. These patterns caused a lot of distrust in Western medicine. Soon, slaves began to conceal their illnesses out of their distrust of Western medicine. As Washington describes this trend, “In short, enslaved Blacks often eschewed Western medicine because they suspected their owners of a greater interest in them as capital than in their welfare” (Washington, 2006). These examples of neglectful medical practices resonate with the iatrophobia African Americans have experienced for centuries and into the present day. Again, for millions of Black Americans, across many regions of the country, these were not isolated incidents. As time moved forward, communities of enslaved people saw how they were objectified by White physicians; for many African Americans today, African Americans are less likely to seek treatment and overall have more restrictions to access healthcare (Armstrong, 2007). So statistically, in America, we see some diseases that are killing African Americans at higher rates than White Americans. For example, Black Americans have a 25 percent higher cancer death rate than their white counterparts. Black American women have a 20 percent higher cancer death rate than White women (National Cancer Institute, 2022). The reason why is not really biologically related, but rather is due to social constructs. The distrust between African Americans and doctors in the present day, while it is completely justified, is negatively affecting the health of this group of Americans overall. 

I was curious about how much distrust still exists among African Americans and doctors today, and I found many recent publications online about how American doctors are failing Black mothers. During pregnancy, Black American mothers-to-be often don’t receive enough communication from their doctors about all the risks they’re susceptible to while pregnant or simply aren’t listened to when describing health concerns. Several African-American women have spoken out about the injustices Black mothers have been subjected to by medical professionals. The lack of communication is similar to telling the truth but not the whole truth. This creates inequities in treatment between expecting mothers of different ethnicities. For example, American sprinter Allyson Felix spoke to Time Magazine in June of 2023 about her own experience and other women’s experiences of being neglected by their doctors while pregnant. She stated that many Black women like herself were not aware of health risks while being pregnant. To name a few, Serena Williams experienced a pulmonary embolism shortly after giving birth to her daughter via cesarean section, but her doctors initially dismissed her concerns for her health when she expressed them. Beyonce developed and was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a high blood pressure disorder that can occur during pregnancy and could later cause seizures. Felix herself developed preeclampsia too just days before giving birth. Sadly, in April of 2023, a former teammate of Felix’s, American sprinter Tori Bowie passed away while 8 months pregnant due to respiratory distress and eclampsia (Felix, 2023). A common trend across the experiences of the 4 women mentioned by Felix is the neglect in care by medical professionals, and their dismissive nature when health concerns are brought into the conversation. Whether those doctors realize it or not, the medical system in America has not trained healthcare workers to value the lives of Black women equally to White women, and furthermore, there are still racial disparities in maternal and infant health. 

Personally, I believe education on the history of these racial inequities should be mandatory for medical students. To be fair to themselves and to their patients, it’s important to understand the reality of America’s dark medical history. The way Americans practice medicine may even improve due to these acknowledgments. I wonder if every student was aware of the events Washington describes in Medical Apartheid, would their approach to patient care be different? Would it be enough to restore some trust in the American healthcare system? 


Armstrong, K., Ravenell, K. L., McMurphy, S., & Putt, M. (2007). Racial/Ethnic Differences in Physician Distrust in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 97(7), 1283–1289.  

Felix, A. (2023). Allyson Felix: Tori Bowie Can’t Die in Vain. Time. 

National Cancer Insitiute (2022). Cancer Disparities. 

Washington, H. A. (2006). Medical Apartheid The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Anchor Books.

Curioisty essay. Billy Bogue

Writing this essay was something I’ve never had the chance to do before. I was completely stumped and couldn’t really think of any ideas to write about. I was stressed, but realizing that I am in a situation where I have to make my own decisions, I can’t rely on anybody  helping me without taking the initiative to help myself. I decided to set up an appointment with Beth and go over the essay. Beth and I had a discussion, not just about my questions about the assignment, but also checking in on me as my college journey is just beginning. It has been overwhelming at times, and challenging to be in a new environment. After our meeting, I felt less concerned; I understand better what is expected of me.  I was feeling more comfortable as a college student, and also as a student learning in her class. I wanted to put this out first, because I am still learning and adapting to my new environment. It’s going to take a while for me to get used to my new world, but recognizing the challenges and being open minded to suggestions will help make the rest of my writing more comprehendible. With that being said, something that was very new to me as a student was having a course epigraph. Not knowing what that meant, hearing it being brought up in class had me confused. I had analyzed the course epigraph over 50 times. The number 50 might seem high but as I’m writing this, I still am looking over the course epigraph trying to fully get a better understanding each time I read it. The course epigraph states, “My  job is to notice…. and to notice that you can notice.” I didn’t really understand this epigraph until I spoke one on one with Beth. I believe that making that arrangement to speak with her about this assignment helped her understand that I am aware of how difficult college can be, but also that I am not alone. I was always afraid to go up to the teachers when I was younger to ask questions. I would  just hope that people would ask questions in  class and usually they did but now I am older and I have to start making my own decisions and start to find out my own curiosities, my own questions, and the only way I can solve problems is by making an initiative to go talk to Beth. Finding the confidence and being willing to be vulnerable will only help me throughout my college career; I must search for the answer and find help in getting it. Being proactive and a go-getter is  something I will be doing more often in this class. I am ready and willing to ask those difficult questions and to be ready to grapple with the topics I might find challenging in this course. 

As a multi racial student, I’ve been put into a new environment where my class is extremely diverse, something I’ve never witnessed before in education. This had me thinking all the way back from the September 8th notes, when the word “race” was being used. I hear about race a lot, not just in my own personal life, but also in my classes as well. Every class I’ve had at SUNY Geneseo has brought up  and mentioned the definition of race, and it all being the same open ended answer. Some teachers used less details than others, but what had me curious in this class was what definition would be used. I noticed that  Beth said she would   provide us with the working definition of “race” that would be used in class. “Race, of course, has no basis in scientific fact, but that doesn’t mean that some scientists weren’t trying to use science to establish it as such.” This is derived from Heng, who was an  author who specialized in social literacy and cultural encounters between societies in the period 500–1500 CE. Heng had a lot of credentials but so do a lot of other people who believe they know the definition of race and the issue surrounding it. As a student not knowing what race is on its own but also what this entails for the rest of the class had me being curious. Race is such a complex concept, and with Heng’s definition being given to us later on in class, it will be interesting to find the connection from Heng and use it with modern understandings. These discussions I believe will lead into the bigger question of Heng, race, and other concepts like faith, and tie that into medicine and literature. My curiosity in this class will always be high, as I get to learn something new every day, but I also get questioned at my own ability to comprehend such material. Being more than willing to be wrong and to be challenged will help me truly feel like I am a part of this class. I will always take what is being said and appreciate the constructive criticism, as this will help me graph the situation. I feel very comfortable showing my vulnerability in class, for example, Beth asked me a question to help answer the class discussion topic. I was so lost as I had no idea what the answer would be. Being called on and feeling comfortable to say I did not know instead of standing there, actually gave me confidence to communicate in a positive setting. I’m curious as to what this class will entail, what we will learn and how our readings will tie into the whole study of medicine. The real goal for me is to discuss and uncover the hardships of racial discrimination. My entire life has been based around issues with race and how my family has dealt with it.  I’ve dealt with racial discrimination and prejudice from an early age.  I’m hoping this class can teach me a better understanding of race and not only what it is but also see it from another perspective. This will hopefully teach me valuable lessons that I can use to help separate positive and negative interactions. I look forward to listening and learning from this  class, so that I have the ability to use the information in real life settings. I cannot wait to see what is in store for me and staying curious and inquisitive will help me learn and also adapt to my new environment. 

Curiosity Essay

Caitlyn Sullivan 

Professor McCoy 

Curiosity Essay 

25 September 2023 

Curiosity in College Life

Curiosity is based upon the idea of wanting to learn and understand a topic. Using curiosity helps an individual mind to grow and expand. Wanting to expand and lengthen understanding creates a positive learning environment. Our course epigraph, “My job is to notice … and to notice that you can notice”, drives my curiosity. This helps myself along with other individuals understand how any point is a valid point. Everyone has interests and opinions that are valid to one another. Hearing other individual’s opinions will help everyone to grow and expand their knowledge. Having curiosity is a common trait shared among all individuals. Curiosity may be one of the most common traits shared among individuals, especially young adults. College students and young children may be some of the most curious people. Young children are curious about the world around them. This is a new and different environment. Frequently individuals find young children touching everything or even putting anything in their mouth. This is based upon curiosity, wanting to know the taste and feeling of different objects or things. Along with young children, college students are also very curious individuals. First-year college students are most likely in a new environment surrounded by new people. Wanting to learn about this new place and wanting to get to know new people is very common for a first-year college student. This curiosity can be very intimidating, but it is very normal and common. Being an underclassman myself, I still find myself being curious about many things around campus. Whether this involves clubs or organizations I can join or just what is on the menu at the dining hall. I find curiosity in all aspects of my college life. 

College is a time when individuals find themselves in their adult life. College is a time of change and difference in all aspects of life. A new place, new people, and new experiences that can shape an individual into who they are as a person. Curiosity is a common aspect that I personally see within many different people I have met at college. We are all curious together. I will find myself relating with my roommates on different ideas that we are curious about. Living with people that are close to my age or my age makes us have many similarities. Whether this is about classes we are taking even closer to our own personal interests. People who are brought to you in college are individuals that you get close to so quickly.

Regarding interests in classes, I can find myself not being interested or unamused during classes. But, I have found myself very interested and excited throughout our English class. As a second-year student, I took classes my first year that held no interest to me. When selecting classes for my second year, I made sure to choose classes based on my interests. This class has met all the exciting expectations I have had for it. After finishing our first reading of the class, Fortune’s Bones, a newfound curiosity sparked my interest. I have noticed that I frequently think about life after death. What does this look like? What do I personally believe this looks like? What are my thoughts on the afterlife? These are just a few examples of questions that I asked myself after our in-class reading and discussion. A section of the reading that struck my attention was, “I was not this body, I was not these bones. This skeleton was just my temporary home. Elementary molecules converged for a breath, then danced on beyond my individual breath. And I am not my body, I am not my body” (Nelson 25). The thought of my own body not belonging to me had never crossed my mind until reading this section. An individual’s skeleton precisely being a pile of bones, not having feelings or human-like emotions. Once a soul has left a body that body no longer belongs to that individual. I have thought about this as a skeleton has become an object while the soul is the physical person. Personally, the idea of my body no longer belonging to me is frightening. This concept makes me want to take full advantage of any opportunity that is handed to me. We are all only on this earth for a specific amount of time, make the most of it. I want to make the most of my bones while they are mine. 

Curiosity can take over an individual. It can be frightening and very unknown. Curiosity is also a very positive concept. Curiosity can lead to a part of an individual’s imagination that they had never discovered. Using your imagination can bring you to a different place that can positively affect you. When I am struggling mentally or physically, I imagine myself during a happy time of my life. Whether I imagine myself on vacation with my family or just eating my favorite food, this affects me in very positive ways. Your imagination also helps with your creativity. Being creative is a significant way to help clarify curiosity or strengthen one’s curiosity. This has a very positive impact on individuals, but curiosity can also have a negative impact on individuals. Curiosity can cause individuals to get too far into their heads While reading, Fortune’s Bones, I found myself getting too much in my head. A part of the reading that confused my curiosity was, “Well, I woke up this morning just glad to be free, glad to be free, glad to be free. I woke up this morning in restful peace” (Nelson 27). This quote can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. I interpret this as being separated from your own body creates a feeling of being free. When thinking about my own curiosity I would think being separated from your own body would be a different feeling. A feeling of sadness and abandonment. This different feeling of curiosity can have negative effects on individuals. 

Curiosity has positive and negative effects on individuals. Using curiosity helps people to feel more in touch with their creative selves. Strengthening one’s mind and soul by growing intellect and intelligence. College life can cause individuals to be more in touch with their curiosity. Being in a new environment surrounded by new people. This can be scary but be curious. Ask questions. Become a new person. Be courageous and curious because our bones are only ours for a certain amount of time, take advantage of it. 

Works Cited: 

Nelson, Marilyn, and Pamela Espeland. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Front Street, 2004. 


The course epigraph is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”–Dionne Brand, from notes that Beth took during the question-and-answer session following Brand’s March 2, 2013 reading at the Northeast Modern Language Association in Toronto”. Throughout the course so far, there have been many readings that represent this quote, including “Medical Apartheid” and “Fortune’s Bones”. After the readings, and discussions with classmates, I realized all of these things that I didn’t notice until I read about it and discussed it. Discussing with classmates also helps to notice ideas or topics that may not have been as obvious to me. The epigraph has got me thinking about noticing other classmates’ perspectives, and understanding that it will be different than my own. I look forward to taking this class so that I can gain different perspectives and discuss these crucial topics with my peers.

One of the books we have begun reading is “ Medical Apartheid” by Harriet Washington. After reading a few chapters of “Medical Apartheid”, it got me thinking about how unnoticed, past and present, racism in the United States has been. An example in the book that really stuck with me was P.T. Barnum. I had really only heard good things about him until I read this book. He caused harm to many people and one of them was Joice Heth who was an elderly black woman who was blind and almost fully paralyzed. Because of her condition, he claimed Joice was 161 years old. Also, in order to make her look even older than she was, he forcefully pulled all of her teeth out. He wanted to take advantage of her and used alcohol in order to do this because he knew that was her weakness. This was very shocking to me especially because many people, including myself, have idolized P.T Barnum. I had this idea in my head that he was a good person, and just wanted to help these people. However, I was completely misguided. There even is a movie about him, showing that he is a wonderful person. In “The Greatest Showman” they portrayed him in a different light and did not show the true story of his life. This movie was really popular, and I know many people who say it is their favorite. Thinking about this now, I am shocked that producers made this movie and most likely were aware of the things he had done to people of color. Until I read this book, I had no idea about the things that Barnum did, and I’m sure many other people feel the same way. It made me question: Why are people portraying him as such a good person, and not showing how harmful he actually was? This portrayal of P.T. Barnum also got me thinking about how many other important figures have been portrayed in this good light as well. “Medical Apartheid” does a great job showing how prevalent racism is and has been, and how people have been glorified even though they have done terrible things.

In “Medical Apartheid” it is also shown how black patients were abused by doctors and used just for medical research. Doctors thought that black people had high pain tolerances, so they were put through procedures without numbing or anesthesia and were forced into excruciating pain. They were humiliated in front of people and were tortured for research that we still use today. Yet, as Harriet Washington points out, none of this was documented in the doctor’s notes. As someone who wants to go into the medical field, I think this is important to know and everyone should be made aware of this history. I knew that there was a lack of representation in medicine, but did not know that it had gone to this extent. It is disheartening to see that people who claim to want to help other people (doctors) are willing to put someone through this. Since reading this, it really has made me think about our healthcare system overall and how harmful it has been to so many people when it is supposed to be a system that helps everyone. I hope to learn more about this throughout the course in order to gain a better understanding.

We also read “Fortune’s Bones” by Marilyn Nelson. On page 13, the first line is “Fortune was born; he died.” We discussed this line in class, and many people had differing opinions on what it meant. To me, it means that he lived his life, and then died. What was between these two events was seemingly not important enough to share. It’s almost as if the author just overlooked his entire life. He just lived to die. However, there are many other interpretations that could be applied to this one line. This just shows how even one small sentence can bring all these different perspectives together. When I first read this line, I didn’t really think it could be interpreted in another way, until the class began talking. It made me realize that different perspectives are so important in understanding the material and topics. This ties back to the “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”

During class, a passage by Geraldine Heng was read in order to effectively define the definition of race. Heng states that “race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.” By saying this, Heng is explaining that race is solely based on structure, and was created for society to deal with the differences between humans. As a society, race has been used to exploit and harm people of color. Although the United States has come a long way, racism is still very prevalent today and is a systemic issue. Learning this definition of race will be very useful as we go further on in this class. As a biology major, in many of my classes, we learn that race is a distinct evolutionary lineage within a species. I am glad I was able to see it from a different perspective, and even learn a new definition that makes more sense. But so far, this class has taught me a lot and I have begun to see things in a different way which I am grateful for. I am looking forward to continuing learning and challenging myself in this course because it is very different from other courses that I have taken. I hope that discussing these topics with my classmates will help to broaden my understanding and help me in my future endeavors.