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.

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