The quote, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” by Dionne Brand was introduced to me, along with the prompt to discuss it, and what it evokes thoughtfully within me. The problem is not with the quote, but rather with the question. I was asked what it made me curious about; I’ve never been given a question like that before, with so much freedom, no borders, and no directions. Even with previous projects where I would create my own thesis, there still was some direction I was given that allowed a sense of comfort. A question like this frightens me because it’s new. While struggling with this question, I asked my professor for help for any direction, and she took my perspective of fear and turned it into something that I could use. I understood that my problem was more tangible than I’d originally thought. With that change in perspective, I finally found an answer. What does the quote, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” make me think about? It makes me think about teachers, and how they must be able to teach with all different kinds of thinkers. I didn’t have a clear answer looking at the prompt, and yet, my professor figured out a way to interpret my jumbled thoughts and find something within that I could work with.
One thing I’ve realized is that this assistance I received from my professor is not something new to me. In high school, specifically my senior year, I had a lot of projects that I needed to create my own thesis for. My teachers were there to help guide me in a direction based on my strengths and jumbled thoughts. According to Professor Nwabara, “I’m learning alongside my students”. She teaches students and learns from them as well; she notices what students notice, and learns from that how to teach better. This assistance has been similar to an escape from the honors system I’ve been accustomed to. With this freedom from a prompt, I no longer have the limits of what I should specifically be doing, holding me back from my full potential.
Another thing I’ve realized is that this system I’ve grown up in is a great metaphor for the history of medicine in the United States and the abuse and torture faced by Black people during that history. I noticed how the direction I’m normally given is all that I’ve known for a long time. As an honors student, I was conditioned into a perfect student who is always looking ahead rather than on the two feet in front of me. I was given a prompt and told exactly how to write it so I could succeed; nevermind my own creative input. In English 203: African Lit Criticism, I read a poem by Langston Hughes, titled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, about the lives of Black people in the United States during the Harlem Renaissance. Black people were having a cultural revolution in Manhattan, and it was an explosion of Black arts like music, literature, and artwork. But, there were some Black people that chose to denounce Black culture its entirety. Hughes illustrates, “standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization”. Like how I was conditioned to be a perfect student, Black people were conditioned to be a “perfect” American.
Black culture was squashed under White oppression through all of American history. So much of what Black people created within the country and brought over from Africa was unimportant because they were “inferior”. As Dionne Brand wrote, “When the Spanish arrived the thousands of years of the Inca collapsed into one earthen bowl. All of their lives collapsed into one life. A summary”. With this, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls, “single story”, and often a very tainted one, Black people were subjected to cruel lives and treatment. They were enslaved, experimented on, shown off like a kid at show-and-tell. In the book, Medical Apartheid, it states,
Physicians and owners controlled and transformed the nature of the bodies they displayed by enhancing the distinctiveness of their appearances and by showcasing them in a propagandistic environment that emphasized freakishness, evolutionary inferiority, and beastiality.
In the time this novel speaks of, there was so little freedom for Black people in the United States that they could be paraded around like explained in the quote, without any consideration for what they wanted. No one asked the enslaved man Fortune whether he cared about being dissected after his death. And yet, he was. There are graphic depictions of what the physician felt as he took apart Fortune’s body in the book. The author, Marilyn Nelson describes,
Note well how death softens the human skin, making it almost transparent, so that under my reverent knife- the first cut takes my breath away; it feels like cutting the whole world- it falls open like bridal gossamer… standing on a new continent… In profound and awful intimacy, I enter Fortune, and he enters me.
Note words such as “gossamer”, “continent”, and “profound”. This is written in a grotesque manner that reminds me of Frankenstein, and it’s gothic and monstrous descriptions of Victor Fankenstein’s feelings with his god complex in creating life. It’s uncomfortable. On top of this objectification of Black people were inequalities that spanned for decades, such as legalized segregation from Plessy V Feguson in 1896 that wasn’t overturned until Brown V Board of Education in 1954, Jim Crows laws, and Literacy tests that prevented African Americans from voting, even though the fifteenth amendment made it a law. There was an entire movement for civil rights in the 1960s, and continuous public outcry since such as the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
Geraldine Heng once described race as, “a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content”. In other words, race is a relatively unimportant aspect of a person or their character that has been blown out of proportions to mean something much more significant in society. Race shouldn’t affect people, and yet, we have centuries of history to prove that it has done just that. In every field of study, there has been racial inequality. In literature, Black people often don’t get as many or as correct representations given of them. In medicine, Black people were used as subjects for experimentation, sometimes because of the preconceived notion that they had a higher pain tolerance than White people. This was false. And yet, this was a system that persisted from back then until today. Some groups such as the Republican party in the United States choose to ignore that this is an issue, while the Democratic party sees it as very paramount. The truth is that it is a systemic issue that has been around for centuries, shaping our history and beliefs. Just as I was raised and molded into a system that required me to be perfect and think a certain way, our entire culture and society in the United States is a mold of systemic racism that is so prominent that it can go unnoticed because of its commonness. It’s in our schools, politics, and communities. It is up to us to break that mold and free ourselves from the beliefs we were given.
Adichie, Chimamanda. 2009. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Ted.com.
Brand, Dionne. 2018. The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos. N.p.: Duke University Press.
Heng, Geraldine. 2018. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. N.p.: Cambridge University Press.
Hughes, Langston. 1926. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. N.p.: The Nation.
Nelson, Marilyn. 2004. Fortune’s bones: the manumission requiem. N.p.: Astra Publishing House.
Nwabara, Olaocha. 2023.
Washington, Harriet A. 2008. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. N.p.: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.=