The Interconnectedness of Literature, Medicine, and Racism: Stereotypes, Consent, and the Separation of the Mind and Body

Within my college course entitled “DPP in American Lit: Lit, Medicine, & Racism,” we have started to examine the connections between the disciplines of literature and medicine as well as the pervasiveness of racism within both fields. In reading Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones and select chapters from Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, I have acquired a greater understanding regarding the origins of racism within the medical field and how this discrimination was simultaneously extended to the appalling societal treatment of Black people throughout history. Washington’s novel provides the reader with an account of the egregious medical wrongdoings committed against Black people across several centuries while Nelson’s poem centers around the life of an enslaved man named Fortune of whom only scant details can be gleaned from the historical record. However, I am still curious to learn more about the inherent relationship between literature and medicine and how these disparate fields have collaborated over the centuries to reinforce harmful stereotypes, lack of consent, and the separation of the body from the mind.

Many of the depictions of Black people within literature are fueled by stereotypes that originated within the medical profession. Harriet Washington enumerates several of these stereotypes within her novel Medical Apartheid, as she mentions in chapter 3 that a prominent 19th century physiologist named Baron Georges Cuvier 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.” This direct comparison of Black people to animals suggests that Cuvier and many of his contemporaries considered people of color to be somehow less than human. In other words, Black people were deemed by many as being unworthy of fundamental human rights and dignity based on the erroneous belief that they were inherently inferior to white people. Such conjectures by individuals within the medical community likely contributed to harmful portrayals of Black people within popular literature which may have encouraged the repugnant treatment of Black people by most of society well into the 20th century.

Another stereotype perpetuated by the medical community is illustrated within chapter 4 of Medical Apartheid as Washington notes that “Blacks were believed to sleep more, feel pain less, endure heat better and cold worse, and be more prone to fevers, tetanus, syphilis, yaws, and tuberculosis but resistant to yellow fever and malaria. Their skins were thought thicker, their brains smaller; they were characterized as sexually precocious and intellectually retarded.” Such propaganda undoubtedly encouraged doctors to conduct callous experiments on people of color that they wouldn’t have dared to carry out upon white people. It also effectively gave medical professionals the “permission” to dismiss the opinions of anybody who dissented to these practices on the basis of moral grounds. The doctors could simply claim that the medical journals confirmed that Black people were more physically expendable than white people as a justification for their actions.

Until recent decades, there has been a pervasive lack of consent within the medical realm especially in regard to Black people. This disconcerting notion has been well-documented in medical journals and personal accounts as evidenced throughout chapters 3 and 4 of Medical Apartheid. In particular, Harriet Washington notes in chapter 4 of her novel that Black people were often the unwitting subjects of harmful procedures during the 1800s such as gratuitous amputations performed without the use of anesthesia. Such operations appear to have been especially routine for enslaved people as they were viewed by doctors as being even more subhuman than their free counterparts. In fact, most doctors during this period would have been unperturbed by an enslaved patient who was staunchly opposed to these experimental surgeries. Denying Black people the opportunity of informed consent likely reinforced the idea that their opinions were irrelevant because they were subservient to white people. This notion could easily have been passed down to successive generations of doctors through anecdotes, medical journals, and even popular literature. The repercussions of such malevolent thoughts were felt not just within the medical community but also within society as a whole, with the general public viewing Black people in a similarly degrading manner and consequently refusing to allow them equitable treatment under the law.

Marilyn Nelson explores the topic of consent as well as the separation of the mind from the body within Fortune’s Bones as she laments the fate of an enslaved man named Fortune who was forced to devote his entire life to serving his enslaver, Dr. Preserved Porter. Fortune endured a lifetime of difficult manual labor and even in death he remained within Porter’s control as Porter decided to dissect Fortune’s body under the guise of scientific advancements. This deliberate separation of Fortune’s mind from his body arguably enabled Porter to view Fortune as merely an object rather than a sentient human being. It is likely this thought process that allowed Porter to both enslave Fortune and to dissect his body without any sort of moral quandaries or a basic regard for Fortune’s humanity.

The idea of separating Black peoples’ minds from their bodies is referenced within chapter 3 of Medical Apartheid as Washington recalls the story of a man named Ota Benga who was captured from his home and taken to America where he was displayed as a public spectacle in a zoo and characterized as being nothing more than a braindead savage. While there were many dissenters to Benga’s inhumane treatment, it is highly disturbing to think that anybody would willingly gawk at a human being trapped in a cage and think that he somehow deserved to be in that position. Perhaps this general acceptance of Benga’s situation was based on the deeply misguided assumption that Black people lacked the presence of an inner life. In other words, Black people could simply be reduced to their bodies and nothing more. It seems apparent that any display of intellectual prowess on the part of a Black individual had to be disregarded in order to maintain the illusion that White people alone possessed a superior intellect.

An additional example of separating the mind from the body is found within chapter 4 of Medical Apartheid as Washington discusses the fact that doctors viewed Black people solely as “‘clinical material’-human bodies upon which they could practice diagnosis, treatment, and, finally, autopsy and dissection.” Such doctors likely rationalized their abhorrent treatment of Black patients by considering Black people as nothing more than their bodies. As Black people were purportedly devoid of the intellectual and emotional faculties present within white people, medical professionals were not concerned with the well-being of their Black patients. These ideas of Black people being inferior to white people were explicitly and implicitly contained within medical literature and were thus continuously engrained in the minds of white practitioners. Perhaps such notions are what allowed both doctors and enslavers to avoid culpability for their reprehensible treatment of Black people.

It is very apparent that medicine and racism have been intertwined since antiquity and that this connection has been maintained through literature. Analyzing the parallels between Medical Apartheid and Fortune’s Bones in terms of their explorations of a Black experience centered around stereotypes, lack of consent, and a separation of the body from the mind was an illuminating experience. I look forward to discovering how such topics are depicted within the upcoming works associated with this course (namely, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark, and Toni Morrison’s Home) as well as how these portrayals differ from those contained within Medical Apartheid and Fortune’s Bones.

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