Our course epigraph is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” by Dionne Brand. When I read this quote, it reminded me of the first day of class when we were shown a video of Homer Simpson backing up into a bush. This video symbolized the general theme of the class and how we, as a group of students, will be communicating with each other as well as learning from one another (With the guidance of our professor). Communicating with classmates in our randomly assigned groups allows us to view ideas and information through a completely different lens than before. It also helps us to notice details that we may not have beforehand without the input of others, which sparks the thought of perspective. Particularly how many different perspectives there are in the books that we’re reading in class, and how these perspectives ended up harming not only the people during the timeline of the books, but also those for generations after. The perspectives I’m talking about are those of racism and the perspective that doctors had on African Americans and enslaved people in the books.
Before I was first introduced to Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, I had no idea that medicine and the medical field were so closely related and intertwined with racism, and how medicine was used against members of the African American community. In-class conversations as well as the books we are reading really brought these issues to light for me. Because doctors and those in the medical field did not see African Americans as equals and rather saw them as test subjects and people that they could do cruel experiments on without consent, countless innocent people have died from some of the most heinous experiments I’ve ever heard of.
Something that would exemplify these experiments and the perception that enslaved people were seen as test subjects is described in Medical Apartheid. Sam is a slave that had a problem with his jaw causing him to stay awake at night, and further hardening his work. His owner was aware of this and used a home remedy of boiling water to “fix” it. When the issue progressed, Sam’s owner got in contact with a doctor because he needed Sam to continue working for him. This presents the idea that Sam is seen as solely a worker. Washington states on page 101 that, “Dr. Marion J. Sims, [told] Sam’s owner that only an operation carried hope of a cure. But Sam vehemently and repeatedly refused, protesting that it would ‘hurt too bad’”. Sam is obviously very much against the idea of this experiment but because Sam was enslaved, it was not his choice but rather the decision of his owner. When Sam was in the surgery room he was strapped to the chair and he had a chunk of his lower jaw removed. We are not told if the surgery was actually a true success or not but Dr. Sims had said that “Sam’s mouth is always open in a wide grin” (Washington 103), which I find quite disturbing. Because Sam was an enslaved person, he had no option to refuse this medical experiment and the doctors were able to legally get away with doing this to a human being.
Another example of an inhumane experience caused by doctors’ perspectives on African Americans is the tragic case of Saartjie Baartman. Baartman was a female servant, possibly enslaved, that was given to British naval surgeon Dr. William Dunlop. She sailed with him to London in 1810 where she would unknowingly “become an object of unbridled medical curiosity and physical lust” (Washington 83). Baartman is from South Africa and is a member of the Khoisan hunter-gatherers. Khoi women had very “endowed figures” and “Most scientists agreed that the hot, damp tropical climate created a licentiousness and sexual profligacy in African women that was unknown among European women” (Washington 83). Meaning that the men took a very sexual and demeaning interest in Baartman and other Khoi women. Even though the men were aroused by her, “scientists believed that African women in general and Khoi women in particular had oversized inner labia that hung down when they stood” (Washington 83). This, in turn, resulted in many men of science to have a peaked interest in her. They would travel from all around Europe to come analyze her buttocks and her extended inner labia. The “experiments” that were done on her would hardly be experiments at all. They would violate her and rape her and dress her up in animal skins with spears and bones as accessories. Washington states that, “Over the next five years, Baartman met with much rougher usage. She was made to stand naked at parties of the wealthy and to impersonate a chained animal in garish Piccadilly, where the mob paid a shilling a head to gape and shout vulgarities. They began by staring at her in disgust, progressed to laughing at her, and ended by being aroused by her” (Washington 84-85). Even though these men originally were disgusted by her and verbally assaulted her, they ended with a view of appeal.
These passages have sparked curiosity in my mind about the different perspectives that African Americans and enslaved people received. In the experiment with Sam, he was treated horribly and he was forced to partake in a dangerous and painful experiment without any consent. This shows that one way enslaved people were perceived was as an object of experimentation, and that anything was able to be done to them. And in the experiment or experience involving Baartman, while she did have unspeakable and unfair things happen to her, she was still seen as an appeal to men. Something I would like to figure out or learn from this course is why simple differences in skin color and physical appearance can change the entire way someone is perceived.
So far, I really enjoy this course. With most books I read and classes I take, I find that a lot of information is pretty much useless. This class however, is constantly giving me information that I think everyone should be given an opportunity to take in. During class discussions, I truly love hearing other people’s ideas and viewpoints because it offers fresh perspectives that can be useful to our work. The theme of this course is determined by the course epigraph, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” It’s all about expressing your own thoughts while respectfully and actively listening to those of your peers. I’m eager to finish this course and continue to learn through the readings, conversations, and writing assignments.
Washington, Harriet A.. Medical Apartheid. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.