The Process of Self Reflection

If you were to ask me a year ago if I would be interested in taking a class called “Literature, Medicine, and Racism”, I would say no, not at all. Not because it doesn’t sound interesting—it definitely does, but because two of the words in the course title are pretty intimidating to me: literature and medicine. I have always felt as though my general English skills were never that strong—though I was a good student in high school, reading and writing were never really my favorite activities, nor were they my strong suits, and I felt like my grades in my English courses generally reflected that which is why “literature” may have turned me away from this course at first. But when it comes to “medicine”, that’s a different (and far more embarrassing) story—I’m definitely the type to pass out at the mention of most medical procedures (and I absolutely have done so on a few more than several occasions). However, during registration at freshman orientation this past summer, I decided it would be a good idea for me to expand my horizons a little and take an English course—specifically, this English course— and because of the learning opportunities I have had in this course, I am so glad I did. ENGL-101 Literature, Medicine, and Racism has taught me so much in terms of my abilities as an English student and in terms of the content I have had the opportunity of learning in the course.

One thing I have learned about in taking this class is my ability now to notice. In being more open to noticing new things, I have been able to see new connections—ranging from connections within the course materials (being the literature, the secondary readings, and/or our class discussions) to connections from classes I’ve taken in the past and my own life experiences to this course. This capability to notice more has been helpful in building my abilities as a student. As we approached the end of the course, the epigraph came up again as a point of discussion for us all to reflect upon.  The course epigraph, as stated in the syllabus, is: “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” This quote from Dionne Brand was constantly present in our class, whether it was brought up momentarily in a discussion or if it was in the back of our minds.

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In her comments on one of my earlier blog posts, “The History of Zombies”, Dr. Beth mentioned: “Note your use of the verb “consume”–can you make something of this, go deeper in a subsequent post?” I spent a lot of time wondering and thinkING about how I could make a blog post out of a word that is used so unreservedly and is so flexible in its definition—and it is very flexible in its definition. Merriam-Webster has a total of five definitions listed for “consume”: to do away with completely, to spend wastefully (or to use up), to eat or drink especially in great quantity (or to enjoy avidly), to utilize as a customer, and to engage fully. In the way that I used “consume” in my previously mentioned blog post, I feel as though it best fits the definition of “to engage fully”.

But in thinkING and looking at these definitions, I can see how they apply to and connect to so much of what we have done in Literature, Medicine, and Racism this semester.

One of the first things I remember doing in this course was reading Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson aloud in class. So much of this work from Nelson stuck out to me—from the actual story of Fortune being told to the individual words she used to tell the story, there was so much to pay attention to. The combination of these two factors came into play in so many cases, including, “Fortune’s legacy was his inheritance: the hopeless hope of a people valued for their labor, not for their ability to watch and dream as vees of geese define fall evening skies” (Nelson, 13). As an outsider of Fortune’s life, this line from Nelson is a demonstration to me of how Fortune’s life and legacy were consumed by doing work and the value of this work that he had no say in doing. For many today, we look at legacies as who someone was and what they accomplished in their lifetime. However, when someone doesn’t get a say in what their life consisted of, this is completely unfair to do. This is a large part of why I find that, in Fortune’s case, I think the word consume can be used to describe the way his life and legacy were spent and used up on things he didn’t get to choose.

However, on the flip side of Fortune’s Bones, there were many who found themselves consumed by Fortune’s story. In the “Afterword” of Fortune’s Bones, Marie Galbraith, the Executive Director of the Mattatuck Museum, describes how there was a process lasting three years to restore and uncover the history behind Fortune and his bones. Galbraith goes on to discuss how many people were involved in this process—the Mattatuck Museum’s staff, a team of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, and researchers—and describes the process as being a “community-based project from its beginning” (Nelson, 31). I find it so incredible that so many people would be willingly consumed with the story of a man whose life and legacy were both consumed by a story he didn’t get to choose.

In seeing how the word “consume” could be used to describe so much of what happened in Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones, I also have thought back on other works we have read and thought about how “consume” can apply to them too.

In Toni Morrison’s Home, Frank Money was consumed with anxiety about what had happened to his sister. In Zulus by Percival Everett, the primary government of the people was consumed with the desire (and, depending on who you ask, the need) to control their population. Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark shows what could be the outcome of a community being consumed by a mind and body controlling microorganism. Zone One by Colson Whitehead shows a human population being consumed (in several definitions of the word) by a population of former humans who were now skeles.

With the way all of these works of literature connect back to the word “consume” in some way and to various extremes, I’m beginning to see how important the flexibility of language is. My classmate Rachel Cohen wrote a blog post called “Words”, where she discusses a different aspect of the complexities of language—how where we are from can alter the way in which we say certain words. These complexities and those like them are things I have never (or almost never) thought about before. However, in taking this class, I have discovered so much more about how it is the complexities we see in language that make it so interesting. The way we view and interpret these complexities will ultimately affect how we see the stories told through the literature we read for this class. Make sure that when you encounter these complexities, you let them consume your thoughts for a moment and let that consumption give you a new understanding of what you’re working with.

The Zoot Suit Riots

Back in September, while reading Toni Morrison’s Home, we had group discussions in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, as we would continue to for the rest of the semester. In one of these group discussions, we were asked to create a list of questions we had about Parts 1 & 2 of Home. Someone in my group asked the question: “Who is the man in the blue suit that keeps appearing?”

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The Land of the Free

A phrase that many Americans can never seem to let go of is “the land of the free and the home of the brave”, a quote directly from our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key describing our nation at the end of the War of 1812. The idea of freedom is something that has been present in our country since the beginning. Our country was founded on the concept of freedom and it is reflected in our national anthem—we wanted freedom from the British reign over what was, at the start, colonies, and we reached freedom by whatever means we felt necessary.

Today, the concept of freedom has far from faded from the American public eye as a symbol for our country. We hear people talk about the military by saying “they fight for our freedom” and individuals are constantly bringing up how unique America’s freedom is (in the way that “the land of the free” keeps reappearing as a portion of our nation’s go-to phrases), but what does freedom mean?

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Eugenics and Forced Sterilization

During my senior year of high school, I took a class called Human Rights and Genocide. A lot was covered in a course that only spanned half the time of a typical high school course—it was an elective offered at my high school, so instead of being every day all year long, it was every day for the first half of the year. In those five months, we covered topics ranging from the Holocaust and genocides in the past to violations of human rights that are happening today. This class was probably one of the most memorable I’d taken in high school, but I didn’t really expect it to connect to my future education. I was really wrong with that expectation. Less than a year later in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, one of the topics we covered in Human Rights and Genocide came to my attention again: forced sterilization.

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Last night, my grandfather (who my sisters, cousins, and I all call Papa) came over to my house for dinner. With him, he brought pictures of him and some of his old friends from a beach trip they all took back in 1961 to show us. He went through one of the photos naming all of his friends, and as soon as he got to the last one on this picture, he just stopped and said: “I remember what we used to call him—like his nickname—but I don’t remember his actual name”. After a few minutes of trying to think of his name, my papa became upset by this, and it was bugging him a lot, so he decided to call one of his friends who was in the photo with them and who he has remained very close with through all of these years. Unfortunately, he didn’t know either. My papa tried to move on, and the conversation eventually moved past that, but after a little while, he finally remembered. Remembering and knowing this man’s name was important to him.

While sitting at the table during dinner with my family, I started to think: names are important to us. This is something that I had known, and it is something that, as a class, we have talked about several times in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, but this is one of the first times that I had seen something like this in action—someone’s name being lost over time and only remembered by something they were called almost 60 years ago.

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In-Groups and Out-Groups

This semester at Geneseo, I am taking COMN 103, Intro to Interpersonal Communication. As a Communication major, this course is a requirement, but in taking it, I have begun to believe everyone should take it if they are presented with the opportunity to. This course has taught me information on how to be a better communicator with my interpersonal relationships, and it has also taught me why individuals and groups communicate in the ways that we do.

One concept that we learned about was the pairing of in-groups and out-groups. Personally, I had heard about these groups before, but it was during this class when it clicked how relevant they were in so many different ways. According to the textbook for this class, Interplay: The Process of Interpersonal Communication, in-groups are the groups to which we identify as a part of, and out-groups are those that we view as “different” than ourselves, or those that we do not feel as though we are a part of. The concept of the two distinct groups, I believe, appeared as a constant theme of Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark, especially in the manner that certain members of the Maslin family behaved throughout the duration of the novel.

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Deadly Diseases and Consent

I would like to re-introduce you to what has been discussed in class as an ENGL-101 life preserver: consent. Consent is a huge part of what this course is about, and I have found that there are more situations where consent is important than the short list of what I initially thought.

Consent is a huge topic in Clay’s Ark, as previously discussed in our group blog post; however, the topic of consent doesn’t just stop there. The plot of Clay’s Ark revolves around the idea of an organism taking control of a host. This organism compels the host to infect others with the disease by whatever means necessary: “[Eli] was not an animal, not a rapist, not a murderer. Yet he knew that if he let himself be drawn to the woman, he would rape her. If he raped her, if he touched her at all, she might die” (Butler, 469).

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The History of Zombies

In class this Monday, Dr. Beth talked about how there are two paths that one could go down when talking about zombies: either the pop culture path (which has many branches of its own and it continues to grow) or the historical path, which is rooted in Haitian culture going back to the 17th Century.

In the past, I have heard about how there was a deeper history to zombies than just appearing in American movies and TV shows, but I had never known much about it. Considering how zombies (or skeles) are a large part of the plot of Zone One by Colson Whitehead, I thought it would be a good idea for me to learn about where the concept and myth of zombies came from. Though I personally have never had much of a fascination (or even vague interest) with zombies and the culture surrounding zombies in entertainment, I still think learning more of the history of this now incredibly popular subgenre of horror would be beneficial to me and my understanding of the literature.

As explained by Mike Mariani in “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies”, an article for The Atlantic, there is so much more to the history of zombies than what movies, television, and other forms of entertainment would suggest. Mariani claims that the origins of zombies are rooted in folklore from those who were enslaved in Haiti from 1625 to about 1800. The enslaved individuals were originally from Africa, and when they arrived in Haiti, they were treated with a complete lack of humanity as a result of the slavery of the time. It was at this time that the ideas of the undead became a subject that had immense importance to the enslaved people in Haiti. Many of these people believed that the only way they could ever be free was if they died. However, if they were to kill themselves, they would “be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie.” Essentially, they believed that if they were to kill themselves, they would lose all hopes of freedom, and be permanently trapped in their body as a slave, turning into what we all know as a “zombie” today. The initial concept of the zombie was a clear demonstration of how much these individuals suffered both physically and mentally, as they were fearful of the afterlife in the hypothetical event where the pain and suffering endured during slavery didn’t end for individuals with their death.

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The Medical Practice of Consent

The quote from Dionne Brand as the course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” made me look at this course from a new perspective. I interpreted this as essentially saying everything that we do is a two-way interaction and should be treated as such. I think this has already been reflected several times in this course already. The primary example of this is the ENGL-101 Life Preserver.

The ENGL-101 Life Preserver has two things for us to pay attention to: “Both/And” and “Consent”. I want to put an emphasis on the consent aspect of the life preserver. We all have heard about consent before, but most of us have only heard it being used in limited contexts. Obviously, we know consent is incredibly important, but there have been countless times where, in various situations, consent has been and still is ignored.

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