The course epigraph for ENGL 101 Literature, Medicine, and Racism is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” by Dionne Brand. Meaning, during this course, as readers and thinkers, we need to realize and bring attention to situations that one may have not noticed before. With that being said before entering this class, I had already created a preconceived notion that my classmates, even possibly my professor, would have an ignorant mindset. Would they genuinely understand a heavy topic such as racism, when they have a privileged lifestyle? However, as the classed developed, and we began having discussions, I realized my judgments were wrong. My classmates were openminded and understanding people. That Professor McCoy was mindful of the topic while still including the challenges that came with talking about racism. Furthermore, as my judgments were debunked, my focus was redirected. I started to connect with the characters in the novels, feeling as if a piece of my identity had been written. Though with those connections came an unimaginable burden, that changed me from a speaker to a listener. I changed because I did not want to become “that black person,” meaning I did not want to carry the African American culture on my back, nor did I want to continue to bring the topic back to race and ethnicity. Overall, my transitions in the classroom have changed me as a person and allowed my burdens to be released.
Furthermore, my connections with the characters in the book have brought to light the hidden issues we have in society. With the assignment to notice on my hands, I realized that every author for our reading in the course is African American. My first initial thought was irony, its ironic that every author is African American, and was I the only one who noticed this characteristic. With me noticing this, I asked, why? Why would Dr. McCoy specifically make all the authors in this course, African Americans? I came to the answer that racism and oppression is a systemic issue. I say that because when looking at the books, Home by Toni Morrison, Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem by Marilyn Nelson, Zulus by Percival Everett, and Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington each of these sources reveals that no matter what time period oppression and racism is a constant behavior.
With that being said, there is a clear indication with each reading it creates a timeline that shows the continuation of oppression and racism, mostly with African Americans. Starting with Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem by Marilyn Nelson, a story about a man named Fortune, who was a slave freed from slavery by death. Fortune was a “father, husband, a baptized Christian, and a slave” (Nelson,12). Nelson took us, readers, through the story of Fortune’s bones, how they started in possession of his master Dr. Porter to now being in the hands of Mattatuck Museum. “His bones say only that he served and died, that he was useful, even into death, stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh.” (Nelson, 13). This book shows a glimpse of the continuum of oppression of African Americans in the late 1700s into the 1800s. That when it came to slaves, they were only needed for labor, and unfortunately for Fortune, his use continued for other purposes. In the novel, Home by Toni Morrison, which goes back to the 1950s and shows how traumatic the Korean War was and how African Americans were experimented on. Not only the novel touch on the experimentation of African Americans and the Korean war but the culture in the south with segregation, discrimination, and racism. In Frank Money’s trip to rescue his sister from experimentation, he encounters a family that has experienced police brutality. “Drive-by cop… He had a cap pistol. Eight years old, running up and down the sidewalk pointing it. Some redneck rookie thought his dick was underappreciated by his brother cops.” “You can’t just shoot a kid, said Frank. Cops shoot anything they want. This here’s a mob city” (Morrison, 31). This passage shows the mere control white people during this time have over African Americans, having the ability to shoot a young child to prove and earn respect. Looking at Morrison and Nelson, there is a notion of a transition of positions for African Americans, but the treatment stayed the same.
Now with looking at the past, it is only right to look at the future. Likewise, with the past, the future still holds the characteristics of oppression. In the novel, Zulus by Percival Everett it looked into a potential future that may lie ahead. In the novel Zulus, there is a society that was created years after a thermonuclear war, where people get their daily cheese, crackers, and egg substitute mix packages out of a truck. And if one goes against the rules of the government, they are considered a rebel. However, with this novel, oppression is not defined by color but ability, weight, and looks. Everett uses terms such as “fat women,” “the little man,” “the little women,” “large black male,” all describing the characters he introduces, intentionally oppressing them. They all have names, Alice Achitophel, Kevin Peters, Theodore Theodore, and Lucinda Knotes, but the author decides to describe them by their insecurity. I feel as Everett is saying what everyone is thinking, as people, we use one another’s outside appearances, to talk about one another even though we all have names. Additionally, when looking at the narrator, Alice Achitophel is a 300-pound lady who may be the last woman alive who is not sterile. Alice escapes the city and seeks refuge in the rebel camp due to her mischievous actions, and for the possible sake, she may be pregnant. Alice arrives at the camp, and she travels with her boss and his friends, who are connected to the rebel camp. When the rebel camp confirms Alice’s ability to conceive children, they put her into a room with no windows, only white walls and a bed, no connection with the outside world. “I want out of here… That’s not possible. Don’t misread your position, Alice Achitophel. Your condition is hardly one for which you can claim credit and it is this fact we bear in mind in our gauging of you. You are a vehicle and nothing more, an any woman, and you just happen to have been raped, you instead of some other unfortunate. It was fat luck, Alice, and no promise of specialness of yours. You will be treated as the thing you are and we will take the life you offer. It is as simple as that.” (Everett, 105). Even though Everett is a black man who has likely experienced oppression, made it known that African Americans are not the only people to experience cruel treatment.
There is a clear notion that the past and future societies changed because of the environment around them. But what about now? Has our society in the present changed? As a history major, I have realized the main saying is, “we learn the past, so we do not repeat history.” Well, in the book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington shows how, as a country, we continuously do the same thing without consciously knowing it. Washington connects the past and present, giving a timeline of what American has been like when it comes to racism and oppression. At the beginning of the book, Washington starts with colonial times and uses the example of Dr. Sims’ passion for caring and curing women’s disorders. “… each surgical scene was a violent struggle between the slaves and physicians, and each women’s body was a bloodied battleground. Each naked, unanesthetized slave woman had to be forcibly restrained by the other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia. The other doctors, who could, fled when they could bear the horrific scenes no longer. It fell to the women to restain one another.” (Washington, 2). When reading this passage, I realized slavery had hit more boundaries than I thought, for an African American, I did not even know, which makes me think how many others do not either. You cannot learn from something you do not know. Fast forward to the 2000s, HIV/AIDS has become the third leading cause of death for young adult African Americans, and there is a consistent pattern with novel surgical technologies when it comes to African Americans. Washington compares Sims vesicovaginal-fistula research on black slaves to now poor black women are least likely to benefit from surgery. “Today’s highly visible role of blacks testing heart-transplantation technology parallels a deluge of medical-journal articles documenting how blacks are less likely than whites to receive high-tech cardiac interventions once they are perfected and become the standard of care” (Washington, 349). Meaning as an African American woman, I am more likely to be tested on for further investment in science for white people. So for the patients, John Quinn and Robert Tools, black men tested with the artificial heart were only to benefit white Americans, not black Americans? So the oppression and racism continued, Dr. Harry Bailey once said: “..it was cheaper to use niggers than cats, because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals…” Overall, I have realized that my position in America is that I am no more than a guinea pig; someone made for the benefits of others. Slavery still exists; it is just not seen.
Without a doubt, noticing the authors were all black, there had to be a reason why. Furthermore, the answer is that they are laying out the past, present, and future of American society. White Americans were taking people of color across the sea unwillingly, then forcing them to work without profit. Nevertheless, once slavery ends war and experimentations begin, its more straightforward to use a black man; it is cheaper and more accessible. People of color are here to help you live. I realized I got so connected with characters and events because it hit home. I have the knowledge now to think that my ill mother may be just another experiment and that doctors could have helped my father while he was on his death bed. I questioned that maybe my life is only for others, but then I stopped and realized America is not America without black people. America is nothing without me or any black person. Percival Everett, Toni Morrison, Marilyn Nelson, and Harriet A. Washington are those black people, who speak out, make everything uncomfortable, and I realized that is okay. It is okay to be “that black person” because who else will? My job is to notice and help others notice, as well. My burden has been set free, thank you to the authors that made me realize, my life and voice matters.