The Treatment of Humans

Throughout the ages and advancements of medicine, the bodies of those experimented on have been treated with a lack of dignity and respect. From subjecting the unwilling to the very act of dissection after death, something seen as only fitting for the worse criminals (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) to the stealing from the graves, the final resting spot of those who have passed. Many of these bodies were African Americans, almost all were not returned to rest. Instead they were discarded in basements, the doctors done with them much like how a child throws aside a broken toy in favor of a newer one.

The treatment of bodies as toys, as something disposable, can be traced back to the times of slavery. If people are disposable why would there be any different? Slaves were aware of the time of year known as “dissecting season”, the time of year when it was cold enough that bodies were able to stay preserved. “Please God, I hope when I die, it’ll be in the summertime.” remarked an elderly Virginian slave, (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) who was very aware of what would await her body if she passed in the winter. This fear of one’s body being used as a toy, as a means to an end, even after death was not an unfounded fear. In Marilyn Nelson’s Manumission Requiem Fortune’s Bones she writes about an enslaved man named Fortune, who died, and whose body was denied burial. Instead Fortune’s body was dissected and passed through the generations of Porter’s, who followed the family tradition of being a doctor. Sally Porter Law McGlannan recalled playing with Fortune’s skeleton when she was a young girl, (Fortune’s Bones pg. 20). In this case, his body, his bones really were degraded to a toy. Fortune was no longer seen as human, but as a plaything. The basic dignity he was denied well alive, was further denied to him after death.

Author Percival Everett clued readers into these issues in his book Zulus. On page 171 Everett writes “So young, but lucky enough to be lying there in the ground rotting and worm-eaten instead of being forever preserved in some undignified toy vessel.” This is Everett giving his own commentary on the use of bodies being preserved for doctors to prod at, to be kept only as a toy for their research. The bodies of enslaved people and of freemen were taken from graves, stolen and used. To be allowed to stay at rest felt as if it was a rarity and not the norm. Because we know of these injustices, we are to correct them. That meant the making of informed consent, of making sure everyone had bodily integrity, and could decide what happens to their body after death. That also means being respectful of those who do allow their bodies to be used for medical and scientific purposes. No seeing people as a means to an end, no playing with their bodies, no lying to people to gain access to their body. Being honest through informed consent, and making sure we honor the sacrifice of those who lost their bodily rights so the past doesn’t repeat itself is how we move forward.

Fixing A Failing Language

Language is a pre-set thing, the rules have already been made for us, and the use of the words within our language already decided. We naturally use certain words to convey our ideas, even if those words don’t truly convey what we mean. This means that we must learn to understand our own language better and to pay attention to what meaning we are giving to our words. This is not a new thing, language has been failing us for decades.

Take charity hospitals for example. The name “charity hospital” was originally a way to deceive the poor as well as Africian Americans to believe that here they could receive adequate care at little to no cost. Yet this was not the case. As pointed out by Harriet Washington in Medical Apartheid, many charity hospitals believed that they had the right to experiment on those who depended on their care. They saw it as fair for helping people, even if that ruins the true meaning of a charity hospital. Charity is the voluntary giving of help and hospital is a place to get medical treatment. Forcing a patient into a dangerous experiment without informed consent is quite the opposite of that. However, even once the truth of these hospitals came to light they were continued to be known as charity hospitals. This allowed the association between all hospitals, all low cost places to be, because the language wasn’t changed to reflect what those places really were. 

In Toni Morrison’s Home the reader is introduced to a character named Cee. Cee, a young girl without proper schooling and away from her protective brother goes to work for a doctor and a scientist. On page 65, Cee, in his office looks at the books reading their titles. Titles such as Out of the Night, The Passing of the Great Race, and Heredity, Race, and Society. On the same page, Cee also promises to learn and understand the meaning of the word “eugenics”. Cee’s schooling, or lack thereof has failed her. It has not taught her to identify certain words as dangerous, or that mean to oppress her. For a woman of her time these words, this type of language should be a glaring sign to get out. But because Cee does not understand the language she has no idea to be cautious. What language she does know, fails her because there is no word that means the same thing or holds equal value to convey the same thing. 

Fortunately we can do better. Recently in my class, I used the word “trade-off’ to describe the way charity hospitals used those who came for them to help. I had just finished the word itself, when my brain stopped. Trade-off wasn’t the right word, because that would imply that there was a fair trade, and both parties were aware of the exchange. But they weren’t, so using such a word didn’t convey what I really meant. To help fix the errors in our own preset language we must first be aware of what the meanings of each word is, and then use those words correctly. To not fix the failures of language is to muddy the waters of what we really mean, and all that does is leave room for the twisting and misuse of those words, a cycle that one can see is easily exploited at the expense of others. I will leave you with a quote from Harriet Washington, “Language was often tortured to disguise the racial nature of hazardous experimentation.” (pg 59, Medical Apartheid). Fixing the failures in our language allows us to convey the truth, allows us to call out wrongdoings, and protect others. To do this we must constantly be aware of what we are saying and what we are meaning. We must make sure our schooling doesn’t fail short of this, and strive to teach it to others, no matter if it is our peers, our co-workers, or even ourselves. Fixing our language starts with us, and correcting the misuse of language in the past, and not falling into those old habits.

Noticing and Fixing

From the readings and discussions in class this quote has gotten me thinking about a variety of issues. The first one that comes to mind is the way people covered up the wrongdoings of the doctors and professors. People were very quick to turn a blind eye to any and all injustices they noticed. This extended to the exploitation of dead black bodies in medical schools to the exploitation of living black bodies in zoos and in circuses. While these injustices were noticed by others,  such as abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, M.D, only a small portion of those who saw the truth spoke out. This allowed these things to continue on for years to come.

By noticing the wrongs of both the past and of those of the present we are able to right them. When one is made aware of how so many people refused to acknowledge the suffering of a whole community of people, we need to take notice and make sure those around us notice as well. Raising awareness for these issues helps other people notice them as well, and the more people who notice the more voices there will be to challenge what are believed to be “acceptable treatment”. Bringing more people’s attention to the racist nature of these treatments and practices can prevent creating doctors like George Pray, who begin medical school with more humanistic views of the bodies he dissected, yet lost those views because people refused to notice the racist teachings within medical schools. In “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, she exposes all of these injustices and the voices that helped kept people from noticing what was happening. This lead to black iatrophobia to the words of Washington, meaning “the fear of medicine” (pg.21). This fear of medicine is due to the abuse African Americans were subjected to. Black iatrophobia has existed since before the mid-nineteenth century.

My hope in life is to be a psychologist, someone working in a part of the medical community. To do this I have to notice and help my future coworkers notice, anything that prevents people from seeking care. “Mental ailments are destroying blacks, as well: Black women suffer the highest rates of stress and major depression in the nation and suicide rates soared 200 percent among young black men within just twenty years.” (Washington, pg.5) How can I help these people if I refuse to notice the things that scare them away from the help I offer? When I notice, I can get my coworkers to notice. Together we can acknowledge the past and make a healthier environment for African Americans. To help them, we must notice the errors of the past and make sure we right them. To help people we must help make the abuses of the past clear and therefore make it clear we are doing all we can to help keep them from repeating themselves.

As someone who wants to dedicate my life to helping others with their mental issues, it’s my job to understand generational trauma. The experimentation and exploitation of African Americans has spanned generations, from slavery to the 21st century. Because this trauma is more likely to be swept under the rug and ignored, there is no way to heal from it. How could Jamie Gaines and Sarah Cox heal knowing their sister’s body had been stolen? How could Frances Oglesby heal knowing her mother’s remains were still not at rest? How can Bessie Wilborn rest if her bones still remain a spectacle? Until the medical community works to understand the trauma their predecessors inflicted on African Americans the generational trauma will continue and its effects will remain.   As someone who cares deeply about the health and welfare of others, to allow this to remain is to willingly allow others to hurt. And that is something no one in the medical field should allow. To notice current abuses, and to acknowledge past ones, creates a safer environment for African Americans as well as other at risk communities.