Noticing: A Self-Reflection

I’m not good at noticing things. My step dad believes that this will be perilous when I start driving, that I will be too caught up in something else to notice the road before me. When I’m walking places, I notice little things. The birds above me being the most common. I stare at them in the clouds, wondering if I’m peering up at a bird of prey or another stupid seagull. I will not notice the cars around me as I continue walking. It really is a wonder I haven’t been hit, and probably proves my step dad’s point. I want to be a school psychologist when I’m done with all my own schooling. I want a job that revolves around me being able to notice the behaviors and patterns of functioning in others. However, I could barely notice history when it was found in fiction. This inability to notice led me to finding some difficulty in this class, but it also led to growth. Had you asked me “How much consent do we really have?” at the beginning of the semester I probably would have just looked at you, wide-eyed with no answer. And to be fair, even now I don’t have a complete answer, an incomplete one yes, but because of the readings and discussions of this course I can continue to work on that question until I find a complete answer.

At first I completely misunderstood the epigraph. I believed that the epigraph related back to what I had been taught in high school, to notice things within a text and connect them back to each other. I didn’t think of how noticing things in fiction works could be applied to nonfiction works, and I certainly didn’t think of how that could be further applied to my day to day life. This lead me to read deeply into the nonfiction texts, as they were fact-checked and revolved around historical events. Of course, fiction texts could revolve around historical events, historical fiction is a sub genre, but I saw that as something loosely based on an event, especially when compared to nonfiction. So I clung to Medical Apartheid, as if it was my lifesaver instead of the “both/and”. For a while I wasn’t sure I was noticing anything at all. Then one day while I was commenting on the relationship between African American patients and charity hospitals, I called this relationship a “trade-off”. The word had just left my mouth, before I stopped, looked at Dr. McCoy who was watching and said “No that’s not right. A trade-off means giving something and getting something else of equal value, and that’s not what was happening in charity hospitals.” I like to think that this is when I first began to notice things, especially my own language. I was careful about what words I used and asked myself if the words I used really allowed for me to articulate what I meant. However when you look back at the blog post I made on this experience, you can still see how I attempted to ground my own noticing in the past, and in Medical Apartheid. I wasn’t ready to let my noticing serve as a “both/and” quite yet. 

When reading Toni Morrison’s Home I began to relate to Cee. Cee notices things but doesn’t understand what she’s noticing. She has been so sheltered by her brother Frank that she isn’t able to see when she is in danger. When Cee has an interview for a job as a doctor’s assistant she doesn’t make the connection between “him being a scientist” (pg.60) and the books in his office (pg. 65) on the science of eugenics. Cee also notices the good in the doctor’s actions, such as him sending patients to charity hospitals, or allowing other doctors to watch his work, but she doesn’t see how this can be bad. We can, especially through our outside readings, yet without those readings I would have been just as sheltered as Cee.  Many of us were aware of the danger Cee was in at the mention of the word “eugenics” (pg. 65) but we still had to look up the titles of the books to understand what they were about. Cee mentions needing to look up eugenics to better understand Doctor Beau’s work, and knowing that word would certainly make her aware of the danger she is in. However not all of us (me included) made the effort to notice the books, their titles, and what they were about. When we did look them up we saw they were anti-African American propaganda and books on keeping the Nordic race alive. Seeing this we are able to notice what Cee does not notice. This also shows us what we miss when we aren’t noticing. We have to be actively noticing and ready to see how what we notice connects with the world around us. If we just see the bad in the past, we leave ourselves vulnerable to be in Cee’s shoes, unable to see when it is in front of us. Looking back I now know I needed another push to start actively noticing. 

That push came when we began reading Clay’s Ark. Clay’s Ark made me unsettled from the start, maybe it was dangerous start, maybe it was switching from past to present, or the various ways consent was ignored. From the kidnapping to the forced infection of Blake and Rane to the way the Clay’s Ark organism changed its hosts, I found the way consent was ignored disturbing. We had spent the semester talking about how the medical field had historically ignored or manipulated the consent of African Americans. From using enslaved people to grave robbing to lying about injecting people with plutonium, Harriet Washington had it covered in Medical Apartheid. At that moment our reading was on how the birth control movement was walking hand in hand with the eugenics movement. I saw this paralleled with Rane’s blatant disregard for the kids the organism would make her want to have. Rane goes as far to say “I’d be willing to abort with an old wire coat hanger.” (pg. 532) when told that the organism makes you need and desire children. For Rane this means that her wishes, her choosing not to consent to pregnancy will be taken away upon forceful infection. This made me think that it was almost a direct opposite of how doctors had taken away women of color’s right to bear children through things like the “Mississippi appendectomy” (Medical Apartheid pg. 190). I saw both taking away motherhood and forcing motherhood as a loss of autonomy, something that was still around today and could be seen in the debate around reproductive rights. I began to draft up a blog post, but I wanted to make sure the argument was strong, and it was there that Dr. McCoy posed the question to me: “How much consent do we really have?”

Now, I was told I didn’t have to answer it, but to think on it, and I was thankful for not needing an answer. I didn’t know the answer, or what the right answer was. And that’s when things began to click, that I was always looking for the right answer, when sometimes there is no right answer. Of course there are wrong answers when it comes to consent, like taking the ability to consent away from someone. As a psychology student the idea of informed consent was that it had to be freely given after someone was made aware of all the risks and benefits, as well as being told they could back out at any time. That was how I came into this class viewing informed consent, and I felt learning about how the medical community had abused it, only strengthened my idea that this was the highest standard of consent. But how was I to notice when consent was lacking if I didn’t even know how much consent we had in the first place? 

Zone One by Colson Whitehead showed me that I could notice when consent was lacking, even in fiction. Mark Spitz, serves as a way to look and navigate through the world after the zombie plague has swept through. One of the things we as readers are drawn to is the mutilation of corpses, known in zombie genre as “taking trophies.” I had never seen what a violation of one’s bodily autonomy this is, despite watching it happen in The Walking Dead years ago with my family. Now I noticed how if using unwilling bodies for dissection was wrong, then so was taking pieces of those bodies. And I know, I am here typing out how Daryl taking someone’s ears is problematic, and someone is bound to say, “but those are zombies.” And? What is a zombie? The living dead, an undead person, a person. Corpses, throughout history have had their bodily autonomy violated, especially African American corpses. Enslaved people had to worry about the “dissection season”, which occurred around the winter time. One Virginian slave remarked “Please God, I hope when I die, it’ll be in the summertime.” (Medical Apartheid pg. 131). Dying in the summertime meant bodies could not be harvested and enslaved even after death, yet if one died in the winter their body could be further used for the experiments of doctors and scientists, even if they never consented.The violation of these bodily rights was seen as acceptable because African Americans were dehumanized to the point of being seen as a subclass. In the case of Zone One, the undead are seen as a subclass, if even seen as human. Because they are viewed as less than human or once a person, it is seen as acceptable to humiliate their bodies after killing them. Mark Spitz humanizes the undead, in comparison with others, including those in charge who say “No, you’re right. Mustn’t humanize them.” (pg.195). Like the lawmakers and powerful men in our world, those of Mark Spitz’s world understand the dangers of humanizing those one exploits. 

Looking back on this course and the things I have learned I hope it encourages you to ask yourself the same questions. How much consent do we have? How do we extend that consent to the walking dead, should the world ever come to that? When we notice but are unable to put it in context with the world around us, we leave ourselves vulnerable to repeating the mistakes of the past. Zombies lose their bodily autonomy because we forget that they are people, people just like you and I. African Americans lost their rights because people also saw them as less than a person, that they did not deserve the full protection informed consent offers. How can we continue to improve on who and under what situations informed covers if we don’t look at where consent is lacking and who is not protected?

We can’t. We cannot thoroughly examine how to keep updating informed consent without looking at the both/and, or in this case how consent was taken away in the past, how that was changed, but how that may fail in the future. We must be aware of both the past and the future and how they can connect to each other. How do we do this? Keep noticing, notice the tropes in your favorite shows or novels that seem wrong, notice when they call on the past, keep looking into the things that confuse you. Keep asking yourself questions, keep thinking on the questions posed to you, ignore the search for the right answer. Instead focus on the incomplete answer, the building towards an answer that won’t just give you the points needed for a good grade, but that will allow you to grow as a person. That may mean not having an answer and make peace with that. But do not make peace with missing the both/and, with missing the things you notice. Look into what you notice, there’s a reason you notice it. We can not continue to make progress without this, without each person bringing what they notice to the table. Actively noticing is the best way to help make sure we don’t lose sight of how we look out for each other. When we stop noticing, we continue to leave ourselves and others at the mercy of those who see us stopping, thus meaning we lose sight of the progress made and the progress still to come.

How Much Consent Do We Really Have?

I have struggled with this question since it was proposed to me. I have mulled it over and over through my head searching for an answer, and I haven’t found one. Through the readings and discussions within this course I have begun to understand that even with informed consent there are moments where we don’t get to consent at all, or moments where what we may have consented to is not taken into account. This question and examining of these events has also lead me to see informed consent in a new way, and the future of it as well.

This question was first given to me while reading Clay’s Ark, a book that starts with a kidnapping, an act that lacks consent. From there, both Blake and Rane are infected without their consent, and I fixated on how the organism would make Rane want to have children. Rane makes it clear she doesn’t want to have children, especially one that would look and act like  Jacob. I fixated on how after becoming infected Rane lost the ability to choose things like having kids because the disease took over elements of her personality. Even Keira who did consent to being infected, can’t change her mind once she makes that choice, and she has no control over what parts of her the organism would change. How can we consent to something we have no idea will affect us? How do much consent do we have when we are going about our daily life?  Even Rane loses consent at the hands of the car family who sexually abuse her. Events such as that, or a kidnapping, or forced infection, while wrong, do happen, and we only have so much control over them. Informed consent can not protect us in those moments.

My pondering became even more complex as we read Zone One. As Mark Spitz and his group clear out the bodies of those infected with the plague. Mark Spitz reflects on how they used to dispose of bodies by throwing them out of windows, saying: “It was disrespectful. It was unhygienic. Frankly, it was unpatriotic.” (pg.75). We have talked in class about the disrespectful use of one’s remains after death, and I couldn’t help but think about this act lacking consent. Because the skels can’t talk and are seen as a danger in this world, they aren’t given a say in what happens to them after they are killed. Before they were thrown out of windows, an act that destroyed their bodies and showed a careless nature to preserving the person they once were. Later, we see the bodies being burned, and their ashes fall through the city. The act of burning one’s body also destroys what is left of that person, and the scattering of one’s ashes shows a lack of preserving these people. No one who was thrown out of a building, or had their body burned consented. In the world of Zone One the wishes of the dead is an afterthought, and what   they may have consented to is not a major concern. 

So how do we preserve consent in times like this? How, if an event like this occurs, do we keep the consent of the dead from being violated? How much consent will we have in times like that? I don’t know and I still don’t have an answer. What I do have is an idea.

We uphold informed consent as the gold standard of consent. That in order to consent to anything we need to know the full array of risks and benefits. We also can’t be pressured into consenting, and we need to be able to back out at anytime. I’ve been over this in my research methods class and in any SONA system experiment I have participated in. But within our daily life we don’t always get informed consent. People come to class sick, we aren’t always made aware of this, and we may get sick as a result. People just sign the laptop after given the basic rundown of the next medical procedure they need. They trust their doctors, as they should, but most will not ask for an in-depth explanation or read the fine print. We just sign and say “I consent.” People also still ignore the consent of others, there are still areas were informed consent is not in place. So how much consent do we really have? I guess the only way to find out is to keep pushing for informed consent. For the evolution of informed consent as we find it’s shortcomings and as times change. The only way to work towards more consent is to keep improving upon what we have now. We compare the lack of consent in the past to the informed consent we have now, marveling at how far we have come, being able to see the change clearly. As we move forward in trying to expand informed consent, hopefully we will be able to see the change clearly as well. Hopefully, it will continue to protect more people, and show us the consent we have, and are still lacking.

Income Inequality and Disasters

“The rich tended to escape.” is written on page 62 of Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One. The rich tended to escape. In this case the rich had escaped what one would call a plague, a plague that turned people into the living dead. Mark Spitz, a survivor and sweeper, sees first hand this effect. He sees the valuables left by those who could afford to evacuate, sees the broken glass of their lobby doors, and feels the lack of their presence. Mark Spitz finds himself “clearing out” the bodies of the poor. “A larger percentage of the poor tended to stay, shoving layaway bureaus and media consoles up against the doors.” (pg. 163), Mark Spitz is the one who sees those who are left behind. One of the first scenes that we see is of three HR ladies left behind in their place of employment, their bosses or CEOs are nowhere to be found. This is to be expected, as the rich were able to make it out, gather together, and rebuild. The poor are less fortunate, being unable to leave, they are left to survive on their own, or if that doesn’t work,  die. 

The inability to escape from disasters due to financial burdens is not a new one. Whether it is a zombie plague or an environmental disaster, the poor have always had the short end of the stick. Leaving your home behind and then replacing everything that has been destroyed is much easier when you aren’t already finding it hard to get by. Even for those who don’t face obvious financial burdens, having to rebuild after a disaster can be difficult for them. As I traveled through the world Whitehead had created, traveling and seeing what Mark Spitz saw, I couldn’t help but think of my time as an intern for the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies ( this summer. Over the course of a week I had helped a group of eight high school freshmen undergo different human right based conversations and activities. About halfway through the week, we sat together awaiting a new challenge. A group of climate change activists had come in to teach us about the effects climate change has on natural disasters, and how that affects people in different income brackets.

“Okay so there’s a hurricane coming, we have five days to get out or get our house boarded up. We have 500 dollars to last us the entire week, unless we work, which earns 50 dollars a day. We have to be careful what we spend our money on.” I summarized to everyone. I passed around the list with the prices of the different things we could “buy”. This ranged from buying supplies to evaluating 50 or 250 miles. 

“We have to leave 50 miles before we can go 250 miles? AND we have to go those 50 miles by the end of day three or else all the hotels will fill up?” One girl asked, a bit on edge. 

I nodded, “Don’t forget that after we leave we have to buy supplies each day. The hotels won’t cover all the food and clothes we have to leave behind.” 

“But we only have 500 dollars. We’re in an almost direct line of the storm.” I could feel the weight of eight pairs of eyes on me, looking for the answers. I had already decided that I would try to let them work together as much as possible. I prefered to hand them the reins, and point out what they had missed afterwords. 

I listened, let them argue, let them figure out what they felt was the safest way to get out. They decided to work for two days, making an additional 100 dollars, before evacuating 50 miles, and then 250. We bought all our supplies and ended up only 100 dollars in debt. Everyone sighed, until we heard: 

“Alright now to see how your houses held up.” An activist came to each group, checking our location and if we had secured our houses. My group had not, it would have taken a whole day, and getting more money seemed more important. A large red “-14,000” appeared on the line labeled “additional damages”. My group looked shocked, eyes wide, mouths slightly open. At least we had been able to leave, a few groups had been less lucky, some had lost their lives because of it. 

“What? How do we repay this?” They glanced at each other, then back to me. 

“Well, this is the end of the activity itself, but try to imagine how people would actually get out of this kind of debt.”

I listened to their different answers, ranging from loans to taking on three different jobs. One girl asked about government assistance, and if that was an option. I sighed, “I’m not 100% sure on how that works. I’m lucky enough to have never been in a natural disaster. But yes, there is some government help, although at one point President Trump was looking at cutting it.” They gathered around my phones as I read about the possibility of cutting FEMA back in January. It was a time of wildfires in California, a time of devastation for many people. (You can read more on this here.) 

“How is that fair? We’d be okay if we weren’t so poor.” 

“Yeah, some of those guys made it out without an issue. They owe nothing.” 

I studied their faces, slightly unsure of how to explain that this had been the norm for a long time. When it came to escaping tragedies and danger, those with more money would always have the upper hand. The system just so happened to work in their favor. It was human nature, in a sense, to make things easier on those with money. I saw it, they’d see it, and Whitehead was aware of it too.

At the end of Zone One the skels break through the wall, swarming the city Mark Spitz and his crew have been diligently clearing out. The sea of living dead swarm the streets separating everyone. The higher ups who have banded together after escaping the first time around may still be able to escape, they may still be able to use their influence and money to get out. Mark Spitz who has been paid in socks and underwear, will not be able to just flee, he will have to fight his way out. Like those before him, Mark Spitz will have to use what he has to get by. Like those caught in any natural disaster, the fight all revolves around how to get back on one’s feet, how to overcome a huge setback. Income inequality, be it in the world of zombies or in the world of climate change, makes this fight much harder on some. Whitehead is aware that it we are not understanding of the struggles other’s face, we will continue to be unaware even after society has fallen, and we are stuck trying to pick up the pieces. After all, how can we rebuild a stronger community if we leave the most vulnerable to try to rebuild on their own?

Harmful Tropes: A Look Into The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, a long running TV show, plays on many tropes of zombie culture. Slow, tattered, partly eaten zombies roam the world posing a threat to those not yet infected. It’s a common theme of this particular genre. Most wouldn’t think of it as anything, I know I didn’t when I’d sit and watch episode after episode with my family.  

Within The Walking Dead is another trope-the taking of “trophies”. One character, a member of the good guy group, named Daryl creates a necklace of severed zombie ears, cutting them off after killing them. These ears are “trophies”, a show of his kills, his toughness, an element to the badass persona he presents. Daryl is not the only character to do this. The Governor, an antagonist, keeps the severed heads of the living dead in jars filled with water. Because only destroying the brain will put the living dead back to dead, these heads are still very much alive.  Those heads, like Daryl’s necklace of ears, were the Governor’s trophies, a show of his skill and sociopathic nature. Now, I saw a difference in them. Daryl was just taking ears, the ears of random dead people. It was icky, but not concerning. The Governor, was much more concerning, as he was making the undead suffer, instead of putting them out of their misery. A class discussion made me realize, that no, at a fundamental level, both are very wrong. No matter if it is Daryl or the Governor, both are ignoring the bodily autonomy of those who they use for their trophies. Those who they take from are people, they were living, breathing people, just like Daryl, just like me. With that I began to understand that the trope of mutilating dead bodies in order to take trophies has been a reality, not a trope, for many years. 

In my Native American Literature class with Dr. Woidat, I learned about the Sand Creek Massacre. This was an event in history even my AP teachers had neglected to teach me about. Simon J. Ortiz notes in his book from Sand Creek (buy it here), that the Native tribes living on the shores of Sand Creek believed they would be protected by the American Flag they had been given, saying “The People had been assured they would be protected by the flag.”(pg. 8), however they were not. Lead by John Chivington, the village was attacked by 700 armed men. 700 armed men who killed 105 women and children, and 28 men (pg.8). The men after massacring the village then took their own trophies. They took the body parts of the women, the children, and the men, mutilating and humiliating the bodies of these peaceful people. The men took these body parts, from ears to fingers to genitals, and pinned them to their hats, a show of their kills. A show of how inhuman these men saw Native Americans. (For further reading: Witness Accounts from The Sand Creek Massacre and The Sand Creek Massacre-The Smithsonian. I will warn you both articles talk of the cutting of bodies, however the Witness Accounts are very graphic, so please be aware of that if you choose to read it.)  This is not the only time in history this has occurred. 

Harriet Washington in her book Medical Apartheid addresses the issue of the nonconsensual mutilation of one’s corpse. In 1846, Dr. Pray started medical school, feeling bad for a “poor, despised, and disregarded” African American girl, who he then began to dissect. A year later, the same man would take enjoyment in scaring women with a piece of a dead African American person, a piece of someone he had saved from the dissection table (pg. 112-113). Dr. Pray used this poor person’s body, this unnamed person, as a trophy. A person who seemed so capable of understanding, a good guy, taking a trophy and having such disrespect for another’s body. Yet this not far off from the actions of Daryl. This didn’t stop here. Grave robbing was a common practice, and medical schools prided themselves in being able to get these bodies, as if taking these bodies gave them some form of trophy, a sick sign that they were better than colleges with less stolen bodies (pg.132). These bodies were subjected to postmortem racism, by being taken from their final resting place and being illegally smuggled into a college basement. From there they would be dissected, their bodies subjected to being taken apart in front of a group of students. A trophy for their learning, a mutation of the body to those taken.  

The Walking Dead is not the only work of fiction to touch on the taking of trophies. Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One is another zombie story, however it gives us a new look at the taking of trophies. Mark Spitz has a disliking for the living who mutilate the bodies of those suffering from the plague. On page 142 Whitehead gives a glimpse into Mark Spitz’s thinking, saying: “He had a particular dislike for No Mas, who bragged around Wonton about his scrapbook of straggler humiliation.” then again when the Lieutenant says: “No, you’re right. Mustn’t humanize them.” (pg.195). Both of these quotes show that because of the lack of humanization people have found it acceptable to take trophies from people. Sure, these are zombies, but they are still people, people whose bodily rights should still be respected. Mark Spitz has humanized the skels and stragglers, the living dead who he sees as deserving of this respect. Contrasted with the systematic dehumanization of the skels, Whitehead is able to show the disrespect that comes with mutilating dead bodies.  Mark Spitz serves as a reminder that even after death, one should see the person, not just the body. There should be no taking of trophies, no using the body for experiments, instead the body should be treated with respect and laid to rest properly. Unfortunately The Walking Dead only shows this when a main character loses their life. Not a bad guy and most certainly not a random zombie.

The taking of trophies comes from a lack of acknowledging that even the dead are people, be it through systematic dehumanization or through an individual’s own sadistic behavior. To understand how this trope is so harmful one should remember that these tropes have a history, a brutal violent history, behind them. They are not a badass zombie survivor trope, they are severed ears of Indian chiefs at Sand Creek, they are stolen bodies from African American graveyards. Tropes can hurt, and I hope that I can be more aware of this and the history behind it. I’ve said this a lot but I keep feeling the need to remind myself, if we don’t learn from history we will be doomed to repeat it, and that goes for the history behind our favorite shows.

When We Lack Identity

Throughout the medical community’s history those used in experiments not only lost their autonomy but their identity as well. Many were not seen as people, and didn’t even have their name reported. This lack of identity was used to erase people’s ability to tell their stories and speak out at the pain they endured. Without an identity, these people could not be found, could not be traced, and at times could not say “no”. 

In Medical Apartheid Harriet Washington speaks on this lack of identity in several chapters, many spanning several decades. When speaking about James Marion Sims, Washington notes the name of two out of the eleven enslaved women Sims did his experiments on. Seventeen year old Anarcha and another woman by the name of Lucy. The other nine women are not named, even though the pain of what they experienced is (pg. 63-65). In another chapter Washington speaks about the 1960 bioterrorism inflected on the Carver Village, there she mentions this: “After the story broke in the 1890s, victims came forward, but news accounts tended not to name them. In 1959, for example, one unnamed black woman had fainted after a swarming ‘dark cloud of mosquitoes’ covered her thickly.” (pg. 361-362). The news not covering the names of those coming forward strips them once more of their identity, of them being able to say “this is me and this is what I went through.” It strips away a part of their humanity and their ability to be seen as human. Instead it kept them in the dark, unable to be seen by others. When speaking on the radiation experiments in 1944, Washington is quick to mention the code used for the unwilling and unknowing people involved. Instead of using the subject’s name they were designated as “HP” for “human product”, and then given a number to correspond to that. In the case of Ebb Cade, he became HP-12, a title that completely stripped him of his humanity (pg. 216-219). Cade in turn became a human product, one of many on a list of people who like him had become nameless, faceless, and a means to an end. A human product, yet the human part was ignored and the product emphasized. 

Many notable authors have made commentary on the loss of identity that leads to being dehumanized. Percival Everett makes note of this in his novel Zulus. Alice Achitophel, pregnant and held captive is visited by Body-woman Rima. Body-woman Rima, ignoring Alice Achitophel’s desire to leave, says “You are a vehicle and nothing more…” (pg 105) referring to Alice Achitophel only being a means to an end, in this case bringing forth new life. Alice Achitophel is not seen as a person to Body-woman Rima, and therefore she is only given the value that Body-woman Rima believes her to have. This reduction of value, to seeing Alice Achitophel as something less than human, mirrors the same way scientists and doctors striped their patients of value. Alice Achitophel is not given the proper identity and respect she as a person deserves, much like those who were forced into these situations. Later while running and hiding from these rebels, Alice Achitophel will take on the name of a dead baby. Alice Achitophel becomes Ester MacAree and loses her identity completely (pgs. 170-171). This allows her to blend back into society, but also keeps her from speaking about the truth of the rebel camps. That they saw her as just as much as an object as the state does. She lacks her true identity and with it the power of being able to speak on what happened to her. Alice Achitophel was an experiment to the rebels, as they waited to see if she would give birth to the baby they longed for. That was the only thing they cared about; not Alice, not her story, or her voice. Instead they ignored Alice Achitophel and her wishes, choosing to see her as a vehicle, a human product. 

Percival Everett was not the only author to notice this. Writing in memoriam of an enslaved man, Marilyn Nelson tells the story of Fortune, in her Manumission Requiem Fortune’s Bones. After death, Fortune’s body and bones were passed on from doctor to doctor, generation to generation of the Porter family. Nelson explains: “At some point-no one knows when- ‘Larry’ was written on the skull. Fortune’s name was forgotten for nearly a century.” (pg. 20).  The loss of identity that Fortune faces, in turn allows for what he went through to be obscured and forgotten. Identity is critical to being able to give these stories a voice, to put a person behind the pain, and acknowledge what they went through. Without that identity there is no way to give back and restore peace to the individuals who had to watch their own identity and rights be taken from them. How can we correct the injustices done to people like Fortune if we can’t even start with a name?

Recently on a blog post, I was speaking of a character and I chronically spelled her name wrong, erasing who she was and replacing her with someone else. I had taken her identity from her. Even off the page, we must ensure we continually work to protect other’s identity, make sure their voice remains attached to them, that way when they need to raise it and tell their story, they can. A lack of identity paves the way for a person to lose their rights, to be seen as a “human product” or a “vehicle”, a means to an end, no matter their wishes. Without us making sure this doesn’t happen, we leave the door open for history to repeat itself.

The Dehumanizing Loss of Autonomy

In 1961 Fannie Lou Hamer went into the hospital to get a tumor removed, she left unaware, that she had been given “a Mississippi appendectomy” without her consent (Medical Apartheid pg. 109.) The loss of autonomy in situations like this were not uncommon during the 20th century when the eugenics movement was on the horizon. During this movement people who were of a specific “racial hygiene” as well as the poor, feeble-minded, and uneducated (Medical Apartheid pg. 191) were sterilized without their consent in hopes to lower the amount of children born with bad genetic profiles. As a result black women were disproportionately forced to undergo either temporary or permanent sterilization. By 1941, 70,000 to 100,000 Americans had faced forced sterilization, long before the same would happen to Fannie (Medical Apartheid pg. 203). This loss of autonomy meant not only the loss of generations, but also a loss of identity to those who wanted to be mothers. The lack of any consent at all meant many women lost the right to choice over what happened to their body. This act dehumanized them by making it so they were not offered the same protections as other’s of different classes and races, making it seem as if they did not deserve the protection informed consent offered other people.

Yet, this was not an isolated moment in the medical community. Between 1944 and 1945 the AEC supported more than 2,000 experiments involving the use of human subjects to test the effects and nature of radiation (Medical Apartheid pg 218). Many of these experiments involved a lack of informed consent and therefore a loss of autonomy. Take the case of Ebb Cade who had large doses of plutonium-239 into his body after surviving a deadly car accident. Unexpectedly, Cade survived but because of this he had some of his teeth pulled, chips of his bones taken, and had to stay longer. Cade never consented to any of this and therefore had no choice in the matter (Medical Apartheid pgs. 216-217). This loss of autonomy once more dehumanized people by leaving them with no control over what happens to their body. 

The idea of having a lack of autonomy arises in Octavia E. Butler’s book Clay’s Ark. In this story a doctor by the name of Blake, along with his two daughters Rane and Kiera are kidnapped and exposed to a disease without their consent. Without being told what exactly could happen to them, they are separated and infected. This, especially in the case of Blake and Rane is explicitly the opposite of what they wanted. Blake protests what is going to happen to him, and is continually looking for a way to cure the disease. This is seen in Blake’s thinking, “He had to find something he could use against them.” (pg. 495), or in how Blake uses his doctor’s bag to examine Meda, hoping to find out more about the disease. However Meda “permitted him to examine her” (pg. 495), despite the fact that Blake did not permit to being infected. This shows that Meda understands the idea of consent, but ignores it when Blake refuses to give it. Butler is giving commentary on how consent can be taken from people when others believe they have something to gain from exploiting that lack of consent. In Meda’s case they gain more people in their community and quiet the compulsion to spread their disease. In the cases in Medical Apartheid the exploitation of people was due to racist beliefs and the idea of furthering medical advancements. Yet, the results remain the same, by taking away one’s bodily autonomy one is dehumanized and stripped of being able to make the right choice for themselves. The act of dehumanizing someone also allows for the precedent to come into place where people are easily cast aside, as dehumanizing becomes an age old practice. As Eli and Meda kidnap more people and their community grows, it encourages the practice. The same thing happens when doctors are found to be justified when doing sterilizations or experiments without a person’s consent.

The Historical Lack of Consent

Race has been long thought to be something biological, something that separated people based on their genetics. This idea of a biological backing for race was used to explain racist differences in IQ, sports ability, and in healthcare. Race was used as a way to “scientifically” treat people differently at the social level. This is and was because race is a social construct, the idea of it being a biological difference was only used to justify the process society was using to keep itself divided among those who were a different race. 

The process to dehumanize African Americans has been used as an excuse to hurt them as a means to an end, and as a way to justify using African Americans as test subjects throughput time. Seeing African Americans as “less than human” was a blanket way of not providing any protection to blacks that white people benefited from. These protections included a say over one’s body after death, a say over treatment choice, and a say in being told what that treatment was. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington tells the story of Sam, an enslaved man who was forced to undergo surgery for jaw cancer. Sam, who had a fear of surgery, possibly due to the stories and pain that surrounded it, was strapped into a chair to avoid escape. He was then operated on against his will (pages 101-103). This inability to say no would have never been taken from a white man, but as a slave Sam had no say over his body. Sam was not the only one, and this is not the only time that African Americans were not given control of their bodies.

In Georgia, W.H. Robert had amputated the leg of a slave girl. Despite only having a minor injury, he still decided to take the leg from the fifteen-year-old child. Robert than explained to his students that the decision to amputate should be weighed by race and class. Taking a limb from a slave was of little importance, but from a white man, the taking of a limb was truly meant to be a last resort (Medical Apartheid, page 109). Even years after slavery was abolished African Americans were still not given the same medical protections as white Americans. In 1945, Ebb Cade was injected with large doses of plutonium-239 solely because he was believed to be able to survive his injuries after a bad car accident (Medical Apartheid page 216). Then in 1947, Elmer Allen was forced to go to UCSF’s free clinic after breaking his leg. It’s important to note that Allen only went there went out of desperation, despite his fear of what might happen to him there. This process of dehumanizing and treating African Americans as less than human had created a fear of the medical community among blacks. And as Allen would find out, for good reason. Allen would have his broken leg injected with plutonium-238. After three days, his leg would need amputated (Medical Apartheid pages 220-222). These experiments violated the consent standards set by both the Judicial Council of American Medical Association, and the ACE physicians, who were in charge of the experimentation on Allen. The idea of consent being taken away from African Americans was not a new thing, despite the new changes, because consent has historically been taken from African Americans. The long process of dehumanizing African Americans and keeping them from being able to consent made it easier to keep them from understanding informed consent even after it was put in place to try and protect minorities and easily exploited groups of people.

This historical lack of consent shows why informed consent is needed within society today. To be able to make intimate and basic healthcare choices well knowing what the risks and benefits of those choices are is a fundamental part of having control over our own body. Making sure one understands consent, making consent a priority, and working to improve the meaning of informed consent can benefit those who feel they have no choice, or how believe the injustices of the past will repeat themselves. Upholding informed consent is how we keep those injustices from repeating themselves and from helping settle the wrongs done to those who were not protected by informed consent.

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.