Literature, Medicine & Racism
26 September 2023
Shining a Light on Forgotten Histories
“My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” (Brand 2013). In this class as well as my class on African Literary Criticism, we have read several pieces of black and African literature detailing the unheard stories of these communities. This also includes the falsities that Western society accepts as truth. Since the beginning of time, stereotypes have been placed upon groups of people. Oftentimes we welcome these stereotypes, never caring to learn the truth. Whether this is out of malice or pure ignorance, these harmful narratives cause great disdain, not only toward the unenlightened, but within the community. The works of these artists allow us readers to defend those who are unable to defend themselves, for if we do not notice, who will?
When many of us think of Africa, we mesh our preconceived notions together, treating it as a single cohort, rather than a diverse continent. We may picture hazy deserts. Bare chested women holding baskets above their heads. Violence, whether it be between humans alike or jungle animals. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie touches on this in her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie begins the speech by talking about her Nigerian roots. She knew nothing else outside of her home besides the British and American books she had read. Subsequently she wrote only of white, blue eyed people who ate apples and played in the snow. Several characteristics that she could not identify with herself. Adichie goes on to explain how “impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” Like Adichie’s view of America, our version of Africa is so distant from the truth. Though when we are exposed to so little, it is difficult to break away from what you know. Adichie expands on her childhood, saying that the year she turned eight her family got a new houseboy, Fide. She knew nothing about him except that he was poor. One day she visited Fide’s village where his mother showed Adichie a beautiful basket the boy’s brother had made. Adichie says “It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor” (Adichie 2009). There is a comfort in knowing someone or something as a singular entity, lacking depth, and never straying away from this image. By putting Fide in a box Adichie is not only harming him, but herself. When we limit ourselves to the “single story” we are creating the same damage.
Meanwhile, in America we learn stories of slavery, the south, and the many atrocities faced by African American people, though it was not until reading Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid that I realized the extent of it. Washington talks about the full history of African Americans mistreatment being used as unwilling experimental medical subjects. Early on in the book Washington talks about Baron George Cuvier, a prominent naturalist and zoologist of the time. He described black people as having “their hair crimped, their heads squashed and their noses flat. Their protruding mouths and thick lips are strikingly similar to those of the apes. The peoples which compose this race have always been savages.” Cuvier’s comparison of black people to animals suggests that black people are less than. Though this is one man, Cuvier represents the majority on the topic. Still his words seem meaningless after reading the story of Ota Benga. Advertised as “The African Pygmy…Height 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds…” Benga was seized and sold after returning home from a hunting trip to find his village in ruins and his entire tribe slaughtered. Benga was locked in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. For weeks the man was subjected to countless visitors chasing him, jeering, poking, and tripping. The progression of dehumanization and a loss of identity is seen through each piece of work.
Similarly, Marilyn Nelson touches on the idea of dehumanization and a lack of self in her 2004 collection Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. The book acts as a commemoration of an 18th-century enslaved man named Fortune who was owned by a doctor. Postmortem, Fortune’s body was dissected. His skeleton was used to create an anatomy school for doctors to study the bones, though this was done without Fortune’s consent. Over the years Fortune’s skeleton was lost and found. Nelson begins Fortune’s story with a poem through the lens of his wife, Dinah. Here she says “Since she seen Fortune head in that big pot Miss Lydia say that room makes her feel ill…I wonder how she think it make me feel? To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast…” By stripping Fortune of his autonomy, Dr. Porter caused more harm to those around him. For maybe taking away one’s sense of self when they are unable to defend themselves is the most vile act of all. Now Fortune’s body lays vulnerable for anyone to see. Nelson supports this idea with her poem “On Abrigador Hill,” which is through the eyes of Dr. Porter. It reads “Herewith begins my dissection of the former body of my former slave, which served him who served me throughout his life, and now serves the advance of science.” The language Nelson uses furthers the dehumanization of Fortune, referring to him as simply a slave, an object meant to serve. The conflicting views of Dr. Porter and Dinah makes you wonder if Dr. Porter truly believes in what he is saying about Fortune, that there was balance in the relationship between the two men. Maybe the true accounts have gotten lost in time, much like Fortune’s Bones.
The dichotomy between Adichie’s story and the tale of Fortune’s Bones perfectly exemplify the harm that’s been created toward black people throughout the years. The escalation from false narratives to grotesque and violent acts is difficult to grasp. Though I think all three stories greatly relate to the way society treats specific communities. In my class on African Literary Criticism we talked about oral literature, stories passed on completely word of mouth, though maybe we are not hearing these stories straight from the source. If we do not open ourselves up to opposing narratives, who will?
“The Danger of a Single Story.” Youtube, uploaded by TED, 6 Oct. 2009, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Doubleday, 2006. p. 512.Nelson, Marilyn. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. 1st ed., Wordsong, 2004. p. 40.