Noticing the both/and

The course epigraph states, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”

Throughout the course, I have continually noticed that the course epigraph is integrated within the material and ideas shared. When I first registered for this class, I was eager to strengthen my literary skills and learn about the interrelationship of science and racism. To my surprise, the class consisted of students enrolled in English 101 and English 439. Initially, I was a little apprehensive toward this classroom approach but through the multiple class discussions and collaborative essays, I believe that this approach maximized our academic and individual growth. As the 439 students have had more exposure to English courses than others may have enrolled in 101, our differences are what drove the class. Hearing different perspectives regarding the same concept is what nurtured our discussions and further promoted thinkING and unpackING as we shared ideas aloud. Moreover, the importance of unpackING and thinkING has been emphasized, making it apparent that it is truly beneficial to share our ideas aloud through class and group discussions. As we all come from different majors and backgrounds, each person’s input is valuable as this provides an opportunity for our own growth and our peers’ growth to expand. This also ties back into the course epigraph where not only we can see each other noticing but that Beth and Kya can notice that we notice. 

From previous sciences courses, I have already learned that exploitation is not an uncommon theme within the field of science. Some of the most famous examples include Rosalind Franklin and Henrietta Lacks. Around the mid 1950s, the structure of DNA was a major topic of interest as scientists were racing to make a huge breakthrough. Through rigorous research, Rosalind Franklin discovered that the DNA structure consisted of a double helix. Scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, took this work and gave credit to themselves for this discovery. At the time, women were not taken seriously in the field of science and so Franklin did not receive any credit for her contributions. To be even more infuriating, Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the structure of DNA. In addition to Franklin, a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks was also taken advantage of for the greater good of science. Without her knowledge, some of her cancerous cells were taken and used for further research as her cells kept dividing, in comparison to other cancerous cells that died quickly. Her cells were used to form the HeLa cell line, which are still widely used nowadays for medical research. In Medical Apartheid, Washington continues to address the injustice and manipulation within the field of science and medicine that has been imposed on to African Americans. The novel reveals that an African American man named Williams had shared his medical experimentation experience within the Holmesburg Prison system at a showing of Acres of Skin. He explains to the audience that he endured radiation burns, sulfuric acid burns, cuts to his armpit to study the glands, and even rubbed acid on his scrotum until the skin fell away. He said that the purpose of these research experiments were never discussed nor did the experimentees have a receipt for anything they signed (Washington, 245). His story and many others within Medical Apartheid reinforce the both/and situation of both addressing the harmful procedures and treatments done to African Americans by white doctors and consider that these practices occurred at a different time of life. Despite the exposure to these stories, there are unfortunately many untold stories of the malpractices within the field of science. Reading Medical Apartheid opened my eyes to the severity and magnitude of injustice that has been inflicted and noticing that there is more than just the tip of the iceberg.                                                                                                                                                      

In my goal setting essay, I mentioned I wanted to continue to recognize the both/and situations within the course novels as the semester progressed. While reading and discussing Clay’s Ark, Kya asked the class if Jacob rescuing Keira was in good faith or bad faith. I initially thought that his actions were in good faith since he risked his life to rescue Keira. Jacob specifically mentions that he didn’t tell his parents about coming to the car people’s house, indicating that he had every good intention to rescue her (Butler, 211). However, diving deeper into the text, we learn that Jacob’s actions were in bad faith, despite his good intentions. By rescuing Keira, this ultimately led to Blake infecting a truck driver and initiating the spread of the infection across the nation. Blake describes his encounter with the truck driver before infection by saying that he couldn’t help it and that he tore at him like an animal(Butler, 217). From this, one of the main both/and situations that I noticed was recognizing that good faith practices can both be beneficial and also unintentionally harmful. This ties back into my participation effort that I mentioned in my goal setting essay. Lacking to contribute to class and group discussions can ultimately be detrimental and in bad faith as this limits the growth of my peers and myself. To avoid hindering my peers’ and my own thinkING, I began to contribute more in both scenarios. One experience that highlighted the benefits of sharing aloud and unpackING among each other was when we were discussing Clay’s Ark. Beth asked us to analyze how our perceptions of the characters had changed since the beginning of the book. As I shared my ideas within the group discussion, I noticed that many others began to build off of my discussion. This further prompted me to supplement my peers’ thoughts and opinions with my own interpretations of how I saw a specific character develop. By thinkING and unpackING together as a group, this created a safe space to have meaningful conversations that contributed to our peers’ growth and our individual growth.

My quick assumption of thinking that Jacob’s action had been in good faith had also reinforced that I should slow down even more when reading. Even through the middle of the semester, I still had not acted upon this goal that I established in the beginning of the semester. As we read Zulus, this was my goal to slow down on reading to facilitate the understanding process. Since the novel contained many unfamiliar words, I felt somewhat lost with interpreting the text accurately. Despite this, I was reassured that Everett’s novel was more challenging than previous texts as we spent time in class researching unfamiliar words. With this in mind, I continued to read Zulus more attentively. From this, I was able to recognize my own both/and situation. It is important to both recognize the harmful impacts of internalization and also realize how easy it is to lose your identity when you are reduced to one thing. Alice Achitophel is continuously described as “the fat woman” (22). Throughout the entire book, she is constantly used by the people that she encounters: Lucinda, Theodore, and Geraldine. Due to her body size, many people have reduced her to being fat. In particular, Body-woman Rima said to Alice, “you’re a stupid woman and probably a slut… and let you know how much of a thing you are” (Everett 106). Instead of referring to Alice by her name, she’s reduced to her physical appearance, contributing to her low self esteem and reducing her humanity as she’s referred to as an inanimate object. This further reinforces that Alice’s identity is lost because she now views herself as fat/worthless and doesn’t see herself in a positive light. Even after Alice’s rebirth, we continue to see that she still struggles with her self-worth as others continue to take advantage of her, despite the change in physical appearance. As I reflect on the course as a whole, I see how this both/and situation applies to us. If we as students were reduced to students enrolled in English 101 or 439, this would inevitably suggest a hierarchy and a sense of superiority/inferiority. However, with the environment that Beth and Kya created throughout the semester, the course number did not define our capabilities in contributing to thinkING, unpackING, and learnING. This ultimately stressed the negative impacts of what reducing oneself to one thing can cause.

Referring to the GLOBE’s insistence that Geneseo students should gain practice in the ability to “reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time”, I think this aligns with the course epigraph well. With a huge emphasis on thinkING and unpackING the course documents and central course concepts, this enables us to learn more effectively than from straight memorization of the content described in the course documents. Similar to other classes, memorizing a bunch of information is not a reliable way to learn as this information will be forgotten in a short period of time. Rather it’s important to understand the how/why and the application of this information. As the semester comes to an end, I’ve realized that my ability to notice has greatly improved since the beginning of the semester. By becoming more aware of the long history of abuse of African Americans within the medical field, this will be something that I keep in mind as I prepare for a career in scientific research. Being more aware of the ethics and morality of research is very important as this topic is still something that is often discussed. Overall, I truly value the experience and lessons that this course has given and taught me. Not only did I become more comfortable with writing and reading, I also became more comfortable with contributing to discussions and listening to my peers, ultimately enabling me to notice and to notice that others are noticing as well.

Forgetting the Medical Practice of Good Faith

Nossoh Diarra, Jacob Clarke, Georgia VanDerwater, Rachel Dems, Philip Cai, Dineen Vogler

The story of Fortune’s Bones, written by Marilyn Nelson, begins with a man named Fortune,who was enslaved by an orthopedic surgeon known as Dr. Preserver Porter. Upon Fortune’s death, his skeleton was used for anatomical study by Dr. Porter and subsequent generations. The disturbing examination of his body is believed to contribute to the progression of medical science. Not only was Fortune taken advantage of, his wife (Dinah) was forced to clean the room where Fortune’s skeleton hung. Fortune’s skeleton was eventually donated to a museum by a descendant of Porter. Both Fortune’s real name and story were lost as the name “Larry” had been engraved on Fortune’s skull. Giving Fortune an imaginary name because it made it easier to accept the magnitude of suffering that he went through. Nelson also mentions that Fortune was an image of herself, enabling her to connect and empathize with the pain that Fortune had to endure. 

The practice of studying medicine has historically sought to minimize, and sometimes even justify the consequent harm brought to individuals who were promised protection. Medical professionals reimagine themselves and their subjects as small contributors to an inevitable and beneficent system (medicine and science as a whole), to ease the conflict of bringing harm to a patient. To complete this reimagining, professionals often forfeit their own agency, as well as that of the patient, to a more abstract demand for knowledge. Though the identity of the medical professional is maintained, the identity of the patient is often obscured, or destroyed to make this reimagining easier. In context, this means that while professionals will be happy to take credit for medical discoveries, the individuals who sacrificed their autonomy in a very visceral way will be carelessly or intentionally forgotten for sake of ease.

Dr. Porter did not see Fortune’s body as the end of a human life; he saw it as an opportunity. When Fortune died, Dr. Porter dissected him. He took Fortune’s body, which he had forced to endure strenuous labor and continued struggle, and he cut it open because he wanted to. Nelson writes from Dr. Porter’s point of view in Fortune’s Bones, as he describes the act of cutting Fortune open, saying his body “falls open like a bridal gossamer” (19). This intimate metaphor is extended, as Dr. Porter begins to dissect Fortune’s body, saying “I enter Fortune, and he enters me” (22). This image connotes an air of equality, mutuality and consent. However, in reality, Dr. Porter was using Fortune’s body as a prop, slicing him into pieces, ripping his organs out of his body, leaving his bones to hang in the room Fortune’s own wife cleans. So why would Nelson’s Dr. Porter use language that implies he and Fortune were equals in this endeavor? He does so for the same reason he constantly repeats the phrase “and I am humbled by my ignorance, humbled by my ignorance” (22): to convince himself that he is not solely responsible for his brutal actions against Fortune’s body in death. If Dr. Porter can convince himself Fortune’s dead body is a willing participant in his studies, if he can convince himself that he is too ignorant to see the cruelty in what he is doing, if he can convince himself that he is merely acting in the good name of science, then he does not need to accept the gravity of what he is doing. He goes so far as to imagine Fortune as the agent of the dissection, not himself, stating “Here with 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” (17).

The idea of autonomy can also be applied to science. Choosing whether or not to accept their own autonomy has been a common theme in our readings about medical professionals. Doctors willingly take credit for their contributions to the growth of the medical field but deny any responsibility for inflicting harm on black people at their expense. Among Medical Apartheid and Fortune’s Bones, both medical Dr. Sims and Dr. Porter strived for success in their work without realizing the reality and ethicality of their work on black people. Known as the “father of modern gynecology”, Dr. James Marion Sims conducted several horrific experiments and procedures on a group of enslaved women. Doctors had to hold back these women while Dr. Sims made incisions, without providing anesthesia to numb the pain. 

The story of Joice Heth is also another example of the pain inflicted on a Black person at the hands of a powerful white man. P.T. Barnum, a famous American circus holder, had bought the possession of an enslaved woman named Joice Heth. After her death in 1836, Barnum ordered a public dissection to be performed to determine the cause of death and sold tickets for the public to view. Shockingly, 500 spectators showed up to this gruesome event as a form of entertainment and ensured that Barnum’s fame would rise (86-94). At the expense of Heth, P.T. Barnum used her to benefit himself and dehumanized her as an easier way to justify his cruel intentions. He made excuses to himself and to Heth that this torture would be worth it because Heth herself would become rich and famous. Unsurprisingly, Barnum was the one who reaped the befits of his own cruelty, and Heth died penniless and stripped of her dignity and autonomy. Similar to Joice Heth, Fortune was also dehumanized as it was easier to refer to him as “Larry.” By naming him with a generic name, it removes any personal or emotional connection to the body and almost takes away from the consequences of the procedures implemented by Dr. Porter. Both examples show that it was easier for the white person to take advantage of the enslaved Black person through their delusional imaginations to justify their horrible actions.

In their stories, Nelson and Morrison both discuss the scientifics about eugenics to showcase how doctors can manipulate their patients for their own benefits. Specifically, in the novel, “Fortune’s The Manumission Requiem Bones”, Nelson explains how Fortune’s body is used as a tool. Dr. Porter, a renowned surgeon, undergoes several procedures where he experiments on Fortune’s body for any scientific evidence about his life. However, diving deeper into this scene, we are able to see that no matter how much examination is done, it is Fortune’s voice and spirit that can not be owned. In this particular scene, Nelson writes, “I am not my body, I am not my bones” (27). Here, we clearly see that Fortune’s is stating that he is not his body. The use of this repetition is important as it highlights Fortune’s identity. Although Fortune’s body is physically there, he is mentally gone. Who is his and who people will remember him by will be forgotten. 

Similarly, in her novel, “Home” author Toni Morrison discusses another doctor named Dr. Beauregard, who performed sexual experiments on Cece’s body and left her traumatized. We see how disturbing one’s physical body can affect them. Connecting this back to the thesis, individuals who sacrifice their bodies for surgeons are capable of being hurt near the end because they end up losing the most important thing to them, their identity.

Understanding just how medical professionals relinquish their autonomy to the pursuit of knowledge as an act of imagination in order to justify cruelty, we can begin to question the larger and urgent implications to essential concepts like autonomy, care, and accountability.

One of the more disturbing components of this analytical framework is its wide applicability; the fallacy that imagines inflicting harm as justified if in service of larger systems isn’t by any means exclusive. While our analysis focuses on the justification of harm in medical contexts, you can trace this narrative through a plethora of situations where those in power imagine they have no choice but to seriously hurt someone for the sake of furthering some abstract and beneficent pursuit or institution. In doing so, those of authority can justify any violence to themselves as well as the public. Medical professionals such as J. Marion Sims, who built his medical understanding of gynecology from inhumane experimentation on women that he enslaved, are largely afforded praise, attention, and reward while victims of medical brutalization sacrifice their bodies, and in many cases the simple dignity of their name. This rationale for cruelty does not only discredit individual accountability, it also degrades public faith in these beneficent systems.

Goal Setting Essay: The “Both/And” Between the Lines

The course epigraph states, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”

As Dr. McCoy mentioned the course epigraph in the beginning of the semester, these words have stuck with me throughout each class. My initial interpretation of the course epigraph is that it’s Beth’s job to recognize that we can both understand the core concepts of each document and make insightful connections between our life experiences and other themes present in the course documents. As I have taken numerous science related courses throughout my undergraduate experience, I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and take an English course that would challenge me to think critically in a new light. Since this class discusses the interrelationship between medicine, racism, and literature, I believe that it has provided me a great segue into a topic that I’m somewhat unfamiliar with along with something that has great familiarity to me. As I’ve become more aware of the course, I now view the epigraph with more thought. Not only is it important to unpack and think, it is also important to listen to your peers’ thoughts and how that can influence your own thinkING and unpackING of the same concept.

I never would have thought that a single semi-colon had so much meaning behind it as I initially didn’t think much of it when reading it in my head. As Beth suggested us to read aloud the first sentence in the preface of The Manumission Requiem in Fortune’s Bones, the way that the sentence was delivered indicated the significance of Marilyn Nelson’s grammatical choice. As I was hearing my peers interpretations of the semicolon, it opened my eyes to different perspectives. My favorite interpretation of the semi-colon was that Fortune was born into death, meaning that the semicolon served as an arrow to the next word. Similarly to sharing our interpretations relating to Fortune’s Bones, Beth had asked us to share an idea of what appeared to be significant in “Home”, but could not interpret it with the given context. As we all come from different backgrounds and experiences, this exercise highlighted the similarities and differences among our thinking. It further reinforced that listening to other perspectives challenges me to think in an insightful way based on my own interpretation and experiences. Furthermore, it inspires me to cultivate new questions based on what my peers have said. 

Since “both/and” is one of the course’s life preservers, it’s important to recognize these situations while reading the course documents. In Medical Apartheid, Beth pointed out that it was important to both adress the harmful procedures and treatments done to African Americans by white doctors and consider that these practices occurred at a different time of life. In Chapter 2, it directly mentions that the “experimental abuse of African Americans was not a cultural anomaly; it simply mirrored in the medical area the economic, social, health abuses that the larger society perpetuated against people of color.” The same chapter begins with the story of how Dr. Thomas Hamilton obtained the possession of John Brown, an enslaved person. Brown’s master, Stevens, fell ill and was recommended to Dr. Thomas Hamilton. Hamilton restored him back to health and asked him if he could give him any favor. In exchange, Brown was now in the possession of Dr. Hamilton, to be experimented on, without a care in the world from Stevens. Brown was unaware and in fear of what would be done to him as the doctor’s interest was finding the best remedy for sun-stroke. The first experiments consisted of Brown sitting on a stool naked, in a pit that contained a fire in it, exceeding temperatures of 100 degrees. Brown fainted within a half an hour and was lifted out while the temperature was recorded. Hamilton gave him some nostrum as this ordeal was repeated for some time. After researching the definition of nostrum, I found out that nostrum is a form of medicine that is not effective and prepared by an unqualified person. After this, Hamilton subjected Brown to a new set of experiments that caused him to bleed everyday and would blister Brown at two week intervals. Like Brown, there were many people that experienced the same feelings of iatrophobia. The same example of both/and also applies to Home when Cee is being treated after Dr. Beauregard experimented on her. Chapter 13 explains the final stage of Cee’s healing to be sun-smacked, meaning that she would “spend at least one hour a day with her legs spread open to the blazing sun.”  In response to Cee’s uncomfortableness with the treatment, the ladies were unbothered that she would be exposing others to a private area. Furthermore, they justified their decision by stating that completing the last step would give Cee a permanent cure to womb sickness and a kind that is beyond human power. As these ladies did not receive any professional medical training, religion played a major role in the implementation of their practices. 

As the course progresses, I would like to continue to ask more questions and engage in the course documents more to immerse myself and truly get the most out of this course. In the past, I have read books without thinking about the significance behind the words. Therefore one of my goals is to continue to analyze the text in order to efficiently unpack the meaning between the lines. Furthermore, I wish to take more consideration into my peers’ thoughts. In some cases, I find myself acknowledging their interpretations without contributing my insights into the same conversation or theme. Although this may seem harmless, I can see this as being a possible bad faith practice as I am not contributing to the expansion of the scope of the question or theme discussed. Ultimately, I wish to improve on supplementing these conversations with my thoughts, to not only enable my growth as a student and individual but to also potentially facilitate the growth of my peers as students and individuals (if my insights allow it). By implementing the both/and mindset into my class discussions, this will allow for more understanding of difficult topics and readings for both me and my peers. Not only this, but acknowledging multiple points of view may make others feel more comfortable expressing their true thoughts. With more contribution to our discussions, it benefits my peers, myself, and Beth by allowing her to recognize that we can notice. In other words, the contributions made relate to the course epigraph, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.”