Medical Issues at African Burial Ground National Monument

To wrap up my experience at the African Burial Ground National Monument, I want to end on how despite all my anticipation of seeing parallels to Zone One, that I was able to see some examples of abuses during my trip that seemed to have been directly taken out of a page from Medical Apartheid.

The museum portion of the monument does an exceptional job in showing the hardship slaves faced on a daily basis and how these hardships eventually took a physical toll. The museum begins to describe the health effects of slavery by showing how being overworked resulted in the early onset of many medical issues such as “osteoarthritis, osteophytosis and schmorl’s nodes.” These issues were shown to have placated slaves at a much earlier age than they would have normally been expected to exhibit them due to the work they did. In addition to these issues, many of the remains buried at the site showed general signs of muscles tearing from the bones they were attached to. When a muscle tears from a bone it leaves signs of trauma on a skeleton and this is usually caused by long and hard “strenuous work (that) causes muscles to grow larger” and for “their boney attachments (to) also enlarge.” Researchers were able to make these claims after they found evidence of these issues in both male and female workers buried at the site. Without proper treatment, these ailments could cumulate and lead to other issues which as we know could become debilitating, result in death or force one to risk visiting a doctor. Continue reading “Medical Issues at African Burial Ground National Monument”

Growth Through Finality: Seeing the Strides We’ve Made on The Collective Assignment

Overall, I feel that the progression our class has made while working on the collective assignment over the past few weeks has been amazing. I remember having my doubts about how this assignment would go when we first talked about it like Sonita pointed out today. Admittedly I had my doubts, I thought this assignment would result in only a few people typing up the assignment while we all tried to get in a contribution. However, I was surely wrong as this assignment turned out to produce what I think is a truly remarkable paper. Continue reading “Growth Through Finality: Seeing the Strides We’ve Made on The Collective Assignment”

Parallels in the Discard of Bodies in Zone One and NYC’s Past

Gary’s lasso was sadly not the only parallel in the mishandling of bodies that I noticed between the treatment of slaves and stragglers while at the African Burial Ground National Monument. Another bothersome similarity that I noticed while on my trip was the methodology of disposing bodies in Zone One and how it resembled practices enslaved people had to similarly endure in NYC’s past. These abusive methods were a bit more noticeably wrong originally but really came to light when you realized their historic context. Going to the museum and understanding the these abuses has definitely helped me to better understand the scope of them in Zone One and in my cities past.

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The Subtle Similarities Between Gary & Slave Traders

While visiting the African Burial Ground National Monument I was able to realize that some of the subtler abuses of the stragglers in Zone One had a deeper historical base stemming from the mistreatment of slaves in NYC’s past. Many of us could pinpoint similarities in the way in which the stragglers were treated in Zone One to some of the other abuses we have read about throughout this semester. However, after visiting the monument I was able to realize that Whitehead incorporated more historic abuses than I had originally noticed when I first read the book. As I came to learn, there were many more similarities between the way in which his characters and real life oppressive whites mistreated the bodies of those they saw as subhuman. I will highlight these findings in two posts with this one addressing how Gary’s method for neutralizing stragglers mimicked a practice of restraining slaves and will then explain how the sweepers mistreatment of neutralized stragglers mirrored the disrespectful manner in which the bodies of deceased slaves were treated. Realizing these subtle inputs of historic abuses and how they were incorporated into Zone One helped me to better understand the deeper symbolism I believe Whitehead intended for his story and how these issues impacted people in my city’s past.

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An Unattainable Search For Consent

Coming to what will soon be the conclusion of this class, I want to revisit an issue that I touched upon previously in three other blog posts regarding my family’s possession of a human skull and how this class has impacted our view of this possession. Throughout this semester my understanding of consent has evolved and I have come to better understand how critical it can be in a medical setting. This understanding of consent was enhanced after learning of the violations of it in the cases of Alice in Zulus, all of the many victims in Medical Apartheid, in the case of Fortune in Fortune’s Bones and of others we have discussed so far this year. This understanding has been something I have shared with my family from time to time and has led us to struggle with our possession of our skull. This is due to the fact that we don’t know if it was obtained with or without consent and in a prejudicial manner or not. As we have come to realize this issue doesn’t have a simple solution and may be something we struggle with so long as we posses the skull.

I have continued to relay what we have learned throughout this semester to my family and as a result, our conversations about our possession of the skull has definitely intensified. I can tell that I have changed my families view on the skull in that they now all express their concerns from time to time about how our skull might have been obtained in a prejudicial manner without consent of its original owner. This is especially true in the case of my Dad who I can tell struggles a bit more than any of us with the ambiguity of the skull given his long-standing history with it. He has brought it up unsolicited a few times in conversations between us and is something I wish I could help me resolve. This ambiguity is an issue for all of my family though and we all agree it’s bothersome at times. This issue was most recently brought up again in my house after my mother and I visited the African Burial Ground National Monument over Thanksgiving break and saw an example of some remains that showed signs of having been “spirited by night from the graveyard” (Washingtonp.121) by medical students for dissection. This experience really made what I had been telling them all semester real as it bothered both of parents and brother when they made this connection.

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Reflection on Trip to African Burial National Monument

In three different blog posts I will try to breakdown the similarities between Zone One in the treatment of capturing slaves, the medical issues slaves faced due to hard laborious work and how even in death, slaves were not able to find closure.

Over Thanksgiving break I ventured down to the African Burial Ground National Monument with my mother to get a glimpse of this historic site. Unfortunately, the outdoor portion of monument itself we discussed in class was closed off for the winter season and additionally had scaffolding around it, making it almost impossible to see any anything. However, we were able to venture inside to the museum portion of the park which allowed for us to get an amazing and very thorough understanding of what life was like for enslaved Africans in early New York City. After having continually learned this semester about the role race has played in our countries past and after having read Zone One, I felt that this opportunity to visit the monument was one I had to experience as a New Yorker and as a student of our class.

One thing that the museum conveys immediately is the rich history of slavery in NYC and how critical of a role it played in helping to build the city. My mom worked down on Wall Street for close to two decades and I have spent an extensive amount of time down in the area so we thought we knew the area but surprisingly, we had never heard of the monument until Dr. McCoy brought it up in class and I relayed this to my Mom. Upon our visit, what we came to realize was that neither of us truly understood how instrumental slave labor was in creating the area and iconic parts of such as Wall Street and Broadway. To build the city, slaves were forced into working conditions that involved hard laborious work that “started when the sun rose and didn’t end until the sun would set.” This extensive and hard work was shown by researchers who examined excavated remains during the 1992 excavation. Researchers were able to assert how physically demanding this work was after examining remains that showed “evidence of extreme effort in both male and female remains.” The side effect of this type of work resulted in the early onset of multiple medical issues that pained, disfigured and or debilitated slaves. As we learned in Medical Apartheid and as described in the museum, issues such as these would rarely be properly treated and unfortunately lead to many dying early from these issues after suffering a life of torture.

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Medical Voluntourism and Our Civic Duties As Students of Geneseo

In class a few weeks ago, we were lucky to have Dr. Muench and Dr. Kennison speak with our class about their experiences running different study abroad trips and the issues related to voluntourism. Voluntourism is the act of conducting volunteer work while abroad and was something my group briefly talked about yesterday in class when writing our mission statement. As we have come to learn, voluntourism can be a very dangerous practice, especially when the help being conducted involves medical treatment. Initially there was concern that some trips offered by the Geneseo Study Abroad department entailed such types of medical voluntourism after Sabrina and Jenna addressed trip offerings that seemed to involve medical voluntourism. Learning of how “the international volunteer placement industry (as a whole) opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes” (Sullivan) by Sullivan was unsettling especially when it seemed there was a chance that Geneseo students might be directly contributing to this issue. Thus, this opportunity was unique in that it provided some clarity on how Geneseo programs are generally run and also allowed us to get a better understanding of how volunteer work is properly conducted abroad. As we would come to learn though, just because these professors ensured no harm to local populations didn’t mean that the places they were visiting were exempt from the dangers of voluntourism.


My group was fortunate to speak with Dr. Muench who spoke about her experiences abroad in Haiti and Ghana. Amongst the many things Dr. Muench talked about, she specifically talked about the precautionary steps that she takes every time she goes abroad to ensure a beneficial and safe interaction between students and locals. This means providing a hands-on learning experience while also having informed consent from villagers on the help students provide. She explained that none of her students conduct medical procedures and that to get students to look at the people they are helping as people and not just test subjects, that she teaches and applies the concept of interdependence to their interactions. Interdependence is the reliance of two or more organisms on each other and is a term taught by Dr. Muench in her introduction biology lecture. In her own way, she has made students see this interaction “both and” benefits wise and is something I personally found to be a great idea. I personally was taught on the topic by Dr. Muench three years ago in her introductory biology lecture and seeing her apply this term topic to a real-life situation outside of the class was cool. Although it was relieving to hear about how Geneseo students provide consensual and meaningful help,  it was disheartening to learn of the few instances where Dr. Muench witnessed another group of doctors conducting work that could potentially involve issues we discussed in class.

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First Hand Exposure To Racism in Medicine

(This post is a continuation of my last two and is related to my father’s experience with racism in medicine)

After finishing Fortune’s Bones, I Facetimed my father to explain what we learned the black community had suffered through in the name of medicine and how Fortune’s story in particular bothered me. At first, I spoke in detail about Medical Apartheid and how it depicted the many disturbing processes used to obtained cadavers and skeletons from non-consenting black individuals for medical/dental students like himself. One example I gave him was how “hospitals habitually delivered black bodies directly from the wards to the autopsy tables without asking anyone’s consent” and how a similar practice still survives “in policies that continue to appropriate the bodies of “friendless paupers” such as the homeless—a disproportionate number of whom are black—for medical purposes.” (Washington p118.) I tied this to Fortune’s story and how it connected with me on a personal level and made me concerned that our skull might not have just simply been donated. He totally understood and was visibly disturbed by what I had to tell him, too. He said he although he was bothered to learn all of this, that “unfortunately (he) did witness racism while in school but not on any level just described.” Hearing this made me both concerned and interested in what he had to say so I asked him if he could further explain those experiences.

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To Be Or Not To Be: The Turbulent Relationship One Has With Growing Up Possessing A Skull

In my last blog post, I began to discuss Fortunes Bones and the ethical issues I have personally struggled with as someone whose father possess a skull from his time in dental school. I feel that there is a need to clarify that although I may have made it seem like there was normalcy to growing up with a skull in my house, that this has not in fact been the case. Having a skull in our home has led me to deal with many of the ethical dilemmas we have discussed in class regarding consent when using another’s body for medical education. There have been times in the past where I was comfortable with our possession of the skull and believed that it afforded myself and others a great opportunity to learn from. There have also been times, however, where I was seriously uncomfortable with our possession of the skull; not only can it be unsettling to live with what was once another person’s head, but also it can be bothersome to live so intimately with it when you don’t know its full story.

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Respecting Bodies

Throughout this semester we have continually been exposed to texts that reveal the horrors African Americans have been subject to in the name of medical research and education, with Fortunes Bones being a unique example of a combination of history and an author’s fictional interpretation of it. Marilyn Nelson uses poems and blurbs to educate readers on the story of Fortune, a slave whose skeleton would be exploited for decades after his death. This stylistic approach provides us a multitude of viewpoints on issues related to the exploitation of Fortune’s bones and allows the reader to contemplate many ethical questions regarding the use of black bodies in medicine on a personal level. Although we have read other texts such as Home and Medical Apartheid that depict similar abuses, no text has quite impacted me as much as Fortune’s Bones has to this point. This is mainly due to the fact that as the son of a dentist who is interested in medicine, I have been exposed to real-life examples of human anatomy from a young age, ranging from living patients to objects like models and even a real skull my father still possesses from dental school. I was taught to respect whatever I learned from regardless if what I was using was an object or observing a patient. I knew that this exposure was unique, but never fathomed that the respect and ethical practices used when treating people/ handling objects would vary, especially when race became a factor. Learning about how African Americans have been so disproportionately abused in the name of medicine was so drastically opposite from the level of respect I was raised to have. This was exemplified in all of the texts we have read but the one text that really hit home the most for me was that of Fortune’s and how dissimilar the Porters treated one’s remains compared to my upbringing.

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