The Effects of Noticing

An Essay by: Katelyn Jacques, Dani Scolton, Claire Miller, Jackson Troxler, Giavanna Lay, and Evan Brown

Dionne Brand’s epigraph on noticing speaks to messages present within many stories. “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” This statement implies that the speaker has a duty to be aware of how much another is capable of being aware. The epigraph applies very well to academic environments where teachers are tasked with getting students to learn about topics that will, at one point or another, require them to notice said topics. Throughout the semester, Dr. McCoy has encouraged us students to become independent scholars by making our own meaning from course materials. She encouraged us to pay attention while we read and also think about what each author was trying to communicate through their work. Using critical thinking throughout these books has allowed us as readers to take control of our learning to conceptualize the texts in a deeper way. Many of the texts Dr. McCoy has chosen for us rely on the reader to put together the pieces, further testing our ability to notice and think about things for ourselves. One such piece is Home by Toni Morrison.  Toni Morrison utilized specific style and language in her novel Home to avoid explicit storytelling to her readers. By leaving details up to the readers to piece together, the message of the story has a deeper impact since we are forced to think about them in depth.

Throughout Home, Morrison leaves a trail of context clues sprinkled throughout the novel for the reader to notice what setting the characters are in. For example, the main character Frank has a purple heart, and when asked later where he is from he states that he is from all sorts of places such as Korea. Throughout the beginning of the novel, Morrison never tells the reader that Frank is an African American living during the Jim Crow era. Morrison leaves clues such as showing multiple scenes where Frank asks people which places and diners are safe for him to go to. Again this shows how Morrison wants her readers to solve a puzzle throughout the novel. Just as Dionne Brand stated, Morrison wrote Home with the hope that her readers could notice the intentional design of her novel.

Rather than telling the reader important details outright, Morrison uses smaller details that point toward a bigger picture for the readers to piece together on their own. One such detail that she does this with frequently is the fact that Frank and other characters are living in the Jim Crow era in the South. The limitations on what these characters are allowed to do, as well as the constant threat of hate groups like the KKK, are constantly mentioned. One instance of this is on page 83, where Frank regards living in his hometown of Lotus, Georgia as being worse than fighting in the Korean War. “Lotus, Georgia, is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield. At least on the field there is a goal, excitement, daring, and some chance of winning along with many chances of losing,” (Morrison 83). Frank believes his hometown to be a completely hopeless place with no chance of survival and nothing to look forward to, which is something that he has at least been able to find in small amounts on the battlefield. Along with this is the looming factor of not just dealing with the heavy presence of living in the deep south as an African American, but also Frank having PTSD from the Korean War. As stated on page 32, Frank is trying to sleep but he woke up from a nightmare. “But after a few hours of dreamlessness, he woke to the sound of a click like the squeeze of a trigger from a gun minus ammo.” (Morrison 32) It shows how much he suffers from nightmares because of the trauma he was put through when in war.

Frank’s experiences are not the only instances of Morrison placing details that are not obviously noticed by themselves but contribute to a bigger picture. Frank’s sister, Cee, also experiences several things that become part of a larger subject later. An example of this is when Sarah introduces Cee to her new room provided by Dr. Beau. “‘Oooh, this is nice. Look, a little desk.’ Cee gazed at the bed’s headboard, then touched it with a grin. She shuffled her feet on the small rug lying next to the bed. Then, after peeping behind a folding screen to see the toilet and sink, she plopped on the bed, delighting in the thickness of the mattress” (Morrison 63). In isolation, this moment appears to be a young girl being introduced to a new room that she finds pleasant and comfortable. When put in the greater context of the events of Home, however, it becomes clear that the room was made so pleasant in order to manipulate Cee into being more susceptible to the experiments Dr. Beau wished to perform on her.

Another scene that stood out to me was towards the end of Home on page 121. After Cee was rescued by Frank from the experiments conducted by Dr. Beau, she had to be treated. Instead of going to the hospital and finding treatment, she resorted to women in her hometown of Lotus, Georgia. She was able to notice them and the resources around her, as well as taking risks around her healing process that had repercussions of which she may not have been aware of. 

There are many instances in conversations between African Americans in the novel where they speak candidly about the daily normalities they experience due to living in the Jim Crow era. These pieces of conversation reveal both the unfortunate realities they faced and how they thought about them as well. For example, on page 28 Billy Watson is speaking with Frank about the 6 months he spent in Macon hiding from the rent man. However before Watson tells him who he was hiding from, Frank assumes he was hiding from the “white sheets,” otherwise known as KKK members. In a different scene, Frank escapes the hospital and finds refuge in Reverend John Locke’s home. Locke says Frank is lucky to have gotten out because the hospital “sells a lot of bodies out of there.” The hospital sells dead bodies to the medical school and Frank doesn’t understand why. Locke replies and states, “Well, you know, doctors need to work on the dead poor so they can help the living rich” (Morrison 12). Finally, when Frank arrives at Billy’s house for the first time, he is introduced to Billy’s son, Thomas. Frank learns that a drive-by cop shot Thomas in the arm when he was young; Billy elaborates that he was running up and down the street with a cap pistol in his hand. Frank retaliates saying, “You can’t just shoot a kid,” and Billy replies, “Cops shoot anything they want” (Morrison 31). The casual tones in these conversations can sometimes cause readers to fall into a trap if they aren’t actively noticing. However, it is important to observe these details because they convey how racism has influenced the thoughts and behaviors of African Americans throughout American history.

There are some situations in this novel where the characters themselves experience limits to noticing. On page 65, Cee notices three books on a shelf in Dr. Beau’s home. They were Out of the Night, The Passing of the Great Race, and Heredity, Race, and Society. Cee thinks Out of the Night is a mystery novel by its title. She doesn’t open up the books, however. She notices the books but her understanding of the books is very limited. Her noticing is limited by her knowledge and preconceived notions about Sarah and Dr. Beau. She justifies why she ignored the books saying she would find some other time to learn about “eugenics.” Furthermore, her train of thought switches to Sarah and Dr. Beau, who created a safe and comfortable space for her, so she doesn’t assume any bad faith in their beliefs.

Regarding the same passage on page 65, the first time we read this passage as a class, we were limited by our lack of education regarding the specific books Morrison wanted us to notice. Morrison wanted us to notice these books because she calls them out by name, but at first glance, we looked right over their inclusion in this context. As a class, we looked up the book titles online to understand their significance in this scene. Similar to how Cee doesn’t know what eugenics means, we were unaware of why Cee needed to notice them. However, noticing the books may not have resulted in clarity if we didn’t look into them more. That is where Cee’s noticing was limited. After reading about the books online, we understood that the books should act as a warning sign that Cee unfortunately missed. 

We believe this comes from a perspective of assuming that our voices and concerns will always be heard or taken into account. That people are not out to come with bad intentions, especially ones that are supposed to help and protect you. Based on the privilege of that being what we are accustomed to. The ability to notice comes when one can give into the unknown and be able to leave the comfort of their bubble. Being able to broaden their viewpoint to see how the other side views it offers opportunities for growth and obtaining new perspectives. Without the ability to notice, we assume our outlook is the typical and assumed one. Thus, unknowingly, we isolate those who don’t share the same outlooks. This can restrict inclusivity and empathy towards others. Noticing allows us to identify biases and prejudices that may affect our individual behaviors.  

There is a correlation between noticing in the book and noticing in our group collaboration. By working together we are becoming aware of new perspectives we may have not seen before. The collaboration opens your mind to notice new ideas and learn new aspects of the book Home that as a reader we may not have been aware of before. Noticing also enables us to improve our already existing perspectives by providing new information that helps either strengthen our existing notions or alter them to account for the new information. The topics that are discussed in Home, as well as the rest of this class, are important to be aware of and notice outside of literature as well. Morrison sprinkled these instant mistreatments within the novel in a way that might be seen throughout the reader’s everyday lives. The connection between racism and medicine is still ever-present in many people’s day-to-day lives, and keeping what we have noticed in our readings in our minds will help us to recognize the patterns of mistreatment in the medical field.

I, Dani Scolton, believe that our collaborative conclusion statement is true. Throughout the year in both our readings and group work, we’ve become more acquainted with noticing small details for ourselves, and noticing that other people can notice these things as well. Collaborative exercises like these require a certain amount of trust in your group members and the project is made better when everyone contributes ideas of their own. Some of my classmates have had wonderful ideas that I would have never considered had I been alone in my endeavors. Going forward, I will take my knowledge that I can notice that others can notice and apply it to my future classes.

I, Katelyn Jacques, agree with my collaborators and understand the gravity held within the ability to notice. Moving forward, I acknowledge the responsibilities I have regarding the relationships that I foster with others by being observant and maintaining an open-minded approach. After taking this course and reading our course materials, I have learned how important it is to be aware of my surroundings. There is nothing to lose and so much to gain from allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the realities of others. I have grown to understand many uncomfortable truths about our society, and I’m now more comfortable with discussing them. Treating these topics with respect and care is very important to avoid harming, ignoring, or isolating others. Understanding the context under which people act has given me a wealth of knowledge that I will utilize in the future. 

I, Claire Miller, believe that our collaborative conclusion is very accurate. During the semester it is very important to notice details about the books and within yourself. By working together, talking and brainstorming this allows you to comprehend the material at a higher level. You as an individual are able to notice things about your peers and their thinking as well as how that correlates with your thinking. I would’ve never been able to think about things in a new perspective and mindset without the help from my peers. Ambivalence is important because it allows you to speak your mind if you disagree with someone or a statement someone has said. This is important because throughout life you are going to have differences in ideas so being able to speak your mind and your viewpoint is essential in society. I will use these critical thinking skills, peer interaction skills and the ability to notice to my future classes. 

I, Jackson Troxler, found myself agreeing with the conclusion we came to regarding how Toni Morrison uses small details within her novel Home to accentuate the themes of her novel and believe it connects well to much of what we have learned within this class. Many horrid acts have been committed throughout history and have simply gone unnoticed by many who may have the power to stop them. This is especially the case with black people who have been the victim of harmful medical practices, and Home highlights how this pain can occur without outside forces noticing. Morrison’s writing exposes how noticing little details can be important to understand the big picture of everything aids in understanding how people can help others simply by noticing their pain and acting to alleviate it if they are able.

I, Giavanna Lay, remind myself daily to constantly be aware. Since taking this course and reading the novels provided, my eyes have been adjusted. I’ve been aware of racism in general by seeing it firsthand. However, I was completely unaware of the racism in the medical field and truly how deep it goes until this course. Due to my experience always being positive when concerning medicine or medical attention. Also, due to my lack of education. I see now more than ever how important it is to be noticing and how my experience does not correlate to everyone’s experience. I believe that it is incredibly important to treat certain topics like these with care because you never know whom it might affect. The ability to notice is learned not taught. Whether that be through experience or research, we all are able to learn through others how to make something better for everyone. 

I, Evan Brown, concur with the collaborative conclusion that my group has created.  That is that Morrison implants small details within the novel and that it connects to the course epigraph of “My job is to notice … and to notice that you can notice”.  With things as terrible as what happened to Cee in the novel, I now find it extremely important to notice the meaning and reason behind these small details, not only when reading but in my everyday life as well.  Not noticing things can be dangerous, as seen with Cee’s unfortunate innocence and lack of education.  Working with a group allows and provides new ideas that you might not have thought of without communicating with fellow classmates.  I have learned that I can notice by obtaining knowledge from details that my collaborative partners had noticed. 

Bringing Attention to All of the “Isolated Incidents”

Throughout all of my years of schooling thus far, and despite every science and pre-med course I’ve taken in college, not once have I ever heard of the concept called “medical racism.” That’s why I’m taking this course, because simply the name, “Literature, Medicine, and Racism,” made me curious about what topics we would learn about. Since reading a few chapters of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, the content she wrote about not only shocked me but also worried me. I couldn’t help but think, how is it that I’m just now coming across this knowledge? How many Americans know this version of the history of medicine from Washington’s perspective; or maybe the more important question is how many Americans don’t know this history? Throughout the last several classes I’ve been curious about how many more “isolated incidents” of medical racism have been surreptitiously silenced, hidden, or ignored during the history of medicine and healthcare in the United States. Furthermore, I’ve been wondering if the current institutions that produce healthcare workers and researchers have made students aware of the people who had suffered and never got recognition for their, usually uninformed and nonconsensual, dedication to science and research. I would argue that simply the acknowledgment of medical atrocities towards African Americans and other minority groups by the medical population in America could greatly change the relationship between doctors and their patients as well as the way medicine is practiced. 

One aspect of early American medicine that surprised me was how progress in this field of science was often due to the slave trade and the physician-and-planter relationship. Due to the mass importation of enslaved people to one general region of the U.S., Southern American medicine boomed for nearly two and a half centuries. Immense progress in medicine was due to, as Washington puts it, “clinical material” (Washington, 2006). Enslaved people were viewed as clinical material by planters in the South. Enslaved people served as training material for many physicians and researchers, which caused physicians to foster a strong relationship with planters. This relationship seemed to be mutually beneficial; physicians could practice and experiment with medicine without moral conduct, and the planters could keep their enslaved people alive in order to continue working for them. The usage of Black people during this time period objectified them and denied them of having any bodily autonomy. Out of everything I’d ever learned about slavery, the involvement of enslaved people in medicine was never mentioned. It’s disappointing to learn how little care physicians and researchers had for enslaved people but instead saw them as objects and projects. Perspectives like Washington’s help to provide crucial context to the bigger picture. The fact that doctors across the country saw Black people as “clinical material” clearly shows that these were not even close to isolated incidents.

Looking deeper into the physician-and-planter relationship, Washington describes instances where owners of enslaved persons restricted medical care due to accusing sick Blacks of malingering. On the other hand, owners of enslaved persons would bring in medical professionals to examine their slaves to figure out if they malingering. According to the definition from Oxford Languages, to malinger or malingering means to pretend to be ill, or feign illness in order to escape duty or work. Physicians and planters doubted the legitimacy of the claims their enslaved people made and were more concerned with putting them back to work. Planters often didn’t believe them and didn’t put forth any effort to take care of their mental well-being, but only cared about their physical, and mechanical well-being. In many cases, enslaved people did not receive medical care until it was too late, the medicine given made their conditions worse, and they often noticed physicians would provide the same “cures” for multiple different ailments. These patterns caused a lot of distrust in Western medicine. Soon, slaves began to conceal their illnesses out of their distrust of Western medicine. As Washington describes this trend, “In short, enslaved Blacks often eschewed Western medicine because they suspected their owners of a greater interest in them as capital than in their welfare” (Washington, 2006). These examples of neglectful medical practices resonate with the iatrophobia African Americans have experienced for centuries and into the present day. Again, for millions of Black Americans, across many regions of the country, these were not isolated incidents. As time moved forward, communities of enslaved people saw how they were objectified by White physicians; for many African Americans today, African Americans are less likely to seek treatment and overall have more restrictions to access healthcare (Armstrong, 2007). So statistically, in America, we see some diseases that are killing African Americans at higher rates than White Americans. For example, Black Americans have a 25 percent higher cancer death rate than their white counterparts. Black American women have a 20 percent higher cancer death rate than White women (National Cancer Institute, 2022). The reason why is not really biologically related, but rather is due to social constructs. The distrust between African Americans and doctors in the present day, while it is completely justified, is negatively affecting the health of this group of Americans overall. 

I was curious about how much distrust still exists among African Americans and doctors today, and I found many recent publications online about how American doctors are failing Black mothers. During pregnancy, Black American mothers-to-be often don’t receive enough communication from their doctors about all the risks they’re susceptible to while pregnant or simply aren’t listened to when describing health concerns. Several African-American women have spoken out about the injustices Black mothers have been subjected to by medical professionals. The lack of communication is similar to telling the truth but not the whole truth. This creates inequities in treatment between expecting mothers of different ethnicities. For example, American sprinter Allyson Felix spoke to Time Magazine in June of 2023 about her own experience and other women’s experiences of being neglected by their doctors while pregnant. She stated that many Black women like herself were not aware of health risks while being pregnant. To name a few, Serena Williams experienced a pulmonary embolism shortly after giving birth to her daughter via cesarean section, but her doctors initially dismissed her concerns for her health when she expressed them. Beyonce developed and was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a high blood pressure disorder that can occur during pregnancy and could later cause seizures. Felix herself developed preeclampsia too just days before giving birth. Sadly, in April of 2023, a former teammate of Felix’s, American sprinter Tori Bowie passed away while 8 months pregnant due to respiratory distress and eclampsia (Felix, 2023). A common trend across the experiences of the 4 women mentioned by Felix is the neglect in care by medical professionals, and their dismissive nature when health concerns are brought into the conversation. Whether those doctors realize it or not, the medical system in America has not trained healthcare workers to value the lives of Black women equally to White women, and furthermore, there are still racial disparities in maternal and infant health. 

Personally, I believe education on the history of these racial inequities should be mandatory for medical students. To be fair to themselves and to their patients, it’s important to understand the reality of America’s dark medical history. The way Americans practice medicine may even improve due to these acknowledgments. I wonder if every student was aware of the events Washington describes in Medical Apartheid, would their approach to patient care be different? Would it be enough to restore some trust in the American healthcare system? 


Armstrong, K., Ravenell, K. L., McMurphy, S., & Putt, M. (2007). Racial/Ethnic Differences in Physician Distrust in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 97(7), 1283–1289.  

Felix, A. (2023). Allyson Felix: Tori Bowie Can’t Die in Vain. Time. 

National Cancer Insitiute (2022). Cancer Disparities. 

Washington, H. A. (2006). Medical Apartheid The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Anchor Books.