Collaborative Essay

Jessie Seifert, Aleah Barrett, Lauren Conover, Paige Loucks, EJ Rouse, Jayne Zygaj, AJ Forte

In this course, we’ve done a lot of careful consideration to always follow our course epigraph.  An epigraph is a short quotation intended to suggest a theme and in this case, ours is a quote from Dionne Brand, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” It helps remind us that there is always intention behind the books we read and presentations we watched this semester, and each serves a purpose to further our understanding of medical racism. Many of the books we have read this semester have tested our ability to notice for ourselves and be aware of what our peers notice during group discussions. Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington was meticulously read throughout the semester, many of the stories correlating with different scenes in fictitious books we were reading at the same time. This helped remind us that, even though the people in the novels may not be real, their experiences are not limited to the world they live in. Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson uses poetry to exemplify each person involved in stealing and experiencing Fortune’s Bones. Nelson does this intentionally to not only give humanity back to those whom it was stolen but also to help us notice how painfully unpunished and normalized medical experimentation and the dehumanization of Black people is, spanning generations. Toni Morrison utilizes the reader’s ability to notice by expecting the reader to always be aware as they’re reading. She does this to stress the normalization of medical malpractice and how racism in America affects all aspects of life. Home by Toni Morrison has us notice big-picture ideas like the White Supremacist and Eugenics books on the Doctor’s bookshelf, and the lack of concern the Doctor has when Cee is left infertile because of his experimentation. She also adds smaller literary details that add to the narrative as a whole, including the symbolism of them living in Lotus, and the irony of Frank fighting in the Korean War in an integrated Army but coming back to a segregated home. Morrison presents these ideas very casually, oftentimes leaving the reader to notice them on their own. Many of these stories have left us with rather uncomfortable moments, detailed excerpts about bodies being prodded and maimed, the authors want us to notice this confining feeling. They don’t want their work to be palatable for readers so they feel more comfortable reading it, they are writing it for a reason. When we finally allow ourselves to notice and live with that uncomfortable feeling, we are allowing ourselves to connect to their characters and come with them on their journey to understanding. Home by Toni Morrison is a novel that can contribute thoughts and knowledge in many different ways. We discussed that creating one throughline is a hard task- especially with several different opinions and understandings. We developed one that we hope can be established and grow in different ways. The throughline will highlight the profound connections between personal identity, the concept of home, and the broader socio-historical context within which the characters exist in Morrison’s work. An important motion that Home proved to readers was that accepting the past is typically the only way to start the healing process and move forward from the traumatic experiences.  Being able to face trauma, even just as the reader in noticing everything but being ok/opening communication. Growing from these experiences is the largest step you can take in healing and moving forward.  Also, it is important to acknowledge and recognize them to prevent them from happening again in the future. Each book and short story that we have read and examined in our course has proven the importance of our throughline. Without the hard task of healing, communication, and honesty, growth cannot happen. 

The flows between literature, medicine, and racism are apparent in Home because of how Toni Morrison introduces these ideas in her story. She uses direct storytelling to show injustices happening in the background and foreground of her stories. She mentions real experiences of segregation and de facto segregation in the North and South while also addressing medical experimentation on black people. An example of this is Cee working as a medical assistant, but being treated very poorly. The doctor does gynecological experiments on her and deprives her of her freedom. He inflicts cruel and tortuous punishment on her, making her infertile. When Frank bursts into the doctor’s home he yells “There’s nothing to steal here”, ironically, the doctor already stole Cee’s fertility, peace of mind, and health. This can be related to chapter two of Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington where she discusses James Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology”. He subjected enslaved black women to invasive surgeries and experiments with no anesthesia. Sims claimed that the procedures done were “not painful enough to justify the trouble and risk of attending the administration.” He also believed that black people were less intelligent and therefore had a higher pain threshold so they could handle more than their white counterparts. He would use his findings from his unethical practices on black women to find cures to help white women, it would help him become one of the most important figures in medical history. In the doctor’s office in Home, there is a selection of books out in the open, for anyone to read. Among these books are Out of the Night, The Passing of the Great Race, and Heredity, Race, and Society all of which are books on White Supremacy and eugenics. Cee says she hopes to read them one day, without realizing that eugenics is used to justify the mistreatment and killing of minorities.  

At the beginning of the book, Frank meets Reverend John Locke and explains how he escaped from the hospital, where they were selling black people’s bodies to be experimented on. The reverend defends the hospital saying that it helps further medical research to help people, which can be compared to the real John Locke who justified slavery saying it was a form of punishment. John Locke is praised for his creation of natural born rights, just like how the reverend was praised for helping Frank. 

In the first chapter of Home, Frank and Cee see men burying a body, but they don’t understand what is happening. Throughout the book, they learn that the town had black men fighting each other as entertainment, which they compared to “dogfights”. They explain how a son had to kill his father to survive these fights. They realized that the body they saw when they were younger was from these fights. So, Frank and Cee went back to where the body was and gave him a proper burial.

As the epigraph by Dionne Brand mentioned before, noticing is an important aspect of this novel as the reader. The ability to notice has limits, which has been shown to us throughout the course. This novel by Toni Morrison, however, is very direct in its connections, and it is easy for the reader to notice, interpret, and make connections. Toni Morrison’s Home relates directly to Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington in the way that they both speak of doctors conducting gynecological research on black women against their will. These concepts are very important to learn about and understand.

 On the other hand, as Home does have a very straightforward approach to its story, it also includes smaller details that enhance the meaning of the story. These details can easily be overlooked by the casual reader. To see these details and make connections the reader has to notice. This is where the limits to noticing play a big role in this novel. An example of one of these details is that the main characters Frank and Cee are from a small town called Lotus. A lotus is a flower that grows in the mud and blossoms into a beautiful flower. This can be related to Frank and Cee, and their individual stories in the novel. Frank fought in the Korean War, and throughout the book had flashbacks of a specific moment that he experienced during the war. Cee had been left by her husband and found a job as a medical assistant, but the doctor used her for his gain, by conducting procedures and experiments on her. These procedures were very traumatic and took her fertility. We see at the end of the novel that even through these hardships, Frank and Cee were able to grow and heal together. So similar to a lotus they grew through the mud of their past. 

Another example of a small detail in the novel is, at the very end in chapter seventeen. Frank is looking at a tree “I stood there a long while staring at that tree, it looked so strong, so beautiful. Hurt right down the middle but alive and well” (Morrison 147). This is a very small piece of the book, with few words but Toni Morrison makes it known that this tree symbolizes the lives of Frank and Cee. Having that pain in their lives, physically and mentally, they were able to move past it and heal. Even if that past trauma might be noticeable from the outside, like on the tree, they grew into strong and beautiful people.

It is in common agreement that the material we have covered over this semester complements our course concepts in a significant manner. The topics we discussed regarding novels like Home and Medical Apartheid have set slightly new standards for the way the course is viewed as a whole. The significance involving these prime connections between literature, medicine, and racism fully defines this course and the implications through the material covered. Not only that, the novels have brought out many traits in the way we think and perceive things; having group discussions to further strengthen our thoughts and bounce off other ideas to get a flow of information into discussions. With practices that were encouraged, the use of good faith has contributed to stronger communication skills. Not only is the material important for the course, but the course itself is crucial to Geneseo’s learning outcomes involving traits such as critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. All of these traits are relevant to concepts that have been extensively used throughout this course. Even with most of our topics being fictitious, their concepts are very real and with very specifically strange wording, enable us to think deeper with certain phrases and decipher their true meaning. Home and other novels we’ve covered throughout have shown examples of medical malpractice and racial injustice in very harsh and inhumane ways. By reading these, they have been introducing new ideas that could be very difficult to handle, but important to discuss because they open up new questions and offer new perspectives that many of us have never thought about before. 

I, Paige Loucks, found myself conflicted on whether or not I agree with the limitation of noticing. To be expected to notice every detail an author might add to their work is unrealistic, not everyone is going to have the resources to even be able to know what they have to notice. I believe that the concept of ‘limitation of noticing’ is less about how much a person notices, but is rather about their efforts put into trying to notice. If someone puts in good faith, their ability to notice increases dramatically. Inciting a conversation with peers to get their understanding alone helps open up a much larger opportunity to recognize key concepts and ideas that we may have passed over without realizing. Going forward, it will push me to not be so closed-minded or scared to ask about other perspectives, nor be hesitant to offer my view on the material. As we were reading Home by Toni Morrison, there were a lot of small and seemingly insignificant details that my mind grazed over. This wasn’t because I didn’t care to get a deeper understanding of the material, it was because I didn’t know to see the underlying meaning. When we had group discussions and were tasked with researching the books that were on the Doctor’s bookshelf, it changed the entire tone of the scene where Cee found them, conversation helped fight against the personal limits of noticing. 

I, Aleah Barrett, agree and disagree with the limitations of noticing. I believe the act of noticing is created by the reader. The desire to go further than the physical words on the page takes a lot of effort from a reader- and that typically does not happen from a casual reader. To understand more than what is given you must have a desire to grow. Personally moving forward, understanding a text is more than being able to summarize or answer a question based on it, you want to explain what you learned or what you disagree with. You must notice your desire to dig deeper, and search for more within a text. In a different light, not each piece of literature will spark a reader’s interest and with that- noticing is too big of a task. Being so disengaged makes it impossible to notice more than what you are given, and that is solely because you will  not put that effort in. After this course and a reflection on the act of noticing I will take care and notice how fast I typically move. I want reading and discovering to feel less of a task and more moving for growth. I want to slow down, understand more than just the words but the overall ideas, and understand the author’s word choices, now that I have noticed this desire- I will work towards achieving. 

I, EJ Rouse, am stuck in the middle on whether I agree or disagree with the limitations of noticing. As we move forward it makes me think that I should not overlook small details. When reading I should dig deeper to understand these details and why they are important. With noticing people will slow down and connect with the reading more. When I read usually I only pay attention to big details and completely miss the little details which sometimes are the big details. While taking this course I have found it really important to take your time while reading and when you do not understand words to look them up. Also in class listening to your peers on how they understood something may help you see things differently. I feel as if it is important to listen to your peers because not only is it respectful but also a learning opportunity. 

I, Jayne Zygaj, have trouble agreeing and disagreeing to the limits of noticing because the reader is choosing what they would like to get out of the novel by the end, so it is up to them to take notice and think more deeply into what the author may be writing. Many believe that once a page is read, they are free to move on, but they could be missing out on many deeper thoughts and connections that the author may be trying to give to them. Throughout this course, I have become more aware of not skipping through the text and talking with peers in class to see what their perspective may differ from mine. By being able to share different ideas, it opens up new questions that may have never been thought about. As I go forward, I will be paying more attention to detail and focusing on the overall idea of the text and what I would like to get out of it. 

I, Jessie Seifert, agree and also disagree with the limitations of noticing because not everyone is able to take time to read carefully and notice small details throughout novels. Many may not have this privilege and read for enjoyment during free time. Personally, in Home, there were many small details that I missed and didn’t notice until we discussed them in class. This includes the scene where Toni Morrison lists the books on eugenics. Until we looked them up in class, I didn’t notice that they were these racist and harmful books. Also, talking with peers in the class allows for these small details to be noticed more because people may pick up different things. It also allows for different perspectives to be given which can help readers notice things they didn’t notice before. As I go forward, I will take care in noticing more in articles or books I will read for my other courses. I will also make sure to discuss it with my peers because it can give me a different perspective and help me notice even further. However, I will not worry about things I may not have noticed, because it is impossible for one person to notice every small detail within a novel.

I, AJ Forte, am confused about whether or not to fully agree or disagree with the limitations of noticing. Trying to get a full message and understanding of a novel is half the fun of reading it in the first place but trying to decipher it all for the full meaning of the book is sometimes near impossible. Especially when there are instances that readers themselves find meanings in the novels that the author didn’t even intend to portray. Overall, trying to notice every single detail of metaphor, symbol, reference, and others, can be quite difficult for readers especially casual readers. To go more in-depth, your understanding also portrays how actively you’re paying attention or whether or not you are interested in what you are reading. I can say for myself that, am not the biggest fan of reading through most of the novels there were small details briefly mentioned in a small section that I indirectly ignored thinking it was just to add depth to the sentence. The reason I realized the significance was through the group discussion and breakdowns. For future reference, Putting more effort into anything I read will with more passion to help me better understand what I am trying to break down and notice.

I, Lauren Conover, agree and disagree with the limitations of noticing. I Believe everyone notices things to a certain level, but people who notice more, might have more time, or have increased background knowledge. For example, in the novel Home by Toni Morrison, the main characters live in Lotus. I would not have made the connection between lotus and the lives of the characters because I did not know the meaning of a Lotus beforehand. I also believe that people who tend to notice more put more effort into noticing. They might do research about certain things they did not understand, or have conversations with others about things they want to know more about. In the future, I will try my best to put more effort into noticing. Over the course of the semester I have learned that there are so many details that completely go over my head. I only notice these details when one of my peers would acknowledge them. This was not because I did not care enough, but because I did not possess the knowledge to think deeper. I think this concept is very important for my future, and I believe it has already made me a better person.


The course epigraph is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”–Dionne Brand, from notes that Beth took during the question-and-answer session following Brand’s March 2, 2013 reading at the Northeast Modern Language Association in Toronto”. Throughout the course so far, there have been many readings that represent this quote, including “Medical Apartheid” and “Fortune’s Bones”. After the readings, and discussions with classmates, I realized all of these things that I didn’t notice until I read about it and discussed it. Discussing with classmates also helps to notice ideas or topics that may not have been as obvious to me. The epigraph has got me thinking about noticing other classmates’ perspectives, and understanding that it will be different than my own. I look forward to taking this class so that I can gain different perspectives and discuss these crucial topics with my peers.

One of the books we have begun reading is “ Medical Apartheid” by Harriet Washington. After reading a few chapters of “Medical Apartheid”, it got me thinking about how unnoticed, past and present, racism in the United States has been. An example in the book that really stuck with me was P.T. Barnum. I had really only heard good things about him until I read this book. He caused harm to many people and one of them was Joice Heth who was an elderly black woman who was blind and almost fully paralyzed. Because of her condition, he claimed Joice was 161 years old. Also, in order to make her look even older than she was, he forcefully pulled all of her teeth out. He wanted to take advantage of her and used alcohol in order to do this because he knew that was her weakness. This was very shocking to me especially because many people, including myself, have idolized P.T Barnum. I had this idea in my head that he was a good person, and just wanted to help these people. However, I was completely misguided. There even is a movie about him, showing that he is a wonderful person. In “The Greatest Showman” they portrayed him in a different light and did not show the true story of his life. This movie was really popular, and I know many people who say it is their favorite. Thinking about this now, I am shocked that producers made this movie and most likely were aware of the things he had done to people of color. Until I read this book, I had no idea about the things that Barnum did, and I’m sure many other people feel the same way. It made me question: Why are people portraying him as such a good person, and not showing how harmful he actually was? This portrayal of P.T. Barnum also got me thinking about how many other important figures have been portrayed in this good light as well. “Medical Apartheid” does a great job showing how prevalent racism is and has been, and how people have been glorified even though they have done terrible things.

In “Medical Apartheid” it is also shown how black patients were abused by doctors and used just for medical research. Doctors thought that black people had high pain tolerances, so they were put through procedures without numbing or anesthesia and were forced into excruciating pain. They were humiliated in front of people and were tortured for research that we still use today. Yet, as Harriet Washington points out, none of this was documented in the doctor’s notes. As someone who wants to go into the medical field, I think this is important to know and everyone should be made aware of this history. I knew that there was a lack of representation in medicine, but did not know that it had gone to this extent. It is disheartening to see that people who claim to want to help other people (doctors) are willing to put someone through this. Since reading this, it really has made me think about our healthcare system overall and how harmful it has been to so many people when it is supposed to be a system that helps everyone. I hope to learn more about this throughout the course in order to gain a better understanding.

We also read “Fortune’s Bones” by Marilyn Nelson. On page 13, the first line is “Fortune was born; he died.” We discussed this line in class, and many people had differing opinions on what it meant. To me, it means that he lived his life, and then died. What was between these two events was seemingly not important enough to share. It’s almost as if the author just overlooked his entire life. He just lived to die. However, there are many other interpretations that could be applied to this one line. This just shows how even one small sentence can bring all these different perspectives together. When I first read this line, I didn’t really think it could be interpreted in another way, until the class began talking. It made me realize that different perspectives are so important in understanding the material and topics. This ties back to the “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”

During class, a passage by Geraldine Heng was read in order to effectively define the definition of race. Heng states that “race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.” By saying this, Heng is explaining that race is solely based on structure, and was created for society to deal with the differences between humans. As a society, race has been used to exploit and harm people of color. Although the United States has come a long way, racism is still very prevalent today and is a systemic issue. Learning this definition of race will be very useful as we go further on in this class. As a biology major, in many of my classes, we learn that race is a distinct evolutionary lineage within a species. I am glad I was able to see it from a different perspective, and even learn a new definition that makes more sense. But so far, this class has taught me a lot and I have begun to see things in a different way which I am grateful for. I am looking forward to continuing learning and challenging myself in this course because it is very different from other courses that I have taken. I hope that discussing these topics with my classmates will help to broaden my understanding and help me in my future endeavors.