Reflection on Literature, Medicine, and Racism

The epigraph of this course is a quote from Dionne Brand, which says “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” This epigraph has helped guide us when reading and attempting to understand the material throughout the semester. As we have continued our understanding of the literature and built off of it in order to make connections, both between the literature and within our daily lives, there becomes a clear understanding of how this epigraph was meant to help us along the way. When the authors wrote these pieces, they were responding to the mistreatment that black people have been subjected to in the U.S., and continue to be subjected to in the present. While there are authors that may more directly bring up issues of race outside of the medical field, for the purposes of this course we were given examples that directly corresponded with the medical industry rather than other areas where black people may be systemically harmed. As the authors wrote they seemed to notice the abuse that had been done to them, and they wrote as a way to respond and mirror the issues that concerned them the most deeply.

 By going through these readings and connecting them to real life examples given to us in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid we were in many ways able to notice the authors noticing. By paying attention to conversations occurring between the fictional worlds being written about and the world around us we can reflect on what it all means. As we continue to see medical injustices being mirrored in these writings we are forced to realize that the systematic oppression of black people and the consequences on their health has not simply disappeared overnight. While we have to carefully read the text in order to understand what is being referenced, we must do the same thing when examining our surroundings as well. We cannot just passively acknowledge the horror of our past as a nation, but rather we are required to carefully address the concerning practices we see going on around us in order to actually affect change. Washington even says in the epilogue to Medical Apartheid that when it comes to medical treatment, “Although less rife, it remains a contemporary reality, and an ever-present one (386).”  This is why we have continually discussed the idea of thinkING as an active, not passive, process. Reflection is not just a process where you can understand the material and move on. In order to truly reflect you must go back and test yourself when you have learned from your experiences or from your intellectual growth. While Washington is aware of the history of the medical field, as well as the current practices that take place within it, she is able to reflect on what has happened and where it has led us today. If she had not been able to properly reflect on the crimes from the past and presented it to us, it may have been easier for us to judge those who were mistreated and sympathize with those who enacted these horrors in the name of “medical advancements.”

When we first read Home, it was easy for us to judge the characters and question their choices, but as we have moved on I think their actions and thought processes have become more understandable. The context of each situation is essential to understanding the motives of the characters, and although we had the opportunity to become slightly immersed in the material of Medical Apartheid, it was difficult to fully understand before hearing the narrative of Cee and Frank. When we learned about the structural systems that have caused harm within the medical field we were also given an example of how these systems could directly harm an individual. When Cee is discussing her short-lived marriage to Principal, she discusses her brother Frank, saying “That’s the other side, she thought, of having a smart, tough brother close at hand to take care of you and protect you- you are slow to develop your own brain muscle (Morrison: 48).” From the beginning of her narrative Cee sees herself as weak and simple-minded, but by the end of her story she proves to herself and those around her that she is strong and capable. I found myself judging her for putting herself down without recognizing the context in which she lived her life. Before it became clear to see the ways in which doctors harmed black people with no remorse it was easier for us to judge Cee for becoming part of the system of abuse.

During my time in college I have taken anthropology courses and have begun viewing things as I would view them in an anthropology course. In the field of anthropology ethnographic field methods are used in order to study cultures and people. Ethnographies rely on the researcher to immerse themselves into the culture they are studying for a long period of time so that they can come to understand the culture as best they can, and then present the information they have learned to the world. While we started off not wanting to believe what Home was trying to tell us, anthropologists rely on individuals to provide them with knowledge of the cultural context they find themselves in. Of course, they must also be well versed in the theoretical and methodological history of anthropology as a whole, but they would be doing a disservice to their research subjects if they were not willing to fully listen to them, and I could see that scenario being played out when many of us could not believe what we were being told by Cee and Frank. By not fully understanding the context within which Cee and Frank lived we are also unable to understand their narratives as people. Even within Home, we hear from Frank and Cee that their grandmother was a cruel, awful woman who mistreated them every chance she got. While her actions towards them are still cruel, it becomes easier to understand why she acted in those ways after we get to hear from her directly in her own chapter. After her first husband is shot and killed and she feels forced to move away and remarry, her experience is described by the following quote- “Just as Lenore began to safe and comfortable so far from Alabama, a passel of Salem’s relatives- ragged and run out of their home- arrived (Morrison: 87).”  As we learn more and more about the context of the situations throughout history we have to reflect on what we have learned and how it impacts our view on the matter.

Professor McCoy told us when we first started Clay’s Ark that Octavia Butler can play off of her readers’ expectations and biases as and make us examine them. Butler was able to notice that people make snap judgments and use that to her advantage. As we moved through Clay’s Ark, I found myself looking for someone to blame, but I couldn’t blame an organism. By not being able to place the blame on one single person or source I felt uncomfortable and unsettled. Going off of the same branch, we are unable to place blame on one singular person or situation when looking back on the course of our medical history. There are, of course, many people that we can blame for the torture and experimentation of black people, but this is the result of systemic racism, not one person’s will. Even in the case of the slave system that led to the experimentation of black people as a whole, we cannot find the first person that suggested or created it, or at least I cannot as an inexperienced historian and scholar. We can blame colonialism, systemic racism, and the institution of slavery as a whole, but we are unable to pinpoint exactly how far racism has permeated throughout our culture to this day. I have found it more difficult to blame a bureaucratic system for racism than to blame an individual for their wrongdoing. That is not to say that the structures have not been as harmful, but at least when an individual is harmful you can receive closure. When a system is harmful as a whole it is much harder to address and come to terms with, whatever that may mean to someone.

Even when we are able to contextualize the systems we are trying to understand, this does not guarantee that we will be in a position to actually understand what we are hearing. Reading the material this semester and discussing it in class has forced me to look at the privileges I have in our society under a more critical light. The discussions we have had have challenged me to look at my life and try to empathize with people who have experienced things I have never been through. If we were just expected to read these books and make connections between them I don’t think I would have learned as much as I learned from simply conversing with people and understanding others experiences and interpretations of what they were experiencing.

As Professor McCoy mentioned earlier on in the course, no one is able to reach the horizon. However much they may chase it, we will always fall behind it. I feel the same way about understanding and recognizing the medical torture enacted on black people from the perspective of a white person; I don’t think I will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like, but I can keep trying my best to empathize regardless. Although I will never be able to reach this horizon of fully understanding, I can keep chasing it, even while I know it will never be reached. If we are not all willing to accept these horrors on our past and try to understand the expansive reach of its impact on our world today then we are not really trying to address the consequences and reach the horizon. As the authors of the literature we have read this semester have noticed the inequities surrounding medicine and race, they have forced us to notice along with them, which I can only assume was their plan from the beginning.

The Value of Honesty

The will to resist acknowledging the truth about your past can be strong, but the push from the world around you to be truthful is often stronger. In the case of Frank in Home, we see a man unwilling to be honest about his experiences and his actions. In Medical Apartheid, we see a medical system that is still not able to acknowledge its own history. In Home, Frank is at least able to be honest with himself, and with us as readers, about what he has been hiding, but in Medical Apartheid we see that the medical industry is still not willing to recognize what it is founded on. I would argue that this helps explain why Frank seems like he is headed towards a better future, but the medical industry in the U.S. seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

Frank spends the entirety of Home going back and forth between the past and the present. He is never able to sit alone with his thoughts, and those closest to him notice his emotional instability. This is especially apparent when we hear from his ex-girlfriend directly and she describes the life she lived with him, before he left to take care of Cee. There is first his “public explosion (Morrison: 78)” and then the added weight of him not wanting to help with the household chores. She notices that he is hurting but she is never able to find out why. Frank eventually tells us the story of his friend who received oral sex from a Vietnamese child, and ends up shooting her. While it is disturbing to hear, it is more disturbing when we find out that it was actually Frank, and not his friend, who engaged in sex with a child and subsequently shot her. He recognizes how horrific this action was, even saying “How could I let her live after she took me down to a place I didn’t know was in me? (Morrison: 134). Not only does he finally admit that he killed the girl, but he also admits that he took part in a sexual act with a child. This realization comes towards the very end of Home, and after that he was able to reconcile an experience he and Cee had as children, as well as officially find a place to call home. By opening up to the mistakes he had made he was able to at least move on with his daily life, even if he still wasn’t at peace.

Medical Apartheid is a book based solely on the racist acts performed by doctors, scientists, and others involved with slavery or the medical field. We are given example after example of horrific events that took place throughout America’s history, and the examples could go on for what seems like forever. With one of the most famous being the Tuskegee experiment where black men were unknowingly infected with syphilis to see how it spread and what the long-term effects were, to the lesser known cases of Mississippi appendectomies, where women were sterilized under the guise of medical treatment in order to stop them from procreating. Harriet Washington works as a reliable narrator, with all of her claims being backed up by evidence she has found during her research, so we can rely on her to be honest. She has to act as the narrator to show us how awful the treatment of black people has been in the medical field, especially since we are unable to rely on the medical field to be honest with us. The institutions that are related to the torture and abuse of black people are still not willing to accept the history they have, so we must rely on outside sources such as Washington to be upfront.

When Frank is finally willing to be honest with us and with himself, he is able to move forward with his life. Although it doesn’t seem like he is completely at peace with himself or with his actions, he has done the hardest part, which is accepting what happened. The same cannot be said for the medical industry that is described by Medical Apartheid. There is a strong reluctance to accept what has happened in the past, and that means that we have never gone through the hardest part of moving forward as a society. When people like Washington are able to point out the injustices caused by the medical community we can see the clear connections between what happened back then and what is still happening now, but we cannot properly move forward until the institutions that caused this wrongdoing are willing to accept their past with us.

Birth Control- In More Ways than One

While we were working on the collaborative blog posts in class I was able to discuss multiple different relevant themes that could have been used for the post. While they were all ideas worth exploring, not all of them could be used in our collaborative blog post, just for the sake of time. I would like to explore one specific idea that we discussed further. In Clay’s Ark, when the people who live with the organism have children, the children do not look like what we think a baby would look like. They also don’t grow in the same way we would think of a normal child growing. They are covered in hair, and they are nimble and quick on their feet, especially for their age. They also have more peculiar aspects, like being able to sense the sex of a child while it’s still in the womb just by listening to its heart beat. When Keira and Rane each meet children who were born on the farm, Keira accepts them as they are, and Rane chooses to judge them. Rane’s judgement of the children reminds me of the discussion of reproductive health in Medical Apartheid. In both cases people believe that there are groups who should not reproduce, but for different reasons.

Rane and Keira automatically have very different responses to the children that live on the farm in Clay’s Ark. While Keira and Rane are separated they each get a chance to meet different children who have grown up on the farm. Keira meets Zera, and Keira tries to make her comfortable. When talking to Zera she even invites her to sit on her lap. Eli is the one who makes Zera get off of her, and to the judgement of Lorene, Zera’s mother. When Lorene asks Keira if she thinks she would be willing to have a child that looked like Zera she even says “I think I could handle it (Butler: 546).” On the other hand, when Rane meets Jacob, she doesn’t understand what he is or why he looks the way he does. She rejects the idea that she will ever have a child that looks like him, saying “I never cared so much for the idea of aborting children, but if I thought for a moment that I was carrying another Jacob, I’d be willing to abort it with an old wire coat hanger! (Butler 532).” This statement offends Stephen, who she is talking to when she says this. To reject having children just because they look a certain way is hurtful to the people on the farm, especially because they know she will either be overcome by the organism and start having children, or she will die in the process.

In Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, she discusses the relationship between black people and reproductive experimentation in great detail. The first quote of the chapter is from Barbara Harris, who says “We don’t allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children… (189).” There is then a reference to a specific woman, Fannie Lou Hamer, who had her uterus removed against her will in 1961. She had surgery to remove the pain that she felt in her abdomen, and later found out that she had her uterus removed as well, for no medical reason. She was unable to have children because of this, but it lead her to be “A lifelong opponent of birth control (Washington: 190).” After she had her uterus taken without her consent she felt that by creating birth control, the government was using it as a means of surveillance in order to keep black women from procreating. After she felt like she had her choice taken away from her she felt that it was important to keep her reproductive right to procreate, without the interference of birth control.

The connection I see between Clay’s Ark and Medical Apartheid is that each group is judged for having children. While Keira is understanding and open to the idea of having children, as Fannie was, Rane and the doctor who took Fannie’s uterus without her consent are judgmental over the children who each respective group is having, and they think it would be better to not have children or not allow someone to have children. While the children who are born infected with the organism seem to be doing fine physically, Rane still judges them for their appearance and actions. In the same vein, even though Fannie had not had any children and worked hard to make a living, the doctor still saw her as procreating too much, which is the same attitude we get from Barbara Harris’ quote. The use of the term “litter” by Harris also connects to the way in which Rane repeatedly refers to the children as animals. By equating children to litters of dogs both Rane and Harris are able to dehumanize them. By taking away someone’s reproductive rights, in either case, they would have their autonomy taken away from them as well.

Literal vs. Figurative War

In Zulus we are left in the aftermath of the war that killed off so many on Earth. There is not much mention of what exactly started the war, but the impacts of it are clear. In Medical Apartheid, we are provided with information on the war that has been waged against black people for centuries in the U.S. Harriet Washington focuses on how this war was led throughout the medical industry primarily, but in conjuncture with the context of the racial issues of the time, depending on which era she is talking about. The first war discussed is done in the public eye with an acknowledgment of the actions taking place, while the war discussed in Medical Apartheid is done in private, with heads turned in the opposite direction. Each act of war is harmful in different ways, but it is also hurting the population as a whole, even if certain people don’t feel any direct consequences.

In Percival Everett’s Zulus there is a world left over after what could be described as the apocalypse. We are never told exactly why the war began or what happened during it, but we are continuously reminded of what it has caused. After Alice Achitophel is moved out of the city and the group has to walk through the scar, she notices that the earth has a distinct red color, similar to the color of blood. She asks “Why is it red like this?” and Theodore Theodore responds that “The war did it (Everett: 57).” The earth around them has been altered severely by the conflict, and there is not much they can do about it. Even when she asks direct questions about how the scar was created, there is not much of an explanation given to her about exactly why or how it happened. The only explanation is that the war caused it, simple as that. The attitudes left over afterwards are even more pessimistic, with Alice Achitophel saying “God must have died during the war (Everett: 17).” The war has left everyone disheartened and scared for the future, since they think it will only lead to the demise of humanity. Although they can’t be sure of it, Alice Achitophel and Kevin Peters do eventually spread the Agent and actually kill everyone, but they couldn’t know that in the beginning. In Medical Apartheid there is not a war as defined by its literal definition, but there is an attack on black people within the U.S. going on during our history, and even present, that Washington presents us with. She tells us that, because of the population that doctors and scientists were made up of primarily until the last few decades, “They could afford to be frank… Therefore, a doctor could be open about buying slaves for experiments, or locating or moving hospitals to areas where blacks furnished bodies for experimentation and dissection (Washington:10).” The fact that black people were being attacked wasn’t being publicized because there was no way to tell everyone when a lot of people were illiterate, and even if it had been known there isn’t a strong case to argue that people would have cared. The black community was well aware of the acts taking place around them, and even today when it is mentioned many are seen as gullible for believing such myths. This war was done privately, but the effects were the same as the war that occurred publically.

The impact that the medical experimentation on black people had is still prominent today. The medical system is seen as untrustworthy to many, and there are fields within the industry that are heavily based off of these experiments, such as gynecology. Although this conflict was not waged publically there were still major impacts like the war that occurred in Zulus. The literal meaning of what a war is and isn’t does not change the impacts that a literal or figurative war can have. In many ways people may even call the experimentation and dissection of black people a literal war. They were targeted and many thought they would eventually be killed off, but they were also mostly unable to defend themselves, so it could be seen as an ethnic cleansing as well. Even though in Zulus some people immediately died after the agent was released the first time there were also people left behind. These people were hurt in the long run, just like the people who were not directly experimented on were hurt in the long run in the U.S. Even though they were not directly impacted it still harmed them because of the cultural effects this experimentation has had.

Rural Citizens: The Underbelly of America

In Zone One we see the aftermath of the apocalypse from the perspective of the survivors, much like the rest of history. As we follow Mark Spitz, Gary, and Kaitlyn through what used to be known as Manhattan but is now recognized as Zone One, we see what daily life has come to be after the spread of the disease which turns people into “skels”. When comparing this to the current events going on around us, it becomes easy to see how the same personalities in our own time could easily spread and permeate the culture even after an apocalypse has taken place. While Zone One is a work of fiction, the attitudes of many of the characters could be transplanted into the current culture and have no problem living in our world. More specifically, I think the attitudes of many people living in rural areas who feel that they are losing control within the general population are clear in Colson Whitehead’s piece.

In the beginning of the book, we start to learn the dimensions of the characters being presented to us. Their personalities differ in many ways, but since such a large portion of the population has turned into something they are not familiar or comfortable with, there are slim pickings for friends. As part of the Omega unit, they work together to make sure spaces within Zone One are free of what they call skels, which can also be thought of as zombies. Gary, who used to work on cars, and Kaitlyn, who used to be a teacher, are both given the same job within their unit along with Mark. They have become blue collar workers attempting to clean out the city, no matter what their jobs were before. Throughout the book, we see that they all utilize their own coping methods in order to kill the skels. At one point Mark contemplates what Gary and Kaitlyn are thinking about when they kill. He thinks that Mark looks at the skels as “The proper citizens who had stymied and condemned him and his brothers all his life, excluding them from the festivities- the homeroom teachers and assistant principles’, the neighbors across the street who called the cops to bitch about the noise and the trash in their yard. Where were their rules now, their judgements, condescending smiles? (Whitehead: 266).” Gary has been stigmatized his entire life for being a mechanic, for having what some might consider a run-down yard, and for living his life how he feels comfortable. He feels like he has been excluded from the group, even though he didn’t do anything except ignore the societal pressures around him to look nice and get a white-collar job. Despite the fact that he worked hard and was a family-man, he still felt like he was being looked down upon.

On the other hand, Gary theorizes that Kaitlyn thinks of the skels differently. From her perspective, the lives she was ending were the lives of “the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding, the flouters of speed laws, and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt… Her assembled underclass who simultaneously undermined and justified her lifestyle choices (Whitehead: 267).” From a different point of view, Gary believes that Kaitlyn finds it easier to kill when she believes that the people at the other end of her gun were drains on the system, when there was still a system to drain. While it seems that she viewed herself as a part of the group that needed to utilize systems such as welfare, she was defiant to group herself with those that abused such things.

In Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s piece titled “The Painful Truth about Teeth,” they uncover a world that many don’t want to look at. The working class living in Maryland voted for Trump with hopes that he would actually give them access to resources as simple as being able to afford a dentist. However simple we may see it as, it clearly isn’t since so many people are left wanting for this type of healthcare. After Trump had won and people like Dee Matello were still left without dental care they became resentful over the fact that he had not done what he had promised, with her and her husband discussing “Did we really vote for him?” The fact that many working-class people living in rural areas are feeling like they are being ignored by the government can be connected to the ways in which Gary and Kaitlyn judge the skels they are instructed to kill. They had each become resentful of the way they were being treated in their previous lives, and they were now in control of the situation. Even the act of moving the capital from Albany, which lies in a much more populated area of New York to Buffalo, which is surrounded by mostly rural areas, proves the same point. There is currently an underbelly of people living in rural areas who feel betrayed and ignored by their government, so even if they see someone come forward with an attitude they may see as problematic or racist in many ways, they may still be willing to support him if they think he will work in their best interest, as Dee Matello did for Donald Trump. These attitudes are best represented by Kaitlyn and Gary within Zone One before the 2016 election even took place, so they could be applied to politicians at any point that claim to stand for the rights of those who feel they are being marginalized.

What if there is no “right” answer

Does time really heal all wounds? How big does the wound have to be for it to never heal? Throughout the semester, we have been given the opportunity to read examples of people trying to heal from their wounds, whether those be deeply intimate or social wounds that wound up impacting them. As brave as it was for them to try to heal, we have seen time and time again that there are just certain levels of damage that cannot be undone. I would argue that there is not always an answer once someone has been harmed. Not only is this represented in the literature throughout the semester, but it can also be seen in the U.S. when race is discussed.

Each book we have read has been focused on a serious incident which has taken place, whether that be the first set of bombs being set off in Zulus, the organism coming to earth in Clay’s Ark, or the medical experimentation done on Cee in Home. The characters in each case respond differently, but there is always a sense that they will try to keep moving forward. I would call this optimism but there isn’t really anything optimistic about it. In Clay’s Ark Eli, Blake, Keira, and Rane all try to continue living their lives, but in many ways, it is just a sense of determinism coming from the organism that will not allow them to die. In Home Cee comes to accept that she will never have children, but she doesn’t do so lightly. Even in Zulus after Alice Achitophel has had a child, gone through a physical transformation, and found love with Kevin Peters, she ends up killing the rest of humanity. I wanted to say that the end of Zulus was inevitable, but for many of us it wasn’t. After we had finished reading and come to terms with what had happened there were many students, myself included, who were shocked by the fact that she would have given up on the world around her. Even towards the very end she is still trying to make her life and the life of her daughter better, but when she tries to convince Kevin Peters to help her find their child, he says to her “Alice, our daughter was dead before she was born (pg. 242).” There were many times that she could have given up before we even began reading her story, which is why it came as such a shock when she ended up making the decision with Kevin to release the Agent. The constant weight of the world around her seemingly proved to be too much, as it does for all of us at a certain point. Although her conditions were arguably worse than those most people have faced, I think everyone has come to a point in their life where it seems like there are no good options left. This idea of an event that leaves us with no “right” choice is paralleled by the history of the medical field in the U.S.

As we continued to read Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid it became easier to understand how we currently live in such a blatantly racist society. Even the fact that we still acknowledge “race” when it is a purely social construct shows that we are relying on it too much. The discussion of eugenics brought up the idea that race is based in biology, and that certain races were inherently better than others because of the genes that had been passed down. When we watched Race: The Power of an Illusion/ The Difference Between Us, we saw students with a background in biology become stuck on the idea of race, even though they knew it was a social construct. The racist structures in the U.S. specifically have become hegemonic understandings at this point. There is no discussion over what race is and isn’t, there is simply an understanding that is forced on us with no area for critique. Similarly to the fiction we read, the same general themes came up when discussing the non-fiction. If we have a society so heavily based on racist structures and ideals, how are we expected to move on as a whole? How can the medical system actually advance when there is no effort put forth to recognize the racist structures it was founded on? How are black people ever expected to fully trust the medical system if the torment of their “race” is never fully recognized? When we watched Alice Achitophel try her hardest to move on with her life in spite of everything she had already gone through, we wanted the best for her, but we were left stunned when the best did not come. In many ways, at least she was able to completely tear down the systems that had let life get that bad in the first place. As a society, maybe we need to do the same. Trying to dismantle the medical system completely seems like an impossible task, but how can we honestly move forward without doing so?

The Ties that Bind

When becoming immersed in literature that connects so heavily, it can become easy to see the connections between characters amongst different literature. In class, I was able to discuss the attitudes of some of the women we were able to read about during the semester. Specifically, the group I was in compared Keira’s attitude at the end of Clay’s Ark to the attitude of the women who took care of Cee in Home. In both cases, Keira and the women who cared for Cee have been through traumatic situations, and they are forced to get through these situations by whatever means necessary. Mentally, it seems that they all put up a barrier in order to protect themselves, even if it makes them come off as detached from the situation or unkind to those around them. There is no time for empathy when getting through the day is a struggle in itself.

At the end of Clay’s Ark, Keira is reflecting on the death of her sister, Rane. Eli tells Keira how strong Rane was, and she thinks to herself, “Not strong enough, Keira thought. Not against the car family. Not against the disease. Not strong at all (621).” Keira has been left alone in the world following the death of Rane, as well as her father. In addition to that, she has become contaminated with the organism that has infected everyone else on the farm. As she has to move on with her life and face what it has become, she seems to become hardened to it. When you are forced to move forward with your life before you are given the opportunity to grieve, you cannot properly handle your feelings about the past. Even though we, as the readers, know that Rane fought to get herself away from the car gang, she still didn’t make it out alive. Rane killed people as she was about to die, and she tried to make it to her sister, but Keira doesn’t acknowledge this when thinking about her. Instead, she acts as though Rane was too weak to make it through this situation with her. Keira has gone through the same situation as her father and sister, but now she is the only one that has to keep living without the two of them. Even at the very end of the book, she talks about her father, saying that she “shook her head, not wanting to think of him. He had been so right, so wrong, and so utterly helpless (624).” By being forced to keep on living her new life, how is Keira expected to properly come to terms with the death of the people closest to her? It may be easier for her to resent the people that have seemingly left her behind than to properly grieve.

In Home, we become acquainted with the women who take care of Cee after she is experimented on by Dr. Beau. When Frank brought her to these women he was sent away for weeks while they were trying to heal her. They took complete control over the situation, preventing her closest relative from being allowed to see her, because he would have just interfered. Once Cee is better, they let her know that they do not trust the medical industry, and she shouldn’t either. As black women, they understand that historically they have been subjected to the kinds of tests and experiments that Cee underwent, and they want her to be more aware of this as well. Although there are a multitude of examples to draw from, the first that comes to mind is that of the Mississippi appendectomy, when black women would be made unable to have children without their consent (Washington). When she tries to stand up for herself and ask how she was supposed to know his plans, one woman responds by saying “Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake – otherwise it just walks on in your door (122).” Although these women heal her in the ways that they can, they are not what we would think of as kind about it. They are clear that they don’t trust doctors, and they let her know what they think about her actions. They make her better and they make sure she is okay, but they are not easy on her when it comes to their opinions on her situation. 

Keira seems to me like she is progressing towards being like the women who cared for Cee. The women who take care of Cee are older, and they have arguably been through more in their lives than Keira. While Keira had cancer, and dealt with the death of her mother, and eventually the death of her father and sister, there is something to be said about longevity. She is only sixteen during the events of Clay’s Ark, while the women in Home are at least middle aged. Keira’s trauma happens in a short period of time, while the other women have dealt with a lifetime of pain, even if we don’t know the specifics of their situations. If they know enough to bring Cee back from the brink of death, and they are clear about their distrust of doctors, they must have gone through something to learn so much. When you have to constantly handle traumatic events, it seems as though you have to become numb to a certain extent. People do not have an endless amount of energy to put into their emotions, or to put into caring for others. At a certain point people must separate themselves from the situation in order to care for themselves. While Keira has only just gone through the events of Clay’s Ark it seems plausible that she could come off as cold one day, just like the women in Home.

Noticing Without a Name

When we are born, we are given a name to go by. That name will represent us for the rest of our lives, and even when some of us decide to change our names, that new name will impact how others define us as people. After a person dies, most within our society are buried with a headstone, making sure that we will always be known by our name. By acknowledging someone’s name, we are noticing them, just as the author Dionne Brand once said, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” My main concern is, what happens when a person is unable or unwilling to notice in the first place? When someone is no longer there to defend their body and show us a large part of who they are, how are we able to notice them at all?

As we have moved throughout this course so far, a large part of what we have talked about has to do with people being disrespected after their passing. In the case of Fortune, his body was taken and used for generations by his slave master in order to further their scientific understanding of the body. As it was passed down, the body became just that; a set of bones to be inspected, rather than the housing of someone’s spirit. Fortune no longer was in control of his body, and there was nothing to signify that it was once his. No one was able to notice who he was or what he experienced once his bones went unmarked. I feel that in this case, Dionne Brand’s quote can work in another way. If the people who owned slaves noticed that no one else was paying attention, or at least no one else was going to stop them, they were able to continue doing horrendous things to black people, both dead and alive.

When Fortune’s body was stolen, most slaves were unable to read or write, because that education was hidden from them. As a result, doctors were able to openly write about their manipulation of the black body after someone had passed, because people weren’t given the opportunity or the resources to realize what was happening in the first place. However, just because they were unable to solidify their worries in the texts being written does not mean they were unaware of what was happening all around them. Although the stories told about abusive doctors by African Americans are often seen as not being based in fact, “Researchers who exploit African Americans were the norm for much of our nation’s history, when black patients were commonly regarded as fit subjects for nonconsensual, nontherapeutic research. (Washington 2006: 13).” For centuries, black people recognized that they were being experimented on, and their loved ones’ bodies were being stolen in the middle of the night. However, they were unable to provide hard evidence in most of those cases, and even when they were they had no means to fight back against their oppressors.

As we move on, we are forced to look at the past and see the impact it has on our current culture. I should say, if we want to create a society where people feel comfortable and feel that they have equal opportunities, we need to address all of the trauma that has been caused in the past. We choose not to teach the full extent of marginalized groups within this country, whether that be Native Americans or African Americans. We have chosen as a society to gloss over the past and act as if we are unified, when that is not reflected in the world we live in. When Harriet A. Washington began writing Medical Apartheid, she was met with criticism from her white professor at Harvard of all places, who told her “It’s a terrible thing that you are doing. You are going to make African Americans afraid of medical research and physicians! You cannot write this book (Washington 2006: 22).” Despite the fact that this woman worked at Harvard, held a Ph. D., and was white, she still felt that her opinion on the topic of experimentation on black people was superior to that of a black woman who had experience working in a hospital, and who was researching for a book specifically on that topic. She was unwilling to look at our history as a country, and therefore is unable to truly notice the current state of our country, and more specifically the health inequities that currently separate us.

As we continue to move through this course, I feel that we must keep this question in mind: are we truly able to notice someone if they are not able to properly identify themselves to us? If we can’t determine who a person is, it seems almost impossible to do much more than theorize who they are, or in the case of a body, who they once were. In the case of African Americans who were experimented on, essentially tortured, or disrespected after their deaths, their impacts on the healthcare field are immeasurable, but the doctors who forcibly worked on them are the ones who receive credit and often praise. While we look at these bodies we need to be able to get past what their use was to science and identify who they really were as people, which in the most basic sense would mean learning and speaking their names.