The course epigraph “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” by Dionne Brand was given to us to get us thinking about the heavy topics that this course deals with. In this course we are reading books like Medical Apartheid by Harriet A Washington, and Fortunes bones by Marilyn Nelson. They talk in heavy detail about what enslaved people and people of color had to endure in the past. Medical Apartheid explains the painful procedures that were tested on black women. The epigraph makes me think, why did nobody recognize that this was wrong? And why did nobody ever try to speak out against these things? And I believe for many people it was normalized. Many believed what others had told them and copied what they did. If everyone else does it, it doesn’t matter right? This still happens everyday today. An example could be skipping class. If everyone else in your class starts to skip, you then think its okay for you to do as well, even though you might know its not a good decision.
In my previous years of school, I had learned about slavery, and the gist of what happened during it, and how it ended, but in just a few classes I have gained a whole new perspective on what life was like for an enslaved person. I knew that enslaved people were treated very badly but what we are reading is extremely inhumane and disturbing to think about how people willingly did these horrible things to other human beings. Most likely without having any remorse or regret for their actions. As scary as these things are to think about, I am glad I am learning about them, and gaining a new perspective. So that I am no longer ignorant as to how enslaved people were treated and how they lived.
One example of how enslaved people were treated is told in medical apartheid by Harriet A Washington, is in the epilogue on pages 1 and 2. A surgeon by the name of James Marion Sims would operate on enslaved black women and use them for research purposes. He wanted to find cures for Women’s disorders and opened the first Women’s hospital in New York City. He was heavily praised, some hospitals still use his name, and some still use the instruments he invented. Even with all of these accomplishments, the way he achieved these was wrong and immoral. He would restrain these women and perform procedures with no anesthesia. Some of the doctors would even have to leave because of how horrifying the scene was. (Washington, pg 1-2). Another example in this text is on page 103. Where a plantation worker by the name of Sam was in a lot of pain in his jaw. After years of pain, he could no longer work, and his owner brought a doctor to help him. The doctor discovered he had cancer and would need surgery to remove part of his jaw. Sam had said he didn’t want the surgery, but it wasn’t up to him it was up to his owner. It also mentioned that there were ten medical students and fifteen others that were interested in watching the surgery. The book quotes “when he finished, the surgeon noted with satisfaction that his surgical innovation had ‘proved its practicality… whether the patient is willing or not.” This shows that they truly only cared about their own accomplishments and benefits and had not care for the patient, who was the enslaved person. Almost like they didn’t even consider them human beings. These people were tortured for these doctors and medical students to learn, and for research to be conducted.
In class we have also read Fortunes Bones by Marilyn Nelson. In the preface the first line is “Fortune was born; he died” we discussed what the semicolon in the sentence means and how important it is. To me the semicolon holds his entire life. Being a slave Fortune’s life was taken away from him, and he was forced to do work and be owned by somebody else. So just like in the sentence the semicolon took away all the information about his life and about who he was as a person. After fortune died, scientists had studied his bones. They did not lay him to rest, and he served a purpose even in his death against his will.
Curiosity is something that I believe is so important for our lives. Curiosity fuels our desires, and passions. It also has paved the way for discoveries in medicine and in science. All discoveries that have been made in the past have all happened because someone was curious and asked a question. However, as I have discussed in this essay curiosity caused people to do some very inhumane things. Like Doctor sims, and how he would operate on enslaved black women against their will for his own curiosity and research purposes. And how Sam the plantation worker had part of his jaw cut off even though he didn’t want to, so that he could continue to do his work. And finally how Fortune’s bones were studied after he died. None of these people had a say in what happened to them, or how they were treated. They were forced to be the subjects so that others could develop and fuel their curiosities.
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid the Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Paw Prints, 2010.
Nelson, Marilyn, and Pamela Espeland. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Front Street, 2004.