Significance of NoticING and its Inherent Benefits

The course epigraph— My job is to notice… and notice that you can notice— has become so ingrained into my understanding of how American Ways: Literature, Medicine, and Racism connects itself. There have been so many different opportunities that demonstrate what it means to be noticING from the beginning of this course and continuously into the future. In my goal setting essay, The Process of NoticING and ThinkING, I stated that it was my goal to create a “proper process of noticING and thinkING, and take what I unpack with those processes and apply it to my understanding of the course themes: literature, medicine, and racism.” Furthering this, I also contended that my ability to think and notice is critical for stimulating legitimate discussions with peers. Reflecting on this goal, it has been proven that having a process, being actively engaged with works, and continually circling back to previous experiences creates a greater opportunity for noticING critical themes and ideas. 

One of the major components of our class is the collaborative nature structuring the work throughout the semester. Historically, for myself, I have usually dreaded doing group projects because they can easily become overwhelming in the effort of figuring out how we’ll meet outside class time, figuring out who does what part, etc. Group work had been “You do this part, I’ll do this part, they’ll do this part,” and that was it; really it was separate assignments just stapled together and labeled “group” work. What became relieving is that Dr. McCoy’s collaborative assignments are constructed to foster discussion and unpack course texts. In my previous experience with group work, this stage was non-existent and I believe that is where group work fails.

However, with the collaborative projects in Literature, Medicine, and Racism the emphasis on peer collaboration proved to be significant and rewarding. Within the first collaborative essay that we worked on, my peers and I used what we pulled from course texts including Home, Fortune’s Bones, and Medical Apartheid. Through unpacking and starting to interpret the evidence we as a group had brought into the discussion, it was clear just how important it was that I had attempted to use a thorough process with these texts. By closely reading and picking out what appeared to be significant passages and moments within the text, then revisiting them again after unpacking in a class discussion, allowed not only for my understanding but also for active engagement with my group. One example of the benefit this had was when we had that moment in which our discussions—which resulted in what seemed like so many pages of just notes and brainstorming—clicked and one of the group members just said out loud what would be our throughline. In our essay, The Power of Identity and Imagination, our throughline reads “the act of stripping one’s name, and therefore reimagining their identity as an individual, which makes it easier to ignore the consequences of treating African American individuals as objects rather than humans.” Reflecting on our process, I think that we were able to get to this conclusion after a group member brought us to “Kyrie of the Bones” in the requiem Fortune’s Bones. Within the first stanza of the poem, “I called him Larry. It was easier to face him with an imaginary name” (Nelson 21), a group member offered their connection to Medical Apartheid and the chapter that discusses a professor’s use of cadavers in their classroom claiming that students couldn’t learn just by watching the professor. This was his attempt to justify stealing Black bodies and using them without consent. Now that we had brought together all of our textual examples of imagination and naming, we had the breakthrough which led us to our connection. 

Synthesizing and noticing themes and elements of the course texts proved to be so significant in our classroom discussions, and in turn our real world ones as well. In the last collaboration effort in the course, our group had the entire course content to think about and connect to the work of William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen From Here to Equality. What became so apparent is that the ways we were thinking and what we were noticing from early on were still A) evident in what we read and unpacked in the later half of the semester and B) still fresh in our minds. For example, we ventured all the way back to Toni Morrison’s Home from Module 3 and discussed the implications of reducing the character Cee to just someone who needs Frank in order to live her own life. We synthesized that by reducing Cee to this one quality or aspect, her autonomy and her identity become seemingly absent as this leads to harm and having herself walked over by others. We ultimately decided after our periods of discussion to focus more on Zone One, Clay’s Ark, and Zulus in crafting and synthesizing our connection to the effects of limiting a person’s capabilities. 

Reflecting on the course epigraph, through both the peer discussions and my own process of thinkING and noticING I feel that I am leaving this course with a better understanding of racialized harm and some of the ways that has been implemented in the United States. Two of the most prominent themes that I will continually use and explore are Identity and Care, specifically how the two work together. Circling back, the removal of a person’s identity demonstrates the implicit ignorance of care and certain moments in the course have been catalysts for provoking my thoughts and understandings of this. One of the most memorable times I have with Dr. McCoy in  Literature, Medicine, and Racism is when we spent a large amount of time analyzing the “Fortune was born; he died,” (Nelson 13). Those five words and the semi colon were given so much focus and attention, but what came out of that were sprouting ideas of thinkING about identity and care. Feeding this idea forward in the course, another notable moment was in the class discussion regarding the literature references within Home, featured in Dr. Beau’s office in which we (readers) noticed Cee did not notice what the books were referencing. Discussing what it meant for Cee and the novel when we noticed the eugenics references and  the fairy tale references proved to deepen both the connection to the importance of literally noticing things and also the implicit harm in not noticing. 

Literature, Medicine, and Racism has helped me in several different ways relating to my career as an English major. However, the most important aspect I am leaving this class with is the knowledge and ability of how to think about and notice things in a way where I can engage in discussions outside of classrooms. My noticing, as well as my peers’ noticing, has been so instrumental in connecting the inherent danger of eliminating Fortune’s identity to “Larry” to create ease of memory of the racialized harm brought on to him; the implicit harm in making decisions and taking action in the name of others like Frank does with Cee, as well as in Clay’s Ark where saving someone from captivity ultimately led to their death. While the time in Dr. McCoy’s Literature, Medicine, and Racism course has come to an end, I know that like the course content there is always continual looping and feedback needed. Now that I feel I have a process of noticING and thinkING, what it both means to notice (or not), and how noticING leads to greater understanding and application of unpacked content, I can carry this forward into my last semester at Geneseo and hopefully outside this community and into other aspects of my own life as well. 

The Power of Identity and Imagination

Ryan Silverstein, Rebecca Perry, Marissa Volk, Tommy Castronova, Noah Taylor, Connor Canfield

In Marilyn Nelson’s requiem Fortune’s Bones, Nelson pays careful attention to naming, imagination, and ease, all of which are critical to the perception of racialized harm. Fortune’s Bones tells the story of Fortune, an African American man who was dehumanized through the mistreatment of his remains. In a poem included within this story, “Kyrie of the Bones,” the descendants of his former enslaver, physician Dr. Porter, describe their experiences with Fortune’s remains. His bones are put in disrespectful situations: displayed at a medical practice, played with by a child, found boarded up in an attic, and exhibited at a museum under the false identity given to him by Porter’s descendants. Marilyn Nelson’s recognition of naming, imagination and ease in Fortune’s Bones transcend literature, and can be used to further illustrate racialized harm in Toni Morrison’s novel, Home, and Harriet Washington’s anthology Medical Apartheid. All three works illuminate the act of stripping one’s name, and therefore reimagining their identity as an individual, which makes it easier to ignore the consequences of treating African American individuals as objects rather than humans. 

The act of naming is a significant part of society because it serves as the foundation of one’s identity. Consequently, the act of un-naming, taking away one’s name, strips an individual of their identity. The influence of un-naming is a prevalent part of Fortune’s Bones. After Fortune’s death, the name ‘Larry’ had been written on the back of his skull while his remains were passed down to Dr. Porter’s descendants. As a result of this name change, the people who came into contact with his remains were able to regard him not as a person who he had once been alive, Fortune, but as the false identity of ‘Larry.’ Whether his bones were viewed in a museum or played with in an attic, they were noted to belong to Larry. By having his name erased, his identity is forgotten and altered. Nelson repeats, “And I’ve been humbled by my ignorance, humbled by my ignorance,” (17-19). Nelson’s repetition of this line reveals the ignorance within individuals, as they look past the significance of Larry’s life and only regard the object of his skeleton. However, Nelson seems to be attempting to combat this perception of Fortune through the naming of their requiem. By naming her anthology ‘Fortune’s Bones’ rather than simply calling it ‘Fortune’ or ‘Larry’, she seems to be separating the life that Fortune actually lived from the treatment of his remains. The poem “Not My Bones,” which is presented from Fortune’s perspective, supports this view with the line “You are not your body/you are not your bones” (Nelson 27). Despite his remains being treated as an object, Fortune’s life still has value even if it was almost erased by the loss of his identity. 

In addition, Morrison’s novel, Home, illustrates the act of un-naming through Dr. Beau ignoring the identities of the patients he used for experimentation. For instance, Cee mentions that Dr. Beau “gave shots, had his patients drink medicines he made up himself, and occasionally performed abortions on society ladies” (Morrison 112). The identities of his patients, including their names, are never mentioned nor deemed significant because Dr. Beau views his patients solely as objects for experimentation. By ignoring the identities of his experimental subjects, Dr. Beau feels at ease to take advantage of his patients because un-naming them removes any sense of humanity and therefore Dr. Beauregard does not feel guilt or shame when harming his patients. As shown, naming is an important aspect of human identity. Un-naming an individual takes away their identity, making it easier for them to be treated inhumanely, as shown in both Fortune’s Bones and Home. 

In Medical Apartheid, this act of un-naming is illustrated in the form of stripping deseased African Americans from the identities they once held while they were alive. For instance, Washington reveals how African American bodies have been disregarded as human and treated with disrespect through grave robbing. In this act, white individuals selfishly dug up Black remains to use in classroom experiments. She shares that this dissection “gave the corpse a very different meaning, limiting him to a bit of useful flesh, an object to be surgically severed from his community, treated with disdain, then discarded like trash” (Washington 125). Through this process of objectification, the remains are not viewed for what they are: a human body. Instead, they are viewed inhumanely and the identities that these individuals once held are ignored and forgotten. After Black individuals were used as objects for classroom experiments, such inhumanity continued; the remains were discarded in basements of the school. According to Washington, “The basement was filled with mostly black bodies not by accident but by design” (121). white professors decided it was easier to discard the remains of their subjects than to return their bodies with care. As shown, extreme disrespect for the dead, African American individuals, is prevalent in Medical Aaprtheid as they are unnamed by being stripped of their identity in an unconsented act of grave robbing. 

In addition to all three works using un-naming as means for white individuals to feel at ease while committing racialized harm, imagination is also another notion widely used by these three authors. This can first be seen within the Nelson’s Fortune Bones. Fortune is “imagined” to have been a good laborer when he was alive,  that being the only way that he is remembered in history, and was seen as the extent of his worth. Nelson in this quotation from the preface is able to show how this is not true and the limitation put upon him and many others can make them feel hopeless: “Fortune’s legacy was his inheritance: the hopeless hope of a people valued for their labor, not for their ability to watch and dream” (Nelson 7). Dreaming and striving for more can bring hope, but when others imagine people like Fortune strictly as a workforce, it forces them into a predetermined role which can be harmful and make them feel hopeless. 

The thread of favoring imagination over reality is seen throughout Morrison’s Home. It’s especially apparent in chapter four, which describes Cee’s life from her childhood up to getting a job with Dr. Beauregard. Throughout this chapter, Morrison taps into our collective memory and imagination by evoking images from fairy tales and other children’s stories as a way of drawing us back to a time in our own lives where the line between imagination and reality was less pronounced, for example Cee’s story bears a striking resemblance to Cinderella, complete with her own evil stepmother (though she’s also described as “the wicked witch” in the form of Lenore (Morrison 53). We also see Frank himself struggle with favoring imagination over reality. His denial of the fact that he is still traumatized by the war plays into his imagined idea that he is entirely over his trauma, as we see in chapter 10, where Frank, reflecting on his past, imagines that he might be “cured” of his PTSD: “Frank suddenly realized that those memories, powerful as they were, did not crush him anymore or throw him into paralyzing despair. He could recall every detail, every sorrow, without needing alcohol to steady him. Was this the fruit of sobriety?  mere minutes before violently beating a man within an inch of his life (Morrison 100). We also see Dr. Beauregard favoring his imagination over reality in chapter twelve, where his almost comical reaction to Frank entering his home, is entirely due to him imagining Frank to be a threat, regardless of the reality that he is only there for his sister. He saw a Black man entering his home and immediately let his imagination run wild, jumping to the conclusion that the man was up to no good, shouting “‘There’s nothing to steal here!’”, frantically crying for his housekeeper, attempting to call the police, and pulling out a (unloaded) gun when the phone is knocked out of his hands (Morrison 110). In all three of these cases, imagination is used as a way of helping the imaginer avoid facing difficult truths. Cee sees herself as the main character of a fairy tale, ignoring the reality that life is far harder than she was ever prepared for. Frank imagines himself and his PTSD as a thing with a malfunction to be fixed in order to avoid the reality that PTSD is far more complicated than that. Dr. Beauregard sees Frank as nothing but a threat to himself and his work, ignoring the reality that he is simply there to rescue his sister. Clearly, the imaginer substitutes reality with their perception, the same way one might do in order to justify treating a person as an object. 

In Medical Apartheid, white individuals utilize their imagination to cover up and ignore the true reality of how they intentionally treat people of color inhumanely in medical settings. According to Washington, “Early medical records routinely identified African Americans as experimental subjects, especially in the slaveholding states” (57). Washington shares that Black individuals were put on the operating table even when they did not require surgery. Further, surgery procedures differed based upon race; Black individuals underwent more painful surgeries because they were not given anesthesia. To illustrate, James Marion Sims, a doctor who performed gynecologic surgeries, “claimed that his procedures were ‘not painful enough to justify the trouble and risk attending the administration [of anesthesia]’” (Washington 65). Sims developed a lie in regards to the levels of pain experienced throughout surgeries to cover up the truth of reality: these surgeries were extremely painful for African Americans; he purposely wanted to harm Black patients. He used his imagination as a tool to justify his decision and to distort reality; he made it appear that he was concerned to numb Black patients due to extreme risks. Yet, Sims always administered anesthesia to white surgical patients. Clearly, Sims used his imagination to avoid dealing with the consequences associated with discrimination and treating Black people inhumanely. Another example of using imagination to justify acts of bad faith in Medical Apartheid is revealed when Ota Benga, a human from Southern Africa, is put on display at the New York Zoological Gardens. Washington states that nearly every visitor made their way towards “the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park, the wild man from Africa” (78). whites treated Benga inhumanely by imagining him as an animal and using him for entertainment purposes. Clearly, imagination plays a role in such inhumane treatment. white individuals justified that it is okay to treat a Black individual in such a demeaning way because they instilled in their minds that he was in fact an animal and therefore deserved to be treated as one. Viewing Benga as an animal made it easier for white people to ignore the truth of how cruel of an act this was in reality. Without a doubt, imagination is a contributing factor that makes it easier for the white individuals in Medical Apartheid to inflict such physcial and emoitional harm.

The points Nelson, Morrison, and Washington are making within their works still apply to society today, arguably now more than ever. White American Society as a whole still refuses to acknowledge the horrible acts it has committed against people of color, preferring the false narrative of an imaginary society where systemic oppression doesn’t exist. Many individuals foster beliefs that racism ended with Martin Luther King and ever since all people have all been treated equally regardless of race or ethnicity. Of course, we know this isn’t the case. The reality is that people of color are still oppressed today. For this reason, it is important to hold white people accountable for their acts in the past because it has been pushed aside, hidden and distorted over time. The truth has gone unacknowledged in schools and communities. Revealing such truth is a major step in the healing process for those who have been affected by such horrific crimes and treatment because it is the basis of racism that is established and seen within society today. All in all, making reparations through the past is crucial in the step of healing today and will contribute immensely to the discontinuation of such oppression experienced by Black individuals in America.

Goal Setting Essay: The Process of NoticING & ThinkING


Throughout the beginning weeks of American Ways: Literature, Medicine and Racism, I have begun to realize the importance of thinkING, what it means to be thinkING, and the implications it has on the course and the texts we have read thus far. The course epigraph “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice,” from Dionne Brand has helped foster my understanding of the process of thinkING, which I have come to see is a repetitive action of looking at current works and also continuously going back to readings and notes from the past. It’s a cyclical process that requires new understandings to be made with the progress of the course.

My primary goal for this course is to first establish a proper process of noticING and thinkING, and take what I unpack with those processes and apply it to my understanding of the course themes: literature, medicine, and racism. I feel that the ability to be actively engaged in these works can help people better develop an understanding of this country’s lack of care and failure to be actively noticing and thinking of ways to repair the damage inflicted on minorities, which is critical for change and growth. Within the community of this course, the foundation of growth is built into our collaborative efforts to care for our peers, to be able to nurture discussion and learn from our collaborations. By not learning how to notice, think, and apply, not only would I be stopping myself from learning and caring for myself, but I wouldn’t be staying true to the collaborative nature of this course. 

  The implications of proper care have been evident in the course texts we have read and been discussing over the beginning weeks of this semester. More often than not, we have noticed that what the texts we have worked with are demonstrating is a lack of care, and I first noticed this is Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington. The chapter that featured Ota Benga and William T. Hornaday was disturbing and alarming to read, and it was a clear demonstration of pure carelessness. Perhaps one of the most eye opening passages was the description of Ota Benga being described as “small, apelike, elfish creatures, furtive and mischievous, they closely parallel the brownies and goblins of our fairy tales,” (Washington 76). Beyond the blatantly racist description of Ota Benga, a human being who is being “given as a gift,” the fact that he was also “locked in the monkey house, before the staring crowd with keepers always nearby,” (Washington 76). Reading and thinkING about Medical Apartheid has been my first real view into racism and science in this course, and what was even more shocking was learning that this was happening in the Bronx Zoo, a place I have been to many times throughout my life. Granted that the careless display and concern for Ota Benga happened in 1906, it still is such a horrendous thing to think about. 

We have further been able to notice similar medical racism and carelessness in Toni Morrison’s novel Home. The presence of the theme of care is recurring throughout the novel, but perhaps the strongest example is with Dr. Beauregard, where he exhibits similar scientific carelessness to that of William Horndaday. Dr. Beau purposely misled Cee into thinking that he was a friend and good person, and we see this through noticING the literature on his bookshelf. We are shown, through Cee’s perspective, books such as Out of the Night, The Passing of the Great Race, Heredity, and Race and Society (Morrison 65). Through noticING and unpacking these references to literature, as a class we were able to look up and get an idea of what these works were about and we found that they all are problematic and racist texts. Going further into the carelessness, it is tragic to see that Cee has been made to feel “this was a good, safe place, she knew, and Sarah had become her family, her friend, and her confidante,” (Morrison 65). We later come to find out that Dr. Beau leaves Cee in a horrible medical state, as she was “close to the edge of life,” (Morrison 147), and she needed to be helped by Miss Ethel in order to survive. 

What I have been thinkING about throughout this course is the negative connection to carelessness, in order for me to accentuate the importance of good faith carING. By providing good faith care in the process of thinkING and noticING I feel that I am putting myself in the position to not only understand and unpack what we are working on, but also to grow my sense of recognizing what has happened historically, what is happening currently, and what direction change should be going. The knowledge and level of understanding gained from actively thinkING and noticING things in the course, both through the works we have been reading and also from collaborating with my peers, has been amazing thus far. I feel that my process for working in this class has formed (and is still forming) from realizing that learning is not linear, it is, as Dr. McCoy stated, cyclical. To read through texts and then abandon them is not how I think I am going to learn and notice. The mini collaboration exercise helped show me the impact that going back and understanding, unpacking, and connecting has in a course like this. Without returning to Fortune’s Bones I do not think that our group would have been able to clearly demonstrate what the implications of not having self identity and autonomy are. If we had not discussed and unpacked the idea of autonomy, and how we thought the parasite in the eye of fish connected to how Frank protected Cee all her life, Dr. Beau’s experimentation on her, and Miss Ethel’s healing process, then our understanding of human and self autonomy would have been incomplete. By trying to create processes that will allow myself to be thinkING and noticING better, then in turn I believe that I will be able to unpack and apply the content to both the course and my discussions with peers, and I will also be able to retain what I have learned outside the classroom in the real world.