Growth & Reflection: Analyzing Geologic Events in The Broken Earth Trilogy

It is always strange to have to reflect on yourself, to go back in (meta) time and evaluate your ability to notice things, and see what it is that made you think about those things. Looking back to my ThinkING Essay, I feel very nuanced about my execution and my thought processes that I used to craft the essay. While I do remember working with real geologic events like “The Earth is Breathing”, “Buried in Volcanic Ash”, and others, I didn’t make any writing moves to work them into my essay. Even though I did discuss and analyze brief ideas of power and justice in The Fifth Season, I disregarded the part that asked about real world geologic sources—which I had realized through instructor feedback and some personal reflection at the time. My process in this essay will be to reflect on where I was and what I was thinkING about, application of my changed thinkING, and then why my thinkING has changed throughout The Broken Earth Trilogy

When I was thinking about the course concepts of Justice and Love, I began to try to bring my own collection of experience with these concepts in other areas of my life, as a frameworks perspective to have with me. A lot of my engagement with ideas of justice and power have been through the consumption of media, including TV shows, movies, and anime. I noted in the first “Care for my Growth” check-in that “I watch a lot of TV shows and anime where justice, truth, and peace are central themes and ideas…relating to this class… I find myself thinking about it a lot.” Given how much interest in those I’ve had it is fairly clear to see that one of my synthesis moves was to incorporate those into my thinkING process this semester. While I think that at some level this was helpful—and I recognize that this partially aligns with Geneseo’s GLOBE outcomes of “Integrative Inquiry” and “Application and Transfer”—I believe that this contributed to my oversight of the geological concepts/sources, and how they interact with The Broken Earth Trilogy

A major aspect of my essay was how Jemisin used the geologic concept of orogeny (the process of mountain formation especially by folding of the earth’s crust) and how that ability was given to Orogenes as a marker for oppression and control in the Stillness. The stripping of autonomy within this series is abundantly clear, and I still do believe that it is a key concept N.K Jemisin crafts into it. The Orogenes are shown to be a group controlled by the Fulcrum, they are feared and hated by the Stills, and the forced conception(s) I mentioned in my essay show that. Where I fell short in my ThinkING essay was a true comparison to geologic events, and this is when I knew I had to change the way I was working and thinking about The Broken Earth Trilogy.

Once we started working through the rest of The Broken Earth Trilogy, there was a noticeable shift in how I saw Jemisin use geological events/concepts to portray power and justice. When I started to actually look at these concepts and how they are literally put into the novels. Using the article “Buried in Volcanic Ash ” now to look at Jemisin’s use of geologic events, I could compare this aftermath to that of the Rifting, set in place by Alabaster. The ash in that article came as a result of a volcanic eruption in the Spanish island of La Palma, and tragically blanketed the landscape and homes of the people living there. Then looking at the Rifting and its impacts, you can notice the destruction and the ashfall that followed caused the displacement of peoples from their homes (Comms). Continuing from The Fifth Season, the impacts of the Rifting are still present and noticeable in The Obelisk Gate. One passage that shows the human impact is when Essun, Ykka, and others from Castrima-under go to the surface to gauge the damage: “Up here there’s nothing…Ykka’s just reacting to the starkness of the comm around her. So many silent houses, dead gardens, and ash-occluded pathways where people once walked…Yet it was also a real comm once, alive and bright and anything but still,” (The Obelisk Gate 30-31). The damage caused from the eruption is eerily similar to what happened to La Palma in November of 2021. I think by looking at real world events and seeing how events like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other geologic events harm and change civilizations, that is what started to help me understand the connection to The Broken Earth Trilogy.

During the collaboration essay I saw even more concretely how comparing The Broken Earth Trilogy to the real world 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought up ideas of power and justice. When the group first started thinking about why we might want to look at Haiti and their experience, we almost immediately started drawing up any connections that we saw from just a first glance. There were so many ideas being brought into the discussion like how the earthquake had exacerbated issues that were already existing including political instability and food/water insecurity. During the research phase of the collaboration, a peer brought to our attention an article that claimed officials in Haiti had ignored warning signs of the fault-line being ready to rupture. This brought out the Jemisin phrase seen often throughout her trilogy “Oh. Oh.” as it aided us more in constructing the rest of our work. 

Through working out the “Human Impact” section of the collaborative essay, this felt like one of the bigger tests of my understanding of geologic concepts and justice. We had elected to split up within the group and each group of three would focus specifically on the section everybody felt they were most able to synthesize. In my subgroup, the three of us began by discussing how we thought we could best craft this section to portray the impact on Haiti, while also weaving in N.K Jemisin’s work. Upon discussing and narrowing down specific topics, we chose to compare the vulnerability of lives in Haiti, along with the lack of food/water resources, to the parts in The Broken Earth Trilogy where we noticed similarities. The number of casualties that were reported, as well as a tragic first hand account of a parent losing their child in the destruction, were directly connected to the vulnerability of people within the Stillness. This was a specific section that I found–while extremely saddening–gripping. It is a direct example of the tragedy and injustice that comes along with geologic movements and the destruction they can bring.

Another reason my thinkING changed over time was because I started to “Slow Down”, as Dr. McCoy often advises. By this I mean to say that I stopped rushing to try and interpret the series as a whole based on just one moment, and I also began to sideline my own outside  knowledge and experience with topics of justice and power. I stopped trying to make the course concepts fit into all situations. By doing so, I noticed my interpretations were more concrete and grounded in both the real-world and the text.

By being able to see where geologic concepts are used within the text, and through understanding the human impact these events have I do think there is a better understanding of how justice and power plays into this series. Consistently in this series groups of people are put in unjust situations, and are consequently put at the mercy of those in positions of power above them. What exacerbates these power dynamics are the geologic concepts that Jemisin weaves in, and this became most clear, as I’ve stated, during the collaboration effort in which our group compared and contrasted the 2010 Haiti earthquake with The Broken Earth Trilogy. The parallels between these fictional and real-world events and how justice and power implicates itself within them is something that I’ve gained through a process of slowing down, grounding myself in analyzing the texts, and opening myself to peer contributions/analyses.

Haiti’s Cyclical Suffering

By: Noah Taylor, Laura Boysen, Jessica D’Antonio, Ryan Silverstein, Zoe LaVallee, Marin Goodstein, Kevin Reed, Connor Skelton, and Charlie Kenny

On January 12th, 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale hit the island of Hispaniola. This catastrophic event was followed by two consecutive aftershocks with magnitudes of 5.9 and 5.5, which devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. According to the United Nations, 220,000 people lost their lives and 1.5 million were left homeless in the aftermath of this earthquake. The source of the quake was a deep sea fault line known as the Leogane. Due to its hidden location, seismologists ignored its danger in favor of the more obvious Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone, which runs through the country. This miscalculation contributed to the overall mishandling of the disaster. The response to the disaster was not much better, and this ended up causing more issues when the 2021 quake struck. There seems to be a cyclical nature to these natural disasters. N.K Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy asks readers to examine the parallels between the cyclical nature of fictional tragedies and natural disasters. In doing so, readers may be informed enough to prevent repeating this history. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy implements a fictional apocalypse to draw attention to the devastation resulting from natural disasters in our reality. One only need look at the ways in which Haiti was ravished by the 2010 Earthquake to understand the parallels this series draws attention to. The numbers of those killed are harrowing, but the reality of these deaths is best felt through the words of those affected. 38 year old father, and business owner Jean Fanfan Vital spoke to NPR: “My child is dead. My father was carrying him, and as they passed by the building, some debris fell down and landed on them. The child was so young, only 4 months. And maybe that’s the only reason why he’s dead. He was so young”. This loss of life is a vivid representation of the impact that natural disasters have on humanity, especially those most vulnerable. The Broken Earth Trilogy confronts this understanding head on. The vulnerable in the Stillness are also the most affected by tragedy. A recursive example of this is the constant abuse of children that is proffered as a means to prevent disaster. That being said, one of the most poignant examples of vulnerability is through a man named Maxixe. He is a double amputee who finds himself in a near death condition. Maxixe sa ‘Rusting look at me, Essun. Listen to the rocks in my chest. Even if your headwoman will take half a rogga, I am not going to last much longer.’ ” (Jemisin 127). The vulnerability Maxixe experiences due to his disability causes him to experience the rifting in a harsher manner. He finds rocks forming in his chest, and he is less likely to be accepted into communities that might be able to aid him. The Broken Earth asks the reader to focus on how the most vulnerable are affected by disaster. Another real world example of this is how access to water exacerbated the effects of the 2010 Earthquake. 

Furthering the parallels between The Broken Earth Trilogy and the 2010 Earthquake, another major impact has been the lasting damage to water treatment, causing a mass increase in water insecurity in Haiti. In a US Geological Survey report from 2010, scientists reported that prior to the quake, the water supply system in Port-au-Prince (which supplied roughly 1,000,000 people) was already unreliable since it lacked proper treatment. In the aftermath, existing treatment facilities had become infiltrated, damaged, and none were left working as a result of the natural disaster. The inherent dangers of not having access to clean drinking water are disastrous. Cholera is an infectious and often fatal bacterial disease that spreads through contaminated water supplies. In Haiti, given that they have been left with no water treatment, and contaminated supplies/access, ShelterBox had reported a serious outbreak of cholera that “affected over 6% of the population and caused the further loss of thousands of more lives,”. The tainted water supply also had a major impact on the children of Haiti, the most vulnerable group. In 2021, UNICEF measured that around 540,000 children in the area hit by the 2021 earthquake were left with a potential “re-emergence” of waterborne diseases. While this report came from the 2021 earthquake, it highlights that there could be a “re-emergence”, referencing the waterborne illness issues caused in 2010. Looking again into The Broken Earth Trilogy, readers are shown an impact of damaged water supplies when Essun meets Tonkee in the first novel. In this section, as Essun and Hoa are traveling they come across a supply station that has been ravaged. Upon encountering Tonkee, she tells Essun that the rifting “‘Probably breached a lot of aquifers. They’ll repair themselves over time, of course, but in the short term, no telling what kinds of contaminants might be around here…You know what kinds of nasty things cities leave behind when they die?’” (Fifth Season 181). In this fictional world, cycles of destruction and world-ending events are constant over time. This parallels what the country of Haiti has experienced because of the 2010 earthquake and its traumatic history. Jemisin’s work in the Broken Earth Trilogy emphasizes the impact geologic catastrophe has on humanity, specifically in this case the impact that a tainted water supply has on a community or people. While the geological event of the earthquake might have been the final blow to Haiti’s clean water access, a dysfunctional political system is also a contributing factor.

Haiti has been suffering from political instability for centuries. To understand why these earthquakes were so disastrous, we begin with the historical issues at the core of the country’s difficulties: colonization. The Spanish, French, and British all vied for control of the region using barbaric methods of submission that left the populace hungry for freedom and sovereignty.  Independence was gained in 1804, but that did not stabilize the region as it has seen volatile shifts in sources of power ever since. Practices of ruthless dictatorships have strengthened the divide between the working and ruling classes, suppressed opposing viewpoints, and left the country at the mercy of foreign involvement. For all of these reasons, it is clear that true and lasting authority is lacking within the country.

Haitian gang violence is deeply embedded in its history. Gangs contribute to and result from political instability. According to an article from The New Humanitarian published in 2022, “the number of gangs has in the capital has skyrocketed since the assassianation of President Jovenel Moïse in July…it’s unclear which gang is in control…or if an area will suddenly be engulfed in gunfire.” This situation is similar to the 2010 earthquake, and has crippled humanitarian efforts, leaving people without access to assistance.

Stability is required for making a nation’s homes, hospitals, and schools resilient during seismic events. It is impossible to have adequate healthcare in nations that are politically insecure. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti appeared to have the “oldest HIV/AIDS epidemic outside Sub-Saharan Africa . Infrastructure was then devastated after the 2010 earthquake, namely insufficient water and sanitation. This precipitated the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded in a country. The earthquake destroyed “50 healthcare centers as well as the Ministry of Health building” and  part of Haiti’s primary teaching hospital, disrupting the education of future healthcare professionals”. Without adequate healthcare developments, Haitian citizens were unprepared for the 2021 quake. Since the recent earthquake, Haiti’s healthcare system remains destabilized. 

There are many political parallels present between this trilogy and Haiti’s history. For example, there is a connection between the slave uprising and the orogenes’ desire for autonomy. This desire is most distinctly represented through Essun’s actions towards those that would deny her people’s legitimacy as human beings. When leaving Tirimo on page 57 of The Fifth Season, Essun encounters difficulties at the gate and concludes that the people of her community are not innocent; “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” Just as the enslaved people of Haiti were significantly oppressed and exploited, orogenes face constant discrimination that they are forced to push against. Another key comparison concerns the codified apparatus of Stonelore as it relates to the recurring censorship of information in Haiti. Stonelore provides truth. However, Alabaster on page 125 of The Fifth Season pokes holes in Syenite’s beliefs about the unshakeable nature of the text; “But what was on the tablet was different, drastically so, from the lore we learned in school.” As one should not express doubt about the political propaganda emanating from dictatorships unless they want their head cut off, Stonelore should not be considered anything but immutable.  However, dictators must die and stories supporting their oppressive rule must be challenged. 

And what better way to challenge oppressive rule than through art? Art has always been a significant part of Haitian culture, as it serves “as memory for a country that has suffered” from dictatorships, failed governments, and poverty. It not only operates as a way to fight against the hardship of the country’s circumstances, it also functions as an economic lifeline for the country as 85% of the population are unemployed. 

In a similar sense, orogeny is an artistic outlet also used as a survival outline, as only the most controlled orogenes can survive. In Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, orogeny can be viewed as an atypical artform. It is something that takes both innate talent and practiced skill, and the way it is done is wound tightly with the little orogene culture that exists. And, ultimately, orogeny is used to fight against corrupt government structures, as seen in The Fifth Season when Alabaster causes The Rifting which effectively destroys the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum acted as a governing body for the orogenes and was one of their many sources of oppression. Fulcrum trained orogeny is discussed more in the latter half of the series, as it becomes clear that their way of teaching this innate art is perverted, lacking the freedom of expression that someone like Nassun ends up expressing later in the series when she explores orogeny on her own terms.

Similarly, Haiti received an outright destruction of their artwork as a result of the 2010 earthquake. Musee Galerie d’Art Nader held some of Haiti’s oldest artworks, making it a center of both Haitian culture and history, and was reduced to rubble within seconds due to the natural disaster. The loss of this museum and countless pieces of art signifies an overall loss of culture as Haiti became a country marked by repeated devastation, as demonstrated by the recent 2021 earthquake. In fact, many of the pieces that were lost helped to signify the survival of Haitian citizens after being faced with these disasters, making the loss of such pieces all the more heartbreaking. As it was put by Camille Scully, executive director of Iowa’s Waterloo Center of the Arts and co-president of the Haitian Art Society, “They’re painting their lives. They’re recording their history,” With the loss of these museums, pieces of the country’s history were lost to the rubble. 

Jemisin’s series is a testament to how history can be lost to natural destruction. The old ways of orogeny were lost in the original Shattering, wherein the moon was hurtled away from the earth, which led to the survival based society we see depicted in the Stillness. The original form of orogeny was once called tuning, which merged magic with orogeny. Much like orogeny pre-Rifting, tuning was used by the government in order to fulfill their own needs, namely a utopic city that was powered by gemstone obelisks. The artforms of orogeny and tuning, while placed under the control of governing bodies, represents working within a system in order to break the binding rules. Essun was raised as a Fulcrum orogene and she imbued these teachings onto her daughter, Nassun. Yet, both of their stories are marked by how they learn to view and use their orogeny outside of the troubling context in which they first learned to control it. Essun’s relationship with Alabaster and her own personal journey involves her learning to use her orogeny in ways that she never would have thought to under the Fulcrum, moving beyond these boundaries. Nassun, on the other hand, reinvents the art of tuning due to the freedom of expression she is given in Found Moon. Despite the oppressive systems forced upon them, both mother and daughter learn to work outside of these systems to reinvent the art form integral to their humanity as orogenes.

Art is born from and shaped by calamity in a similar way. Look no further than Haitian artist Michèle Voltaire Marcelin. She revisited her home in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake and was surrounded by destruction that inspired her to create three paintings and a series of poems that evoked the fear and pain of the devastation. But Marcelin refused to create any more art of the event, stating: “Whether their lives and deaths were for hope, a new beginning or for nothing, we will decide. Let the dead bury the dead. The living must change the world.” A hopeful message in a time of sadness that is reflected in the final moments of Jemisin’s work, “This is the way a new world begins” (The Stone Sky 398) with the determination of the few. 

When considering the havoc associated with both of these earthquakes, Jemisin’s lesson rings true: History repeats itself. More specifically, those who rule with tyrannical power will remain in their position with a total disregard for the well-being of all people unless removed. We, in support of Haiti, must abandon archaic ways of thinking in favor of prioritizing justice and equity. Natural disasters will strike, but the promotion of progressive policy will lessen the damage. Artistic expression is a crucial means of advancing these ideas in hopes of a better future.

Justice in The Stillness: Whose? How?

“This is the Stillness, a land familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.” 

Author N.K Jemisin poses many powerful and complex questions within the context of her Broken Earth trilogy, questions regarding what it means to have justice. Jemisin layers geological concepts within The Fifth Season with other issues including (but not limited to) institutionalized oppression/racism and freedom. Set within the Stillness, a world in which it’s people live in “a perpetual state of disaster awareness” (Jemisin 8) due to frequent geological devastation, there are certain people who have the ability to perform “orogeny” in order to contain shakes and perform maintenance for the Comms of the Stillness. While orogenes—as they are called in this world—are given this extraordinary power, they have become the victims of massive oppression and are controlled by the powerful organization known as the Fulcrum, alongside the Guardians who have the ability to negate their orogeny. From this control and oppression stems certain questions for reading Jemisin’s work: What is justice in The Stillness? How is Jemisin writing for justice? Whose justice is she writing for? 

From an early point in the novel, the power that is wielded over Orogenes is shown through the viewpoint of Damaya, one of three narrators/perspectives in the book. Schaffa—Damaya’s assigned Guardian, who is assigned to watch over and “care” for young orogenes—explains to Damaya when he comes to take her to the Fulcrum that “The orogenes of the world serve the Fulcrum… your usefulness lies in what you are…From birth, an orogene child can stop a shake; even without training, you are orogene,” (Jemisin 34). Schaffa’s explanation of what orogenes are, and what their ‘usefulness’ is, seems sort of complex and nuanced. On one hand, Schaffa is telling Damaya just how strong and powerful she is and can be with the ability to perform orogeny. Even after the quote, he continues on to tell her she will become even stronger with the guidance of the Fulcrum. However, it is at this point that it becomes nuanced: the Fulcrum is an oppressive agency that exerts control over and institutionalized orogenes. So if orogenes possess a powerful ability to control geological events, if stills hate orogenes, and the Fulcrum is an organization that controls the orogenes (with the use of Guardians), is this done out of fear? Out of a desire for power? In a world where they experience consistent geologic devastations that kill so many, why aren’t orogenes praised for their powers?

Interactions between the Fulcrum, Stills, and Orogenes in The Fifth Season are what help to shape these methods of reading and thinking. An example of the stripped autonomy that orogenes experience is directly through Syenite, the third narrator and perspective in the novel. Syenite is assigned to work with a highly skilled orogene, Alabaster, but she is also assigned to conceive a child with him, which is something all Fulcrum orogenes must do. She is told that she has to do as she is assigned by her mentor Feldspar, and that Feldspar herself has had six children of her own for the Fulcrum. Not only is the Fulcrum responsible for oppressing and controlling orogenes’ powers, they are also responsible for stripping their basic autonomy as well (ability to have a right of choice for their own sexual reproduction). To further the horrid forced conception to even worse lengths, the reveal of what is done with Fulcrum-born orogene children is appalling and disturbing. Inside a node station1, Syenite comes to the realization of the treatment of the node maintainers: “She would call it a chair, if it was made of anything but wires and straps. Not very comfortable looking, except in that it seems to hold its occupant at an easy recline. the node maintainer is seated in it, anyway, so it must be—Oh. Oh. Oh bloody, burning Earth,” (Jemisin 139). The intensive, abusive, and forced labor that node maintainers (children nonetheless) is an overwhelmingly revolting piece of the worldbuilding within this novel. 

In my own mind, how this abuse and oppression exerted by the Fulcrum and higher powers comes across is a desire to hold onto power. After reading through The Fifth Season, I am not convinced in the slightest that the governmental powers in the Stillness are working properly or carefully for both social justice and environmental justice for the people who live there, both orogenes and stills. Even with the handpicked examples of the oppression, stripping of orogene autonomy, and massive control over the populace I have featured, that surely does not cover the entirety of issues within The Fifth Season. Surely, much much more will be brought to light in The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky (perhaps the moon that has been absent!). Now that N.K. Jemisin has provided a foundation for using geological concepts to seek/question justice, I wonder how she writes out the rest of the series to accomplish this. Can the Stillness obtain social justice, or will they find themselves stuck in a cycle of hatred and oppression? What can be done to break said cycle? What does a just and caring future look like for Essun and all people in this world?

1Network of Imperially maintained stations placed throughout the Stillness in order to reduce or quell seismic events

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.