An Exploration of the Associations Between Literature, Medicine, and Racism, and the Real World Implications of These Connections

Written by: Kaileigh Baudier, Rachel Fedison, James Mcnaughton, Cristiana Nuzzi, Liv Rayburn, Caitlyn Sullivan, and Logan Theofield

During a question and answer session in 2013 after her reading at the Northeast Modern Language Association in Toronto, Dionne Brand remarked “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” This quote became the epigraph for our course entitled “American Lit: Literature, Medicine and Racism” and all of the works that we have read in this class can be connected back to it. The concept of noticing that is brought up by Brand suggests that people’s thinking can be driven and assessed in a way that allows professors, authors, and peers alike to learn to see things from different perspectives and learn to see the deeper meaning in areas of literature and life. The idea of noticing, but not acting is a recurring theme throughout our course materials.

Over the course of the semester, the novels that we have encountered have prompted us to notice the underlying meaning contained within them. For instance, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One provides a unique interpretation of the zombie genre and presents readers with a moral dilemma regarding whether or not infected individuals have an internal life, and if so, if it is thus wrong to murder them indiscriminately. Just as the protagonist, Mark Spitz, notices and is disturbed by the mistreatment of infected people by his comrades, we as readers are forced to confront our own biases and acknowledge how we might treat people differently based on their appearances. 

In addition, Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark centers around an alien organism that is brought to earth and confers superhuman abilities along with insatiable physical desires to those who come in contact with it. The organism compels its human carriers to spread the disease to others which creates a difficulty for those with the disease as they are forced to contend with issues surrounding consent and bodily autonomy. The original carrier of the organism, Eli, decides that he must contain the spread of the disease by selecting a few individuals from the streets every so often and bringing them to his enclave where they must remain forever or risk spreading the disease globally. When Eli chooses Blake Maslin and his family as the next people to be brought into the community, he notices that Blake is particularly resistant and disbelieving but underestimates Blake’s determination to protect his daughters. Eli also feels conflicted about these repeated kidnappings and subsequent infections, and we as readers are led to notice his dilemma regarding the victims’ lack of informed consent. This moral issue can be extended to real-world scenarios in which it is imperative to understand the terms of agreement associated with a particular situation before fully committing to it, whether it be a college course, a medical procedure, or any other circumstance in which consent is of paramount importance.

Also, in Toni Morrison’s Home, the protagonist, Frank Money, spends much of the novel struggling to come to terms with his PTSD from his time in the Korean War while also journeying to save his sister, Cee, from the hands of a doctor who has been performing dangerous experiments on her. Throughout the book, Frank attempts to shield himself from the reality of his experiences in the war but is ultimately forced to confront them when he discovers that Dr. Beau’s experiments have left Cee unable to have children.

As seen through Cee’s desire for community in Home and Blake’s determination to escape in Clay’s Ark, noticing is only the beginning. For example, Blake does notice that Eli and his people on the ranch are different, but he doesn’t truly understand why or even make an effort until he begins to experience the symptoms associated with the organism towards the end of the novel. If Blake had done anything effective earlier in Clay’s Ark, the novel likely would have had an entirely different resolution. There is also the fact that the community on the ranch failed to notice the extent of Blake Maslin and his daughters’ extreme, albeit reasonable, agitation. If they had noticed, they would’ve had the opportunity to react and stop Blake from ultimately spreading the Clay’s Ark organism to the rest of the world and turning the epidemic into a pandemic.

Toni Morrison’s Home brings a lot to unpack as a reader with Morrison’s clever moral dilemmas and her characters’ differing perspectives. We as her audience are almost forced into noticing to actually understand the novel itself as well as the complexities that come along with it. And we, much like the characters in Home, must notice and act on things in our day-to-day lives that are often difficult to address such as trauma and injustices. From Frank’s mishandled PTSD to Cee’s subjection to racist ideologies in the medical workplace, readers witness the effects of noticing and a lack thereof. The traumas of the Korean War experienced by Frank are one of the most topical instances of ‘noticing’, seeing as the novel starts in his past and goes on to depict him in a mental institution. Frank spends much of the novel downplaying the severity of his trauma, and although he has noticed that there is something wrong with him, he refuses to unpack these horrible experiences. It is likely that if he had addressed the demons from his past at the outset of the novel, his character would have been less defined by his PTSD. And as a critical part of the novel centers around Frank’s trauma, the story would have been markedly different as well. 

Throughout the novel, Morrison gradually alters the manner in which Frank’s PTSD is portrayed which is mirrored by Frank’s interpretation of his PTSD. The reader and Frank’s journeys of realization and noticing are essentially adjacent, as we learn more about him as he simultaneously learns more about himself. But even as his PTSD becomes more apparent, and he reveals more about the circumstances leading up to his PTSD, because of the time period that he lives in, there isn’t much that he can do. PTSD only became recognized as a medical diagnosis in 1980, meaning there was little that Frank could’ve done regarding properly handling his trauma. Along with this, as a working-class black man in the 1950s, real therapeutic treatment would have been very hard to come by. Although Frank did come to terms with some of his trauma at the end of the novel, ultimately his PTSD remained unresolved due to his circumstances. But maybe if others who noticed how evidently troubled Frank was had acted on his behalf, he would’ve been able to form a decent support system, or at the very least the foundations of one. This could have made a significant difference in Frank’s progress towards accepting his actions in the war and thus learning to process his grief and guilt in a healthy manner.

Home affirms the idea that people are capable of noticing when it comes to things including the flows between literature, medicine, and racism. For example, Home confirms that folks can notice the connections between medicine and racism as the Black women of Lotus, Cee’s hometown, are appalled to discover that Cee decided to work for a doctor. They admonish Cee for this choice and believe that she should have known better. In fact, one of the women tells Cee “‘You ain’t a mule to be pulling some evil doctor’s wagon’”. This immediate response indicates that the Black community in Lotus has been well aware of the abhorrent treatment of Black people at the hands of doctors for quite some time. These women likely witnessed similar events prior to Cee’s circumstances that informed them that doctors were not to be trusted. Their reaction also reinforces the idea that iatrophobia, or the fear of doctors, was oftentimes a sensible phobia for African Americans to possess as they continued to notice the differences between their medical care versus that of white individuals. 

In addition, the novel emphasizes the inherent link between medicine and racism through Frank’s institutionalization at the beginning of the novel. It is implied that Frank has been placed there for a PTSD-related episode, and we as readers are left to wonder if perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t a poor Black man. In fact, when Frank escapes the mental institution and seeks asylum at a church, the reverend who welcomes him remarks that “‘They sell a lot of bodies out of there…doctors need to work on the dead poor so they can help the live rich’”. This chilling revelation indeed appears to confirm the reader’s suspicions that Frank was institutionalized for nefarious purposes. It also relates to the previous example in that many members of the Black community within Home are indeed aware of the racism that is prevalent within the medical field.

Moreover, Home highlights the connection between literature and racism during the scene in which Cee observes several of the books contained within Dr. Beau’s study. Readers are able to glean from their titles that the books emphasize racist ideas regarding the superiority of white people and the inferiority of Black people. In researching these books further, one learns that they advocate for the removal of “undesirable” traits from the gene pool by means of preventing particular groups from having children, such as African Americans. These books very likely contributed to the doctor’s desire to perform dangerous experiments on Black women as a means of limiting their ability to reproduce. We as the audience notice and are immediately taken aback by these revelations but it is only because we understand the general contents of the books that we know that Cee should leave the premises immediately. 

On the other hand, Home examines the limitations associated with noticing as well as the ramifications of failing to notice. For example, Cee notices the doctor’s books but is not alarmed because she is unaware of their contents. As Cee stands in Dr. Beau’s office, she observes her surroundings and looks at “the medical books closely, running her finger over some of the titles: Out of the Night.  Must be a mystery, she thought. Then The Passing of the Great Race, and next to it, Heredity, Race, and Society. How small, how useless was her schooling, she thought, and promised herself she would find time to read about and understand ‘eugenics’”. She is ignorant of the fact that they contain racist ideologies and were written by eugenicists which implies that the doctor himself holds such views. Cee’s naivety is dangerous in this particular situation because she is unknowingly at the mercy of a doctor who will likely not have any regard for her consent. This example highlights the importance of both noticing one’s surroundings and understanding the deeper meaning contained within them. Had Cee truly noticed, she would have escaped and would not have been subjected to experiments that left her on the brink of death.

In addition, Home discusses the consequences of noticing someone in peril but deliberately choosing not to intervene. This is exemplified through the actions of Sarah, (a Black woman who has been working at Dr. Beau’s house for years), as she is aware that the doctor is conducting experiments on unsuspecting Black women but she decides not to report him to the authorities. In particular, when Cee begins working for Dr. Beau, Sarah has the option to inform Cee of the dangers associated with the job but she remains silent on the matter. It is only when it becomes clear that Cee might die at the hands of Dr. Beau that Sarah elects to reach out to Frank in an attempt to save her life. Sarah’s inaction makes her arguably as culpable as Dr. Beau, as she regularly witnesses these atrocities and continues to do nothing about it. She even states, “She blamed herself almost as much as she blamed Dr. Beau. She knew he gave shots, had his patients drink medicines he made up himself, and occasionally performed abortions on society ladies. None of that bothered or alarmed her”. While Sarah demonstrates a sense of self-blame and guilt for the practices that she has witnessed, due to the societal norms of the time, she may not have been believed if she were to report Dr. Beau to the police or if she was believed, she might have been indicted along with the doctor. Sarah’s fear prevented her from acting in good faith until she suspected that Cee might die. In fact, Sarah is relieved to admit that “If the girl dies, she thought, it wouldn’t be under her care in the doctor’s house. It would be in her brother’s arms”. Although Sarah did care for Cee’s life, she was caring with the wrong intentions. Sending for Frank instead of calling the authorities demonstrates Sarah’s apprehension about being caught and potentially losing the only home that she’s had since she was a teenager. While Sarah’s actions ultimately saved Cee’s life, her initial intentions were questionable and they reinforce the idea that one can both notice injustices and choose to do nothing as well as notice injustices and choose to do something about it. 

Furthermore, Frank and Cee witness a Black man being buried in a field at the outset of the novel when they are children, but they are not able to understand the reality of the situation until several years later when they are adults. Toward the end of the novel, Frank discovers that Black men were forced to participate in fights to the death in the same place where he and Cee saw the body being buried at the beginning of the book. In fact, he learns that a father and son were pitted against each other and that the father insisted that the son kill him. After receiving this information, Frank is compelled to perform a sort of reparation by unearthing the man’s bones and giving him a proper burial. These events suggest that one can notice but remain powerless to prevent terrible situations from happening as well as the idea that the true meaning of an event can elude someone until they are prepared to learn the truth. 

The concept of noticing, as well as acknowledging what we haven’t noticed is important in both the confines of this class, as well as our greater Geneseo education. A major course concept students encounter in this class is the both/and. Professor McCoy has emphasized all semester that a topic can, and often should be viewed in more than one light. This is relevant to the concept of noticing as it is easy for many to only consider their initial interpretation of an event or idea while neglecting other interpretations. In order to be able to view something through several different lenses, students must work to notice as much as they can whilst also acknowledging what they don’t know. This coincides with the importance of acting in good faith, which sometimes can require outside perspectives to notice if one’s actions are performed in good faith. For example, if one is engaging in conversation with others and isn’t very knowledgeable about a sensitive topic, it would be a good faith practice to say “I don’t know” instead of trying to offer input that might be perceived as a bad faith contribution. On that note, it is important to keep an eye out for bad-faith actions and intentions in all aspects of one’s everyday life. 

Another course concept that relates to the idea of noticing is the “art of scaring” as one must recognize the impact that their words and actions can have on others when delivering difficult information. If one fails to take into account the manner in which they are conveying a message that may be hard to hear, they run the risk of alienating their audience. These course concepts are pertinent to our class discussions but are also valuable tools to have moving forward through life. The GLOBE (Geneseo Learning Outcomes for a Baccalaureate Education) mission statement speaks to finding “strength in diversity” which is an essential outlook to have for the future. Since students will go on to encounter all different kinds of individuals throughout their careers and in everyday life, this concept of noticing and not standing idly by is crucial. Regardless of their major or career interests, students need to practice noticing to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and they need to be prepared to intervene in the event that one person is dominating conversations. This is an imperative skill to carry forward into the workforce as collaboration is often a large component of one’s job, and it is essential to ascertain each team member’s opinions during meetings and while working on projects in order to ensure the success of the company.

I, Liv Rayburn, feel that the collaborative conclusion we have reached conveys my thoughts and sentiments on the topic of noticing. I think that we, as students, have practiced a great deal of reflective thinking throughout this course and in all of our collaborative exercises, and I commend us for that. It isn’t always easy to apply course concepts to real life situations, but I genuinely think Dr. Beth and my peers have broadened my perspective and made me a more considerate person. Going forwards into the field of adolescence education, I will use the tools this course has given me to make sure all of my future students feel safe and heard in my classroom. I hope to make positive impressions on them, just as Dr. Beth and other educators have done unto me.

I, Caitlyn Sullivan, agree with the collaborative conclusion that is created. I believe that the art of noticing goes further than just throughout college. This concept of noticing has strongly resonated with me as an individual who wants to act in good faith toward all. Reflecting on this class throughout the semester, I have found that working on collaborative exercises with a group helps us as a class to practice the art of good faith that Professor McCoy has shown us throughout the semester. Working directly with my classmates has helped me to become more comfortable and understanding with conducting group work. Physically practicing the concepts that Dr. McCoy presents in class creates a safe and welcoming environment in which all students can thrive from. As I carry on throughout my next couple of years as a student, I look forward to bringing the art of noticing into my career as well. I hope that I can carry onto others the good faith and noticing practices that Dr. McCoy has left with me. 

I, Logan Theofield, concur that the concept of noticing is crucial to carry with oneself when moving forward from this course. I will be furthering my education with the hopes of becoming a physical therapist and will need to carry out all of my future actions with a good faith mindset. I will encounter all kinds of people in the future and hope to aid in the healing process. This course and its emphasis on noticing is important to any field but especially medicine, the iatrophobia that has been created because of certain parts of history is something that all medical personnel from brain surgeons to the receptionists at a pediatrician’s office need to be aware of and need to ensure will never be repeated. Therefore, I will ensure this practice of noticing will be carried out in any facility where I work in the future.

I, Kaileigh Baudier, am in agreement with the group’s conclusion.  The concept/art of noticing is about engaging in the world and connecting with others, but it is also about being in touch with yourself and what really matters to you.  Being able to work in a group instead of on my own had opened up my mind to more different thoughts and ideas I hadn’t thought of before.    Once you start noticing you are able to help others notice.  For example, Medical Apartheid, taught me so many things and made me notice the mistreatment of humans that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own.  Taking this concept out of this course and into the world allows me to be able to act in good faith towards the people I will encounter throughout my life, and further into the future, my career as an educator.  

I, Cristiana Nuzzi, am in agreement with the group’s conclusion. The idea of noticing, I feel, is an understated act of caring. Oftentimes, it takes so little to notice, yet we are so absorbed with ourselves that we don’t. Meanwhile, others feign noticing to seem as though they do care. However, I can only account for myself and my own actions. As I continue my academic career at SUNY Geneseo and eventually begin my work as an English teacher, I will do everything in my power to go through life with good faith. I hope to showcase these skills that Professor McCoy has awarded me to my peers as well. Ultimately, noticing in all its dichotomy is a salient part of life. 

I, Rachel Fedison, concur with our collaborative conclusion but I would like to expand upon a few of the points that were made within it. For instance, I would contend that people who act in good faith often take the time to really notice others and respect opinions that differ from their own whereas people who act in bad faith might simply dismiss others’ viewpoints instead of attempting to understand the reasoning behind them. This notion is perhaps best represented within the political arena as individuals who are engaged in good faith debating practices are willing to listen to their opponents before offering responses while those who are operating in bad faith prefer to assume that their opinions are correct without contemplating the merits of their opposition’s arguments. In addition, it is apparent in our daily lives that the concept of noticing is closely intertwined with the “art of scaring” as we are inundated with news on a regular basis regarding sensitive topics such as war and natural disasters. As human beings, we have a responsibility to notice the impact of the delivery of such information not only on ourselves but also on the members of our communities. Furthermore, I believe that my experiences in the workforce demonstrate the importance of noticing regardless of one’s discipline. I have spent time in the accounting field as well as in a speech-language pathology graduate program, both of which required a significant amount of collaboration with folks from disparate backgrounds. While these disciplines are completely unrelated to one another, both taught me invaluable lessons regarding how to interact with various personalities, and to not only notice but value the input of people who are different from me in terms of age, race, and gender. Finally, I hope to incorporate the aforementioned course concepts into my remaining semesters at Geneseo as well as throughout my future career in the field of mathematics.

I, James McNaughton, agree with the conclusion presented by our group. As more of my time in this class has passed, I became more aware of the recurring theme of noticing. This concept has manifested itself in a variety of ways throughout the class, notably through Professor McCoy’s concepts of the “both/and”, as well as “the art of scaring”. Both of these concepts emphasize the importance of noticing, and being aware of both what we do and don’t know, as well as how we present such knowledge. I realized eventually that noticing was, in my opinion, the theme with the most importance for the class, as well as the thing with the most application for my future studies. It is with focusing on noticing, and being aware of our limitations of what we know and what we have noticed, that we can further understand those around us, and alternatively understand why people have their differences. Along with this, as students,  an emphasis on noticing can bring greater meaning and truth to the literature we read, and bring more value in other academic disciplines.

The Dehumanization of Human Bodies

In the course thus far, I’ve become most curious about the origin of the idea that one’s race would change the way their body works. This concept has been illustrated throughout medical practices with substantial coverage- perhaps not amongst the average population, but always in the scientific community. White practitioners have long harbored beliefs that suggest the anatomical difference of black bodies- but where exactly the first instance of this was is what I’m curious about. I also wonder if it was ever truly believed, or if it was just an excuse for extremely immoral, otherwise inexcusable practices.

As reflected in the latter half of chapter four, “The Surgical Theater,” of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, it was incredibly common for entirely white medical institutions to primarily use black bodies. Often, this was excused by the aforementioned idea that African Americans were medically unique. While these inherently prejudiced beliefs were also applied to other races, they were primarily held against African Americans due to the medical accessibility of their bodies. Enslaved persons were incredibly easy to get with a flashy license or some money- both of which were very easily attainable to a white medical professional. Washington also makes the point that a constant supply of black bodies was the key to medical success and breakthroughs. As early as the nineteenth century, it was commonplace for medical professionals of all concentrations to make public advertisements asking for enslaved persons- willing to pay hefty prices to obtain them. At this point, I don’t exactly find it necessary to specify ‘white’ practitioners, seeing as at the time, all medical positions were occupied by white persons. Except for the position upon the cold table, subject to the scalpel of morbid curiosity. It wouldn’t be until years after the incidents which Washington speaks of that African American individuals would be able to hold positions of any sort of power. While it’s easy to talk about how the concept of racial-medical differences has affected the industry, it isn’t nearly as easy to speak about its origin. Why was it believed that African American bodies were anatomically unique? Why were dissections- vivisections– so often performed on black persons in order to see the same organs that the white dissectors had in their bodies? Just because somebody may appear different externally- who were those men to suggest that their innards would differ as well? How little medical knowledge did they have to have to do what they did? Of course they knew

It is disgusting- to say the very least- that black families were deprived of their loved ones’ bodies and unable to give them proper, deserved resting places. Instead, they had to watch as their parents, children, brothers and sisters- lovers– were made spectacles. This was the case for the wife of Fortune- the real, othered, enslaved man honored in Fortune’s Bones, a manumission written by Marilyn Nelson, with notes and annotations by Pamela Espeland. “Dinah’s Lament,” a poem featured in the manumission, is told through the perspective of Dinah (Fortune’s wife) and describes in heart wrenching detail how she was made to dust and clean her late husband’s body. Her lover was made into a subject and only that by his former enslaver, a man named Preserved Porter. Another section of Nelson’s powerful manumission is told through the perspective of Porter, and it reflects the disturbing beliefs that were common in his career. The real question is whether Porter truly thought that Fortune’s body would be different when he began dissecting him- tearing his flesh from his body for his own benefit. Nelson writes from his perspective in a way that suggests he may have actually believed Fortune was anatomically different from himself, though. It is also possible that Nelson immersed herself so much in Porter’s mind that she included the aspect of him having convinced himself what he was doing was reasonable. The poem from Fortune’s Bones- “On Abrigador Hill-“ includes the repetition of the phrase “And I’ve been humbled by ignorance, humbled by ignorance.” This repetitive statement particularly sparks my curiosity. It is vague enough to theorize about, and yet so straightforward- at least, with it’s tone. Porter- or rather, Nelson’s representation of Porter- is coming to face something. Perhaps the fact that Fortune’s body is no different from his own, which he is realizing as he runs his hands over the arrangement of his organs- scrawls names on his bones. But one has to wonder, if he came to this realization, why did he continue? Why did he make a concerted effort to preserve Fortune’s remains- to keep them in the family so that future Porters could examine them as well? He had to have known what he was doing was grossly unnecessary and inexcusable. 

Whether we as the readers of both of these works are supposed to believe with certainty that nobody actually thought African American bodies would be any different from white bodies, or believe that maybe the concept may have even arisen from some misguided sort of good faith, is not explicitly stated. I’m almost certain that it was just an excuse so that medicinal institutions could get large amounts of subjects who had no legal power and would not be missed or defended by anyone with legal power. I picked this topic mainly because of Fortune’s Bones- and Marilyn Nelson’s presentation of Porter and his kind- white medical professionals. Nelson’s manumission had a profound effect on me as an individual. What we have read so far has been very influential overall, but poetry particularly strikes me as an individual. I think it’s interesting that supposedly, practitioners somehow ‘didn’t know any better.’ Somehow, even after taking apart millions of unwilling black people– these institutions were still curious. They still believed they were different- that they were inferior. Something that I brought up in class recently was that if these ‘scholarly’ persons ‘didn’t know any better,’ they wouldn’t have done what they did, and excused it in the same way every single time. As Washington mentions in the early-middle section of “The Surgical Theater,” medical students were specifically instructed on what to say and do in the case of being found out or accused of any sort of wrongdoing. They were told that what they were doing was wrong- or at the very least, that it was controversial. They should’ve inquired further as to why it was wrong, and surely, some of them did, especially coming to the end of the twentieth century. Now, the inherent racism of numerous medical institutions and practices is widely ignored. It isn’t addressed anymore. It doesn’t happen anymore- it’s a ‘different time,’ and racial-anatomical differences are an idea of the past. But they aren’t. Things still need to change.