Self-Reflection Essay: Noticing Morality and an Update on my Goals

            I think the course epigraph, Dionne Brand’s quote, “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice,” forms many through lines for the literature we have read this semester and the ideas shared along the way. I believe the most important through line that I have noticed throughout the semester relates to morality; just because certain acts of behavior were justified in the past, does not mean it is okay today. Behavior that is clearly wrong today might not have always been obviously wrong or even thought to be immoral. Morality has shifted over the years. In post-colonial times, until the middle of the 20th century, the humanity of certain individuals, particularly minorities, was often ignored and it was accepted within societal culture to withhold consent and treat these individuals in degrading ways. Not until the latter half of the 20th century did individuals begin to speak up and acknowledging the humanity of all; today “righteous” morals, such as treating individuals with equity and consent, are emphasized is societal expectations because our culture and customs place a higher value on humanity than past lineages have.

            The through line relating to morality, specifically the lack of it, reflecting great ignorance for humanity, can be noticed in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the present. For instance, Washington reveals how African American individuals were treated inhumanely in the recent past. First, she mentions the postmodern display of their bodies. She states, “Without their consent, stuffed, mummified, or skeletal black bodies have been displayed in doctor’s offices, anatomy laboratories, museums…” (Washington 134). Washington reveals that corpses of African Americans were often displayed, by white individuals, in the public eye. Morality was ignored in this situation, such display was initially justified as appropriate because it was considered to be for educational purposes. White individuals claimed that there was nothing wrong with the situation because the display of Black bodies contributes to learning. However, this act is morally wrong for many reasons. Washington shares that Blacks were subordinated even after colonialism through the creation of books that are in the skins of African Americans. She comments, these “souvenirs that were typically brought from grave robbers: Even in death, African Americans were bought and sold” (Washington 134). At the surface, it is wrong to display bodies and the skin of an individual because it is an act that disturbs the dead. Even stronger proof of immorality is the fact that consent was never given to the individuals who decided to establish such displays. These bodies were robbed from graves, without a care of respect for the diseased individual or their family. Morality in terms of righteousness has most definitely shifted since then because individuals living in today’s society would be mortified to see displays knowing that consent was not obtained; they would see this act as obviously wrong considering the aspect of humanity that was ignored.

            Similarly, the topic of disturbed morality can be noticed in Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark. For example, kidnapping and knowingly infecting Blake and his daughters, Keira and Rane was an accepted standard by Eli and his people who initially supported this act as they selfishly needed Blake. When Eli and Ingraham open up Blake’s car door and begin rifling through his things, they find his identification and learn that he is a doctor. Upon this discovery, Eli tells Ingraham that having his daughters with him, “makes our lives easier. All we have to do is take one of them and he’s ours” (Butler 9). Certainly, Eli and Ingraham make it known that their purpose of kidnapping Blake’s entire family is to ensure that they get to keep Blake. Medea admits this ambition later on to Blake. She states, “you’re our first doctor. We’ve wanted one for a long time” (Butler 37). Since Blake is a doctor, and Eli’s people did not already have a doctor on sight, they justified the act of kidnapping and therefore infecting three more people, as a need. Although they did not view their actions as wrong, readers of the text immediately see the absence of morality as Eli and his people never took time to consider how their actions would affect the lives of Blake, Rane and Keira. The narrator shares that Blake “did not intend to live his life as an emaciated carrier of a deadly disease” (Butler 41). The organism that Eli and his people spread to Blake’s family, without consent, imprisoned them to their community, forcing them to leave their previous lives including their family, home, jobs, and education. Although Eli and his people did not think twice about what they were doing, morality today is highly valued and clearly establishes the act of kidnapping as wrong because it is a criminal offense.

            I believe that thinkING about how often individuals falsely justify their actions to ignore the morality of a given situation goes hand in hand with the idea that Geneseo students should gain practice in the ability to “reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time.” I think that the acts we have read about in the literature from this semester, specifically in Medical Apartheid and Clay’s Ark, have always been wrong. Although justification was provided at the time, as society evolves and human beings learn and become more educated, the outlook of actions becomes more clear. Since care for humanity is a major part of our society today, including at Geneseo, treating individuals with respect is prioritized and therefore the wrongfulness of actions in the course literature is very obvious to the students who engage with this reading. Reader’s need to take into consideration the time period of which these inhumane acts happened so they can notice that morality has changed over time and such treatment is not okay. I believe understanding that providing justification for an inhumane act does not make it a righteous act, is critical when learning about historical events and customs because this part of history does not need to be repeated. Since one simple action can deeply affect an individual and generations of people, human beings need to thINK about the potential consequences of their everyday actions before they implement them.

            In my goal setting essay, I emphasized my personal goal to deeply engage with our course material. Throughout the semester, I really worked to achieve this goal by taking detailed notes while reading at home and coming to class with certain ideas or quotes that I wanted to discuss with my classmates. During small group work, I actively contributed and tried to consider my peers thoughts and bounced ideas off of them. Despite times I did not feel like participating in class, I tried to really push myself so I could get the most out of this course. Another goal I set was to be open-minded in terms of drawing immediate conclusions from the literature without unpacking. I definitely think I accomplished this goal this semester. Admittedly, the readings were very challenging and a bit confusing at times; since there was so much to unpack, I found my initial thoughts constantly changing. I never shut out additional thoughts from my peers or ideas found later on in the reading, I used such elements to build a greater analysis overall throughout the course. All in all, I think I achieved the goals I set in September and I feel that I have significantly grown as a writer, reader and most definitely as a collaborator throughout this semester.

Work Cited

Butler, Octavia E.. Clay’s Ark. Warner Books, 1996. Print.

Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. First Anchor Books, 2006. Print.

Goal Setting Essay: The Dangers of Jumping to Conclusions

            The course epigraph, Dionne Brand’s quote, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice,” has made me think about appearance in terms of actions taken among characters within literature. After reading the texts assigned up to this point in the semester, I have noticed how deceiving actions taken by characters can be on the surface. This has sparked thought and realization regarding the importance of waiting to make conclusions until the whole context is revealed. In literature, it is dangerous to draw conclusions from isolated sentences; without using the entire context to make judgements, depictions of reality may be misleading. For this reason, it is imperative to place an emphasis on thinkING; a deeper analysis and added context are critical components to revealing true realities. In particular, one thing that I have noticed consistently throughout the texts we have read thus far is that acts that seem to resemble “care” initially have turned out to bring forth the opposite: harm.

            To illustrate, Toni Morrison’s novel, Home, demonstrates how supposedly nurturing acts can be rather damaging when unveiled. For example, after Cee’s sickness, Frank brought her into the care of Miss Ethel. Here, she was instructed to be “sun-smacked, which meant spending at least one hour a day with her legs open to the blazing sun. Each women agreed that that embrace would rid her of any remaining womb sickness” (Morrison 124). From an isolated view, by drawing a conclusion just from these two sentences, it appears that Miss Ethel and the other women in Lotus are taking care of Cee through guiding her healing process. However, such “care” is deceiving. As the story continues, Cee “bridling with embarrassment, lay propped on pillows… each time anger and humiliation curled her toes and stiffened her legs” (Morrison 124). This experience was traumatizing for Cee; not only was she dealing with physical pain, Cee was left emotionally distraught from the undesirable exposure to her private parts. She felt ashamed and eventually spoke up crying, “Please, Miss Ethel, I can’t do this no more” (Morrison 124). Immediately, her pain is not taken seriously; Miss Ethel neglects to care for her physical and emotional health, stating, “Oh, be quiet, girl” (Morrison 124). Surely, Morrison affirms that Miss Ethel’s treatment, which Cee expressed dissent for, turned out to be an act of harm rather than care.

            Another course text that exhibits care at the surface but is proven to establish more harm in the end is Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones. When an African American man named Fortune died, “Dr. Porter preserved Fortune’s skeleton to further the study of human anatomy… working slowly and carefully, Dr. Porter took apart the body of his former slave” (16). Knowing this, one can conclude that Dr. Porter’s acts were intended to care for scientific advancements by using this experience to contribute to anatomy research. In addition, based solely on the quote provided, Dr. Porter seems to be caring in terms of the way he dismembered Fortune’s body. As the story progresses, Dr. Porter’s acts establish more harm than care. For instance, the text reads, “at some point– no one knows exactly when– ‘Larry’ was written on the skull. Fortune’s name was forgotten” (Nelson 20). Changing a skeleton’s name may not seem like a big deal, but it is heavily demeaning and dishonoring. Rather than being honored as a diseased individual, Fortune is stripped from his identity as if his human existence never mattered. Further, such disrespect for the dead continues; Fortune’s “skeleton was lost and found. It was boarded up in the attic, then discovered by a crew of workers hired to renovate an old building” (Nelson 22). Clearly, Fortune’s skeleton was not properly cared for. Although Dr. Porter appeared to be caring for him, it is obvious that the harm associated with his acts outweighs any sense of care.

            Harriet Washington’s novel, Medical Apartheid, is another text that diminishes acts of care when entire the context is explored. For instance, in chapter four, Washington introduces James Marion Sims who is well known for women’s vaginal care as the “celebrated father of gynecology” (Washington 66). Sims displayed care for females’ health by reducing maternal mortality rates through the development of a life-saving surgery. In 1849, Sims “perfected the vesicovaginal fistula operation” and in 1852 his “paper on vesicovaginal fistula repair was published in the prestigious American Journal of the Medical Sciences. It made national reputation” (Washington 66). Clearly, his medical advancements were well recognized, and he became a figure known to care for women. Furthermore, Sims “founded the New York Women’s Hospital,” the very first hospital for women (Washington 67). Certainly, it appears that Sims is viewed a hero for his dedication and contributions to the medical field. However, further exploration on Sims’ reveal realities of him purposely inflicting harm. For example, added context demonstrates how Sims did not treat all his patients with care. He “flatly refused to administer anesthesia to the slave women” (Washington 65). African American patients were harmed by Sims; he kept them awake throughout surgical operations, forcing them to endure terrible pain without giving them any numbing drugs. In like manner, he induced harm on young African Americans. Sims “attended many children, but he used only the black infants as subjects for dangerous experiments” (Washington 62). Surely, Sims was aware of the dangerous risks associated with his procedures but continued to proceed, physically harming many individuals. He may be “revered as a women’s benefactor” but deeper exploration reveals “years of [Sims completing] nightmarishly painful and degrading experiments, without anesthesia or consent” (Washington 61). When viewing Sims actions, his negative acts outweigh his positive contributions; he left more of his patients harmed than cared for.

            Ultimately, each of these novel’s help exhibit the risk that comes with drawing immediate conclusions: realities tend to be distorted without engaging with the entire context. As shown, throughout the course many isolated acts of care ended up being harmful when reflected upon as a whole. With that being said, one of my goals this semester is to not be “too quick” to jump to conclusions. Whether I am drawing a conclusion about class discussion or a chapter in a novel, I want to challenge myself to consider and engage with the entire context by asking more questions, annotating passages of interest, and challenging the material I have read before establishing my conclusive thoughts. In addition, I need to recognize that any conclusion I make is subject to change; added context may sway previous thoughts. In the past, I have been guilty of playing a passive role when reading new texts; I rarely stopped to think about the material. I kind of rushed through novels and moved on without thinking twice. My goal this semester is to really analyze the texts and keep “unpacking” to establish not only more accurate depictions of realities occurring in literature but to develop thoughts that I would never reach had I not moved beyond the surface. I want to play a more active role by taking into consideration my instructors’ and peers’ contributions so I can determine how their thoughts support or alter any conclusions I have developed. Simply put, my main goal this semester is to prolong the process of which it takes me to create judgements in an active manner that allows for self-growth

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Print

Nelson, Marilyn. Fortune’s Bones: A Manumission Requiem. Asheville, N.C: Front Street, 2003. Print.

Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. First Anchor Books, 2006. Print.