The Black Experience: Final Thoughts

The thought of attending Suny Geneseo, and even when registering for this course, I had difficulty facing my own self doubt and skepticism. Dr. McCoy has always challenged me, even when I didn’t want the push. I took an English course (Reader & Text: Interdisciplinary) with her my freshman year, in similar, those uncomfortable feelings stirred up on the first day of this class. Pondering what to write for this paper, I looked back at prior work from her class. I came across my final reflective essay (from freshman year) emphasizing that, When I sat down in Professor McCoy’s class back in late August, I wanted to run. I immediately felt intimidated and surrounded by many white faces. The confidence that I built throughout the summer slowly faded as I took that seat. Four years later, I questioned if those feelings lingered. I didn’t want to remain in the same place as freshman year. I knew that I made significant progress as a learner, but what it enough? As a first-semester college student, I noticed that I disassociated from the content I learned in my experience with Dr. McCoy’s Reader &Text class. I excluded myself from peer conversations. I remained silent during class discussions Dr. McCoy facilitated. For months, I just sat there and observed. Truthfully, I wanted someone to see my pain. I was one of the few people of color in my class learning about my own history. In my prior educational experiences before Geneseo, I can only remember learning about civil rights, the civil rights movement, and noble activists like MLK, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. I always knew my teachers weren’t telling me everything. Even though I was frustrated with my classes in adolescent education and it’s lack of, I still felt uncomfortable because I didn’t feel connected with my own history. Dissociation seemed easier then acceptance. 

Prior to my college career, my classrooms were filled with students who looked like me. I felt uneasy discovering those untaught truths at a predominantly white institution. In angst, I was not comfortable with unpacking the learning material with my peers because I assumed they couldn’t understand. I failed to notice that my presence in class could possibly help my peers become more conscious of material. I failed to notice how much my opinion mattered. Throughout this semester, I began to realize that my fears and doubts were blinding my ability to see clearly: the skill of noticing. For so long, I have normalized the feeling of being uncomfortable, it has failed me to see when I’ve actually grown. I have come to the conclusion that I was self-conscious (my freshman year) about my black identity; my black experience in our society. Had you asked me, “What is the black experience”? I can’t give you an answer because of the assumptions I previously generated. I am grateful that the reading material in this class has helped me identify with the black experience on a deeper level. 

While glancing at the syllabus on the first day, I didn’t notice the course epigraph. I can be very oblivious at times, instead of focusing on the big picture. I didn’t pay attention, simply because I let my eyes glaze over and didn’t care to figure out what it meant. As usual, I was more focused on the books I needed to purchase, the grading rubric, and the assignment due dates. Little did I know, the course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”, would be my greatest take-away from this semester. While shifting through the material we read in this course, each novel carried its own connotation of the black experience. Whether the novel was fiction or nonfiction, each story embodied a different layer. As I began to familiarize myself with the black experience through the books, what emerged for me was a history of struggle. It was the story of people who had been stripped of their rights and their humanity by a structural system of racism. It was the story of a people who, in the midst of brutal oppression, never ceased resisting nor did they lose their identity. 

When reading Percival’s Everett’s Zulus, Everett explores the black experience through the critical lens of a post-apocalyptic world. The characters in Zulus are mostly women, deal with a devastated post-apocalyptic world doomed to no return. People are undeniably scarred by an environmental catastrophe making all women unable to bear children. All except for one: Alice Achitophel. In her attempt to grapple with reality, she must decipher what’s real from what’s not. Readers, like myself are taken into the lamentable life of Alice, an obese government clerk, rejected by society, and the only fertile woman in her world. Alice is both insider and outsider in a world where state violence transforms life into a dystopia. On this dying planet, Alice must cope with being grotesquely obese, impregnated, alone, and afraid. Similar to Alice, many African-Americans feel isolated, alone, and unable to be understood by society. In Chapter W, we find that Alice finally welcomes the atypical; her having a child that was a product of rape. Throughout the novel, she battled with this, however, she was the hope of her dying world. She realized her offspring was “a living, breathing child that she could not let go. It was [her] child, a life”. (Everett, 243). Alice realizes that she is the fate of the planet and her resilience and struggle is clearly noted. Everett’s work becomes apparent in his take on the black experience, urging that his readers notice this. 

In the eyes of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans by Harriet A. Washington, my fourth blog post touches base on the maltreatment of African-American inmates in the medical field. Why were prisoners universally desirable subjects for medical research? African-Americans have always been dramatically over-represented in jails and prisons. In Boyle’s time, prisoners were powerless, uneducated, poor, feared/hated by their communities, and expendable. According to Washington, “Prisoners had been commonly used as research subjects, and after the Civil War, the United States was the only nation in the world continuing to legally use prisoners in clinical trials. Federal, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic companies’ money catalyzed a thirty-year boom in research with prisoners” (p. 249). Inmates were only seen as steady influx of profit. Unfortunately, wealth not culpability, shapes outcomes.

The most insidious and dangerous experiments included injections, flash burns from heat radiation, drugs that would cause hallucinations, and skin tests that produced painful rashes. Edward Anthony, a black Holmesburg inmate during the mid 1960’s attests to his experience and stated that, “Some drugs caused temporary paralysis or helplessness, or even placed [me] into a catatonic state, from which [I] could neither communicate nor react to [my] surroundings. Others caused prolonged nausea… and provoked long-term violent behavior” (p. 251). Despite the history and evidence of using black bodies as caged subjects, jailed African-American research subjects “remained largely invisible in the medical and popular literature until the 1960s” (Washington, 254). The same exclusion of black history exists in our educational system. I can conclude that this is another layer of the black experience. African-Americans can be so resilient, but still face immense amount of oppression. The black experience is ambiguous, yet complex. There are many layers to the experience that I’m even still learning to grasp. To be black in America is an enigma in and of itself.

Looking back at this course, I have learned so much about my history and the many layers of the black experience. What it means to be African-American is an ever-changing definition that encompasses so much of my life. I’m still learning just like my peers. Dr. McCoy’s classes have taught me valuable lessons about growth, strength, and courage to unpack the layers of the uncomfortable.

Academically Uncomfortable

In high school classrooms it is a common occurrence for significant information regarding the not so pleasant aspects of American history to be swept under the rug. Upon my arrival to SUNY Geneseo and even within the first few class periods I attended earlier this semester; I was made aware that some pieces of information pertaining to course materials, as well as the insight about myself that I would learn and be exposed to in the college classroom setting could, and most likely would make me uncomfortable in ways I had not been before. In many of the classes I began attending, but the ENGL101 class titled Literature, Medicine, & Racism especially, I was faced with the obstacle of coming to terms with the dark past of the world and more specifically the United States, in respect to medicine. 

At the onset of the semester, Dr. Beth McCoy provided the class with the course epigraph that stated, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”, a quote from Dionne Brand. Later, I had to unpack for myself what that meant for me personally and for my role in the class. It became clear that throughout the semester I would be expected to attempt to notice details and pieces of information that may not be particularly obvious. It would be my job as a student to take in the resources I was given and contemplate their significance in relation to the course. Dr. McCoy would then be expected to notice that we as students, were making the necessary steps to observe and analyze the resources that we had been given.  

Before I entered the ENGL101 class with Dr. Beth McCoy, I had significantly less knowledge than I do now. After completing the course, I now have a larger extent of knowledge not only about the topics discussed in the course materials, but I have also gained quite a bit of knowledge about who I am as a student.  

Over the course of my first semester one flaw of mine in particular came to light for me. In respect to learning and education, one of the most significant issues for me personally, is my struggle with time management. I have always been the type of student who tended to wait until the last minute to complete assignments. Despite this fact however, I always managed to get the work completed in time and with a quality that allowed me to obtain grades that landed me at the top of my class. Due to this, in the past I have continuously held the belief that I am just the type of student who works best under the pressure of having a time constraint. This belief that I had held about myself for years was challenged for the first time upon my enrollment of classes at SUNY Geneseo. It was only then that I realized that in order to be the student I have always dreamt of being, I had to give myself a considerable amount of extra time to fully comprehend the meaning behind what I was being taught. My previous ways of learning would need to be changed in order for me to successfully grow as a student. 

I was taught this valuable lesson by way of blog post. In the beginning of the semester the class was given an assignment that would continue throughout the course of the semester and up until the very end. The students would be required to write ten blog posts over the next several weeks which were set to be due by the end of the semester. As long as all ten posts were completed by the given date, they could be written and posted at the students’ discretion. Keeping in mind my previous track record for waiting to the last minute to complete assignments, I quickly took to plotting out personal deadlines in my agenda for all ten blog posts to encourage myself to stick to a schedule. As I continued going to English class and noticing new information, I found myself slipping back into old habits. Each deadline I personally set for myself pertaining to the blog posts came up and I simply let it pass. Previously, it had always been difficult for me as a student to write creatively, as I was much more successful when given a prompt or a specific direction to respond to. As a result of this, whenever I found myself attempting to work on a blog post I seemed to be stuck, unable to translate the details I was noticing in class into writing. I was not using my procrastination as an excuse for being lazy, I was using it as an excuse not to push myself to do something that I was academically uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. Whatever the reasoning, my procrastination led me to a place where I was not happy with the grades I was receiving. Before taking ENGL 101, I managed to get by just fine academically despite my procrastination. After completing the course however, I now understand that by not giving myself ample time to digest and take in the resources and information I was exposed to, I robbed myself of my true potential to notice. In the future I am determined to push myself through academic experiences that I am uncomfortable with, rather than avoiding them and putting it off for a later time.  

Throughout my time in this English class, I was given the task of reading through several novels and books that correlated to the course’s overarching topics of literature, medicine, and racism. While many of the resources given for this course dealt with troubling situations and information, one resource in particular made me especially uncomfortable. This resource is titled, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. By the title alone, I should have been expectant to learn about the horrors that were riddled through the United States’ past in relation to medicine. Despite the title giving me a hint to what I would be reading beforehand, I found myself extremely overwhelmed by the reality of what I was learning when I began to immerse myself in Medical Apartheid. One of the first chapters from Washington’s book that the class was expected to read was Chapter 3. In Chapter 3 of Medical Apartheid, titled Circus Africanus, I learned about the past experiences of an African American man who went by the name Ota Benga. 

Ota Benga was an African American widower from an area in southern Africa, what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At some point in 1903, Benga went away on a hunting trip and left his family behind. When he returned from hunting Benga found his entire village destroyed and his wife and children slaughtered. Benga was seized and then sold by the remaining Force Publique members, a group that was supported by the Belgian government. At this point after Benga was sold, he was given as a gift and found himself to be the new property of a man named Samuel Phillips Verner. It horrified me that Benga’s entire family and village were massacred, leaving him to be abducted and sold to the highest bidder, all because of his skin color. As I continued reading, I learned that the injustice that Benga experienced did not cease there. While in Verner’s possession, Benga was locked in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo to show the supposed correlation between African American descendants and apes. Benga was put on display in a cage for the staring crowds of people visiting the zoo, along with his cage mates, which consisted of an orangutan and a gorilla. The New York Times even went as far as to publicly hint “that Benga differed little from zoo animals” (Washington, 77). Some onlookers of the New York exhibit were African Americans themselves, and outraged, they proceeded to call for the removal of the city’s support from the exhibit in question. As public outcry increased, an African American minister, a Reverend Gordon, stated to the New York Times, “Our race…is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls” (Washington, 77). Benga’s horrific experiences and this quote in particular, made me take a step back and close the book. I was extremely uncomfortable to learn that such despicable actions had taken place in the United States. I found myself being notably bothered by the fact that African Americans felt it was necessary for them to have to declare that they are worthy of being treated as human beings. No individual should feel as if they need to defend their place and worth in this world due to the color of their skin or where they came from. Learning the true extant of how widely accepted injustice against African American individuals in the past by people of the medical and scientific community left me stunned. My heart was physically pained to think about the countless injustices that racism accounted for in the United States’ past. Benga was captured and put on display to be compared to animals in an attempt to prove African American inferiority. After reading Benga’s experiences I found myself unwilling to read anymore that night, I had to take the time to come to terms with the unpleasant feelings that arose for me while reading Medical Apartheid.  

Over the next several weeks I continued with my reading for Medical Apartheid in an effort to overcome my uneasiness regarding learning the dark history of medicine in the United States. After my initial reaction to the book, I was determined to push through the enormous amounts of information Washington provided and continue to notice new details even if they left me with a rather unpleasant feeling upon their discovery. By doing so I put myself in a position where despite being uncomfortable, I was able to continue improving as a student. The resources given in this class such as Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, enabled me to face situations that put me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to notice details and connections that I previously may have wanted to ignore. 

If I was given the opportunity to take the ENGL101 class again with Dr. Beth McCoy, I would do so. All in all, this particular English class had a way of making me uncomfortable academically in ways I had not previously experienced before my arrival to SUNY Geneseo. Through all of the uncomfortableness however, I feel as if I am a more well-rounded student due to taking this course. The blog posting assignments opened my eyes to the idea that to be truly successful as a student I must give myself the necessary time to notice and formulate new discoveries in respect to the resources I am given. The specifically chosen resources for this course, such as Medical Apartheid, made me aware of the countless connections between literature, medicine, and racism that appear throughout American history.  At first, I had a difficult time reading the numerous depictions of injustice that African Americans had faced. Over time however, I found myself eager to learn about and expose those injustices. I came to the realization over the course of the semester that if we as students want to ensure that injustices such as the one Benga experienced never take place again, we must first acknowledge that it took place at all. By taking this class, I feel as if I have been able to hone in my ability to notice and take in a large amount of new information regarding topics.  I have also gained a great deal of insight concerning who I am as a student and how I can be more successful in the learning habits I choose to partake in my future academics.   

I Can Notice and Grow, Can You?

Signing up for this class was not something I particularly had in mind. As a freshman, I was just looking for an English class because English was one of my best subjects in high school that I also happened to enjoy the most. Little did I know this would be one of the most interesting English classes I have ever taken. Sure, I am only a freshman in my first semester. However, none of my English classes or any classes for that case in high school made me think like this class has. This class has changed the way I think and notice things. Never before had I thought about racism, medicine, and literature’s connections. Looking at those three words, I never would have made a connection between them before this class.

Part of this class that was really brought to my attention was the connections between literature, medicine, and racism. When I signed up for this class, I assumed it was three different topics. I thought maybe the semester was going to be split up into three different sections. One for literature, one for medicine, and one for racism. Before coming to class my first day I did think maybe these three topics were connected but I honestly could not think of how any of these could connect. At first, I just assumed they didn’t connect and there was really no reason for me to try and connect them.  I soon realized in this class that literature informed us and taught us about all of these things in the world of medicine. We read many books such as Medical Apartheid, Fortune’s Bones, Home, Seed to Harvest, Zone One, and many articles as well. For me, literature kind of ties all three together because literature is the source that taught me about the connections between medicine and racism. Racism was all over the medical world and even today there is still racism and discrimination in the medical world. Literature taught us about racism in the medical world and I think that is a super important connection to make. 

In one of my first posts I did make a connection between Zulus and our world and the people in it. In my blog post called Mutato Nomine I said “To me Alice represents all of us sitting here letting the earth go to waste. At some point it’s going to be too late to fix it and all we are going to be able to do is sit and watch it happen just as Alice is. I think the author is showing us this as a warning before it is too late.” While I was making connections, I was not making the right connections. In my mind I was mostly thinking about the pollution and other things that are ruining the earth and then I tried to make a sort of meaningless connection to medicine. I think in a lot of my blog posts I made connections to worldly things and then I could not come up with a real meaningful connection to racism and medicine through the different books. 

In my lowest scoring blog post called The Unknown, Professor McCoy commented on it and said, “You have the evidence, Olivia—why aren’t you using it?” and another thing she said was “I can make room for the personal in the writing, but the writing can’t be limited to the personal. I can’t grade manifestos, political positions, or personal beliefs, no matter how much I might agree and/or disagree with them, share and/or not share them.” This definitely made me think. It made me think about what exactly it was that I was thinking about and what I was noticing. Up to this post and even a little bit in my posts after this one, I was mostly just writing about my opinions. I was talking about my feelings about how people were treated and how wrong certain things were. In my blog post, The Unknown, I wrote “For me, reading and learning about all these secretive things that have happened in the medical world make me not trust doctors. How am I supposed to trust doctors when they have such a bad reputation? How can anyone trust these people? How can I trust anyone? It is really hard to figure out how to live your life in peace and trusting people when there is such a horrible reputation of people not respecting our bodies.” And I continued in this post talking about how I felt instead of noticing the meaningful connections between the books having to do with medicine and racism.

In my most recent blog post, Value, which I received the highest grade out of all my blog posts, I realized what I was finally doing right. I couldn’t just talk about my opinions I had to have a thought and find evidence to support my thoughts. In this blog post I talked about valuing human beings and I found evidence to support this from two of the books we read and then from an article that I found on my own as well. I was finally making the right connections throughout the books and I had the evidence to support my claims.

In Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington says, “We must acknowledge the past in order to regain trust and to seize the future”(page 386). To me this is super important because a lot of literature is about the past or is based off of things that have happened in the past. So, to me reading literature is a way to inform people such as myself about things like racism in the medical world. People need to be aware of things like this so it will not continue to happen in the future. This class has taught me to notice and make solid connections. Never before was I able to make these kinds of connections and I never thought I would make connections such as the connection between literature, medicine, and racism. And I think it’s really important that others can learn to make these connections too.

In high school you are not taught to actually think about things and notice. You are taught to sit down and remember the information. Or you are given a topic and you are supposed to relate your ideas to this topic. But the type of thinking and noticing that I have done in this class is far different from any of that. In my first blog post I wrote “the stuff I am learning in this class is real world stuff. This is the kind of knowledge I would like to have as I grow into an adult. An adult would look more into something like this and dig deeper to widen their understanding of the topic and get as much information as possible so that they can form their own opinion of the topic.” Even in my first blog post I was noticing that this class was going to change my way of thinking. Just in the first couple weeks of this class I was already being affected. 

One of the books we read that significantly affected me was Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. Each chapter of this book had a different case, a different story. This made me realize the concrete connections between racism and medicine. As I talked about in one of my blog posts, Discrimination in the Medical World, discrimination towards race was not something that only happened in the 1900’s. Reading Medical Apartheid first made me think about all the racism in the world of medicine way back in the day. This was something that was never taught to me or probably even talked about. I hardly had any knowledge of this topic before reading this book. But then I also noticed that this is still happening in the world today. I knew that there was still racism and discrimination in the world. Never would I have thought there was still discrimination in the medical world even today. This was never something I would have known before taking this class. The things I learned in this class are things that I assume not a lot of people in our world know about because there is never anything on the news about this and it isn’t taught to us while we are growing up. The information I learned in this class is information I think everyone should be informed of. People should know about these things because everyone has medical needs and should know if they are going to have any risks such as discrimination. I think people other than just us in this class would benefit if they could somehow make these connections throughout real world problems.

Growing is something that everyone continually does throughout their entire lives and it is an extremely important part of every persons’ life. However, the way everyone grows is different depending on what you are exposed to throughout life. I was exposed to this certain class and I grew as a writer and thinker. I also grew in how I notice. Things are connected and I should always be looking for connections and so should other people. The things I took away from this class and the way I learned to think is something I think everyone would benefit from and I would recommend this class to anyone so others could grow in their own thinking just like I did. Our world could grow together if more people knew how to notice. My whole thinking process has changed and the worlds thinking process needs to change too.

The Growth of an Evidence Based Perspective

My whole life I have been fascinated with science and medicine. For every free-choice project assigned to me from elementary to high school, I would base on anatomy or biology if I could. I may have not yet determined exactly how I would like to be a part of the medical field, but I know I am meant to participate in the world of healthcare for my career. Therefore, it was an easy decision whether or not this course would fit my interests. The title alone, “Literature, Medicine and Racism”, made me want to enroll immediately; it was a combination of words I myself have never yet put together. I was intrigued, and now that this course is nearing the end, I am beyond grateful that I have taken it. Upon looking back at how this course has shaped my growth, I have noticed that it has thoroughly opened my eyes to a vast world of medical history and literature I didn’t know existed prior. In turn, it has altered my previous, completely positive view of the medical field. I am now aware of many, but not all, of the horrors that people have endured in our history at the hands of scientists and doctors that have led to today’s medical and scientific knowledge. I once thought that the scientific progress I have learned about was built on ethical, positive events- a sharp contrast to the truth this course has taught me. I still view the medical field as something I am passionate about, but I no longer believe that it is built upon decades of positive advancements and events. The class text Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington enabled me to learn many of these historical endeavors, and its factual content was highlighted by a fictional course text, Home, by Toni Morrison.

Upon my initial reading of Medical Apartheid, my jaw dropped and my heart sank, leaving me mortified and embarrassed to have wanted to be a health professional. The book revealed a plethora of unethical and inhumane experiments conducted on minority groups that were done to aid scientists in acquiring more medical knowledge. I wondered how I could have been so blind to all that lay beneath the research progressions and medical advancements of today. For example, the passage about how scientists went about studying the effects of radioactivity on the human body described in Medical Apartheid left me in shock. Washington explains one portion of the radioactive experiments as, “…the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, added radioactive oatmeal to the menus of thirty orphans…” (Washington, 233). When these orphans died, their bodies were autopsied to study the amount of radioactivity present and to see the damage that had been caused by it. Another portion of this text that shows an example of the medical field’s horrific past is the description of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. At first, it appeared that the U.S. Public Health Service was trying to study and treat African American males with syphilis back in 1932 through this experiment. However, the truth behind the study is showed in Medical Apartheid as Washington quotes a PHS physician Dr. Murrell: “’Those that are treated are only half cured…. Perhaps here, in conjunction with tuberculosis, will be the end of the negro problem’” (Washington, 160). It can be seen that the study was not an act of aid, but an act of manipulation and unethical treatment rooted in racism. The core classes I have taken as a science major have turned a blind eye to its field’s negative background, such as these examples I have mentioned, and it has taken an English course to show me the truth behind the science material I learn.

When looking at the medical field at surface level, it appears to be overall successful and honest, saving people’s lives and curing many illnesses. When analyzing the overall mortality rate from all causes of death from the 1900s versus 2010, it has dropped by a staggering 54% (Tippett, 2014). Back in the 1900s, death caused by infectious diseases such as pneumonia and the flu were twelve times as likely compared to deaths reported in 2010 (Tippett, 2014). This shows great progression, but now that this course has shaped me into noticing more, I wonder, at what cost did this “success” come at? The phrase “behind every great success is a battle that has been fought” now means something entirely different to me than it did before this course. I realize now that the battle is no longer just the hard work those who experience the success go through; it may also entail the expense at which people’s lives were damaged, victimized, or manipulated to get them there.

This may seem like a purely dismal shift in perception about my once prized career goals, but in reality, the growth I have experienced has also taught me some positive things. Throughout my life and its experiences, I continuously told myself that you cannot have the good without the bad. Personally, I believe that they give meaning to one another. In this case, the horrific stories and events I have read about have shown me the gruesome side of the medical field, but they have also enlightened me to question aspects of my life I have previously taken at face value. It has shown me to dig deeper, and I am not completely discouraged from working in the medical field, but I must do my part now to prevent this terrible history from repeating. I am now aware of the many struggles and sufferings those in the past have endured to enable scientists to achieve the data they believed they needed. The scientific knowledge available today may be helpful, but as this course has shown me, a majority of it came from the exploitation of innocent patients in history.

As Washington states in Medical Apartheid, even some of the scientists themselves realized their faults eventually: “The radiation experiments capture the moment when an important group of physician-scientists ceased to view themselves as healers and benefactors first, with disastrous results for their victims and for American medicine” (Washington, 241). She goes on to state, “For African Americans, the full costs in lost health and lost trust are still being reckoned” (Washington, 241). This demonstrates that the doctors conducting these horrific experiments initially believed they were playing a positive role in people’s healthcare, and that they may have finally realized the truth of what their actions had caused. Not only was the medical world itself tainted with horrific means of experimentation, African Americans specifically were targeted and exploited through the healthcare system and as Washington stated, there are still consequences from that today.

In the text Home by Toni Morrison, one of the characters, Cee, finds herself at the hands of a doctor similar to those described in Medical Apartheid that performed serious damage to their patients. Cee worked for a man named Dr. Beau, and was led to believe that the experiments he performed on her would benefit his patients in the future. She becomes very ill due to complications from the procedures and examinations performed by him. Cee is eventually returned back home by her brother, and just in time, as she was on the verge of death. Once home, Cee recalls her experience with Dr. Beau when explaining to the women who heal her what had happened: “…how passionate he was about the value of the examinations; how she believed the blood and pain that followed was a menstrual problem- nothing made them change their minds about the medical industry” (Morrison, 122). This shows that not only did the women who helped her fear doctors, now Cee did too. She had almost lost her life due to a doctor being convinced that the procedures he performed on her would provide him with the knowledge he needed to help others. Not only did Cee almost die, she could no longer have children of her own, and this was something Cee struggled with greatly. Although these negative experiences and consequences Cee faced may be presented in a fictional text, they still highlight the reality of the medical world’s history. This fictional representation of the damages people faced at the hands of doctors they once trusted evoked just as much anger in me as the historical events presented in Medical Apartheid.

Not often do I stumble upon eye opening experiences such as this course. I find myself and the classes I take being very literal, which can push me into a more surface-level type of analysis. This course, in contrast, has helped mold me into being more thorough and to be skeptical of the information presented to me. I know ask “why?” and “how?” of all that I learn and read. This enables me to discover the underlying truths behind many of the facts presented to me that I would have never uncovered prior. Reflecting back on my growth I see that I now stray from my literal, face value ways. Although my once highly positive view of the medical field has dwindled, it is now an evidence based perspective. This shift from an evidence-lacking view on the medical field to a factually supported one has been shaped by the ideas this course has shown me. This class taught me the importance of evidence and justification. In this course, we referred to the text Reflective Writing by Kate Williams, Mary Wooliams, and Jane Spiro, when starting to form our final essays. It is stated in Reflective Writing that evidence needs to be provided in order to justify claims that one makes. Before reading this text, I hadn’t considered just how vital evidence is for all information presented, whether it is my own ideas or one I read in a science textbook. Not only has this class shown me directly that there is a vast, dark history behind the science advancements I learn about, it made me aware that I should be seeking the evidence behind these facts as it may help uncovering more of this history as well. As I look further into how an advancement in science or the medical field came about, I could discover on my own the root of the progress and whether or not it is a part of the dark history this course has shown me. This course has taught me how to actively uncover more of the history presented to me in texts like Medical Apartheid and Home on my own, and this has become the core of my growth as a student.

Throughout my studies, I could have been performing deeper analyses all along. A part of me is upset by this, knowing that the majority of my schooling has been presented to me in a sugar-coated way, speaking of only the great advances in science without the negative backstory ever surfacing. Although I may be angered, I cannot rewind the clock, so I will strive to do better in the future. I hope to take this eye-opening experience and practice it onward, noticing the truth behind the facts and read between the lines of my science textbooks. If I enter the medical field or teach of it in the future, I aspire to “practice what I preach”, and be honest about the history that precedes the medical and scientific knowledge we have today. This semester, and specifically this course, has helped shape me as a person and as a student with how I approach the scientific material I learn about.

Consent in the Decision Making Process: A Final Reflection

As a takeaway from this course, and in deep analysis of the literature, I am left with one vital reflection point that I will carry with me even as this course comes to its conclusion: How essential of a role should the different lenses of consent play in my own decision-making process for myself and others? 

Throughout the course of the semester I have gradually built upon and reflected on my already existing thoughts of this courses central theme of consent. In studying works such as Percival Everett’s “Zulus”, Octavia Butler’s “Clay’s Ark”, and Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One”, I was able to react to each of the authors takes on consent, communicated through the adversities faced by their main characters. Although the stories and each character might have been infinitely different at first glance, looking deeper, the works thematically shared the intention to inspire deep reflection on our society by carrying us through extreme scenarios of violation of consent in fabricated dystopian futures. Through the authors perspectives on consent within our society, they successfully created a plane of self-reflection and shock to their readers. In this plane, I was left questioning my own decision-process, and how each choice has consequences reaching far beyond myself. Thus, through their characters, the authors demanded a new level of self-awareness and change from their audiences, as to prevent any timeline similar to their own visions of a dystopian atrocity.

In analysis of each literary work, it became clear to me that the concept of consent should be an essential part of any decision-making process. In my eighth and ninth blog posts, both titled “The Power of a Decision: What motivates your choices?”, I was able to successfully unpack each of the authors’ goals in expression of their characters strife. Most notably in “Zulus” when Alice Achitophel and Kevin Peters decide just the two of them, to end all human life on earth. What gave them the right as only two people to make a decision for an entire planet? This question was applied again in “Clay’s Ark”, when Blake decided to escape the farm community, and as a consequence spread the “organism” thus threatening a world epidemic. In studying these drastic decisions, it invoked a conversation as to whether or not these acts where consensual or not. In my opinion, each of these decisions were an intense violation of consent as the characters failed to inform others or even consider other individual’s opinions on the matters at hand. Rather, in their positions of power, they made decisions that would affect numerous individuals without consulting any of them. Although these dystopian stories may seem entirely intangible, the ideas that they express are not entirely foreign to our own society. Whether in a position of power as a doctor, politician, professor, etc., these same ideologies that these authors share still apply. Consent by one for a decision that involves the lives of many is wrong. In conclusion, it is essential that when making decisions, we consider all perspectives and individuals involved, because if we don’t it is a violation of their consent. 

Bouncing off of the idea that we must consider the perspectives of all, we come across the chronic issue of viewing other opinions as more important than others. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination are atrocious elements that have plagued our society throughout history. Tapping into this pain and violation of individuals, the authors of each of these literary works expressed that the dehumanization of those who are perceived as different is an intense violation of that individuals or groups consent. Through characters such as Alice Achitophel, and Whitehead’s take on the “skels” as told through his character Mark Spitz, the reader is able to visualize this prejudice in a new light. For example, Alice Achitophel is consistently criticized based on her weight, and outcasted from society. As a consequence of this alienation, Alice fails to be sterilized like all other women, and as a result becomes pregnant. Following Alice through her journey to escape the city and reach a “rebel-base”, we are continuously exposed to the crude and inhumane treatment that Alice receives due to these differences. Whether being ridiculed and aggressively assessed by doctors, or having her entire body be put on display in a glass case, Alice is non-consensually violated throughout the course of the novel. Analyzing Everett’s purpose for Alice Achitophel, it became clear to me that she was a representation of how we treat those who are perceived as different in society. In this reflection, Everett’s message comes at a shock that makes you rethink how you view consent both physically and socially. Alice is both physically and socially abused by her peers. With this malice you are left asking: What gave them the right? And what decisions led up to Alice being treated the way she was? I began to explore these questions in my final blog post titled “The Concept of Consent Analyzed through the Female Character Alice Achitophel”. In questioning the novel, it became apparent that the real-life applications of Everett’s warnings are both tangible and shocking.

These applications are exceptionally evident in the medical field. In Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” she exposes multiple doctors who abused their power and status as physicians to non-consensually experiment on individuals who they viewed as less than. Whether African American prisoners, women, or etc., the nefarious actions of these doctors remained centralized on one excuse, they failed to acknowledge medical subjects as people worthy of receiving consent, or basic human rights in some drastic cases.  In my eighth blog post, I analyze the horrific studies of Dr. Albert M. Kligman, who performed experiments on the African American prisoners of Holmesburg prison as to gain better knowledge in the field of dermatology. Zoning in specifically on Dr. Kligman, it became clear that often individuals put in positions of power, abuse this power, using others to better themselves no matter what cost to those individuals being used. In this case it was Kligman’s patients and experimental subjects who were being used. In the end, what does this say about our society? Reflecting on the literature, it becomes even clearer that we need to change this pattern of oppressive and selfish behavior in all regards and walks of life.

Delving into another real-life application, we can look closely at the NYC African Burial Grounds, and how they most likely inspired Colson Whitehead in his process of writing “Zone One”. The setting of Whitehead’s novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting of lower-Manhattan, ironically also where the burial grounds are located. The novel is based around a zombie-apocalypse, the characters referring to the dead as “skels”. However, unique to all the other characters, Mark Spitz is able to personify the dead, giving them stories and identities. Rather than just viewing them as less than human, Spitz views the skels as worthy of respect and a story. As a reader you are left questioning how can we possibly connect this to a palpable real-life scenario? Rather than focusing on the fact that the skels are quite literally zombies, if you look at the perspective of the skels just being individuals who have been dehumanized, the bigger picture becomes much more apparent. Thus, Whitehead’s purpose for his work becomes clearer. In my sixth blog post, “The Injustice of Dehumanization of Those Who are Different – Told through the Lense of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One”, I came to the conclusion that Whitehead’s goal was to make us question our own perceptions of individuals. In this contemplation, I was able to come to the fact that all are worthy of identity and rights in both life and death; thus, this historical pattern of disregarding human-lives needs to come to an end. 

Circling back to decision-making, I was able to channel each of these authors works in order to improve my own thought process and reflect on the weight that consent should have on this process. Studying “Zulus” it became clear to me that we should all be more socially aware of our actions, as to prevent characters such as Alice Achitophel’s fate. In my tenth blog post, I state: “What gives someone the right to tell you that how you look and who you are is not okay?”. This question is carried from “Zulus” into “Zone One” as we reflect on Whitehead’s purpose to personify the skels, making a statement about how in history we have repeatedly given individuals no rights in death. This history is portrayed in the African Burial grounds of lower Manhattan, where the bodies of numerous African Americans were found completely unidentified with unmarked graves; thus, given no voice in life or death. A nonconsensual act that reaches far beyond just communication. This type of violation is again portrayed in “Clay’s Ark” when Blake shows zero regard for the consequences of his own actions, allowing the spread of a deadly alien organism worldwide, just so he could do what he desired as a single individual. All of these actions began with a decision. A decision that lacked inclusion of different perspectives, or regard for the lives of others. Whether deciding to end all human life as only two people (Alice Achitophel and Kevin Peters), potentially spreading a deadly organism (Blake), or viewing those who are dead as less than human (characters of “Zone One”), the violation remains the same: those who were not included in a decision but are deeply affected by it are robbed of consent at all angles.  

So, in final reflection, for myself, and for the readers, I ask: How will you change your decision-making process after studying the messages of Everett, Whitehead, and Butler? And how can we improve our society by establishing that all are worthy of a voice and value in decisions that affect them?


The course epigraph is as follows, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” a quote by Dionne Brand. As someone who grew up in an area that by some would be considered “ghetto”, a place that is a lot less fortunate then some, I’m always aware. I notice small things more than the big picture. I notice when someone cuts their hair a few inches or a difference in attitude and body language. Though, in this class, I lacked my noticing skills, and genuinely struggled on noticing things. Not only with noticing, I struggled with creating ideas of my own and being descriptive and thorough.

Going back to when I first visited Geneseo, I was oddly skeptical. The environment just felt different to me as I was completely unaware of my surroundings again, on this 3-college visits in a 2-day trip. When I stepped into Doty Hall and was greeted by the tour group leaders, and a few other secretaries, etc., it felt …right. I was nervous to come here, that’s for sure. I am a first-generation college student and was scared for what my future held for me. The atmosphere at Geneseo is overwhelmingly positive and offers a variety of opportunities and access to what I may need to succeed. Looking back at my first semester I would say that college is just …hard. Though hard is a simple word that to me carries a significant meaning. I can recall times in the past semester where I had almost given up and frequently said, “This class is too hard,” and “I don’t get this, it’s too hard”. I did struggle here, that I will admit. 3 months seems like a short amount of time but, there has been exceptional growth for me. Not only as a writer, but also as a person. This English 101, “Literature, Medicine, and Racism” course Dr McCoy teaches has exposed me to a world I have never seen. I have learned the different struggles and battles different kinds of people have had to go through for succession.  

In a few short sentences the book Clay’s Ark is about a disease, a deadly parasite to be exact. It is trying to occupy and take over the population. Eli, the first one infected by the parasite, is being compelled to infect others when he returns from his space travel. Blake and his two daughters, Rane and Keira are all eventually infected and try to escape. A moment that stands out to me is, “It occurred to her as she headed for the steep incline that she could be killed. The thought did not slow her. Either way, the stick people would not tie her down again.” (pg. 539) I interpret this as not being afraid. Not being afraid to die, or in my case fail, because she would not allow the stick people to tie her down, and for me to now allow my thoughts to bring me down either. I am a person who often will beat themselves down with words. As I’ve learned, there’s a lot more meaning, and that is why I’m affected by them so much. Words are special and can make someone happy, sad, or even angry. I learned the power behind them in a discussion we had in class regarding Fortune’s Bones. In class, we discussed the African Burial Ground, and those who were buried are left nameless as their bodies are too far gone to be identified. For obvious ethical reasons, this affected me emotionally. Their name is their identity. Their name is what defines them. To not have that, leaves them almost as nothing though they are still people. I often wondered, how did this even begin? Had they consented?

Consent is a broad topic that has encased our class. We have spoken countless times about consent and the different areas that surround it. Prior to this class, I was unaware of the different meanings behind it, and how influential that word is. Looking back at another book we have read, Medical Apartheid, there are times in history, that are often never taught, were African Americans are treated horrendously and are not given the chance to consent. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study had promised, “free medical care to about six hundred sick, desperately poor sharecroppers…” (pg. 157) Though, that never happened. Rather than being treated, all the men were studied, “found a pool of infected black men, [held] treatment from them, and then charting the progression of symptoms and disorders” (Pg. 157). This study left me astonished as I had never heard about it prior to reading Medical Apartheid. Unfortunately, I feel schools lack in exposure to topics that may be hard to listen to and understand. But, it is all important and valuable knowledge to those it effects, and those it doesn’t.

As I end this class, I notice how I’ve grown. I notice how more efficiently I try and understand concepts and ideas about others’ through means of communication. I’m more aware. More aware of the impact my words have on others. I am powerful, in thought, in speech, and in my script.


                                                              According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, to “notice” means to become aware of something; to “learn” means to “gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience”. In order to gain knowledge or understanding, one needs to learn new information or look at information in a new way. In other words, one needs to become aware of something new. Our course epigraph, “my job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” is therefore fundamentally related to learning. The speaker’s job is to learn, and to learn that other people can learn. There is a clear relation between the course epigraph and what we’ve been hearing about in some classes at SUNY Geneseo about the growth mindset, which asserts that we can learn and develop ourselves, that we are not immutable stone. The literature we’ve read in class, particularly Medical Apartheid, has been useful for my own noticing (or: learning) as I was almost wholly unaware of the lengthy abuse of blacks by the medical system—it was also something I had never considered or come close to thinking about, beyond many of the United States’ Founding Fathers owning slaves. Likewise, Dr. McCoy’s conscientiousness about the use of the language has encouraged me to pay more attention to my and other people’s use of speech and the subtle unintentional meanings that might hide within that speech. One example that has stood out in my mind was the distinction made between “slave” and “enslaved person”—“slave” sounding more like an ontological claim that the essence of the person who is a slave is that of a slave, rather than it being an action being done to them. Curiously, in spite of my absolute agreement with “enslaved person” being preferable to “slave”, I feel a little disgust at the notion of changing one’s usage of “slave” to “enslaved person”. Why this is, and why I can’t see myself using the terminology I agree more with, I cannot say, but it’s been on my mind for a while now. (Incidentally, I feel the same disgust whenever I see someone tell someone else that they should say something like “African American” instead of “black”, or “Caucasian” instead of “white”).

                                                               The structure of the class itself has also taught me much—I had much difficulty and frustration being required to write ten essays with the almost sole guideline being that they relate to the course themes, which are so broad that the blog posts gave what feltlike an overwhelming amount of possibilities of things to say, to such a  degree that I couldn’t say anything at all. There is much to be said about racism, medicine, and racism and medicine, but clear guidance on more focused writing topics might have been something that I could have engaged with more. The daily mention of “you can get a blog post out of that” or “there are about 50 blogposts in what you’ve all just said” has been a recurring source of frustration writing even one blog post was so difficult. Another source of frustration was the occasional encouragement to not worry about grades in a class that still requires grades and ultimately results in either a passing or a failing grade. While I completely agree with the spirit of Dr. McCoy’s emphasis on learning (or: noticing) rather than working for the sake of a grade without learning and understanding something new, it seems unfair to encourage laxity towards something essential to the progression of college students. While I strongly believe that none of these things, the openness in the course (in the sense of being given so much freedom in writing about what interests you, so long that it relates to the course), the encouragement that we (the students) have been openly discussing things which can be expanded upon (or “unpacked”), and the encouragement to not worry much about grades are by no means bad in themselves; rather, it seems that many, if not most other students have profited much from this style of class, judging by the excitement that many people have brought to the discussions involving the entire class and the seemingly high levels of engagement with material outside of the course (that is, things found on their own initiative that relate to the course, e.g. reading articles about zombies and medical history and so on). It just didn’t seem to work for me, at least not yet.

                                                              Another thing I’d like to add is about the group discussions. The discussions in which the whole class participated, and everyone is free to agree, disagree, or add whatever they’d like, often seemed to be very useful, while the smaller group discussions of 3-5 people seemed to be qualitatively far worse, with nothing insightful being shared, and the creation of little islands in the classroom seemed to encourage people to not sincerely engage with the material or each other at all; and then when the time comes to share what has been discussed, someone very graciously volunteers to spew off half-baked thoughts for a minute until everyone is satisfied. Maybe my view of the group discussions is overly cynical, but my experience in other classes seems to support it: the smaller groups accomplished very little while the whole class discussions encouraged everybody to think critically about the matter at hand, and gave everybody equal opportunity to interject where they see fit.

                                                               Lastly, I’ve learned, or rather noticed again, that it’s extremely difficult and unsatisfying to engage with any kind of schoolwork when you are very concerned and gloomy about something completely different, when all interest in these things disappears and there remains a need to pass the course so as to move on, and not to have spent in vain time of which there is never enough of. This is obviously not a fault of the course, but just a general observation from someone reflecting on things.

                                                              Throughout the semester I was frequently comparing this class to another class I was taking, African Lit. Criticism. In that class, there were extended readings on some fictional literature, particularly the novel Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, and weekly readings of non-fictional, theoretical pieces that provided a new dimension to the text by re-contextualizing what had been read, and by providing another means to understand what would be read later in the novel. For example, in one week we would read short theoretical pieces by someone like W.E.B. Du Bois, whose concept of double-consciousness could help us better understand the actions and views of some of the characters in the story; how the maltreatment they receive at the hands of other (whiter) folk makes it necessary for them to be ever-aware of their blackness. In another week we would read pieces about African Feminism, again challenging our past and present and future readings of the text. After each reading we would write a short essay drawing connections between the theoretical works and the fictional works, applying theory to fiction, and deepening our understanding of the literature. Through the more rigid structure (writing about a book and its relations to the recently read short theoretical pieces), I was able to develop a deeper understanding of the works and draw connections between them. The more closed nature of the course, where what is expected of you is more clearly defined, seemed to have worked better for me, and was at least far less frustrating. It was interesting to observe throughout the semester that two courses that are very much in conversation with each other can differ in their approach to the material so much, and still seem to yield very positive results among students.

                                                              The course for me, therefore, has been a great noticing experience. It’s taught me much about my own learning style, has exposed me to something brand new in the poor treatment of blacks within the medical system, and has made me more conscientious about language in general. Regardless of my many frustrations, I’m still very glad to have had the opportunity to take part and to notice something new, which is always an upbuilding experience.

Noticing to Notice

Noticing is something every single human on the planet should do. We should see when a situation or event in front of us is wrong and stand up for what we believe in. We should notice how what we say and what we do affects others. I would describe myself as a very observant person, I notice a lot and almost everything. However, it is hard to notice things when they are unspoken of, which I think happens a lot especially with the ideals of racism especially in the United States because I believe for most of us, it is something we are very ashamed of. This is why it’s important to discuss and talk about especially the history of the medical field. I believe power comes from knowledge. We learn from our mistakes, figure out where we went wrong and how we can fix and improve conditions as we move forward. 

The course epigraph, “my job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” said by Dionne Brand, is important to everyone. This creates a through-line especially in this class with this subject matter. Specifically, in “Medical Apartheid”, we are shown the wrong doings to black people that were built and structured into the foundations of the medical field. It is our job to notice these wrongdoings, acknowledge that they happened and do better because we believe in change. Because unless we acknowledge these wrong doings nothing will change. We will not become a better society because we did not learn from our horrendous mistakes. In order for us as a whole society to grow from our mistakes, we MUST acknowledge them and figure out what went wrong.  To answer Professor McCoy’s question saying, “does it matter given GLOBE’s insistence that Geneseo students should gain practice in the ability to reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time?”  Yes, we as educated adults should be able to have the ability to reflect upon our mistakes, learn from them and be better because of them. However, have we as a society become better from our mistakes? Have we fully understood the effects of forcing someone to do something when they are unwilling? Take for example the circumstances of “Clay’s Ark” written by Octavia Butler. These people were taken unwillingly, did NOT want to participate and did not want to be carriers of the disease that would completely change them forever; however, they were forced to do so by people of power in the circumstances. In a lot of circumstances that were written about in Medical Apartheid, the same is true. White people in positions of power and knowledge who should’ve known better based on basic biology and science (although they were not as scientifically advanced as we are now, however not a justifying reason to do the things they did to black people), made people forcibly endure traumatic and tremendously horrifying acts of “research” that more often than not resulted in that same individual’s meaningless death. It was their job to notice how cruel and inhumane they were being to people. The people who they were experimenting on may have looked different than them, but they should’ve noticed they were alike, the same species, that the person they were putting through the worst experience of their life was just like them. And by not noticing they have failed those individuals by becoming doctors who took lives rather than saved them. They have failed to notice and by doing so gives more power to ignorance and hate that had instated within our society. 

This semester, I have focused a lot of my thinking on the ever-changing word, consent. Consent is meaningless unless we learn something from our past mistakes and can notice what our mistakes were. Speaking in the course content, we must learn that consent is needed from the individual being researched on in order to do right by that person. In Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, we learned how mostly black people were taken forcibly and experimented on resulting in horrific deaths. We learned how black people were put in cages at zoos where white passersby looked and watched them as they would an animal in a cage at a zoo. They literally thought that a black person was a wild animal, inhuman in fact, they needed to be caged. But what they failed to realize is they were looking at a human who was forcibly held in a cage to gain a profit.  It was someone’s job to notice this was wrong. It was a time for someone to say, “this is not okay, this should not be happening”. People began to notice that their family members were going missing, that something was happening to their family members. That something horrible had happened or was happening to them. In these circumstances, Washington investigated. She told her readers that these people were taken forcibly, kidnapped, and experimented on. Although, it was difficult to do anything about it especially since both the hospital and the police force tended to turn their heads in the opposite direction and I think this still happens in the present. Instead of engaging in an uncomfortable topic or conversation, people tend to look the other way and pretend they didn’t see anything. This is why it is both important to notice but also to actively take action against what you think is wrong. 

Before this class, I had absolutely no idea that most of any of these events happened. But now that I do, how could I not notice. How could I not notice that people still are probably experiencing events like those in Medical Apartheid, how could I not notice how racism is still heavily engraved and rooted deeply within this country. How could I not believe that everyone should read this book? Everyone should know the truth about how the medical field was started.  And when I notice these things, how could I not do something about it? How can I go on as an educated adult who wants to make the world a better place but not even acknowledge that things like this actually happened? By acknowledging that it happened, by acknowledging that these attitudes are still very much present in our society, I can learn and grow. However may challenging this material at times was hard to read, hard to think about and hard to swallow, I think it was a necessary experience to be able to understand and empathize with others. 

That Black Person: A Self-Reflection

The course epigraph for ENGL 101 Literature, Medicine, and Racism is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.” by Dionne Brand. Meaning, during this course, as readers and thinkers, we need to realize and bring attention to situations that one may have not noticed before. With that being said before entering this class, I had already created a preconceived notion that my classmates, even possibly my professor, would have an ignorant mindset. Would they genuinely understand a heavy topic such as racism, when they have a privileged lifestyle? However, as the classed developed, and we began having discussions, I realized my judgments were wrong. My classmates were openminded and understanding people. That Professor McCoy was mindful of the topic while still including the challenges that came with talking about racism. Furthermore, as my judgments were debunked, my focus was redirected. I started to connect with the characters in the novels, feeling as if a piece of my identity had been written. Though with those connections came an unimaginable burden, that changed me from a speaker to a listener. I changed because I did not want to become “that black person,” meaning I did not want to carry the African American culture on my back, nor did I want to continue to bring the topic back to race and ethnicity. Overall, my transitions in the classroom have changed me as a person and allowed my burdens to be released. 

Furthermore, my connections with the characters in the book have brought to light the hidden issues we have in society. With the assignment to notice on my hands, I realized that every author for our reading in the course is African American. My first initial thought was irony, its ironic that every author is African American, and was I the only one who noticed this characteristic. With me noticing this, I asked, why? Why would Dr. McCoy specifically make all the authors in this course, African Americans? I came to the answer that racism and oppression is a systemic issue. I say that because when looking at the books, Home by Toni Morrison, Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem by Marilyn Nelson, Zulus by Percival Everett, and Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington each of these sources reveals that no matter what time period oppression and racism is a constant behavior.

With that being said, there is a clear indication with each reading it creates a timeline that shows the continuation of oppression and racism, mostly with African Americans. Starting with Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem by Marilyn Nelson, a story about a man named Fortune, who was a slave freed from slavery by death. Fortune was a “father, husband, a baptized Christian, and a slave” (Nelson,12). Nelson took us, readers, through the story of Fortune’s bones, how they started in possession of his master Dr. Porter to now being in the hands of Mattatuck Museum. “His bones say only that he served and died, that he was useful, even into death, stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh.” (Nelson, 13). This book shows a glimpse of the continuum of oppression of African Americans in the late 1700s into the 1800s. That when it came to slaves, they were only needed for labor, and unfortunately for Fortune, his use continued for other purposes.  In the novel, Home by Toni Morrison, which goes back to the 1950s and shows how traumatic the Korean War was and how African Americans were experimented on. Not only the novel touch on the experimentation of African Americans and the Korean war but the culture in the south with segregation, discrimination, and racism. In Frank Money’s trip to rescue his sister from experimentation, he encounters a family that has experienced police brutality. “Drive-by cop… He had a cap pistol. Eight years old, running up and down the sidewalk pointing it. Some redneck rookie thought his dick was underappreciated by his brother cops.” “You can’t just shoot a kid, said Frank. Cops shoot anything they want. This here’s a mob city” (Morrison, 31). This passage shows the mere control white people during this time have over African Americans, having the ability to shoot a young child to prove and earn respect. Looking at Morrison and Nelson, there is a notion of a transition of positions for African Americans, but the treatment stayed the same.

Now with looking at the past, it is only right to look at the future. Likewise, with the past, the future still holds the characteristics of oppression. In the novel, Zulus by Percival Everett it looked into a potential future that may lie ahead. In the novel Zulus, there is a society that was created years after a thermonuclear war, where people get their daily cheese, crackers, and egg substitute mix packages out of a truck. And if one goes against the rules of the government, they are considered a rebel. However, with this novel, oppression is not defined by color but ability, weight, and looks. Everett uses terms such as “fat women,” “the little man,” “the little women,” “large black male,” all describing the characters he introduces, intentionally oppressing them. They all have names, Alice Achitophel, Kevin Peters, Theodore Theodore, and Lucinda Knotes, but the author decides to describe them by their insecurity. I feel as Everett is saying what everyone is thinking, as people, we use one another’s outside appearances, to talk about one another even though we all have names. Additionally, when looking at the narrator, Alice Achitophel is a 300-pound lady who may be the last woman alive who is not sterile. Alice escapes the city and seeks refuge in the rebel camp due to her mischievous actions, and for the possible sake, she may be pregnant. Alice arrives at the camp, and she travels with her boss and his friends, who are connected to the rebel camp. When the rebel camp confirms Alice’s ability to conceive children, they put her into a room with no windows, only white walls and a bed, no connection with the outside world. “I want out of here… That’s not possible. Don’t misread your position, Alice Achitophel. Your condition is hardly one for which you can claim credit and it is this fact we bear in mind in our gauging of you. You are a vehicle and nothing more, an any woman, and you just happen to have been raped, you instead of some other unfortunate. It was fat luck, Alice, and no promise of specialness of yours. You will be treated as the thing you are and we will take the life you offer. It is as simple as that.” (Everett, 105). Even though Everett is a black man who has likely experienced oppression, made it known that African Americans are not the only people to experience cruel treatment.  

There is a clear notion that the past and future societies changed because of the environment around them. But what about now? Has our society in the present changed? As a history major, I have realized the main saying is, “we learn the past, so we do not repeat history.” Well, in the book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington shows how, as a country, we continuously do the same thing without consciously knowing it. Washington connects the past and present, giving a timeline of what American has been like when it comes to racism and oppression. At the beginning of the book, Washington starts with colonial times and uses the example of Dr. Sims’ passion for caring and curing women’s disorders. “… each surgical scene was a violent struggle between the slaves and physicians, and each women’s body was a bloodied battleground. Each naked, unanesthetized slave woman had to be forcibly restrained by the other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia. The other doctors, who could, fled when they could bear the horrific scenes no longer. It fell to the women to restain one another.” (Washington, 2). When reading this passage, I realized slavery had hit more boundaries than I thought, for an African American, I did not even know, which makes me think how many others do not either. You cannot learn from something you do not know. Fast forward to the 2000s, HIV/AIDS has become the third leading cause of death for young adult African Americans, and there is a consistent pattern with novel surgical technologies when it comes to African Americans. Washington compares Sims vesicovaginal-fistula research on black slaves to now poor black women are least likely to benefit from surgery. “Today’s highly visible role of blacks testing heart-transplantation technology parallels a deluge of medical-journal articles documenting how blacks are less likely than whites to receive high-tech cardiac interventions once they are perfected and become the standard of care” (Washington, 349). Meaning as an African American woman, I am more likely to be tested on for further investment in science for white people. So for the patients, John Quinn and Robert Tools, black men tested with the artificial heart were only to benefit white Americans, not black Americans? So the oppression and racism continued, Dr. Harry Bailey once said: “ was cheaper to use niggers than cats, because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals…” Overall, I have realized that my position in America is that I am no more than a guinea pig; someone made for the benefits of others. Slavery still exists; it is just not seen. 

Without a doubt,  noticing the authors were all black, there had to be a reason why. Furthermore, the answer is that they are laying out the past, present, and future of American society. White Americans were taking people of color across the sea unwillingly, then forcing them to work without profit. Nevertheless, once slavery ends war and experimentations begin, its more straightforward to use a black man; it is cheaper and more accessible. People of color are here to help you live. I realized I got so connected with characters and events because it hit home. I have the knowledge now to think that my ill mother may be just another experiment and that doctors could have helped my father while he was on his death bed. I questioned that maybe my life is only for others, but then I stopped and realized America is not America without black people. America is nothing without me or any black person. Percival Everett, Toni Morrison, Marilyn Nelson, and Harriet A. Washington are those black people, who speak out, make everything uncomfortable, and I realized that is okay. It is okay to be “that black person” because who else will? My job is to notice and help others notice, as well. My burden has been set free, thank you to the authors that made me realize, my life and voice matters.

Reflection on Literature, Medicine, and Racism

The epigraph of this course is a quote from Dionne Brand, which says “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” This epigraph has helped guide us when reading and attempting to understand the material throughout the semester. As we have continued our understanding of the literature and built off of it in order to make connections, both between the literature and within our daily lives, there becomes a clear understanding of how this epigraph was meant to help us along the way. When the authors wrote these pieces, they were responding to the mistreatment that black people have been subjected to in the U.S., and continue to be subjected to in the present. While there are authors that may more directly bring up issues of race outside of the medical field, for the purposes of this course we were given examples that directly corresponded with the medical industry rather than other areas where black people may be systemically harmed. As the authors wrote they seemed to notice the abuse that had been done to them, and they wrote as a way to respond and mirror the issues that concerned them the most deeply.

 By going through these readings and connecting them to real life examples given to us in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid we were in many ways able to notice the authors noticing. By paying attention to conversations occurring between the fictional worlds being written about and the world around us we can reflect on what it all means. As we continue to see medical injustices being mirrored in these writings we are forced to realize that the systematic oppression of black people and the consequences on their health has not simply disappeared overnight. While we have to carefully read the text in order to understand what is being referenced, we must do the same thing when examining our surroundings as well. We cannot just passively acknowledge the horror of our past as a nation, but rather we are required to carefully address the concerning practices we see going on around us in order to actually affect change. Washington even says in the epilogue to Medical Apartheid that when it comes to medical treatment, “Although less rife, it remains a contemporary reality, and an ever-present one (386).”  This is why we have continually discussed the idea of thinkING as an active, not passive, process. Reflection is not just a process where you can understand the material and move on. In order to truly reflect you must go back and test yourself when you have learned from your experiences or from your intellectual growth. While Washington is aware of the history of the medical field, as well as the current practices that take place within it, she is able to reflect on what has happened and where it has led us today. If she had not been able to properly reflect on the crimes from the past and presented it to us, it may have been easier for us to judge those who were mistreated and sympathize with those who enacted these horrors in the name of “medical advancements.”

When we first read Home, it was easy for us to judge the characters and question their choices, but as we have moved on I think their actions and thought processes have become more understandable. The context of each situation is essential to understanding the motives of the characters, and although we had the opportunity to become slightly immersed in the material of Medical Apartheid, it was difficult to fully understand before hearing the narrative of Cee and Frank. When we learned about the structural systems that have caused harm within the medical field we were also given an example of how these systems could directly harm an individual. When Cee is discussing her short-lived marriage to Principal, she discusses her brother Frank, saying “That’s the other side, she thought, of having a smart, tough brother close at hand to take care of you and protect you- you are slow to develop your own brain muscle (Morrison: 48).” From the beginning of her narrative Cee sees herself as weak and simple-minded, but by the end of her story she proves to herself and those around her that she is strong and capable. I found myself judging her for putting herself down without recognizing the context in which she lived her life. Before it became clear to see the ways in which doctors harmed black people with no remorse it was easier for us to judge Cee for becoming part of the system of abuse.

During my time in college I have taken anthropology courses and have begun viewing things as I would view them in an anthropology course. In the field of anthropology ethnographic field methods are used in order to study cultures and people. Ethnographies rely on the researcher to immerse themselves into the culture they are studying for a long period of time so that they can come to understand the culture as best they can, and then present the information they have learned to the world. While we started off not wanting to believe what Home was trying to tell us, anthropologists rely on individuals to provide them with knowledge of the cultural context they find themselves in. Of course, they must also be well versed in the theoretical and methodological history of anthropology as a whole, but they would be doing a disservice to their research subjects if they were not willing to fully listen to them, and I could see that scenario being played out when many of us could not believe what we were being told by Cee and Frank. By not fully understanding the context within which Cee and Frank lived we are also unable to understand their narratives as people. Even within Home, we hear from Frank and Cee that their grandmother was a cruel, awful woman who mistreated them every chance she got. While her actions towards them are still cruel, it becomes easier to understand why she acted in those ways after we get to hear from her directly in her own chapter. After her first husband is shot and killed and she feels forced to move away and remarry, her experience is described by the following quote- “Just as Lenore began to safe and comfortable so far from Alabama, a passel of Salem’s relatives- ragged and run out of their home- arrived (Morrison: 87).”  As we learn more and more about the context of the situations throughout history we have to reflect on what we have learned and how it impacts our view on the matter.

Professor McCoy told us when we first started Clay’s Ark that Octavia Butler can play off of her readers’ expectations and biases as and make us examine them. Butler was able to notice that people make snap judgments and use that to her advantage. As we moved through Clay’s Ark, I found myself looking for someone to blame, but I couldn’t blame an organism. By not being able to place the blame on one single person or source I felt uncomfortable and unsettled. Going off of the same branch, we are unable to place blame on one singular person or situation when looking back on the course of our medical history. There are, of course, many people that we can blame for the torture and experimentation of black people, but this is the result of systemic racism, not one person’s will. Even in the case of the slave system that led to the experimentation of black people as a whole, we cannot find the first person that suggested or created it, or at least I cannot as an inexperienced historian and scholar. We can blame colonialism, systemic racism, and the institution of slavery as a whole, but we are unable to pinpoint exactly how far racism has permeated throughout our culture to this day. I have found it more difficult to blame a bureaucratic system for racism than to blame an individual for their wrongdoing. That is not to say that the structures have not been as harmful, but at least when an individual is harmful you can receive closure. When a system is harmful as a whole it is much harder to address and come to terms with, whatever that may mean to someone.

Even when we are able to contextualize the systems we are trying to understand, this does not guarantee that we will be in a position to actually understand what we are hearing. Reading the material this semester and discussing it in class has forced me to look at the privileges I have in our society under a more critical light. The discussions we have had have challenged me to look at my life and try to empathize with people who have experienced things I have never been through. If we were just expected to read these books and make connections between them I don’t think I would have learned as much as I learned from simply conversing with people and understanding others experiences and interpretations of what they were experiencing.

As Professor McCoy mentioned earlier on in the course, no one is able to reach the horizon. However much they may chase it, we will always fall behind it. I feel the same way about understanding and recognizing the medical torture enacted on black people from the perspective of a white person; I don’t think I will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like, but I can keep trying my best to empathize regardless. Although I will never be able to reach this horizon of fully understanding, I can keep chasing it, even while I know it will never be reached. If we are not all willing to accept these horrors on our past and try to understand the expansive reach of its impact on our world today then we are not really trying to address the consequences and reach the horizon. As the authors of the literature we have read this semester have noticed the inequities surrounding medicine and race, they have forced us to notice along with them, which I can only assume was their plan from the beginning.