Commonalities in Percival Everett’s Zulus and Radiation Experiments on African Americans: The Issue of Informed Consent

Percival Everett’s Zulus follows the journey of Alice Achitophel as she confronts the hopelessness and cruelty of a postapocalyptic world devastated by the choices of humanity. While the narrative itself is largely surreal, the novel provides insight on very real and pressing issues that have beset American society from the nation’s earliest days to contemporary times.  One of these perplexing themes is the issue of informed consent. Throughout the course of the novel, Alice is subject to procedures and decisions without her permission. Many of the decisions that were made regarding Alice without her informed consent were related to her health. In this way, Zulus reflects on the radiation experiments performed on African Americans in the twentieth century. Harriet Washington’s book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present illustrates how experiments such as these were administered by white scientists who failed to fully explain the entirety of the studies to African American test subjects so they could provide informed consent. The denial of informed consent to African Americans is not directly discussed in Zulus. In fact, with the exception of Alice’s lover Kevin Peters being identified by his African American heritage, the concept of race itself is never mentioned in the novel. Nevertheless, as an African American, Everett is likely familiar with the mistreatment of black test subjects by white scientists. His knowledge of discriminatory experiments using African American subjects could be inferred as the reason he chose to emphasize the issue of informed consent in Zulus.

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The Deep Effects of Racism and Prejudice on the Body and Mind Analyzed through Toni Morrison’s Character in “Home”: Part 1- Frank

By Ashley Boccio

In Toni Morrison’s novel “Home” she develops flawed characters, Frank and Cee, that are thrown into situations that dynamically change them at their core. At the end of the novel, each of these characters are able to achieve an impressive level of growth and personal development. In this analysis of Frank and Cee, it is important to discuss the circular nature in which Morrison sets up the prose in her novel, strategically having her characters begin and end physically in the same location, yet emotionally they are entirely changed. One of the largest elements of the novel that incites this character growth, is the intense racism and prejudice that Frank and Cee have to endure. During this time period in America (1930s), it is impossible not to recognize the deep scars of racism and prejudice on society, and how they affected millions of hard working Americans. 

The novel opens up with a romanticized scene of horses freely galloping in a field, told from the perspective of Frank. Although the language used to describe the horses is beautiful, there are clear violent undertones to the entire scene, the beauty and violence perfectly foiling one another to represent the clear emotional coping that both Cee and Frank are developing. The truth of the memory is that young Frank and Cee had stumbled upon something incredibly gruesome and in doing so, they create this beautiful image of horses galloping in a field to deter their minds from what they are actually seeing; the burial of a man who has just been murdered. Frank states, “I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men” (Morrison 5). This opening scene is only the beginning to Frank and Cee’s growth from self denial and naivety. 

To begin this analysis we will take a closer look at Frank. Frank is an overprotective brother to Cee, and a veteran of the Korean War. After facing several horrors and losing his childhood friend Mike in the war, Frank is expected to come back to the states and learn to adapt to the society that he had left behind when entering the war. In returning, Frank recognizes that there is an entirely new front to fight on his home turf, racism and prejudice. We are introduced to Frank as he is frantically escaping a mental hospital, gathering only his army uniform and service medal. The first individual he stumbles upon following his escape is a kind reverend named John Locke. After Frank explains his situation, John Locke exclaims to Frank, “You lucky, Mr. Money. They sell a lot of bodies out of there” (Morrison 12). Here we are reintroduced to the dark motif of improper burial in Morrison’s novel. Diving deeper into this scene, it opens up the conversation that healthcare for people of color during this time period was almost entirely avoided as improper practice, experimentation, and lack of consent plagued the field of medicine. Frank had  most likely been found drunk and aggravated, and rather than caring for the lost veteran or considering his struggle with returning from the war, the police throw him into a “nuthouse” to be isolated from society. In 1963, we see one of the first retaliations of segregation in healthcare with the Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital case. Inspired by Brown v. Board of Education, the Simkins case is successful in finally legally recognizing the unlawful violation of unequal healthcare, that has caused generations of colored individuals to still fear medicine to this day. These obstacles that Frank has to face on a daily basis are in his mind worse than any hell he faced in Korea. Morrison is masterful at threading in these instances of racism through gruesome scenes that are witnessed through Frank’s perspective. For example, when Frank is on a train ride to get to Cee, he witnesses a couple of color get physically assaulted by a group of individuals and thrown off the train. In this scene it is important to note that it is Frank’s first run-in with the ghost-like “zoot-suit man” who is symbolic of the hard memories Frank has suppressed. Coming full circle, the zoot-suit man repairs at the end of the novel as Franks reaches acceptance and closure with himself and Cee.

Where we truly see Frank’s growth is in his own personal thoughts and realizations about himself. Morrison works in Frank’s personal thoughts into the plot by inserting every other chapter a diary entry of Frank’s, giving the reader a tid-bit of Franks inner-self. One of Frank’s most striking entries is when he opens up about a young child he encountered in Korea. In this entry, Frank tells us a story about a child who would sneak into their camp daily to take food from their trash. However, one day Frank witnesses the murder of this child, as she is shot in the head. It is clear that this scene had deeply affected Frank, scarring him emotionally, yet we don’t learn till later why he is so deeply affected. Circling back to this scene Morrison inserts an entry of Franks that reveals what had truly occurred in Korea. Frank finally admits to himself that he was the one that shot the child, and he is the one that let the child inappropriately touch him. This brings Frank feelings of deep shame and disgust with himself. However, Frank being able to admit what had actually happened is the first sign of his tremendous growth as a character. Going back to the scene with the horses, Frank had always pushed off bad memories in his mind and replaced them with others to distract himself from the hard truth. Yet here Frank is finally able to admit to himself what had actually happened, and face it head on.

To conclude the novel, Morrison has Frank and Cee go back to the site where they had seen the horses. There they finally accept what they had actually seen. As they dig up the body of the murdered man, they stand in silence both knowing what needs to be done. Together they collect the bones of the man and wrap him gently in a blanket to be buried with a head stone to mark his grave. A proper, humane burial to bring peace to the dead, and in doing so bringing peace to Frank and Cee. As the man is being buried, the zoot-suit man reappears, “…a small man in a funny suit swinging a watch chain. And grinning” (Morrison 144), completing his symbolic purpose in the novel. In my opinion, the zoot-suit man is the ghost of the man who Frank and Cee had watched be improperly buried as kids, his presence staying with Frank (on the train for example) until he can finally be put to rest, as demonstrated through the ghosts clear happiness at the site of this burial. As the “zoot-suit man”  is put to rest, so is Frank’s conscience, representing his indisputable growth as a character.

To be continued in my next post, I will be discussing Cee, and her development as a character in Morrison’s novel “Home.

Radioactive Oats, Anyone?

After my last blogpost, I found the question I pondered last time still lingering in my mind; how many other stories of exploitation are out there going without notice? In my journey to discover more under appreciated stories of those victimized by the medical field, I came across another intriguing excerpt in Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. This time, the story involves a group, not just an individual, being manipulated. Also, uniquely, the group is being undermined by professors. In this case, those victimized were a group of young orphaned boys.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Quaker Oats Company teamed up with Fernald State School to conduct radioactive experiments on the young boys the school housed (Boissoneault, 2017). The professors conducting the research gave the boys radioactive laced oatmeal and milk, specifically radioactive iron and calcium (Boissoneault, 2017). The boys at Fernald State School were also directly injected with radioactive calcium, as these experiments were conducted to see how the body absorbs and processes calcium and iron (Boissoneault, 2017).  At the time these experiments were occurring, Quaker was being backhandedly targeted for its products possibly inhibiting iron absorption due to the high level of phytate in the oats. Therefore, the company invested in the researchers conducting the radioactive experiments to prove the media’s claims invalid (Boissoneault, 2017). Quaker Oats Company provided the oatmeal that was then laced in the experiments (Boissoneault, 2017). As stated in Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, not only were these boys orphans, they were primarily African American, as revealed by video footage of the school’s housing (Washington 233).

It shakes me to my core to process this story, and I once again am questioning the world with how this is even possible. This story in Medical Apartheid baffles me and makes me want to dive deeper to uncover the details. How could researchers take advantage of such young boys that are without any form of parental representation? Those in charge of the experiments derived data that showed calcium enters the bloodstream and then quickly advances to the bones. They later claimed these results provided the foundation for osteoporosis research (Boissoneault, 2017). I wonder, was the advancement in medical knowledge worth the violation and exploitation of children? My animosity of this experimentation fuels my inquiry of the medical field and those who provide the data for advancement within it. When further looking into those who ran these studies on the orphan boys, I discovered the unimaginable; a research article was released for publication on these experiments in 1955 (NCBI).  Not only were these young orphans used as test subjects as they ate their breakfast, they were made into a publication. It appears the link between medical advancement and exploitation of human beings finds strength in not only unvoiced adults, but children as well.

The text we are continually revisiting in this course, Medical Apartheid, has brought this story of the Quaker Oats Company and Fernald State School to my attention. This book consistently raises awareness to these low-profile cases of those who are neglected through the medical field. I hope to repeatedly bring these stories to my readers’ attention so that they too continue to dig deep into uncharted paths. If we do not uproot these problematic tendencies of the medical world, who will? The lack of information available to us, the public, regarding these unvoiced stories is shocking and truthfully unacceptable. With these blogposts I hope to uncover even more stories like the one I have just discussed and provide them the voice their victims never had.

Segregation and Experimentation on African Americans: Lessons from Toni Morrison’s Home

Toni Morrison’s novel Home provides an emotional story of a man who grapples with a dark past, yet still strives to protect his beloved sister. While the characters and narrative itself may be fictional, the book illustrates the overt and institutionalized racism that pervaded American society in the mid-twentieth century. Ezelle Sanford III’s article “Civil Rights and Healthcare: Remembering Simkins v. Cone (1963)” explains how in the 1950s Southern Hospitals were segregated, while the documentary Race-The Power of an Illusion demonstrates how real estate in both the American South and North was segregated by race. Home likewise shows how African Americans were confronted with de facto segregation in the North, yet also describes the exploitation of blacks’ bodies in both regions. The long history of involuntary experimentation on African Americans and selling of black bodies to white medical schools included in Morrison’s narrative is validated by evidence utilized by Harriet Washington in her book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Thus, both literature and nonfiction works collectively signify the violence and hardships imposed by racist whites on African Americans in the American North and South. This was done to maintain a social hierarchy based on the artificial construct of race and to improve white American lives at the expense of African Americans’ wellbeing.

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Percival Everett’s “Zulus” and the Prison System

The conflicts that Alice faces in Zulus runs parallel with how prison inmates were medically treated during most of the 20th century. According to Medical Apartheid, the experimentation on prisoners in the United States was justified by the low social status of prisoners. An article in a 1910 publication of the Journal of the National Medical Association claimed that prisoners could atone for their sins towards society by becoming test subjects. (Washington, 245)This suggests that individuals in prisoners deserved to be medically tested on. It was the least they could do for being immoral. This attitude towards prisoners seems to be the one that the rebels in Zulus embrace. They target Alice for being the only non-sterile woman in their society, so she deserves to be treated like a specimen. Alice describes her first experience in captivity, “they put me in a room, a white room with no windows and they brought me food.” (113) This sounds almost identical to solitary confinement in a prison. Later on, Alice is decapitated at the camp and put on display in “a case, a cube, transparent glass on at least three sides.” (Everett, 183) What’s perhaps more disturbing than this imprisonment is the intentions of who she labels the “Body-members.” Rima asserts, “I’m going to get a baby from you. You will give the world a life, devil though you be.” (183) The insistence of the rebels to use Alice in a purely physical sense is similar to how doctors of the 20th century treated inmates. They stopped at nothing to take advantage of their test subjects, who were frequently African-American men. The lack of information provided to the subjects and the general public was a large factor in contributing to these injustices. Researchers often did not provide the “patient” their possible risks or details of the experiment. A level of deception was also required to ensure a smooth process for the investigators. Although test subjects at Holmesburg Prison were reassured that cosmetics products which were tested on them would only cause “minor irritation,” years later reports of baldness, skin scarring, and even internal organ damage were the reality. (261) Similar to the experimentation on slaves, this unethical research was not publicly known. With little education and income, the Black prisoners were essentially “legally invisible.” The medical treatments in prisons were yet another way in which African-Americans were kept confined in society’s birdcage. The secretive nature of the medical field, especially in prisons, causes such unfair treatment to prosper for so long. When Alice works at the hospital, there is also this sense of ambiguity in what the hospital really does. She asks Sue to help with the “medical supplies” but is dismissed to go back to work. Alice is nervous to talk about the smuggling of drugs, due to the unethical nature of it. Her only reassurance is provided in trusting the other characters. In the medical world, trust has been used by doctors to coerce their patients into dangerous treatments.

Character and Readership Intimacy in Percival Everett’s Zulus

In the book, Zulus Percival Everett arranges chapters with abecedarian excerpts. The theme of this abecedarian arrangement is a motif in the book and in the class. Alice, the protagonist of the novel Zulus, is an ambitious girl. Ambition is only a dream if it is not matched with a smart goal. Through the course of the novel, Alice sets goals consistently. Goal setting is symbolized through the abecedarian motif, while plot structure serves as the readers template for expectative goals that is commonly ingrained in readers. Together, the protagonist and the reader experience unrealized goals, thus creating the potentiality of intimacy between the reader and the character.

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Mutato Nomine

While reading through Zulus, I saw a saying that said “MUTATO NOMINE” in chapter R, page 112. I was reading quite fast when I saw this foreign saying and decided I could look it up later. I kept reading and eventually finished this absolutely insane book. As Professor McCoy said, “What the hell?”. This was pretty much the only thing I was thinking while trying to bounce what I just read around in my head. While frantically searching for answers, I remembered the mutato nomine saying.

Mutato nomine translates to “the name changed”. The named changed means about nothing in my head and I was not making any connections at all. I eventually found out that there is more to the saying than just mutato nomine. The whole expression is “Mutato nomine de tu fabula narratur” which translates to “with the name changed, the story applies to you”. I read this and thought “I know there is a connection, but I have absolutely no clue what this means.”

I, obviously, do not exactly know what the author, Percival Everett, was trying to portray with this expression or even the whole book but I sure do have some ideas. I am not sure when all of it clicked in my brain but at some point, I started to make lots of connections.

Alice’s head, as we established during a class discussion, is stuck forever in a glass case. The gas that will spread and kill all of humankind cannot get inside of a sealed glass container where her living head is. While every single human on the planet dies, Alice will live. However, should Alice have tried to stop Kevin from letting out the gas? She is now stuck forever in her head knowing that there is no other living human and the only thing she can see forever is the alphabet. If I were her, I would’ve thought about this before I decided it was a good idea to let some man kill my body and every other person on earth.

Alice is just like the average person in modern society today. Lots of people just sit down and avoid problems. Small problems of their own or even huge problems of the world, lots of people just want to avoid it and hope that someone else can fix it. I personally understand this. I like to avoid my problems and sit and hope they just go away. But my problems have never just magically disappeared, I have to fix them. Sometimes it’s laziness but sometimes it is fear stopping me from fixing my problems. But at the end of the day if I want something to change or I want my problems to be fixed, then I am the one who has to get up and fix them. This is the same way for huge world problems as well. We need people to stand up and want to fix the problems. People can not be lazy or scared and sit in their houses avoiding all of it. People are physically ruining the world every single day. We are polluting and contaminating the only planet that we can survive on at the moment. We use non-renewable energies in our everyday lives which is killing the earth. Just to make plastic we burn fossil fuels such as coal and gas all the time. Fossil fuels being burned is ruining the earth’s atmosphere. Every single day we are absolutely killing the earth, yet some people still avoid the issue. Yes, there are people promoting the changes and trying to fix the problem, but I think there are a lot more people avoiding it.

Another example of people avoiding problems would be when people knew the absolutely awful things happening in medicine years ago, yet they just kept letting it happen. Black bodies were stolen from graves to be tested on, people disappeared from hospitals to be tested on, people IN the hospital were being tested on instead of being helped. If you witnessed these things happening would you just sit there and decide that you could not do anything to help or would you try to fix this? While people were being tested in hospitals the nurses must have known. But were they trying to stop the problem or were they just watching it happen?

Alice tried to help at one point, but eventually just listened to Kevin and was convinced that the world would be better off without humans because they couldn’t fix it. If she would not have avoided the problem and conformed, then maybe she could have stood up and tried to fix things. There is always people who want to fix the world problems and I am sure if you get enough people you can eventually start to make some changes. However, Alice made her decision and now she will be stuck forever in a box thinking about how she could’ve changed all of this.

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.

Now going back to “Mutato nomine de tu fabula narratur”, if you change the name of the story then it applies to you. If we change the name of the story, then it’s our story. So, do you want to be stuck like Alice or do you want to at least try to fix our world problems? I know I would rather die trying than knowing I could have tried and didn’t.

The Treatment of Humans

Throughout the ages and advancements of medicine, the bodies of those experimented on have been treated with a lack of dignity and respect. From subjecting the unwilling to the very act of dissection after death, something seen as only fitting for the worse criminals (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) to the stealing from the graves, the final resting spot of those who have passed. Many of these bodies were African Americans, almost all were not returned to rest. Instead they were discarded in basements, the doctors done with them much like how a child throws aside a broken toy in favor of a newer one.

The treatment of bodies as toys, as something disposable, can be traced back to the times of slavery. If people are disposable why would there be any different? Slaves were aware of the time of year known as “dissecting season”, the time of year when it was cold enough that bodies were able to stay preserved. “Please God, I hope when I die, it’ll be in the summertime.” remarked an elderly Virginian slave, (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) who was very aware of what would await her body if she passed in the winter. This fear of one’s body being used as a toy, as a means to an end, even after death was not an unfounded fear. In Marilyn Nelson’s Manumission Requiem Fortune’s Bones she writes about an enslaved man named Fortune, who died, and whose body was denied burial. Instead Fortune’s body was dissected and passed through the generations of Porter’s, who followed the family tradition of being a doctor. Sally Porter Law McGlannan recalled playing with Fortune’s skeleton when she was a young girl, (Fortune’s Bones pg. 20). In this case, his body, his bones really were degraded to a toy. Fortune was no longer seen as human, but as a plaything. The basic dignity he was denied well alive, was further denied to him after death.

Author Percival Everett clued readers into these issues in his book Zulus. On page 171 Everett writes “So young, but lucky enough to be lying there in the ground rotting and worm-eaten instead of being forever preserved in some undignified toy vessel.” This is Everett giving his own commentary on the use of bodies being preserved for doctors to prod at, to be kept only as a toy for their research. The bodies of enslaved people and of freemen were taken from graves, stolen and used. To be allowed to stay at rest felt as if it was a rarity and not the norm. Because we know of these injustices, we are to correct them. That meant the making of informed consent, of making sure everyone had bodily integrity, and could decide what happens to their body after death. That also means being respectful of those who do allow their bodies to be used for medical and scientific purposes. No seeing people as a means to an end, no playing with their bodies, no lying to people to gain access to their body. Being honest through informed consent, and making sure we honor the sacrifice of those who lost their bodily rights so the past doesn’t repeat itself is how we move forward.

As Easy As ABC

In my work with Dr. McCoy in English 203 last fall, we studied Percival Everett. Interestingly, the chapter headings for Zulus that we have been discussing in class come from a collection of poetry he wrote, titled re:f (gesture), published in 2006. They function in different ways in these pieces, and it has been interesting discussing them in a new context.

The poetry within itself was incredibly interesting to study. As a Creative Writing major, I was intrigued by the idea of structuring a poem (or collection of poems, depending on how you decide to see it) this way. It seemed to me like a lofty challenge, but it was one Everett pulled off. One of my favorite parts about the way he approached it was how eventually he would reference things that didn’t match the letter at all — for example, A being for something that doesn’t even start with A. We were prompted in this class to begin to attempt a poem of the same structure for ourselves. I ended up finishing mine. Although I don’t feel it is one of my strongest pieces, the challenge was incredibly fun to attempt and try my hand at, and I felt that I got a look into the process Everett went through while crafting this piece.

As we discussed in class, the alphabet is something that is very accessible to us. This can be seen in the fact that everyone in the room knew the ABC song by heart. Although it was lighthearted and humorous for us, college students, to be singing the alphabet in class, there was also certainly meaning in the fact that this many years after learning it, all of us still knew it. Of course we know the alphabet — it’s necessary for us to navigate the world in many ways. But we still know the song, too. And the song functioned for us as a vehicle to gain and retain that knowledge.

So utilizing the alphabet as a way to structure or organize something is a very accessible and tangible method. It is interesting to discuss the ways in which this piece informs the rest of the text, and to notice that it can function differently in different scenarios.

Why should we care about worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is not something we usually have to think too hard about, mostly because it’s something we’re not intended to think about. A well-built fictional world is meant to be seamlessly immersive, or else the story risks being overshadowed by the feeling that something crucial is missing. After all, we inhabit a fully-formed world, and our brains demand the same out of the fictional stories we enjoy. For this reason, many writing blogs, such as this one, suggest that in order to properly build a world, one must“go beyond just outlining the setting your characters live and work in. Think about the laws that govern the world, the way the government works, the world’s history, geography, technology, and mythology. Create your world, and then push yourself to go deeper.” 

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