The Scary Truth of Medical Institutions


When I saw Medicine and Racism on my schedule I had absolutely no idea how those two topics had anything in common. How did medicine and racism have anything to do with each other? Then, I was introduced to “Medical Apartheid” and “Fortunes Bones” and my whole outlook changed. “Medical Apartheid”, by Harriet A. Washington shows how abusive the medical field was during the time that was portrayed in the text “Fortune’s Bones,” by Marilyn Nelson told the story of the life of Fortune and what happened to him after he died.

Reading “Medical Apartheid” made me realize how lucky I am to be able to go to the doctors office or hospital and know that I will be given treatments that will help me get healthy again.During the time period of “Fortune’s Bones,” many African Americans feared anything that had to do with the medical field. I feel privileged because I can trust that I will get the best treatment, but African Americans knew they would be test subjects when they went to “receive treatments.”  African Americans were not as fortunate when it came to being treated in the medical field. More often than not, African Americans were used to experiment with new and different medicines, even though it wouldn’t help them and wasn’t the right treatment. In Medical Apartheid, Washington stated, “Dangerous, involuntary, and nontherapeutic experimentatiom upon African Americans has been practiced widely and documented extensively at least since the eighteenth century(Washington,7).” Also, medical researchers believed that African Americans did not have to give consent in order to experiment on them. At the time, most African Americans were enslaved people that did not have a say in what happened in their life. “These subjects were given experimental vaccines known to have highly lethality, were enrolled in experiments without their consent or knowledge…(Washington, 6)” When I read this quote and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in “Medical Apartheid,” I wanted to know more. In 1932, the Public Health Service worked with the Tuskegee Institute for a study to record the natural history of syphilis to possibly find a treatment for African Americans. The study originally called for 600 black men, 399 did have syphilis, but the other 201 did not have the disease. The patients did not have the benefit of consent, and therefore did not know what was being put into their bodies. The men were told they were being treated for syphilis but in reality, they were never given the right treatment for the disease. The men had been misled and had not been informed of the studies real purpose. In 1947, penicillin was discovered as the treatment to help syphilis and even then, the men were not given penicillin. The last participant of the Tuskegee Study died in January of 2009 and there is currently 12 offspring receiving medical health benefits. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

 African Americans went to the hospital thinking they were being treated and nursed back to health but in reality they were being used as experiments that the doctors knew they probably would not survive. The people that “owned” them believed that they could give consent for them at hospitals. After reading “Medical Apartheid”, I learned that if an enslaved person was hurt or old or basically not performing to their best ability, the owner would sent them to the hospital and if they survived and got better, they would be sent back to the owner to continue working. If the enslaved person did not make it, the hospital would either keep them for experimentation, to autopsy tables, or even medical universities. “If a master sent a sick, elderly, or otherwise-unproductive slave to the hospital, he usually gave the institution caring for and boarding the slave carte blanche for his treatment-and for his disposal(Washington, 126).” What this means is once the “Master” sends an enslaved person to the hospital, that person is not his responsibility any longer. It’s very frightening to know that at a point in time people had to worry that once a family member or friend dies they may not remain in peace. It was very common in the 19th century for African Americans to be stolen in the grave and sold to medical universities to be used in human anatomy classes and for experiments. Reading “Medical Apartheid” opened my eyes to how cruel the medical world treated African Americans and shows why so many could be hesitent or scared to go to hospitals today.

Though Medical Apartheid is not the only book that made me realize what medicine and racism had to do with each other. Fortune’s Bones, by Marilyn Nelson also shows how cruel African Americans were treated in the medical world. African Americans were not only tortured while they were alive, but after they pass away too. In Fortune’s Bones, an African American Man was used for human anatomy purposes after death. This was not uncommon with African Americans after they passed away. They could be sold to Medical Universities and used for research. One quote that stuck out to me in Fortune’s Bones was, “ In profound and awful intimacy, I enter Fortune, and he enters me(” When I read this quote  I realized that as this man entered Fortune’s body and prodded at his bones, Fortune’s life entered this man. This man was getting information about Fortune’s life and how difficult it was and getting information about Fortune’s bones and body. While looking at Fortune’s body, “They found that his lower back had been broken, then healed at sometime during his life. His shoulders, hands, and feet had all been injured(Nelson, 18).” This suggests that Fortune’s life had been full of continuous hard labor. Not only did he have a difficult life while he was alive but even when he’s dead he is still being tortured and abused. Over the years, Fortune’s body was passed down through the Porter family and used for human anatomy. As the years went on, someone changed Fortune’s name to Larry. Fortune’s identity was taken away from him as well as the life he lived. Children played with “Larry” like he wasn’t an actual human being and he was some sort of toy. Fortune was soon forgotten as “Larry” was being shown off at the Mattatuck Museum. “Larry” was on display at the Museum and new stories were made up about him, Fortune’s legacy was soon changed and his whole life was left behind. I do not have to live with knowing that when I die I could be stolen from the grave, or not even make it to a cemetery and be sold to Medical Universities to be poked and prodded in human anatomy classes. Fortune’s Bones made me realize how frightening it was for African Americans even after they passed away. They had such a hard life while they were alive, they should be able to rest in peace.

Before taking this class, I never knew how bad the medical field was for African Americans and how scary it was to go to hospitals. After only a few weeks in this course I have already widened my knowledge on this topic and am interested in learning more about such a hard hitting topic that most people probably didn’t know existed in our history.

Not Just a Body

Upon reading the course epigraph for Dr. Beth McCoy’s class on Literature, Medicine, and Racism, at SUNY Geneseo, as an introvert, I held the belief that I had plenty of experience and a certain knack for ‘noticing’. Introverts are usually said to have the ability to notice because they are more often than not, sitting back, watching, listening, and thinking about what is going on around them. Throughout the course, students are to be expected to hone in on their abilities to notice, as the course epigraph states, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”- Dionne Brand. However, after only a few classes I began to realize that I was seemingly in the dark for most of my life, I had not noticed some of the most horrendous acts in medical history and the impact that those actions had on an extremely large group of people.

While researching in depth about medicine, students are shown the grizzly and tragic truths behind the history of how modern medicine came to be. A pattern of trends arises amongst the way medical professional’s treated their African American patients in the past. One pattern in particular shocked me more than others. Several readings and in-class discussions revealed that in the past, as early as colonial times, it was considered commonplace for medical professionals to publicly display and perform on a multitude of  African American patients. 

I have found myself thinking of the story of Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson, on several occasions outside of class. I remain astonished that at one point in history, life and death, like Fortune endured was a reality and an embedded fear among African Americans. Fortune, like most other African Americans of his time, was enslaved. In life, Fortune worked tirelessly for his owner, Dr. Porter, to what extent, unfortunately, would only be proven by his later lifeless human body. Even in death, Fortune was unable to escape the chains of his enslavement to Dr. Porter. Upon Fortune’s death, his body was not given a final resting place. Instead, Dr. Porter kept Fortune’s skeletal bones in an attempt to continue its use as a tool to learn the human anatomy for both himself and future generations to come. Fortune was denied the ability to be peacefully rested, simply because he was a black body. Medical professionals of this time accepted and often encouraged the use of black bodies, while also learning ways to protect white bodies from being used. The disrespectful display and use of Fortune’s skeletal remains represents just one of the thousands of cases that depict mistreatment endured by African Americans in the history of medicine.

Ota Benga is another name that continues to cross my mind days after I read his story. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington describes how Ota Benga, an African Pygmy, was unjustly taken from his homeland, sold, and locked inside a cage, which was also occupied with apes, in a New York Zoo. The exhibit caused outrage amongst New York’s black population. One perturbed African American minister, Reverend Gordon, spoke to the New York Times, in which he stated, “our race…is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls”. Ota Benga was put on display in comparison to apes due to the color of his skin, as well as his supposed likeness to the animals’. Thousands of people made their way to the New York Zoo, in the Bronx, to see the exhibit that encased the “monkey-man”. The widespread acceptance of such horrendous and immoral acts is difficult for me, as a reader, to wrap my head around. It is boggling that at one time, most medical professionals seemed to believe that black bodies were only the means to a medical end.

The material covered in class thus far has led me to believe that noticing is only the first step in confronting the history of medicine. As students, we must first focus on noticing what is truly going on in a situation in order to successfully take steps to better it. We must also steer clear from the belief that by confronting the dark side of medicine that we somehow hate medicine. When confronting the history of medicine we must acknowledge and accept both the good and the bad that has taken place. By no means do those acknowledgments mean that we hate medicine in its entirety, as Harriet Washington said, “I am an admirer of medicine”. In future classes, I plan to continue to notice the inner workings of medicine. I also plan to acknowledge, accept, and then move further with the evidence that has been provided in the resources by discussing it with my peers. For me personally, interaction with classmates about the readings heavily increases my retention and understanding of the readings overall. My goal moving forward is to notice, question, and learn as much as possible from both my time spent inside and outside of the classroom.

Noticing Gender and Racialized Oppression through the Exploitation of the Body

Educating oneself is as meaningful, if not more, than one who’s instructed, but to do this one must be critical to their own thoughts, beliefs and perceptions. In the class Medicine and Racism in literature, knowing ourselves and challenging our preconceived notions of what we think we believe is important. By doing this self-check consistently we will be able to grow as an individual, and learn at a greater capacity.

In understanding race, it is important to notice the conundrum of defining it. The source of the instability is articulated by Geraldine Heng in her book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages when she states that race is used “to distribute positions and power differentially to human groups”. Therefore, race as a biological concept may be disproven, as shown in the film Race the Power of an Illusion, while having social repercussion as a result of the oppressor’s insistence on a difference that isn’t biologically verified. As a result, the oppressed are in a position of constant upheaval and chaos because others ignorance is affecting themselves.

In the book, Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates presents the way he came to reason with this upheaval and tumultuous oppression, and that is through an insistence that “the struggle to understand is our only advantage over the madness”. Educating yourself and others can help to bring words and verify that racialized oppression is distressing, but knowing why and how it operates can alleviate the hold it has upon yourself.

For this class, we are assigned readings from the book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present written by Harriett A. Washington, and in the readings thus far I’ve been shocked by the horrors experienced by Black Americans in medical settings conducted by professionals. I learned about a term called Iatrophobia, which means the fear black Americans have of medical institutions and professionals. Learning about this fear and the history that engendered it is shocking and disturbing. It also is key to understanding medical disparities between white and blacks skinned people in the past to the present.

In an assigned reading for my Canadian literature class a reference to the book, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the aesthetic by Elizabeth Bronfen was made, and it led me to pick up a copy at the library. In the preface, she outlines her argument that the display of dead feminine figures conjures an aesthetic, which is capitalized by patriarchal hegemonic enforcers. Drawing from psychoanalytical theory, Elizabeth Bronfen explains that female bodies are used, or rather, exploited to preserve an individual’s fragile and delusive sense of immortality in western culture.

Defining femininity and the oppression women experience is quite a conundrum as it is, for different and specific reasons, for racial oppression as well. For example, in the preface of Over Her Dead Body, Elizabeth describes a similar ironic phenomenon of oppressed women to racialized oppression through stating that “duplicitous by nature, a symptom [ or an oppressive act] tries to maintain a balance of sorts, but does so by obliquely pointing to that which threatens to disturb the order”. In Over Her Dead Body, the disturbance of order would be the female gender. In Medical Apartheid, the black community would be the threatening force. This quote relates to black people being exploited in the medical field and the medical community’s use of people of the African American community to practice procedures and teach doctors in training. The irony here is that racism had led to the practice of using people with black skin to train doctors because they were considered inferior, yet the biological basis for the difference isn’t present to be having the doctors learn on their bodies. Instead, it just shows that their racist practices are the result of white medical professionals being “taught to view these bodies as expendable” and as practice when it came to truly treating the white race.

Interestingly, both texts, Medical Apartheid and Over Her Dead Body, seem to encapsulate and condemn the exploitation of bodies to further the oppressor’s agenda. In Medical Apartheid, readers learn about Saartjie Baartman, a Khoi woman, who was displayed by scientist who exploited her to support their racial hierarchy construction. They would examine her body inappropriately and use their supposed findings to show that the Khoi people are a lower race. The examinations would make these women’s features out to be overly sexualized compared to white women.

In Over Her Dead Body, the oppressors are predominantly male figures who are artists and writers who use a woman’s body to be kept in unity with death for aesthetics. The phenomenon of overly sexualizing women extends into a woman’s death through the aestheticism of art. In Over Her Dead Body, Elizabeth Bronfen brings up the western aesthetic of women being joined with death. The sexualization of death through this aesthetic is fundamentally wrong, yet it is common place in western culture through art, films and literature.

The aesthetic of women joined with death goes as far back as ancient Greece. In the play, Antigone Sophocles, the playwright, conceives of a character who in search of autonomy goes against a decree and commits suicide through this act of rebellion. Creon criticizes Antigone for her rebellion by saying she’s in love with death, because she knew that acting against the law would cost her life.

Connecting the interstice of race and gender in women being overly sexualized shows that this is also prevalent in those who are oppressed and it could increase their feeling of otherness from people who don’t look like themselves or identify in their way. Exploitation comes in many forms and being overly sexualized by groupings of people is one form of it.

Noticing Without a Name

When we are born, we are given a name to go by. That name will represent us for the rest of our lives, and even when some of us decide to change our names, that new name will impact how others define us as people. After a person dies, most within our society are buried with a headstone, making sure that we will always be known by our name. By acknowledging someone’s name, we are noticing them, just as the author Dionne Brand once said, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” My main concern is, what happens when a person is unable or unwilling to notice in the first place? When someone is no longer there to defend their body and show us a large part of who they are, how are we able to notice them at all?

As we have moved throughout this course so far, a large part of what we have talked about has to do with people being disrespected after their passing. In the case of Fortune, his body was taken and used for generations by his slave master in order to further their scientific understanding of the body. As it was passed down, the body became just that; a set of bones to be inspected, rather than the housing of someone’s spirit. Fortune no longer was in control of his body, and there was nothing to signify that it was once his. No one was able to notice who he was or what he experienced once his bones went unmarked. I feel that in this case, Dionne Brand’s quote can work in another way. If the people who owned slaves noticed that no one else was paying attention, or at least no one else was going to stop them, they were able to continue doing horrendous things to black people, both dead and alive.

When Fortune’s body was stolen, most slaves were unable to read or write, because that education was hidden from them. As a result, doctors were able to openly write about their manipulation of the black body after someone had passed, because people weren’t given the opportunity or the resources to realize what was happening in the first place. However, just because they were unable to solidify their worries in the texts being written does not mean they were unaware of what was happening all around them. Although the stories told about abusive doctors by African Americans are often seen as not being based in fact, “Researchers who exploit African Americans were the norm for much of our nation’s history, when black patients were commonly regarded as fit subjects for nonconsensual, nontherapeutic research. (Washington 2006: 13).” For centuries, black people recognized that they were being experimented on, and their loved ones’ bodies were being stolen in the middle of the night. However, they were unable to provide hard evidence in most of those cases, and even when they were they had no means to fight back against their oppressors.

As we move on, we are forced to look at the past and see the impact it has on our current culture. I should say, if we want to create a society where people feel comfortable and feel that they have equal opportunities, we need to address all of the trauma that has been caused in the past. We choose not to teach the full extent of marginalized groups within this country, whether that be Native Americans or African Americans. We have chosen as a society to gloss over the past and act as if we are unified, when that is not reflected in the world we live in. When Harriet A. Washington began writing Medical Apartheid, she was met with criticism from her white professor at Harvard of all places, who told her “It’s a terrible thing that you are doing. You are going to make African Americans afraid of medical research and physicians! You cannot write this book (Washington 2006: 22).” Despite the fact that this woman worked at Harvard, held a Ph. D., and was white, she still felt that her opinion on the topic of experimentation on black people was superior to that of a black woman who had experience working in a hospital, and who was researching for a book specifically on that topic. She was unwilling to look at our history as a country, and therefore is unable to truly notice the current state of our country, and more specifically the health inequities that currently separate us.

As we continue to move through this course, I feel that we must keep this question in mind: are we truly able to notice someone if they are not able to properly identify themselves to us? If we can’t determine who a person is, it seems almost impossible to do much more than theorize who they are, or in the case of a body, who they once were. In the case of African Americans who were experimented on, essentially tortured, or disrespected after their deaths, their impacts on the healthcare field are immeasurable, but the doctors who forcibly worked on them are the ones who receive credit and often praise. While we look at these bodies we need to be able to get past what their use was to science and identify who they really were as people, which in the most basic sense would mean learning and speaking their names.

Olivia Herring

ENGL 101

Thursday, September 12th


During the first few class periods we have read and talked about a lot of different topics. We have talked about race, discrimination, knowledge, both/and, epistemology, and even more. All the things that we have talked about are very important yet most of it I have never even thought about or discussed. I think taking this class as a freshman and this being one of my first classes here at college will really help my understanding of the world. It will help me think about a lot of the things that I have never even discussed before. I am already learning so much because of this class. 

In what we have discussed in class and learned these first few periods I really started to think more about race. We discussed and watched a video on race that really got me thinking more about the topic. Nothing that people have said about race is scientifically proven. There is no scientific basis for race. After we watched this video I wanted to learn more about it so I read into it more. A doctor by the name of Samuel Morton believed that whites were the most intelligent of the races and at the very top. Going from greatest to least, it was Whites, East Asians, Native Americans, and then Blacks. His ideas were believed by the people who supported slavery. Come to find out, his ideas were not correct at all. There was no scientific evidence that suggests this is correct. (There’s No Scientific Basis For Race, Elizabeth Kolbert)

Many people believe, like Morton, that race is somehow connected to athletic ability and intelligence. People think that somehow athletic ability and intelligence is in your genes. But, there is no genetic evidence to prove this. People use biology as an excuse for social differences. All humans are actually very similar. In the video we watched they talked about how penguins that look almost identical are more different from each other than humans are. Humans can look completely different. Different skin color, hair color, hair texture, eye color, etc. Yet penguins that look exactly the same are more different than we are. Learning this fact sort of blew my mind. I never would have expected this at all. 

In the video we watched during class, they looked at the DNA of all the different people in the class. Each assumed their DNA would be the closest to someone of the same race as themselves. The African American man assumed he would be closest to the other African 

American and the latino assumed she would be closest to another latino in the class. Their assumptions of who they would be closest to was very wrong. All of the people in the class were wrong and I would say quite shocked that they were wrong about this. Your DNA can be closest to someone who looks absolutely nothing like you and someone you would never expect. This shows me how genetically similar humans really are. Even the people you would never expect to be so closely the same as you are. In my opinion it really is crazy to think about and it is absolutely amazing learning about this.

Seeing how similar humans really are, and realizing that there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that have been made, you can come to say that race is really just an illusion that organizes peoples’ lives. Race is just an excuse that people use instead of facing the real concrete evidence that people have spent their whole lives researching. These people have spent their whole lives researching this because race has had such a huge impact on our society. Race always comes back. Everyone fights it, but it always finds a way back out of the grave and raises to life again and causes problems. Police brutality, it is such a sensitive topic so I will not be going into it but that is a huge popular issue happening in our society today and it has so much to do with race. People blame it on race.

I think going forward in this course I can really improve and set many goals for myself. After we watched the video in class, I looked up more information about what I learned in the video. In high school, this is not something I would have done. In high school I just learned the information that was given to me and that was it. But 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. This is something I did and something I will continue to do throughout the semester because I know this will help me during class and as well as helping me throughout life in the future.

Some goals I want to set for the rest of the semester would definitely be to make sure I read everything assigned to me and then to go even deeper and read more than just the assigned reading. I also want to set another goal for myself, making sure that while I am reading something I understand it before I move on to something different. I sometimes struggle with this and I will read something and then not actually fully understand it and move on anyway. This does not help me learn at all so that is why I am setting this goal for myself. I am not sure if I am the only person who will be setting a goal like this or if other people find they also struggle with this, but I think it is a super important part of my learning skills that needs to be fixed.

noticing racism and taking note of it

The course epigraph is quite powerful because it seems to be asking us, humanity, to think about issues that haunt our society. Since the beginning of our nation’s history, the injustices that have been weaponized against minority groups is unsettling. However, the courage of so many people to fight oppression is grounded in the fact that they did notice the ugly society around them. It’s more than just being aware of issues, anyone can see with their eyes. The challenge for us is to help others notice.

Most Americans have a decent knowledge of social injustices that African-Americans have faced since the first perilous journey of the transatlantic slave trade. Even today, unnerving videos of police brutality glares at us through iPhone screens. Prior to this class, I had a knowledge of African American history that was good…or so I thought. After reading Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, I realized that I had only just begun to notice the much darker truth about Black suffering in American history. Like the construction workers at the Medical College of Georgia, who discovered nearly ten thousand bones of former patients, I have just begun to discover the chilling bones of our inherently racist medical world. Like it or not, it is our job to notice the history of African-American medical treatment and (hopefully) encourage others to notice. 

Standards for what is considered racist have changed considerably over the years. Many doctors of the past believed that skin color was an indication of inferiority. They didn’t think twice about the humiliation of public display and invasion of privacy that allowed for medical dissection. Famed psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is known for his belief in “Negritude.” This held that black skin was a form of leprosy. Unlike the other doctors in Medical Apartheid, Washington asserts that his intentions were not racist. In fact, he was an active player in the abolition movement. His goal was to “cure” supposed diseases that made one’s skin color dark. By providing Black people with a treatment that lightens their complexion, then racism would no longer be an issue. Although Rush’s patients may not have consented to treatment and his approach still seems problematic, there was a legitimate effort to look at racism through a much different lens than others in his society.

This idea of separate black physiology was believed by scientists or doctors during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Granted, their views on race are much different than ours, but it was a step in the right direction. Another key player in helping society to notice racism was abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He spoke on the issue of scientists using unattractive Black people to compare against attractive White individuals. Beauty is a highly subjective term but Douglass was most likely using conventional beauty as a standard measurement. He drives this point home by claiming, “The importance of this criticism may not be apparent to all-to the black man it is very apparent.” (94) This quote shows that digging into social issues is an arduous task, but one that affects the lives of so many. Minority groups face oppression every day, so these issues are just a fact of life to them. When something becomes so commonplace, however, the necessary change is often neglected. 

Realizing that we have a conscious effort to be (or not to be) accepting of racial differences is something that all Americans must come to terms with. Simply knowing isn’t enough. The insight gained from various stories of African-American allows us to spread it into the majority. A “silent majority” is not nearly as disturbing as a blind majority. Anyone can speak what’s on their minds, but not all can observe the long-lasting effects. As the struggle for equality raged on through the years, the few that helped others to notice should be recognized. The single-story of an oppressive master takes up too much room on the stage while the valiant efforts of the few are shoved backstage. Maybe one of us can take the center stage someday and help others to notice what we notice.

Noticing Racism

The course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” as stated by Dionne Brand, illustrates the importance of actively engaging with and questioning ideas that society has typically accepted as truths. One prominent example, that is both historical and relevant in contemporary times, is the concept of race. This division of human populations into subcategories by their outward physical characteristics has been a heavily studied subject in anthropological and ostensibly scientific research for centuries. Despite the obsession with race among people in general, and intellectuals in particular, race has no scientific basis and is merely a social construct. It has been created by certain groups, historically Europeans and those of European descent, to justify their enslavement and mistreatment of other humans.

With the development of Social Darwinism, race began to be perceived by whites as being grounded in scientific evidence. Thus, in the field of medicine, American physicians strove to use science to confirm their preconceived notions of African Americans as being physically and intellectually inferior to whites. By employing the authority of medical science to buttress their racism against blacks, white doctors believed they could argue African Americans were deserving of their subordinate position in society and use them as targets of experimentation. Hence, noticing the fictional nature of the idea of race and realizing the necessity of showing others its falsehood is a social responsibility of paramount importance.

Continue reading “Noticing Racism”

Repetition in Fortune’s Bones

Early on in the course I noticed that Doctor McCoy emphasized something key to pay attention to while reading the course material. That key thing is the reviving of once-dead things, or the refusal to let already dead things remain dead. In other words, the creation of a repetition. The idea of repetition is most clearly shown in Fortune’s Bones, and supported in many parts of the early chapters of Medical Apartheid. In looking at Fortune’s Bones, we can create a timeline of Fortune’s life, death, and afterlife, as given to us by the book.

He and his family lived in the late 1700s, slaves to a Dr. Porter, for whom he worked the land, caring for animals and planting crops. He later died in 1798. Porter “preserved Fortune’s skeleton to further the study of human anatomy,” rather than having him buried. “He had two sons who were also doctors. They could learn from the skeleton, too.” Fortune’s bones were examined by Dr. Porter, who would later die in 1803. The bones would stay with the family; “Porter children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren used it to learn the names of the bones.”

The name “Larry” was written on the skull, and “Fortune’s name was forgotten for nearly a century.” The skeleton was lost, and eventually “discovered by a crew of workers.” After yet more time passed, “in 1993 Sally Porter Law McGlannan gave the bones to the Mattatuck Museum. [Where they were] to be assembled for display.” They were displayed there for decades, and “many stories were invented about the skeleton.” Pages 21 and 23 of Fortune’s Bones share people’s interactions with the bones, in 1800, 1870, 1890, 1907, and 1960. Finally, the book ends with an afterword that briefly discusses the, as of the publishing of the book, ongoing discussion of whether or not to display Fortune’s bones.

From this very brief biography, it is plain to see the many repetitions going on here. At the beginning of one’s life, one is typically given a name, but in Fortune’s case he was born, named, died, re-named, and his true name was forgotten for a century until discovered again. The bones would be studied by Dr. Porter, and then passed on to his children to be studied, or otherwise played with as in the case of the children playing with the skull in the attic. From the other things we’ve read and seen in this class, particularly the idea that many people were needlessly experimented on, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the medical experimentation on Fortune’s bones was probably also a form of play, a morbid satiating of curiosity.

Over time, the skeleton was lost until it was re-discovered, and once again the bones were given from someone to someone else; first from Dr. Porter to his children, and then from one of his children to the Mattatuck Museum. Indeed, Fortune was essentially owned by a great many people; Porter, his family, and the museum, and was never been allowed to be at rest. The bones were placed on display in the museum, once again allowing all who pass by to see Fortune, as if he were really still living in the world.

While the bones were on display in the museum, “many stories were invented about the skeleton.” Again, the repetition is plain. As you continue to act and interact with other people to any degree, a history is created. In Fortune’s case, he made history during his life, and was then forced to have a lengthy history long after his death. Finally, the discussion at the Mattatuck Museum regarding whether or not to display Fortune’s Bones is, at the end of the book, a matter of current debate.

The many repetitions shown in Fortune’s Bones seems to be a common theme found in other texts we’ve read in class, particularly Medical Apartheid. The fifth chapter of Medical Apartheid, The Restless Dead, discusses grave robbing, particularly of blacks. In it, corpses are dug up and forced to be objects of use by those with the power and will to do so. The morbidity of it all is perhaps best exemplified on page 136 of Medical Apartheid: “posing for professional portraits in anatomy laboratories with remains of dissected cadavers became an important professional ritual for medical students. . . Before 1920, the students were nearly always white and the cadavers often black. Images of African Americans who were lynched and dissected were treated alike in several telling ways. The dead bodies were often horribly mutilated: Body parts are excised and missing, and they are burned, castrated, or fresh wounds are visible. The bodies were also posed in undignified attitudes that accentuated whites’ dominance over them: The lynched were shown handcuffed, bound, hanging, gagged, and tied to stakes…” and so on for another half of a paragraph.

The epigraph for this course is “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” When paying attention to the repetitions in the course material it’s difficult not to notice the atrocities committed, or lack of dignity given for other human beings, and it’s difficult not to notice that the authors of these works, such as Fortune’s Bones and Medical Apartheid, believe that other people can notice these things, too.

Noticing and Fixing

From the readings and discussions in class this quote has gotten me thinking about a variety of issues. The first one that comes to mind is the way people covered up the wrongdoings of the doctors and professors. People were very quick to turn a blind eye to any and all injustices they noticed. This extended to the exploitation of dead black bodies in medical schools to the exploitation of living black bodies in zoos and in circuses. While these injustices were noticed by others,  such as abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, M.D, only a small portion of those who saw the truth spoke out. This allowed these things to continue on for years to come.

By noticing the wrongs of both the past and of those of the present we are able to right them. When one is made aware of how so many people refused to acknowledge the suffering of a whole community of people, we need to take notice and make sure those around us notice as well. Raising awareness for these issues helps other people notice them as well, and the more people who notice the more voices there will be to challenge what are believed to be “acceptable treatment”. Bringing more people’s attention to the racist nature of these treatments and practices can prevent creating doctors like George Pray, who begin medical school with more humanistic views of the bodies he dissected, yet lost those views because people refused to notice the racist teachings within medical schools. In “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, she exposes all of these injustices and the voices that helped kept people from noticing what was happening. This lead to black iatrophobia to the words of Washington, meaning “the fear of medicine” (pg.21). This fear of medicine is due to the abuse African Americans were subjected to. Black iatrophobia has existed since before the mid-nineteenth century.

My hope in life is to be a psychologist, someone working in a part of the medical community. To do this I have to notice and help my future coworkers notice, anything that prevents people from seeking care. “Mental ailments are destroying blacks, as well: Black women suffer the highest rates of stress and major depression in the nation and suicide rates soared 200 percent among young black men within just twenty years.” (Washington, pg.5) How can I help these people if I refuse to notice the things that scare them away from the help I offer? When I notice, I can get my coworkers to notice. Together we can acknowledge the past and make a healthier environment for African Americans. To help them, we must notice the errors of the past and make sure we right them. To help people we must help make the abuses of the past clear and therefore make it clear we are doing all we can to help keep them from repeating themselves.

As someone who wants to dedicate my life to helping others with their mental issues, it’s my job to understand generational trauma. The experimentation and exploitation of African Americans has spanned generations, from slavery to the 21st century. Because this trauma is more likely to be swept under the rug and ignored, there is no way to heal from it. How could Jamie Gaines and Sarah Cox heal knowing their sister’s body had been stolen? How could Frances Oglesby heal knowing her mother’s remains were still not at rest? How can Bessie Wilborn rest if her bones still remain a spectacle? Until the medical community works to understand the trauma their predecessors inflicted on African Americans the generational trauma will continue and its effects will remain.   As someone who cares deeply about the health and welfare of others, to allow this to remain is to willingly allow others to hurt. And that is something no one in the medical field should allow. To notice current abuses, and to acknowledge past ones, creates a safer environment for African Americans as well as other at risk communities. 

Delving into the Truth on Today’s Social Constructs: Race, Consent, and Prejudice

By Ashley Boccio

When we look at ourselves and each other, whether we like to admit it or not, we tend to categorize and create groups based on image. For example, when you first meet an individual you may notice if they are blonde, brunette, or ginger. A harmless observation, yet this recognition of difference almost always goes beyond just hair color. Delving into the concept of “race”, a human made ideology not based in biology, we often use stereotypes to unfairly group individuals and make initial judgements on their character. Throughout history, various groups have been persecuted, exploited, enslaved, and ridiculed based solely on race. With this unfair judgement there comes an unwarranted justification for horrific acts without consent or reason. This conversation opens up the platform to the question: how can we learn from our mistakes and atrocities of the past to better ourselves as a society in the future? Although the past may be grim, it is important to dive into the truth on what really happened in order to better understand today’s social dynamic and how if affects our progress today. My personal goal for this course is to learn about and discuss these overarching ideas of consent, race, and prejudice, so I am able to recognize their place in modern society.

To channel our discussion, we can begin with looking at the medical field, and it’s history with the social constructs of race and consent. In Harriet Washington’s book, “Medical Apartheid”, she fearlessly exploits the medical field for their atrocities with involuntary medical experimentation on African Americans. This forced experimentation had gone largely undiscussed for decades and was avoided by almost all in the profession. In reading her work, it is evident as to why a majority of African Americans today have an innate fear and distrust for the medical field; often referred to as “iatrophobia”. In Washington’s initial introduction, a line that truly stuck out to me occurred between her and a colleague. In this conversation her coworkers states: “Girl, black people don’t get organs; they give organs.” A statement that sent chills down my spine, helping me to recognize the gut-wrenching fear and stigma that has followed an entire profession. It is evident that there is a large disconnect based in fear between medicine and an entire group of people. A sad truth, as the medical field can be used as a force of good and healing, and should not be feared in modern society. Even Washington makes it entirely clear that she herself is an admirer of the medical field and the profession, stating that she remains to have full faith in the field and its ability to change and progress for the better: “I am an admirer of medicine, and when not working alongside physicians in hospitals, I have spent decades profiling, describing, and analyzing medical advances and the remarkable people who have made them.” However, despite her love for the field, Washington strongly believes that the stories of these abused individuals need to be heard in order to prevent anything of such horrific scale from reoccurring in the future, even if it means exploiting various medical studies of the past. In doing so it is her goal to break down the barriers between African Americans and the American health-care system in order to benefit both parties in the future. Washington’s take on breaking down the dark under shadow of racism in the medical field is pertinent to the larger discussions being brought in under this courses epigraph.

Book cover to Harriet Washington’s exploitation

In conversation about consent it is impossible not to look at Washington’s exploitation of the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” of 1932. The study is known for its barbaric practice and experimentation on young African American woman used to gain further information in the gynecological field. These women against their will were subject to surgeries that mutilated their bodies and caused them excruciating pain, all in the name of medical research. Due solely to their race, these individuals were pushed down in society, and never given opportunities to educate themselves or have a fighting chance at being able to escape studies of this nature; their bodies repeatedly subject to tests without their consent, or knowledge of what was going to be done to them. Even in today’s society, it remains a prevalent issue as to what women can and can’t do with their bodies. Consent, and lack of it, has been a large overarching theme throughout history, and it is clear that its discussion is essential to recognizing and breaking down its negative effects on society today.

Cartoon Displayed in the Newspaper regarding the Tuskegee medical studies

Why is it that in our past we have allowed different groups of people to be subject to such horrendous treatment just based on a construct that we ourselves have created? And how can we possibly learn from this? In this course I hope to find the answers to these questions as we read different sources and discuss these difficult subjects. In Geraldine Heng’s book “The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages” he states, “So tenacious has been scientific racism’s account of race, with its entrenchment of high modernist racism…”. A great conclusion to our discussion as it en-captures the hard truth that racism, lack of consent, and prejudice have been the under-belly of our society for thousands of years. It is essential that we can recognize its darkness in order to remove it from our modern dialect and practice. When looking at today’s society it is important to frame our thinking as Washington has in her book. Although there are several horrors, in these horrors there are lessons to be learned. And that’s where I believe this course’s heart lies: in delving into the grit in order to understand how to work towards a brighter future. We can’t expect to change for the better as a society if we do not even know everything we need to re-evaluate and change.