Our first LMCC meeting for the spring 2023 semester took place on Wednesday, January 25 at 5:30pm in Greenlaw 509 and via Zoom. LMCC co-directors Rachel Warner and Paul Blom recently organized and led a panel at the MLA 2023 conference, and at our Jan. LMCC meeting, we debriefed from the event, focusing mostly on the works of two scholars from their panel.
We first discussed a paper by Patrick Allen, Assistant Professor of English Literature at Elizabethtown College, “‘Nothing Made Them Change Their Minds about the Medical Industry’: Medical Abuse, Incarceration, and Healing in Toni Morrison’s Home,” a paper he presented at LMCC’s panel at MLA and which was also recently published in MELUS.
Then, Suvendu Ghatak, PhD candidate in English at the University of Florida, joined us via Zoom to present his paper, “Malaria and Mutiny: Picturesque Pathogeny in British India,” which he presented at LMCC’s panel at MLA.
If you missed the meeting, you can still access the text of Patrick’s paper on the Readings page of this site!
You can also access the recording of our meeting here, including the recording of Suvendu’s presentation.
Please note that the rest of our meetings this semester will take place in the Greenlaw Conference Room, Greenlaw 225. We plan to return to the HHIVE Lab in the fall of 2023.
Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday, February 22 at 5:30pm est in Greenlaw 225. If you can’t attend in person, you can attend in real-time via our usual Zoom link. We will send out an announcement soon with more information for that meeting.
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Allen, Patrick. “‘Nothing Made Them Change Their Minds about the Medical Industry’: Medical Abuse, Incarceration, and Healing in Toni Morrison’s Home.” MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 46, no. 4, Winter 2021, pp. 138-161, https://doi.org/10.1093/melus/mlab045.
Some key passages:
“I explore a history of medical injustices—fictional and actual—in order to demonstrate the dynamic approaches to health and human rights made available to us through the study of particular African American literary texts. To begin, I offer a brief overview of racist and eugenic practices—particularly female sterilizations—in the United States that reveal inequities in treatment by the American medical establishment. I then show that fictional accounts of medical procedures offer insight into these healthcare inequities and that these inequities in turn permit us to read the fictional accounts anew. Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel, Home, takes up issues of (anti-)Blackness, eugenics, and the healing powers of communities of Black women. The novel critiques a history of anti-Black racism in the medical field—and in policing, the military, and the entanglements of all three—that has situated Black persons (especially Black women) as particularly susceptible to abuse, malpractice, and incomplete or nonexistent care. I situate this discussion of Home alongside an exploration of forced sterilizations of incarcerated women of color in US prisons to illustrate Morrison’s illumination of historical and ongoing racial injustices in the entangled US medical and legal systems. Moreover, I explore the modes by which communities of Black women practice an ethics of care for one another and collectively resist anti-Black biopolitical systems, medical and otherwise. In taking on the role of healers, the Black women in Morrison’s novel deny white attempts at control over Black people’s bodies, lives, and (re)production. Morrison instead presents a move toward Black liberation, care, and safety that sets the stage for thinking about and confronting contemporary health and legal issues, namely anti-Black racism, police brutality as a public health issue, inequities within the military, and the disproportionality of negative outcomes for Black persons in US medical systems—from sterilization to maternal and infant mortality rates to COVID-19-related illness, treatment, and death” (Allen 139).
“Fitz Gerald’s emphasis on the post-war moment illuminates the racist science of the novel’s historical setting. My focus on later eugenic regimes and intersecting biopolitical systems posits that Home’s mid-century setting also depicts as public health threats the enduring medical, police, and other forms of violence that Morrison witnessed ravaging Black US communities and individuals during her long writing career. I give particular attention to the medical violence perpetrated on incarcerated women of color for the purported benefit and protection of white America, and I contend that Morrison’s critiques help us to see the racialized disparities of our current moment of twin crises in a new light” (Allen 142).
“Morrison’s Home thus offers a space for working through what reform of various biopolitical systems, from medicine to policing and the military—if not a full dismantling of such systems altogether—might look like and how such violations happen in the first place. Attending to this tradition of critique likewise permits us to see in Morrison’s characters the effects of systemic racism and Black communities’ modes of resistance” (Allen 143).
“Thus, I contend that the issue may be a need for new ‘concrete cases,’ and fiction might be the place to tease those out. I turn here to Home to explore one piece of additional evidence such accounts can offer, on the one hand, to those who work with communities whose reticence in the face of medical care might be alarming or whose hesitance might simply be confounding and, on the other hand, to literary scholars interested in the world Morrison creates to contend with the present-day realities of our racist, atomizing health care system” (Allen 144).
“Mbembe is referring to the precarity of populations that could be wiped out by weapons of mass destruction, but a retooling of his theory for my discussion might look like this: for the medical industry, Black women such as Cee—incarcerated and alone—are merely living dead. That is, they are corpses that permit exploration and experimentation without the burden of being life-less and therefore of less use to the doctor. In becoming living dead, Cee is grouped with the vast population of enslaved and incarcerated Black persons whose autonomy is ignored—precisely because, as living dead, they are not viewed as having such autonomy—and who thus become mere ‘live bodies’ for doctors’ use and abuse” (Allen 146).
“The women thus collectively take on the role of the midwife. They take Cee, returned to them as living dead, and birth her into a new life within a community that recognizes her full humanity, no matter the destruction done to her at the hands of Dr. Scott. Her healing requires that she attend to the ways in which she has been persuaded of her own living dead-ness, primarily by reevaluating her views of herself and of Scott (who comes to represent the whole of white medicine)” (Allen 147).
“The move to mark racism as a public health crisis is an important one. It begins to recognize that white supremacy and anti-Black racism affect all people negatively. Black death, illness, and physical and psychological violence weaken our systems—health, legal, educational, and more. Racism and the systems that uphold it situate Black persons as living dead, much like Cee in Home. At any time, and seemingly for any reason, a Black person can be killed by police (or violated by a doctor), often with impunity” (Allen 152).
“The police are not an option for Black people in Morrison’s novel. They represent a threat to Black well-being (and to Black life) that the characters will not risk. In other words, the policing industry, like the medical one, is a public health threat rather than a place of refuge for Black persons” (Allen 153).
“Morrison recognized and foretold the twin crises we face today. Our moment of public health and social justice emergencies are, as Morrison tells us in Home, not new. They have simply taken on varied forms since Morrison’s passing. Home, like her other works, reveals the underbelly of US society. It shows that our medical industry too often fails to attempt, much less accomplish, to ‘do no harm.’ It shows that police violence was and remains a threat to Black health and to all Black lives. It shows that Black communities, especially communities of women, are often the best (and sometimes the only) true sources of healing for Black per sons” (Allen 154).
“Via her characters, Morrison explores modes of memorializing and archiving the Black past. A combined historico-literary perspective, such as that Morrison takes in her novels, can demonstrate the intricacies inherent in any patient’s approach to medicine. I have argued particularly that fictional texts such as Home can enhance and complicate the narrative that even the history of racialized medical malpractice provides by making the ‘scenes of subjection’ (to borrow Saidiya V. Hartman’s phrase) of Black women more personal and more intimate than might the histories themselves. Combined, the historical and literary approaches raise issues regarding duties and consequences, principles that guide medical decision-making, and methodologies that might better situate specialists to treat subjects who view their autonomy as a fiction or who otherwise see their ‘choice’ as limited when working with professionals. One way to begin to combat this distrust, then, is to consider literary accounts such as those made available in Home during the ethical and practical training of those who work in medicine, policing, and the military or who consider issues of ethics generally. Such an approach inherently promotes a feminist methodology that centers an ethics of care” (Allen 154-155).
“This ethics of care is (and ought to be, according to the novel) community- or relationship-focused, holistic, and freeing…. The ethics of care the novel imagines recognizes the importance of representation in the medical field. It combines mental and physical health approaches. It elevates the bioethics pillar of ‘justice,’ and it is selfless in its approach to nurturing. Morrison shows just how much narratives can affect an individual and demonstrates that professionals—across the board—owe those they work with at least a recognition of those stories that shape them” (Allen 155).
Note: The featured image for this post is the title screen of Suvendu Ghatak’s presentation, “Malaria and Mutiny: Picturesque Pathogeny in British India.”