Toni Morrison’s novels tackle the root cause of health care disparities, professor writes

LAWRENCE — While some people have recently sought to remove Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye” from high school curricula, a University of Kansas researcher says part of its value lies in how which he informs modern readers about long-standing gender and racial health disparities. exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an article titled Getting to the root of health care injustices in the United States through Morrison’s Root Workers,” published Jan. 20 in the journal Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Giselle Anatol explores depictions of African-American folk healers that appear in several of Morrison’s novels, including “Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” and “Song of Solomon.” . The English professor analyzes the clues Morrison gives as to why these women – who use natural herbal remedies – are sought after instead of officially trained doctors. These reasons include, but are not limited to, the inability to afford treatment within the medical facility, a lack of physical proximity to treatment centers, and a desire to avoid racial and gender discrimination in a system. dominated by white caregivers and male actors, which still relates to the experiences of many African Americans today.

“Morrison’s fiction features powerful women, midwives and healers who not only help contemporary audiences see disparities in health care as clearly linked to race, complexion, gender, socio-economic status and age,” Anatol wrote, “but also consider African-related practices.” traditions as valuable and viable acts of resistance and sustenance.

Anatol said episodes of sexual abuse, murder and other cruelty in Morrison’s fiction – which many objectors cite – are indeed disturbing but generally complicated by the author’s own traumatic history.

“What Morrison does beautifully in his writing is to break down notions of strict binaries like good and evil, or the idea of ​​folk healing as backward compared to the advances associated with institutionalized medicine. His work allows us to talk about the different strategies people can use for their well-being…to take care of their physical health, their mental and psychological health — even their financial health — when they don’t have access to the same systems and forms of health care that other people do.

Morrison wrote that a scene in “The Bluest Eye” may help explain the reluctance of many African Americans to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

“It’s not just that we have these black characters who aren’t educated or who live in poverty and can’t afford medical care,” Anatol said, “or who are suspicious because that they are wary of a history of exploitation of black people by the medical establishment and scientific communities. Many conversations about this have been reported; African Americans do not trust medical interventions because of earlier cases like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or what used to be called the Mississippi appendectomies – the sterilization of black women without their consent.

“In ‘The Bluest Eye,’ we have Pauline, an African-American woman who didn’t go to the doctor for the delivery of her first child, but she decides she’s going to go to the hospital for the birth. of her second child, and she is treated as less than white women – less than human in many ways…. Morrison challenges stereotypes of black people who are rooted in slavery – than people of African women are closer to animals than to human beings; that black women are adapted to work in the fields and can endure more pain and do not have the feminine fragility of white women or their emotional sensitivity.

“But what is essential in this scene is that the history of racism has a current effect. It results in an absence of equitable care for Pauline, even though she has access to a hospital, to a licensed practitioner, integrated maternity An experience like this would make one hesitate to put oneself in a position to relive this humiliation.

“The pandemic has revealed that cases like these have been going on for many years and are still prevalent,” Anatol said. “Many research studies have shown that doctors are less likely to prescribe painkillers to black patients – and then prescribe them in lower doses – than to white patients. And even in the 2020s, black women are three to five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women — even black women who are college educated. Reading Morrison can give people a better idea of ​​the nuances of these situations – the multiple layers. There is no single way these disparities manifest themselves in our society. They could decline over a period of time and then rise again.

Picture: Giselle Anatol reads from her collection of Toni Morrison books in her Wescoe Hall office. Credit: Rick Hellman, KU News Service.

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