Summary: South Carolina, Part 3

“Will I be able …”

Miss Lucy tells Cora that she has been assigned a new job at the Museum of Natural Wonders. Cora’s job is to be a human actor in three exhibits: Scenes from Darkest Africa, Life on the Slave Ship, and Typical Day on a Plantation. All three scenes, built in rooms behind glass, are wildly unrealistic. While white characters in the scene are made of wax, three Black women take turns playing the roles of “types” in these scenes while tourists wander by and watch them. One day when she sees the rest of the exhibits in the museum, Cora wonders if any of the scenes from American history there are truthful.

The new hospital in town has opened, and one day a new doctor, Dr. Stevens, tells Cora to consider getting an awful procedure that will mean she can’t have children. Black men line the halls waiting for a vague blood treatment. Dr. Stevens encourages Cora to have her fallopian tubes cut and tied so she won’t have children. She learns that other Black women, those categorized as unfit or those who have two children, are forced into this sterilization. Cora realizes that Gertrude, who was taken to dormitory 40, is a victim of this surgery and that her children were not taken from her during slavery but right there in South Carolina.

Summary: South Carolina, Part 4

“The night before Ridgeway …”

The station agent, Sam, calls Cora and Caesar for a meeting to tell them another train will arrive in a few days. Cora asks him if he knows anything about the hospital and he says he has heard a doctor talking at the bar where he works, The Drift. He has learned that the hospital is giving Black men syphilis to study this deadly sexually transmitted disease. He says they are also collecting information on various African tribal identities in an attempt to control the Black population by deciding who can and can’t have children, and to diminish what they think are inherited violent traits. Also, by limiting Black women’s ability to have children, they think they are doing a good thing because they believe slaves will only be free if there are so few of them that they don’t threaten white dominance and power. 

Cora goes to see Miss Lucy, who is preparing a set of records she keeps on all the women in her dormitory, and learns a slave catcher has come to town. Cora overhears Miss Lucy telling another proctor that the records are to help a slave catcher identify and apprehend an escaped slave, a “refugee” and a “murderer.” Cora goes to Caesar’s dormitory, but he is working at the factory. She rushes to The Drift and gets Sam’s attention. Sam tells her that the slave catcher is Ridgeway, that the teenage boy she struck while escaping has died, and that Ridgeway is in the bar with his men, including a man who wears a necklace of human ears. He takes Cora to his house and tells her he will get Caesar but she should wait on the station platform for them. She goes down to the platform with a lantern and some food, but Caesar and Sam never arrive. After more time passes, she hears people upstairs trampling Sam’s kitchen, and when things fall silent, she realizes from the sound of popping glass that the house is on fire. Cora is alone and hungry in the dark.

Summary: Stevens 

This short chapter tells the early story of Aloysius Stevens, Cora’s doctor in South Carolina who recommended she get sterilized. Stevens started out as a medical student in Boston. To keep his fellowship, he works nights at the Anatomy House, where he helps a man named Carpenter and his sidekick Hobbs, rough characters who steal bodies from graves. As Stevens, Carpenter, and Hobbs travel out to steal a group of Black bodies, Stevens reflects on the history and defense of the practice of stealing bodies. Medical schools need dead bodies for studying anatomy and practicing procedures. Not enough are donated or sold to the schools, so it becomes common practice for “body snatchers” to take them. White people begin to protect the graves of their loved ones overnight, and newspapers and authorities punish these thefts. However, he learns from Carpenter, no one cares about dead Black people, so it is easier and without consequence to rob their graves. Stevens believes the Black people are serving the noble cause of medicine and science and are of more value in the medical schools than they were in life. He begins to think Black people could serve science in many ways while alive, too, a way of thinking that leads to his work experimenting on former slaves as a doctor in South Carolina.

Analysis: South Carolina, Parts 3 & 4 & Stevens

In this section, Cora’s comparison of Maisie to the children on the Randall plantation is an example of the theme throughout the novel of the way slavery damages the minds of the enslaved. Ten-year-old Maisie is pleasant, if spoiled. Cora contrasts her life with that of children on the plantation, who lose all the happiness and innocence of childhood by that age. Rather than envying Maisie her privilege, Cora finds in her a source of hope for the future. Her own childhood was marked by the violence and abandonment that made her a stray, vulnerable even compared to other children at Randall. Even though Cora shields Chester with her body when Terrance attacks him with the cane at Jockey’s birthday, after they are later whipped, he never speaks to her again. That beating marks the loss of his childhood and with it his sense of trusting joy. The contrasting example of Maisie, pleasant and spoiled, gives Cora hope that her future children will be born in freedom and allowed to keep the joy she and Chester and the other children of Randall had taken from them.

Dr. Stevens tries to convince Cora to have surgery to be sterilized, an example of Whitehead manipulating the setting of the novel in order to further explore the larger theme of the control of Black bodies, beyond the historical period of slavery. Forced and coerced sterilization such as goes on in the South Carolina of the novel is most associated with the Eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, later than the antebellum time period of the book’s setting. Although Stevens presents the surgery to Cora as an opportunity to take control of her future, the fact that it is mandatory for some women shows that real control lies with the government and the hospital. Cora compares the women forced into the surgery with the women of the Hob, showing her sympathy with outcasts like Gertrude, the woman who ran through the social crying for her babies taken away. While the white people in power see sterilization as a means of limiting a population that frightens them, Cora sees it as stealing people’s futures, a means of controlling them as surely as intergenerational slavery.

The experiment Sam describes hearing about from Dr. Bertram is an example of the theme of the exploitation of Black bodies. In the South Carolina section of the novel, Whitehead explores ways medical science takes advantage of Black bodies, a reflection of historical American practices. While the Black men in Dr. Bertram’s experiment believe they are being cared for at the hospital, in fact, the doctors are using them as experimental subjects in a study about the progression and community spread of syphilis. This portion of the book refers to the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, a 40-year project of the United States Public Health Service, in which doctors observed but did not treat Black men with syphilis. As in the novel, the men in the study were told they were being given medical care even as treatments were withheld from them, and women in the community became infected as a result. Whitehead’s inclusion of the Tuskegee experiment is an example of his use of science fiction techniques to change the timeline of historical events, since the actual experiment took place in the twentieth century, not during slavery. 

In this section of the book, Whitehead uses the story of Stevens’ medical school education to explore the paradox of when white people consider Black people human. Throughout the book, Whitehead presents examples of white people refusing to believe Black people are fully human. White people compare Black people to animals, consider them irrelevant to the terms of the Declaration of Independence, and torture and kill them for sport. However, when medical students need corpses to study anatomy and white corpses become difficult to come by, Black bodies are seen in death as being as fully human as whites. The medical students are training to treat white people. Using Black bodies to learn to treat white ones clearly indicates there is no significant physical difference between the races. This is what Stevens means when he says that Black people become equal to whites only in death. 

Stevens takes the logic of using Black corpses to learn about treating white people one step further, realizing that the status of Black people as property in slave states means that in South Carolina, he can have access to living people to experiment on, an even more valuable source of scientific information than corpses. The paradox lies in the fact that Stevens and the medical community must see Black people as equally human as whites to believe experimenting on them will yield information that advances their attempts to treat white people. However, to justify experimenting on them, they must at the same time believe them to be less human than whites. White people cannot be experimented on in this way, without consent or explanation, as if they are objects or animals. The experiments Stevens goes on to devise in South Carolina require a paradoxical understanding of Black people as both human and not human.