University of Iowa Free Webinar Tonight: The Stories That Define Us”

We just found out that the University of Iowa is presenting a free webinar this evening from 4:30—5:30 PM. It’s a zoom meeting and the title is “Breaking Barriers: Arts, Athletics, and Medicine (1898-1947)”. It’s part of a 4-part series that started February 1, 2022, “Uncovering Hawkeye History: The Stories That Define Us.”

Presenters include:

  • Lan Samantha Chang (93MFA), Iowa Writers’ Workshop director and acclaimed author
  • Quinn Early (87BA), Hawkeye football star and film producer
  • Patricia Winokur (88R, 91F), professor of internal medicine–infectious diseases

We discovered this presentation after a long, spirited conversation about race relations generally this morning over breakfast. Authors mentioned included Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” and James Alan McPherson, long time faculty and director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, author of first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction with his collection “Elbow Room.”

There were several cross threads in our conversation. One of them was my memory of a visiting professor (whose name, however, I can’t remember) who gave a presentation about being Black in America at Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University; one of the HBCUs in America) in Austin, Texas. He said something I’ll never forget. I mentioned this in a book review published over 20 years ago in the American Journal of Psychiatry:

A guest lecturer (who, as I recall, had also written a book about being black in America) told us that the white man would never allow a black man to be a man in America. He had only three choices: he could be a clown, an athlete, or a noble savage. These corresponded to the prominent and often stereotyped roles that blacks typically held in entertainment, sports, and black churches. It begged the question of what on earth could we hope to accomplish— JAMES J. AMOS, M.D., Iowa City, Iowa (2000). “Being Black in America Today: A Multiperspective Review of the Problem.” American Journal of Psychiatry 157(5): 845-846.

This is related to another memory, that of the quasi-character Rinehart in Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The name refers to the multiple perspectives from which a black person (or any person, really) can look himself. You can look at the word itself as compound, containing two words, “rind” and “heart.” Understood as metaphors, you can readily see how it could apply to anyone. We can have a surface personality socially, and we can have an inner core, a heart that is hidden and which can truly define who we are. We’re always changing, inside and out, backwards and forwards.

On the subject of hidden stories, I am also reminded of the book “Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era”, edited by former UI faculty, Lena and Michael Hill. The book describes the mixed reactions of African Americans to the interracial climate in Iowa City and at the University of Iowa during that era. Not all felt welcome, although James Alan McPherson did. Indeed, the Hills often highlight the fluidity of the interactions, which makes me think of Rinehart.

David McCartney, the university archivist, is joining the presentation. He led the drive to rename Johnson County in Iowa for Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, an accomplished University of Iowa alumna, by putting up an on-line petition which gathered 1,000 signatures. We’re looking forward to this evening’s presentation.

The Visible Flame

I began rereading the book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison today, which is Leap Day. Given what little I know about Leap Day and Leap Year in general, there isn’t a connection.

I first read Invisible Man well over 40 years ago. It was a paperback and I took it with me to Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas (now Huston-Tillotson University), one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States.

It was very hot in Austin in my freshman year and the students didn’t have air-conditioned dormitories in those days. It must have been over 90 degrees. The glue melted on most of my paperback books, including Invisible Man. I suppose that’s why I eventually threw the book away, because it was falling apart.

After all these years, I bought a hardcover edition. We have air-conditioning now. I was motivated to read it again after I read Invisible Hawkeyes: African Americans at the University of Iowa during the Long Civil Rights Era, edited by Lena M. Hill and Michael D. Hill. See my blog posts, Milestones, and The Iowa River Landing Sculpture Walk, for background.

When I was a young man, I identified with the protagonist in Invisible Man. The Prologue still strikes a chord.

On the other hand, I googled my name today and found a few links that made me feel less invisible. Probably the most surprising link was to an interview with me entitled “James Amos, MD,” which you can read here. The piece evoked memories of a past version of me—which has not changed much since then. It mentions my former blog The Practical Psychosomaticist which I later renamed The Practical C-L Psychiatrist (C-L stands for Consultation-Liaison) after the flagship organization, the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine changed its name to the Academy of C-L Psychiatry in response to a poll of its membership asking whether the name should be changed.

This biography makes me more visible, at least on the web. On the other hand, the blog no longer exists, due in part from my concerns about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was enforced in 2018. I posted a lot of educational material about C-L Psychiatry on the blog along with pictures and presentations of my trainees. In a way, I did not protect their privacy and I was uncomfortable about that.

Other web pages surfaced during my self-googling. They included my article on delirium, “Psychiatrists Can Help Prevent Delirium,” posted on Psychiatric Times in 2011.

I also found my blog post on physician burnout, “How I left the walking dead for the walking dead meditation,” published on the Gold Foundation web site in 2014.

And there was my other Gold Foundation post about rude doctors, “Are doctors rude? An insider’s view,” posted in 2013.

There are a couple of petitions left over from years ago as well, about the controversial Maintenance of Certification (MOC) and the closure of state mental hospitals in Iowa several years ago.

I also found my review of Dr. Jenny Lind Porter’s book, The Lantern of Diogenes and Other Poems (published 1954).

The book seller’s note to me when Porter’s book was delivered in 2011 read as follows:

“Thanks for your purchase! It’s rare to find a book of this age that when you open the pages, it creaks like it is unread. I guess someone liked the way it looked on their bookshelf! Haha! Enjoy the book and Happy New Year, Rob J.”

An unread author is an invisible author. The first poem in the book is below:

The Lantern of Diogenes

by Jenny Lind Porter

All maturation has a root in quest.

How long thy wick has burned, Diogenes!

I see thy lantern bobbing in unrest

When others sit with babes upon their knees

Unconscious of the twilight or the storm,

Along the streets of Athens, glimmering strange,

Thine eyes upon the one thing keeps thee warm

In all this world of tempest and of change.

Along the pavestones of Florentian town

I see the shadows cower at thy flare,

In Rome and Paris; in an Oxford gown,

Men’s laughter could not shake the anxious care

Which had preserved thy lantern. May it be

That something of thy spirit burns in me!

Dr. Porter’s house in Austin, Texas was demolished a few years ago. There were plans to build a house there reminiscent of the architectural style of her original home and also a remembrance of her published work. I just noticed a satellite image of the property. There is no visible evidence that anything of that nature was ever built. Dr. Porter is, in a sense, invisible although her lantern still burns.

Visibility is a relative term. My advancing age and approaching retirement sometimes lead me to feel like I’m becoming invisible, gradually vanishing from the landscape of consultation-liaison psychiatry and general medicine.

Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man is a visible legacy. My legacy is small—yet the flame flickers, visible after all.

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