Throughout this semester we have continually been exposed to texts that reveal the horrors African Americans have been subject to in the name of medical research and education, with Fortunes Bones being a unique example of a combination of history and an author’s fictional interpretation of it. Marilyn Nelson uses poems and blurbs to educate readers on the story of Fortune, a slave whose skeleton would be exploited for decades after his death. This stylistic approach provides us a multitude of viewpoints on issues related to the exploitation of Fortune’s bones and allows the reader to contemplate many ethical questions regarding the use of black bodies in medicine on a personal level. Although we have read other texts such as Home and Medical Apartheid that depict similar abuses, no text has quite impacted me as much as Fortune’s Bones has to this point. This is mainly due to the fact that as the son of a dentist who is interested in medicine, I have been exposed to real-life examples of human anatomy from a young age, ranging from living patients to objects like models and even a real skull my father still possesses from dental school. I was taught to respect whatever I learned from regardless if what I was using was an object or observing a patient. I knew that this exposure was unique, but never fathomed that the respect and ethical practices used when treating people/ handling objects would vary, especially when race became a factor. Learning about how African Americans have been so disproportionately abused in the name of medicine was so drastically opposite from the level of respect I was raised to have. This was exemplified in all of the texts we have read but the one text that really hit home the most for me was that of Fortune’s and how dissimilar the Porters treated one’s remains compared to my upbringing.
As discussed, in the past a disproportionate number of African Americans have had their bodies used as cadavers or skeletons involuntarily, with little if any respect shown towards their remains. This occurrence is greatly exemplified in the case of Fortune, a slave who was dissected posthumously by his owner, Dr. Porter, so that he could study a real skeleton and educate future Porters on anatomy. In total, Fortune’s skeleton would be passed on to four generations of Porters who would use Fortune’s skeleton to learn the names of bones and was many of “their earliest medical training.” (Nelson) In a peculiarly similar way, the skull we have has also served as my first exposure to anatomy but the greatest difference between the Porters and myself was clearly the disturbing lack of respect shown to Fortune’s bones as compared to the skull we have. In my home, there’s zero tolerance for playing with the skull and using it for anything other than education. Unlike the Porter’s, my brother and I never played with the skull as the Porter children did because, regardless of the repercussions we might face for doing so, we both respected the skull as we would any person in my father’s office. I could never imagine letting children play with our skull the way the Porters might have played with Fortunes bones, especially because some of these Porters who allowed their kids to play with Fortune knew him personally. When my father and his classmates received their skulls none of them had any idea who the skull belonged to. This helped to not objectify the skull in anyway and allowed for students to just learn anatomy with no biases. Regardless of the fact that my family can’t put memories or a name to our skull, we still treat it with the utmost respect just like we did know the person. It is for this reason that I was disturbed in the way the Porters let their children play with the skeleton like a toy, with little to no regard for who Fortune was. Honestly it was quite sickening. As disgraceful as I felt these actions to be, they were unfortunately not the only improper examples of misuse of Fortune’s skeleton.
Another use of Fortunes bones that was later described in the book was the display of his skeleton in a museum after he was found by renovators. Part of respecting the skull in my house entails not showing it off or displaying it for amusement of guests of ours. I felt that this mentality was strongly contrasted when Fortunes skeleton was displayed in Mattituck’s museum, where he became the ultimate attraction of the museum. As stated by resident Lilian Brown “Larry was the thing to see when you went to the museum. I don’t think anybody ever envisioned that this truly was a human being. It was just a skeleton with all the ghost stories that people would tell.” (NPR) Projecting fictional stories onto one’s remains for excitement and a profit is one of the most reprehensible things you can do in my eyes, but thankfully since 1970 Fortune’s bones have been taken down and properly stored away. Despite his exhibit being converted to honor him, there are still ethical questions remaining regarding whether his bones should still be studied or buried at last, which is something I don’t quite understand.
Nelson uses the lines “I was not this body, I was not these bones. This was just my temporary home” (Nelson) in her last poem to iterate that what has happened to Fortune should not define him for who he was. Although Fortune the person was not subject to the issues brought up in this poem it does not mean that he as a person should not be respected through his remains. I agree that converting his exhibit into a memorial was a step in the right direction but I also believe that the best thing now would be to bury his remains. I believe this because, without knowing what Fortune would have wanted to have done with his body, it would be best to just let him finally come to rest. I believe that Fortune’s bones have been used enough and that their purpose for a long enough time entailed a level of disrespect shown to his skeleton that other bodies that are used in the name of science aren’t shown. Because we don’t know how Fortune intended to have his remains treated, I believe that no one is justified in using his body for continued education, especially knowing what we do about how many black bodies have been involuntarily used in this way. For a long time, I even questioned the use and ownership of our own skull and whether we were justified in using it for education. This has led to me have mixed feelings about our skull, but due to the fact that the circumstances regarding the use and way in which Fortune’s bones were obtained are pretty well understood, I believe that without a doubt his bones should be buried.