The Power of Identity and Imagination

Ryan Silverstein, Rebecca Perry, Marissa Volk, Tommy Castronova, Noah Taylor, Connor Canfield

In Marilyn Nelson’s requiem Fortune’s Bones, Nelson pays careful attention to naming, imagination, and ease, all of which are critical to the perception of racialized harm. Fortune’s Bones tells the story of Fortune, an African American man who was dehumanized through the mistreatment of his remains. In a poem included within this story, “Kyrie of the Bones,” the descendants of his former enslaver, physician Dr. Porter, describe their experiences with Fortune’s remains. His bones are put in disrespectful situations: displayed at a medical practice, played with by a child, found boarded up in an attic, and exhibited at a museum under the false identity given to him by Porter’s descendants. Marilyn Nelson’s recognition of naming, imagination and ease in Fortune’s Bones transcend literature, and can be used to further illustrate racialized harm in Toni Morrison’s novel, Home, and Harriet Washington’s anthology Medical Apartheid. All three works illuminate the act of stripping one’s name, and therefore reimagining their identity as an individual, which makes it easier to ignore the consequences of treating African American individuals as objects rather than humans. 

The act of naming is a significant part of society because it serves as the foundation of one’s identity. Consequently, the act of un-naming, taking away one’s name, strips an individual of their identity. The influence of un-naming is a prevalent part of Fortune’s Bones. After Fortune’s death, the name ‘Larry’ had been written on the back of his skull while his remains were passed down to Dr. Porter’s descendants. As a result of this name change, the people who came into contact with his remains were able to regard him not as a person who he had once been alive, Fortune, but as the false identity of ‘Larry.’ Whether his bones were viewed in a museum or played with in an attic, they were noted to belong to Larry. By having his name erased, his identity is forgotten and altered. Nelson repeats, “And I’ve been humbled by my ignorance, humbled by my ignorance,” (17-19). Nelson’s repetition of this line reveals the ignorance within individuals, as they look past the significance of Larry’s life and only regard the object of his skeleton. However, Nelson seems to be attempting to combat this perception of Fortune through the naming of their requiem. By naming her anthology ‘Fortune’s Bones’ rather than simply calling it ‘Fortune’ or ‘Larry’, she seems to be separating the life that Fortune actually lived from the treatment of his remains. The poem “Not My Bones,” which is presented from Fortune’s perspective, supports this view with the line “You are not your body/you are not your bones” (Nelson 27). Despite his remains being treated as an object, Fortune’s life still has value even if it was almost erased by the loss of his identity. 

In addition, Morrison’s novel, Home, illustrates the act of un-naming through Dr. Beau ignoring the identities of the patients he used for experimentation. For instance, Cee mentions that Dr. Beau “gave shots, had his patients drink medicines he made up himself, and occasionally performed abortions on society ladies” (Morrison 112). The identities of his patients, including their names, are never mentioned nor deemed significant because Dr. Beau views his patients solely as objects for experimentation. By ignoring the identities of his experimental subjects, Dr. Beau feels at ease to take advantage of his patients because un-naming them removes any sense of humanity and therefore Dr. Beauregard does not feel guilt or shame when harming his patients. As shown, naming is an important aspect of human identity. Un-naming an individual takes away their identity, making it easier for them to be treated inhumanely, as shown in both Fortune’s Bones and Home. 

In Medical Apartheid, this act of un-naming is illustrated in the form of stripping deseased African Americans from the identities they once held while they were alive. For instance, Washington reveals how African American bodies have been disregarded as human and treated with disrespect through grave robbing. In this act, white individuals selfishly dug up Black remains to use in classroom experiments. She shares that this dissection “gave the corpse a very different meaning, limiting him to a bit of useful flesh, an object to be surgically severed from his community, treated with disdain, then discarded like trash” (Washington 125). Through this process of objectification, the remains are not viewed for what they are: a human body. Instead, they are viewed inhumanely and the identities that these individuals once held are ignored and forgotten. After Black individuals were used as objects for classroom experiments, such inhumanity continued; the remains were discarded in basements of the school. According to Washington, “The basement was filled with mostly black bodies not by accident but by design” (121). white professors decided it was easier to discard the remains of their subjects than to return their bodies with care. As shown, extreme disrespect for the dead, African American individuals, is prevalent in Medical Aaprtheid as they are unnamed by being stripped of their identity in an unconsented act of grave robbing. 

In addition to all three works using un-naming as means for white individuals to feel at ease while committing racialized harm, imagination is also another notion widely used by these three authors. This can first be seen within the Nelson’s Fortune Bones. Fortune is “imagined” to have been a good laborer when he was alive,  that being the only way that he is remembered in history, and was seen as the extent of his worth. Nelson in this quotation from the preface is able to show how this is not true and the limitation put upon him and many others can make them feel hopeless: “Fortune’s legacy was his inheritance: the hopeless hope of a people valued for their labor, not for their ability to watch and dream” (Nelson 7). Dreaming and striving for more can bring hope, but when others imagine people like Fortune strictly as a workforce, it forces them into a predetermined role which can be harmful and make them feel hopeless. 

The thread of favoring imagination over reality is seen throughout Morrison’s Home. It’s especially apparent in chapter four, which describes Cee’s life from her childhood up to getting a job with Dr. Beauregard. Throughout this chapter, Morrison taps into our collective memory and imagination by evoking images from fairy tales and other children’s stories as a way of drawing us back to a time in our own lives where the line between imagination and reality was less pronounced, for example Cee’s story bears a striking resemblance to Cinderella, complete with her own evil stepmother (though she’s also described as “the wicked witch” in the form of Lenore (Morrison 53). We also see Frank himself struggle with favoring imagination over reality. His denial of the fact that he is still traumatized by the war plays into his imagined idea that he is entirely over his trauma, as we see in chapter 10, where Frank, reflecting on his past, imagines that he might be “cured” of his PTSD: “Frank suddenly realized that those memories, powerful as they were, did not crush him anymore or throw him into paralyzing despair. He could recall every detail, every sorrow, without needing alcohol to steady him. Was this the fruit of sobriety?  mere minutes before violently beating a man within an inch of his life (Morrison 100). We also see Dr. Beauregard favoring his imagination over reality in chapter twelve, where his almost comical reaction to Frank entering his home, is entirely due to him imagining Frank to be a threat, regardless of the reality that he is only there for his sister. He saw a Black man entering his home and immediately let his imagination run wild, jumping to the conclusion that the man was up to no good, shouting “‘There’s nothing to steal here!’”, frantically crying for his housekeeper, attempting to call the police, and pulling out a (unloaded) gun when the phone is knocked out of his hands (Morrison 110). In all three of these cases, imagination is used as a way of helping the imaginer avoid facing difficult truths. Cee sees herself as the main character of a fairy tale, ignoring the reality that life is far harder than she was ever prepared for. Frank imagines himself and his PTSD as a thing with a malfunction to be fixed in order to avoid the reality that PTSD is far more complicated than that. Dr. Beauregard sees Frank as nothing but a threat to himself and his work, ignoring the reality that he is simply there to rescue his sister. Clearly, the imaginer substitutes reality with their perception, the same way one might do in order to justify treating a person as an object. 

In Medical Apartheid, white individuals utilize their imagination to cover up and ignore the true reality of how they intentionally treat people of color inhumanely in medical settings. According to Washington, “Early medical records routinely identified African Americans as experimental subjects, especially in the slaveholding states” (57). Washington shares that Black individuals were put on the operating table even when they did not require surgery. Further, surgery procedures differed based upon race; Black individuals underwent more painful surgeries because they were not given anesthesia. To illustrate, James Marion Sims, a doctor who performed gynecologic surgeries, “claimed that his procedures were ‘not painful enough to justify the trouble and risk attending the administration [of anesthesia]’” (Washington 65). Sims developed a lie in regards to the levels of pain experienced throughout surgeries to cover up the truth of reality: these surgeries were extremely painful for African Americans; he purposely wanted to harm Black patients. He used his imagination as a tool to justify his decision and to distort reality; he made it appear that he was concerned to numb Black patients due to extreme risks. Yet, Sims always administered anesthesia to white surgical patients. Clearly, Sims used his imagination to avoid dealing with the consequences associated with discrimination and treating Black people inhumanely. Another example of using imagination to justify acts of bad faith in Medical Apartheid is revealed when Ota Benga, a human from Southern Africa, is put on display at the New York Zoological Gardens. Washington states that nearly every visitor made their way towards “the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park, the wild man from Africa” (78). whites treated Benga inhumanely by imagining him as an animal and using him for entertainment purposes. Clearly, imagination plays a role in such inhumane treatment. white individuals justified that it is okay to treat a Black individual in such a demeaning way because they instilled in their minds that he was in fact an animal and therefore deserved to be treated as one. Viewing Benga as an animal made it easier for white people to ignore the truth of how cruel of an act this was in reality. Without a doubt, imagination is a contributing factor that makes it easier for the white individuals in Medical Apartheid to inflict such physcial and emoitional harm.

The points Nelson, Morrison, and Washington are making within their works still apply to society today, arguably now more than ever. White American Society as a whole still refuses to acknowledge the horrible acts it has committed against people of color, preferring the false narrative of an imaginary society where systemic oppression doesn’t exist. Many individuals foster beliefs that racism ended with Martin Luther King and ever since all people have all been treated equally regardless of race or ethnicity. Of course, we know this isn’t the case. The reality is that people of color are still oppressed today. For this reason, it is important to hold white people accountable for their acts in the past because it has been pushed aside, hidden and distorted over time. The truth has gone unacknowledged in schools and communities. Revealing such truth is a major step in the healing process for those who have been affected by such horrific crimes and treatment because it is the basis of racism that is established and seen within society today. All in all, making reparations through the past is crucial in the step of healing today and will contribute immensely to the discontinuation of such oppression experienced by Black individuals in America.

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