Forgetting the Medical Practice of Good Faith (revised)

The story of Fortune’s Bones, written by Marilyn Nelson, begins with a man named Fortune, who was enslaved by an orthopedic surgeon known as Dr. Preserved Porter. Upon Fortune’s death, his skeleton was used for anatomical study by Dr. Porter and subsequent generations. The disturbing examination of his body is believed to have contributed to the progression of medical science. Not only was Fortune taken advantage of, his wife (Dinah) was forced to clean the room where Fortune’s skeleton hung. Fortune’s skeleton was eventually donated to a museum by a descendant of Porter. Both Fortune’s real name and story were lost as the name “Larry” had been engraved on Fortune’s skull. Giving Fortune an imaginary name made it easier to accept the magnitude of suffering that he went through. Nelson also mentions that Fortune was an image of herself, enabling her to connect and empathize with the pain that Fortune had to endure. 

The practice of studying medicine has historically sought to minimize, and sometimes even justify the consequent harm brought to individuals who were promised protection. Medical professionals reimagine themselves and their subjects as small contributors to an inevitable and beneficent system, medicine and science as a whole, in order to ease the conflict of bringing harm to patients. One notable example in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid details the infamous Dr. Sims who built his reputation and his practice from the non consensual experimentation on enslaved Black people. One such experimentation was the 40-minute, unanesthetized surgery of one enslaved man’s lower jaw noting that his experiment “proved its practicality… whether the patient [was] willing or not” (Washington 102-103). Editors of the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journalism were “pleased to record this highly creditable achievement of a Southern Surgeon.”(Washington 103).To complete this reimagining, professionals often forfeit their own agency, as well as that of the patient, to a more abstract demand for knowledge. Though the identity of the medical professional is maintained, the identity of the patient is often obscured, or destroyed to make this reimagining easier. In context, this means that while professionals will be happy to take credit for medical discoveries, the individuals who sacrificed their autonomy in a very visceral way will be carelessly or intentionally forgotten for sake of ease.

Dr. Porter did not see Fortune’s body as the end of a human life; he saw it as an opportunity. When Fortune died, Dr. Porter dissected him. He took Fortune’s body, which he had forced to endure strenuous labor and continued struggle, and he cut it open because he wanted to. Nelson writes from Dr. Porter’s point of view in Fortune’s Bones, as he describes the act of cutting Fortune open, saying his body “falls open like a bridal gossamer” (19). The intimate metaphor is extended, as Dr. Porter begins to dissect Fortune’s body, saying “I enter Fortune, and he enters me” (22). This image connotes an air of equality, mutuality and consent. However, in reality, Dr. Porter was using Fortune’s body as a prop, slicing him into pieces, ripping his organs out of his body, leaving his bones to hang in the room Fortune’s own wife cleans. So why would Nelson’s Dr. Porter use language that implies he and Fortune were equals in this endeavor? He does so for the same reason he constantly repeats the phrase “and I am humbled by my ignorance, humbled by my ignorance” (22): to convince himself that he is not solely responsible for his brutal actions against Fortune’s body in death. If Dr. Porter can convince himself Fortune’s dead body is a willing participant in his studies, if he can convince himself that he is too ignorant to see the cruelty in what he is doing, if he can convince himself that he is merely acting in the good name of science, then he does not need to accept the gravity of what he is doing. Porter goes so far as to imagine Fortune as the agent of the dissection, not himself, stating “Here with begins my dissection of the former body of my former slave, which served him who served me throughout his life, and now serves the advance of science” (17).

The idea of autonomy can also be applied to science. Choosing whether or not to accept their own autonomy has been a common theme in our readings about medical professionals. Doctors willingly take credit for their contributions to the growth of the medical field but deny any responsibility for inflicting harm on Black people at their expense. Dr. Sims from Harriet Washington’s historical book, Medical Apartheid and Dr. Porter from Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones, both strived for success in their work without realizing the reality and ethicality of their work on black people. Washington describes the several horrific experiments and procedures performed by Dr. James Marion Sims “father of modern gynecology,” on a group of enslaved women. Doctors had to hold back these women while Dr. Sims made incisions, without providing anesthesia to numb the pain (Washington 65). 

The story of Joice Heth, as depicted in Washington’s Medical Apartheid, is another example of the pain inflicted on a Black person at the hands of a powerful white man. P.T. Barnum, a famous American circus holder, had bought the possession of an enslaved woman named Joice Heth. After her death in 1836, Barnum ordered a public dissection to be performed to determine the cause of death and sold tickets for the public to view. Shockingly, 500 spectators showed up to this gruesome event as a form of entertainment and ensured that Barnum’s fame would rise (Washington 86-94). At the expense of Heth, P.T. Barnum used her to benefit himself and dehumanized her as an easier way to justify his cruel intentions. He made excuses to himself and to Heth that this torture would be worth it because Heth herself would become rich and famous. Unsurprisingly, Barnum was the one who reaped the benefits of his own cruelty, and Heth died penniless and stripped of her dignity and autonomy. Similar to Joice Heth, Fortune was also dehumanized as it was easier to refer to him as “Larry.” By assigning Fortune a generic name, it removes any personal or emotional connection to the body and almost takes away from the consequences of the procedures implemented by Dr. Porter. Both examples show that it was easier for the white person to take advantage of the enslaved Black person through their delusional imaginations to justify their horrible actions.

In their stories, Nelson and Morrison both discuss eugenics to showcase how doctors can manipulate their patients. In Fortune’s Bones, Nelson explains how Fortune’s body is used as a tool. Dr. Porter, a renowned surgeon, undergoes several procedures where he experiments on Fortune’s body for any scientific evidence about his life. However, diving deeper into this scene, we are able to see that no matter how much examination is done, it is Fortune’s voice and spirit that can not be owned. In this particular scene, Nelson writes, “I am not my body, I am not my bones” (27). Here, we clearly see that Fortune is stating that he is not his body. The use of this repetition is important as it highlights Fortune’s identity. Although Fortune’s body is physically there, he is mentally gone. Similarly, in her story, “Home” author Toni Morrison discusses another doctor named Dr. Beauregard, who performed sexual experiments on Cee’s body and left her traumatized. Morrison writes, “And Cee remembered—how pleasant she felt upon awakening after Dr.Beau had stuck her with a needle to put her to sleep” (Morrison, 121). Although Cee did not feel anything during the experiment process she felt like a part of her was gone. The manipulation that Dr.Beau did on Cee’s body left her empty. We see how disturbing one’s physical body can mentally affect them. Connecting this back to the thesis, individuals who sacrifice their bodies for surgeons are capable of being hurt near the end because they end up losing the most important thing to them, their identity.

Georgia, Jacob, Dineen, Nossoh, Phil, Rachel

The Loss and Subsequent Reclamation of Identity

Maya Nunez, Quentin Wall, Riley Dilger, Sarah Bryk, Kelly Edmond

Fortune’s Bones is the story of a man enslaved by Dr. Porter, an orthopedic surgeon, in Waterbury, Connecticut during the 1700s. The book utilizes poetry and narrative to follow Fortune’s life, how his identity was taken from him, and how his community attempted to remedy the actions against him. Upon Fortune’s death, his skeleton was used for generations by the surgeon and his family for anatomical study. Time passed and eventually, Fortune’s name was lost, and replaced by “Larry”. Fortune’s name was forgotten for nearly a century until a crew of workers discovered his bones boarded up in an attic they were renovating. In 1933, Sally Porter Law McGlannan, the last Porter doctor, donated the bones to the Mattatuck Museum where he is currently assembled for display. His skeleton hangs in a glass case where adults and children come to visit “Larry” and imagine him as many different things. In Nelson’s Manumission Requiem, Fortune’s identity is continuously being altered and reimagined. Looking at the passage “Kyrie of the Bones”, the reader is able to observe Fortune’s bones being used by the surgeon’s family over time. Each new stanza in the poem introduces a new way Fortune’s identity is lost; “I called him Larry, it was easier”, “I say he was my Grandfather’s slave, who slipped and broke his neck on Larry’s leap”, and “We took the skull out of its wooden box, and with a leg rolled it around the dusty floor” are all examples of Fortune’s identity being lost over time. Nelson’s focus on the loss and subsequent reclamation of identity shows the particular importance of these themes in the book. Throughout her work, we can see the impact of naming, imagination, and ease on the characters we meet and their identities’. When observing Toni Morrison’s Home and Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid through the same lens, one can see the thought-provoking ways in which they are connected. 

In Fortune’s Bones, we see how one’s name plays a large role in one’s identity and self-image. Before Fortune became “Larry”, people knew him as a father, a husband, a baptized Christian, and a slave. He lived in Waterbury Connecticut with his wife Dina and his two daughters Mira and Roxa. After his death, Fortune’s identity, name, and story were forgotten and replaced by “Larry”. People who visit “Larry” at the Mattatuck Museum don’t consider these things, they don’t consider that he was a human being, with a story and an identity. His transition to “Larry” has stripped him of his identity and has contributed to the loss of his autonomy. Just as Fortune is stripped of his identity and sense of self, so is Cee when she is referred to as anything but her name in the book Home by Toni Morrison. “Being born in the street” (44), Cee is referred to as a “gutter child” by her grandmother. Throughout the entire book, she is referred to by a series of nicknames, the gutter child being one of many. Even her name in the book “Cee ” is a nickname in-of-itself; her real name is Ycidra. Both Fortune and Cee are stripped of their identities when they are called anything but their names. Cee’s loss of identity through “naming” shapes the way she views and cares for herself. She depends on everyone whether that be her brother Frank, her boyfriend, Prince, or her boss, Dr.Beau because she has lost what is most important, her identity. She accepts these different names (identities) because it allows her to avoid having to reckon with her own identity which she doesn’t even know what that might look like. People who visit “Larry” and try to “imagine” his story for themselves do so because they are trying to avoid the grim and brutal history of his life. Nelson and Morrison’s emphasis on naming helps us to understand how loss of identity works as a tactic for avoiding having to reckon with the truth which is both brutal and saddening but also extremely necessary. The same can be said for Washington’s Medical Apartheid. Washington discusses the systematic oppression of African Americans in our healthcare system through different historical medical accounts. By exposing the dark and grim history of American medicalization, she is reclaiming the identity of thousands of vulnerable subjects (black bodies) so that us readers can reckon with the racialized harm of our history. These grim and brutal stories on experimental brain surgeries and birth control programs (that targeted black people) just to name a couple, help bring back this sense of identity that has been covered/hidden for so long. 

Fortune’s Bones is written through different perspectives that are imagined by Marilyn Nelson. Nelson writes what she imagines Fortune, his wife Dinah, Dr. Porter, and more would have felt during the time of his existence and after his death. The poems throughout Nelson’s book show how Fortune’s identity was slowly stripped from him in his death. Fortune’s loss of identity begins when Dr. Porter first dissects his body. Nelson writes, “Herewith begins my dissection of the former body of my former slave” (14). Porter imagines Fortune to be an opportunity for an advancement in science and as a person no more. Nelson illustrates how she imagines Dr. Porter to feel by stating, “I enter Fortune, and he enters me” (19). From this, the reader can sense that Dr. Porter does not care about the person that he just cut into, instead Dr. Porter is amazed at the “delicate organs” and “smooth muscles” that he can see make up the human body. Fortune’s loss of identity is further discussed during Kyrie of the Bones. Nelson uses this poem to imagine the impact that Fortune may have had on generations of Porters’. The poem suggests that around the year 1890, Porter children played in the attic with Fortune’s bones. Nelson writes, “…we took the skull out of its wooden box, and with a leg rolled it around the dusty floor” (21). This is a representation of Fortune during the years that he was forgotten. Nelson imagines that the Porter children continued making up stories about a man named “Larry” and playing with the bones of Fortune to pass time. Nelson’s impactful poem titled, Not My Bones, is imagined to be written from the point of view of Fortune. This poem represents the feelings felt by Fortune during the time of his death and how he felt about his own loss of identity. Nelson imagines Fortune to feel violated and states“…while it was in my hands it was called my name; but I am not my body, I am not my body” (25). After the death of Fortune, his identity was slowly stripped from him and it was not until centuries later that he got it back. This loss of identity tied to imagination can also be seen in the novel written by Toni Morrison, Home. In Home, Frank is unable to deal with the reality of the murder that he committed when he was in Korea. Instead of coming to terms with what he did, Frank imagines that he witnessed the murder instead. This plays a big role in Frank’s loss of identity because of how it made him feel. Frank states, “…I think the guard felt more than disgust. I think he felt tempted and that is what he had to kill” (Home, 96). Frank here is describing how he believes the ‘guard’ felt about the sexual thoughts that he had toward the Korean girl. Frank is displacing his feelings of temptation onto the guard in order to make himself feel better about being the one to kill her. In the following chapter, Frank admits to being the one who felt tempted by these inappropriate thoughts and it can be seen that he had an internal conflict with his identity during the time of his decision. “How could I like myself, even be myself if I surrendered to that place where I unzip my fly and let her taste me right then and there” (Home, 134). By admitting his conflicting thoughts during this situation, Frank gains some of his identity back that has been gone since he returned from the war. The use of imagination emphasized by Nelson and Morrison helps us to understand how easy it is for a person to lose their identity in exchange for a new one. This helps people come to terms with their actions or decisions, but can be damaging to their self image. Harriet Washington exhibits similar ideas in Medical Apartheid when discussing the improper medical experimentation and treatment on black bodies. Physicians imagined black bodies to be the only subjects that they could use to study anatomy. African American cadavers were often purchased and used by medical schools in order to show students anatomy. The stories written in this book written by Washington, allow for accountability to be placed on the perpetrators who contributed to the loss of identity of many African Americans and allows for the return of identity for those affected by these medical experiments.

In Fortune’s Bones, Nelson provides the reader with a sense of ease when describing how Fortune’s identity was stripped from him by Dr. Porter and his family. Dr. Porter decided to take the ‘easy way out’ during the time that he began dissecting Fortune’s body to further the study of anatomy. By doing this, Dr. Porter was doing what was most convenient for himself rather than dealing with the matter correctly. As mentioned before, Dr Porter was a surgeon who did work on an enslaved man named Fortune. He chose the easy way out as soon as things became uncomfortable. As seen in the text, “I called him Larry. It was easier to face him with an imaginary name” (21). Coming to terms with the fact that Fortune was not an object, but a person with value was difficult for Porter to accept. It was easier to not imagine Fortune’s bones to belong to someone new, someone different. He later proceeds with his experiment, “ I enter Fortune, and he enters me” (22). Self deception involves believing something that is demonstrably false is real and Porter speaks as if entering Fortune was some sort of even exchange. Evaluating the tone of Porter, it is clear that he is not comfortable with what he is doing. Imagine if Porter, who used Fortune for experimental purposes, stepped back and noticed that what he was doing was wrong and brought this to the attention of others. That would have made an impact even if by doing that may have put him in an uncomfortable situation. It was easier to follow society and experiment on black bodies. Evaluating Marylin Nelson’s Home, it is evident that Frank takes the easy way out in order to avoid his trauma and guilt. He tells the story of watching a man murder a little girl in Korea, only to later admit that man was him. He avoids his guilt by imagining himself as a bystander to the murder, as it is easier than admitting to himself and others the horror he comitted and well as the reason he did it. He says, “I lied to you and I lied to me. I hid it from you because I hid it from me” (Home 133). Frank chose to lie about the situation because he was unable to come to terms with his actions, and realized his own identity as well as how others viewed him, would forever be changed when he admitted his wrongdoings. It was easier for him to run away from reality in order to protect his identity and sense of self, than to have to face what he had done and how it would ultimately change his view of himself forever. Harriet Washington also uses the idea of ease in Medical Apartheid to illustrate the carelessness that doctors had for the identity of black bodies when experimenting. Washington writes, “Northern medical schools recognized that being unable to acquire sufficient cadavers to attract medical students could mean their dissolution, so they imported black corpses” (Medical Apartheid, 133). Black bodies were experimented on more because they were easier to find than cadavers. During experimentation, they were stripped of their identities and only used in regards to medical advancement. 

Marilyn Nelson, Toni Morrison, and Harriet Washington use naming, imagination, and ease as tactics to explore themes of identity, both the loss and reclamation of identity, in their novels. Through discussing the loss of identity, it’s almost as if these authors are giving these characters (in the books) their identities back. In Home, we see how Cee’s doesn’t have much of an identity for herself, until she is rescued from Dr. Beau’s office. Once treated by Ethel, she begins to learn for the first time who she really is, and she is able to gain a sort of autonomy. She’s reckoning with the uncomfortable truth of what her life was up until that moment. This is both an uncomfortable but extremely necessary process. Cee is, for the first time, taking accountability for her past actions and is working, in good faith, towards creating a better life for herself. Looking at Fortune’s Bones, Nelson writes this book to allow us readers to understand the brutal and saddening life of Fortune’s. It is our job as readers to recognize Fortune’s sad and brutal life and decide for ourselves how to process this information. It is up to us to act in good faith and assess what it is we want to do with this newly disclosed information. The same can be said for Washington’s Medical Apartheid. Washington does a good job exposing the dark and brutal history of the medicalization of black bodies in the United States. She tells stories from reproductive health to brain surgery, exposing the horrible experiments that took place on black people in the US. People who read the book can reckon with these stories and these identities that for so long, have been removed and/or hidden from our history. Reading these stories allows us to re-identify the lives of those that have been removed from American history which is a necessary process in acting in good faith. As readers and as students, it is our responsibility to reckon with the racialized harms that are not only displayed throughout the books but that are also displayed throughout the world and throughout our lives. At SUNY Geneseo, we acknowledge the importance of recognizing, learning, and understanding diversity, global awareness and engagement through our Geneseo Learning Outcomes. Geneseo’s mission through GLOBE collaboration outcomes allows us students to situate ourselves with different individual and community experiences. Doing so allows us to understand and appreciate the various identities that are present in our Geneseo and global community. When we appreciate the identities that make up our community we actively participate in an exchange of good faith.