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.

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