The Misfortunate Life of Fortune and his Bones

The class text Fortune’s Bones life gives 21st-century readers a glimpse into the life of an enslaved man in 18th century Connecticut. Although the details of his life are not entirely clear, we do know that he was mistreated as a result of his position in society. Growing up in the northeast, most of my education on the Civil War was spent on learning about the Confederacy’s oppression of black lives. However, learning about Fortune gave me insight into slavery that proved northern states were just as guilty of contributing towards institutionalized racism. One could argue that Fortune’s master was kinder than the horror stories of slavery we may be familiar with; Fortune’s bones indicate that he was in generally good health throughout much of his life. However, a claim like this seems to be ignorant of the very fact that he was enslaved. Fortune did not enjoy the legal rights or privileges of Dr. Porter’s family, as explained by the Mattituck Historical Society. (MHS)

There were two major events of Fortune’s life that stood out to me: His religious involvement as an enslaved black man and the treatment of his body upon his death. I believe that the former may have influenced the latter event, based on the society he lived in. According to the Mattituck Historical Society, the Congregational and Episcopalian churches in 18th century Connecticut encouraged the education of enslaved races, with the goal being that they would convert to Christianity. When I spoke with one of our class’s Teaching Assistants about this topic, she mentioned that enslaved people brought various religious traditions from Africa during their journey to this continent. In order to continue their religious traditions, she informed me that they often masqueraded their beliefs as Christian ones. This could potentially explain why so many slaves in Westbury were encouraged to adopt Christianity, since religion may be a tool for controlling groups of people. According to MHS, “Slave owners were prominent members of both the Congregational and Episcopal churches; nearly all of the ministers and several deacons owned slaves.” Furthermore, Fortune was reportedly “baptized in the Episcopal church on December 20, 1797; he died in 1798. There is no month or day given for Fortune’s death. He may have died two weeks after his baptism, or a year after.” (MHS) Was this a way of asserting cultural dominance by Fortune’s slave master? The ambiguity surrounding Fortune’s life, along with how his corpse was treated seems to suggest unholy motives on the part of Dr. Porter.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his life was the scientific experimentation that was performed on Fortune’s body following his death. We may not know much about his life, yet there is plenty of information about his physical body. The record-keeping of black lives throughout American history fails to recognize the complexities of their life, rather it seems that many non-black Americans were invested in using black bodies for medical research.

“Had a lot of built-up anger that I had to let out”- Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly (Rico Nasty: American Rapper, Songwriter and Record Producer)

Dealing with stigmatizations of one’s race seems to be a difficult task. In my humble opinion, it seems a rather daunting task for musical artists to address racial discrimination they may face. Perhaps there is a fear of acceptance or even a difficulty in conveying exactly how one feels within a few minutes of a song. Either way, I believe that certain artists have made great strides in exploring racial issues within the context of their lyrics. Their messages are parallel to the themes we have discussed in this class’s literature.

In an article by Pitchfork titled, “Rico Nasty and the Importance of Black Women’s Anger in Rap” Natelegé Whaley discusses the importance of female rappers to providing representation for black women. Current rappers, such as Rico Nasty and Princess Nokia, have been instrumental in creating a space for (specifically) black women to express themselves while destroying the “angry black woman” stereotype. According to Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University, black women have been portrayed as “rude, loud, malicious, stubborn and overbearing.” This is known as the Sapphire Caricature, a disparaging label of black women that’s been around in American popular culture since the 1800s. He argues that such representation is a society’s way of keeping black women silenced when they assert themselves. I can’t help but think of all the occasions people that black, female artists have been criticized simply for speaking their minds through their music.

Throughout the Pitchfork article, Whaley acknowledges the anger that Rico Nasty expresses through her lyrics. In the song “Sell Out,” Rico Nasty writes “ The expression of anger is a form of rejuvenation…I’m screaming inside of my head in hopes that I’m easing the pain.” In an interview, Rico Nasty told Whaley, “I don’t want to be that stereotypical black girl that’s mad all the time, but if that’s what you need to get your point across… you have a side of the story that needs to be heard, too.” In my opinion, she appears to be recognizing the harmful stereotypes that black females face but purposely chooses to express her anger at society in order to push it forward.

In class, we read novels by African American authors that also expressed their frustrations within their works. In Toni Morrison’s Home, there are moment in the novel that seem to resonate with the experiences of black female rappers today. The character Cee navigates her way through a world that tries to keep her down with every turn she makes. The following quote expresses Cee’s determination to keep pushing forward:

 So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue. Not from Lenore through the lies of the Rat, not from Dr. Beau through the courage of Sarah and her brother. […] She wanted to be the one who rescued her own self. […] Wishing would not make it so, nor would blame, but thinking might. If she did not respect herself, why should anybody else? -Toni Morrison

            Cee faces many hardships throughout the novel, but she constantly challenges the limits given to black women by society. This type of determination seems entirely necessary for artists, especially black female rappers to ensure their success. There are many quotes from my favorite artists that I could include, especially as they relate to the course texts. However, I can’t know exactly what Rico Nasty or Toni Morrison are saying in their crafts. Rather, I will continue to make bridges between artists through their parallel expressions of identity.

**Page number from Toni Morrison’s Home omitted due to various editions of the novel

Teeth as a Marker of Difference

In today’s world of superficiality and beauty standards, people are always noticing the physical attributes of each other. Whether or not they make a comment about it, is a personal choice. Teeth have become a key marker of beauty, but also of distinguishing socioeconomic status.

A Washington Post article, “The Painful Truth About Teeth,” by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan addresses the concerns for dental health among low-income Americans. The authors are effective in demonstrating the severity of this issue by focusing on real-life examples to correspond with grim statistics on the state of dental health in a 21st century nation. The article examines Dee Matello, a working-class individual from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, “the poorest part of one of the country’s richest state” according to the authors. Jordan and Sullivan point out that nearly $1 billion is spent by a few Americans for luxury cosmetic dentistry while 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 don’t have “a single real tooth left.” People like Dee and her husband have a steady job yet lack the dental insurance or cash to spend on maintaining a perfect set of teeth.

The issue of dental health causes great suffering for Americans, who may have to prioritize other financial decisions over their teeth. Professionals within the field are aware of these changes and its domino effect on other aspects of their patient’s health. According to Dr. Patricia Higgins, rural areas (such as Maryland’s Eastern Shore) have a noticeably higher level of dental health problems. She attributes our nation’s reliance on prescription drugs as a cause for issues such as dry mouth and cavities. The director of the Chesapeake Health Care dental dept., George Acs also believes that medications may have caused the side-effect of minimized dental health. The article states that more than 2 million emergency room patients in 2016 were treated for oral pain and infections. Ac’s primary concern is that ER doctors are not properly equipped to treat certain dental issues. Instead, they often prescribe antibiotics and opioids. For lower-income groups, the flaws within the health system have much greater ramifications than someone with greater access to medical treatment. Dee Matello claims that teeth “are the telltale, visible signs of wealth.” This may suggest that not having proper dental care may lead to further stigmatization of lower-income individuals.

Teeth have long been considered a part of human identity. It can give an indication of our oral health while also a marker of socioeconomic status. When it comes to race, teeth seem to be yet another way to objectify the human body to suppose inferiority. Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington gives many examples of how teeth have been used to claim the racial inferiority of blacks. Besides the noticing of skin color, teeth were another way in which black people were identified and othered.

Dr. Louis Agassiz was a Swiss naturalist who moved to America in 1846, becoming a professor of biology at Harvard and a well-known scientist. In his encounters with blacks in Philadelphia, Agassiz expressed his revulsion in a letter to his mother. He writes: “In seeing their black faces with thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their heads, their bent knees, their elongate heads, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of their palms, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay away…God preserve us from such a contact!” (Washington, 91) Dr. Agassiz seems to portray black people as an almost alien species by the horror-like depiction he provides. The word “grimacing” is intentionally paired with “teeth,” which reminds me of an animal with menacing teeth or even the zombie tropes found in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, teeth are used in representing black people in a negative manner.

Teeth are more than just a representation of identity; they’ve been used in experimentation processes as well. In 1945, scientists sought to discover the effect of radioactive substances on patients. Ebb Cade was one individual whose living body was used by scientists and physicians for the testing of plutonium. This man-made element was labeled by the director of the Manhattan Project’s Medical Section “as the most dangerous chemical known.” (Washington, 217) In order to measure plutonium levels, Cade’s doctors pulled fifteen of his teeth and extracted bone chips. Washington emphasizes that Ebb Cade was one of many involuntary test subjects for radiation, participants who were often African Americans. The history of teeth is not exactly clean pearly-whites, and the state of dental health today indicated a society that uses teeth to mark differences among us.

Respecting Unearthed Bodies

When the remains of enslaved people are discovered years after the burial, how should we continue to treat the bodies? This is an interesting conflict because society today is dealing with human remains that date back hundreds of years. The issue now becomes how to respect the religious traditions of the deceased individuals with the little information provided for the deceased. Enslaved people were often buried haphazardly without any respect for the various faiths held by the individuals. If the enslaved people were denied basic human rights their entire life, then it seems highly unlikely that their dead bodies would have been treated any better at the time of burial.

The African Burial Grounds in Manhattan reminds us of how the disrespectful treatment toward black bodies has been a part of American history as early as the original 13 colonies. According to Alondra Nelson, Manhattan has been the site of burial for African American bodies since the late 1600s. The originally segregated cemetery was named “Negro Buriel Grounds,” designated for enslaved people in New Amsterdam whose deceased bodies were separated from the city’s inhabitants by Dutch colonists. The remains were buried in areas that weren’t considered a part of the city at the time. When New York expanded into what is now Lower Manhattan, the city was constructed literally right on top of these resting places. (Nelson, 44)

Years after the burial grounds existed beneath the city, the corpses were a shocking discovery to modern citizens. Although it was an important unearthing of history, the digging of these corpses was met with push back. According to Nelson, the Descendants of the African Burial Ground (an activist group) believed that archaeologists were disturbing sacred grounds while attributing racial prejudice to the methods used in handling the bodies. As a result of the various concerns raised about uncovering these bodies, there grew increased attention to preserving the bodies and respecting the many faiths of the deceased. (Nelson, 46)

There is now a public memorial to remind us of the injustices committed towards individuals left behind in the former “Negro Buriel Grounds.” After viewing a video tour of the African Burial Ground Memorial, I couldn’t help but notice its relatively small size for a monument of historical significance. Perhaps this was done by the memorial’s architects to provide a minimalist aesthetic to reflect on the deceased bodies. However, monuments such as Mount Rushmore and the Jefferson Memorial are far more grandiose and receive more attention as a result. Why is that the commemoration of a few privileged men is given a brighter spotlight than the countless bodies of enslaved people? The memorial is buried away in the concrete jungle of a modern city, making the task of awareness for history more difficult than it already is.

This issue is not limited to New York because slavery existed throughout much of American history. In a Huffington Post article, Nina Golgowski reports on a discovery of nearly 7,000 humans buried beneath the University of Mississippi Medical Center in the state’s capital city. The current university campus is located on land that once was home to the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum (1855-1935.) According to Mississippi State anthropology professor, Dr. Molly Zuckerman, the bodies remain from nearly 35,000 individuals institutionalized during the asylum’s operation.  

Like the corpses found in Manhattan, there are many questions yet to be answered. Why have so many records of these patients been lost over the years? Is the lack of documentation suggestive of a societal disregard for the lives of mental health patients? Ancestors of these patients, like the descendants of the African Burial Grounds, are now attempting to understand their family’s dark past. The issue for both groups, however, is that the large gap in time between burial and discovery makes identification an almost impossible task.

Constructing a memorial for the deceased patients is one way in which their lives can be remembered in a similar fashion to the African Burial Ground Memorial. Zuckerman points out that the research team responsible for the discovery of the 7,000 bodies is determined to identify the remains of every individual. They propose to create a memorial that commemorates the lives of the deceased along with a genealogy research facility to further education. However, the location of the graves on public land means that the public would be burdened with the cost of upwards to $21 million. My initial reaction was that such an expensive proposal would not be widely accepted by taxpayers. After some consideration, however, I am led to believe that opposition to these efforts ignores the historical significance of these disrespectful burials. Considering the perspective of descendants, we can sympathize with their desire for closure. Imagine not knowing the entire story of your family’s history, only to find out that your relatives were not given a proper burial.

Although each burial site discussed has a much different historical background, there are parallels that can be made between both groups of people. In the case of Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, Zuckerman states that many patients at the time “had relatives who couldn’t come and claim them or notified of their deaths in time.” The enslaved people of the “African Buriel Grounds” were left to a burial site that was not even considered part of the metropolitan area. The disregard for human bodies is a repeated offense throughout American history whose solutions will likely continue to be debated if more corpses are discovered.

Sources

Nelson, Alondra. “Ground Work.” The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, Beacon Press, 2016, pp. 43-52.

Golgowski, Nina. “Up To 7,000 Bodies Found Buried Beneath University Of Mississippi Medical Center.” Huffpost, www.huffpost.com/entry/bodies-buried-at-university-of-mississippi_n_5911d47fe4b05e1ca201e553. Accessed 5 December 2019.

Vodou and Zombies

            Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is best classified as a part of the horror genre. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the main characters are obligated to remove any skels that have survived. Whitehead uses terms to classify the fictional world he writes about while making it obvious enough to those of us that may not be familiar with the zombie genre.

Representation of the undead is often depicted in Westernized zombie-tropes, yet the genre is greatly influenced by Afro-Carribean literary traditions. The trope of zombies as representative of “undead” humans appear to have been the result of enslaved Africans expressing their fear of losing their native culture.

The history of “zombies” is far from the Western image of popular culture. According to the University of Michigan, the idea of zombies today from Haitian culture and religious practices. Religious diffusion resulted from the various belief systems brought from enslaved people via the slave trade. Vodou, commonly misnamed as voodoo, is one of the most popular religious traditions still widely celebrated on this island. The notion of a zombie comes from the belief that one’s soul can be subject to stay in this world, not being able to unite with ancestors until the gods grant permission. Becoming a Zonbi is metaphorical for a life that will be difficult and dangerous, so this figure becomes something that is feared. Given the extreme hardships and brutality that enslaved Africans faced, Vodou was a means of explaining the world.

 Zombies have become symbolic of humans living in a society that fails to recognize them as humans, and enslaved people were arguably treated as less than human. Although Whitehead writes a novel that is set in a very different world from ours, there are a few times where he could be suggesting that zombies are metaphorical of enslaved African people. In the beginning of the novel he describes the post-apocalyptic society: “untold Americans still walked the great out there, beyond order’s embrace, like slaves who didn’t know they’d been emancipated.” (48) It is unclear who Colson’s subject is that he writes about here, but this sentiment reminds me of the expression the fear in Vodou that Haitians had towards becoming a zonbi. Becoming a zonbi meant a life of hardships, so perhaps becoming enslaved is practically becoming undead. One can only imagine the fear that Africans may have felt when stripped from their homeland and forced into a society that treated them less than human. Belief systems became one of the few stabilities of life, Vodou’s influence reaching beyond Haitian mythology. In Zone One, religion is described as, “a taboo subject in former times, but now impromptu proselytizing sessions broke out…” (49) Even if an individual’s life was limited by slavery, religious beliefs seem to have remained strong for many people through the toughest times. Religion was influential in the forming of Haitian culture and Vodou, as evidenced by its current presence in film and novels. Zonbi or zombies are fictional representation of fear, but their significance to people are very real.

Sources: n.a. “Haiti and the Truth About Zombies.” University of Michigan, www.umich.edu/~uncanny/zombies.html. Accessed 21 November 2019.

Animal Experimentation

The scientific community has the responsibility of reporting research that benefits society at large. In the ideal world, scientific experiments would hold ethics to be a top priority. The reality is that animals are often used in testing for a variety of desired outcomes. Animal cruelty has been brought to national attention, but not all animals are recognized in these efforts. How we define animals influences what we deem as acceptable for their participation in experiments. 

The parasite, Diplostomum pseudospathaceum, affects larger organisms such as trout and birds. Although it is microscopic, the parasite has a complex life cycle that is marked by its presence in various stages of multiple species. It finds itself in a bird’s excretions, a part of a snail’s diet, and within the skin of a fish. Each species that the parasite infects is notably different from the other, however, the parasitic relationships are common for each animal.

If it’s directly impacting bigger animals, I’d suggest that it should be treated likewise, especially when considering its use in experiments. The experimentation by Nina Hafer, a German parasitologist, seems to believe otherwise. Scientists at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology infected an organism with mature and immature parasites. Hafer’s reasoning is that “ It contributes to showing how many traits and species can be affected by host manipulation, which should make it an important factor in how parasites alter the ecological interactions of their hosts.” The parasites are dangerous to the host organism, yet still used by scientists for their experiment. Even the word “manipulation” suggests that there is a control of one species by another. Humans are often controlling other animals as test subjects. Proponents of animal testing may argue that such acts are necessary for the advancement of science. They argue the need to examine results on other animals before determining its safety for humans.  

In most experiments that utilize animals, the test subject can not consent to the practice. Even if the process is as simple as observing the animal, the lack of consent is unethical. In addition to understanding the parasite, scientists have also conducted studies on the fish that become infected. Preston reports that “researchers simulated a bird attack by making a shadow swoop over the tank, the fish froze – but infected fish resumed swimming sooner than uninfected ones.” The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate how parasites can minimize a fish’s chance of survival. The fish, however, becomes an unconsenting subject in the act of experimentation. 

The ever-changing scientific world brings us new methods for approaching science every day. Without the numerous experiments by scientists, we wouldn’t be able to survive as a species. The drawback to modern science is the unethical experiments that are inflicted upon other animals. Any animal that is used for science is presupposed to be inferior to humans because they are subject to treatment that wouldn’t be acceptable for fellow humans.

Percival Everett’s “Zulus” and the Prison System

The conflicts that Alice faces in Zulus runs parallel with how prison inmates were medically treated during most of the 20th century. According to Medical Apartheid, the experimentation on prisoners in the United States was justified by the low social status of prisoners. An article in a 1910 publication of the Journal of the National Medical Association claimed that prisoners could atone for their sins towards society by becoming test subjects. (Washington, 245)This suggests that individuals in prisoners deserved to be medically tested on. It was the least they could do for being immoral. This attitude towards prisoners seems to be the one that the rebels in Zulus embrace. They target Alice for being the only non-sterile woman in their society, so she deserves to be treated like a specimen. Alice describes her first experience in captivity, “they put me in a room, a white room with no windows and they brought me food.” (113) This sounds almost identical to solitary confinement in a prison. Later on, Alice is decapitated at the camp and put on display in “a case, a cube, transparent glass on at least three sides.” (Everett, 183) What’s perhaps more disturbing than this imprisonment is the intentions of who she labels the “Body-members.” Rima asserts, “I’m going to get a baby from you. You will give the world a life, devil though you be.” (183) The insistence of the rebels to use Alice in a purely physical sense is similar to how doctors of the 20th century treated inmates. They stopped at nothing to take advantage of their test subjects, who were frequently African-American men. The lack of information provided to the subjects and the general public was a large factor in contributing to these injustices. Researchers often did not provide the “patient” their possible risks or details of the experiment. A level of deception was also required to ensure a smooth process for the investigators. Although test subjects at Holmesburg Prison were reassured that cosmetics products which were tested on them would only cause “minor irritation,” years later reports of baldness, skin scarring, and even internal organ damage were the reality. (261) Similar to the experimentation on slaves, this unethical research was not publicly known. With little education and income, the Black prisoners were essentially “legally invisible.” The medical treatments in prisons were yet another way in which African-Americans were kept confined in society’s birdcage. The secretive nature of the medical field, especially in prisons, causes such unfair treatment to prosper for so long. When Alice works at the hospital, there is also this sense of ambiguity in what the hospital really does. She asks Sue to help with the “medical supplies” but is dismissed to go back to work. Alice is nervous to talk about the smuggling of drugs, due to the unethical nature of it. Her only reassurance is provided in trusting the other characters. In the medical world, trust has been used by doctors to coerce their patients into dangerous treatments.

noticing racism and taking note of it

The course epigraph is quite powerful because it seems to be asking us, humanity, to think about issues that haunt our society. Since the beginning of our nation’s history, the injustices that have been weaponized against minority groups is unsettling. However, the courage of so many people to fight oppression is grounded in the fact that they did notice the ugly society around them. It’s more than just being aware of issues, anyone can see with their eyes. The challenge for us is to help others notice.

Most Americans have a decent knowledge of social injustices that African-Americans have faced since the first perilous journey of the transatlantic slave trade. Even today, unnerving videos of police brutality glares at us through iPhone screens. Prior to this class, I had a knowledge of African American history that was good…or so I thought. After reading Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, I realized that I had only just begun to notice the much darker truth about Black suffering in American history. Like the construction workers at the Medical College of Georgia, who discovered nearly ten thousand bones of former patients, I have just begun to discover the chilling bones of our inherently racist medical world. Like it or not, it is our job to notice the history of African-American medical treatment and (hopefully) encourage others to notice. 

Standards for what is considered racist have changed considerably over the years. Many doctors of the past believed that skin color was an indication of inferiority. They didn’t think twice about the humiliation of public display and invasion of privacy that allowed for medical dissection. Famed psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is known for his belief in “Negritude.” This held that black skin was a form of leprosy. Unlike the other doctors in Medical Apartheid, Washington asserts that his intentions were not racist. In fact, he was an active player in the abolition movement. His goal was to “cure” supposed diseases that made one’s skin color dark. By providing Black people with a treatment that lightens their complexion, then racism would no longer be an issue. Although Rush’s patients may not have consented to treatment and his approach still seems problematic, there was a legitimate effort to look at racism through a much different lens than others in his society.

This idea of separate black physiology was believed by scientists or doctors during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Granted, their views on race are much different than ours, but it was a step in the right direction. Another key player in helping society to notice racism was abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He spoke on the issue of scientists using unattractive Black people to compare against attractive White individuals. Beauty is a highly subjective term but Douglass was most likely using conventional beauty as a standard measurement. He drives this point home by claiming, “The importance of this criticism may not be apparent to all-to the black man it is very apparent.” (94) This quote shows that digging into social issues is an arduous task, but one that affects the lives of so many. Minority groups face oppression every day, so these issues are just a fact of life to them. When something becomes so commonplace, however, the necessary change is often neglected. 

Realizing that we have a conscious effort to be (or not to be) accepting of racial differences is something that all Americans must come to terms with. Simply knowing isn’t enough. The insight gained from various stories of African-American allows us to spread it into the majority. A “silent majority” is not nearly as disturbing as a blind majority. Anyone can speak what’s on their minds, but not all can observe the long-lasting effects. As the struggle for equality raged on through the years, the few that helped others to notice should be recognized. The single-story of an oppressive master takes up too much room on the stage while the valiant efforts of the few are shoved backstage. Maybe one of us can take the center stage someday and help others to notice what we notice.