The Dehumanization of Human Bodies

In the course thus far, I’ve become most curious about the origin of the idea that one’s race would change the way their body works. This concept has been illustrated throughout medical practices with substantial coverage- perhaps not amongst the average population, but always in the scientific community. White practitioners have long harbored beliefs that suggest the anatomical difference of black bodies- but where exactly the first instance of this was is what I’m curious about. I also wonder if it was ever truly believed, or if it was just an excuse for extremely immoral, otherwise inexcusable practices.

As reflected in the latter half of chapter four, “The Surgical Theater,” of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, it was incredibly common for entirely white medical institutions to primarily use black bodies. Often, this was excused by the aforementioned idea that African Americans were medically unique. While these inherently prejudiced beliefs were also applied to other races, they were primarily held against African Americans due to the medical accessibility of their bodies. Enslaved persons were incredibly easy to get with a flashy license or some money- both of which were very easily attainable to a white medical professional. Washington also makes the point that a constant supply of black bodies was the key to medical success and breakthroughs. As early as the nineteenth century, it was commonplace for medical professionals of all concentrations to make public advertisements asking for enslaved persons- willing to pay hefty prices to obtain them. At this point, I don’t exactly find it necessary to specify ‘white’ practitioners, seeing as at the time, all medical positions were occupied by white persons. Except for the position upon the cold table, subject to the scalpel of morbid curiosity. It wouldn’t be until years after the incidents which Washington speaks of that African American individuals would be able to hold positions of any sort of power. While it’s easy to talk about how the concept of racial-medical differences has affected the industry, it isn’t nearly as easy to speak about its origin. Why was it believed that African American bodies were anatomically unique? Why were dissections- vivisections– so often performed on black persons in order to see the same organs that the white dissectors had in their bodies? Just because somebody may appear different externally- who were those men to suggest that their innards would differ as well? How little medical knowledge did they have to have to do what they did? Of course they knew

It is disgusting- to say the very least- that black families were deprived of their loved ones’ bodies and unable to give them proper, deserved resting places. Instead, they had to watch as their parents, children, brothers and sisters- lovers– were made spectacles. This was the case for the wife of Fortune- the real, othered, enslaved man honored in Fortune’s Bones, a manumission written by Marilyn Nelson, with notes and annotations by Pamela Espeland. “Dinah’s Lament,” a poem featured in the manumission, is told through the perspective of Dinah (Fortune’s wife) and describes in heart wrenching detail how she was made to dust and clean her late husband’s body. Her lover was made into a subject and only that by his former enslaver, a man named Preserved Porter. Another section of Nelson’s powerful manumission is told through the perspective of Porter, and it reflects the disturbing beliefs that were common in his career. The real question is whether Porter truly thought that Fortune’s body would be different when he began dissecting him- tearing his flesh from his body for his own benefit. Nelson writes from his perspective in a way that suggests he may have actually believed Fortune was anatomically different from himself, though. It is also possible that Nelson immersed herself so much in Porter’s mind that she included the aspect of him having convinced himself what he was doing was reasonable. The poem from Fortune’s Bones- “On Abrigador Hill-“ includes the repetition of the phrase “And I’ve been humbled by ignorance, humbled by ignorance.” This repetitive statement particularly sparks my curiosity. It is vague enough to theorize about, and yet so straightforward- at least, with it’s tone. Porter- or rather, Nelson’s representation of Porter- is coming to face something. Perhaps the fact that Fortune’s body is no different from his own, which he is realizing as he runs his hands over the arrangement of his organs- scrawls names on his bones. But one has to wonder, if he came to this realization, why did he continue? Why did he make a concerted effort to preserve Fortune’s remains- to keep them in the family so that future Porters could examine them as well? He had to have known what he was doing was grossly unnecessary and inexcusable. 

Whether we as the readers of both of these works are supposed to believe with certainty that nobody actually thought African American bodies would be any different from white bodies, or believe that maybe the concept may have even arisen from some misguided sort of good faith, is not explicitly stated. I’m almost certain that it was just an excuse so that medicinal institutions could get large amounts of subjects who had no legal power and would not be missed or defended by anyone with legal power. I picked this topic mainly because of Fortune’s Bones- and Marilyn Nelson’s presentation of Porter and his kind- white medical professionals. Nelson’s manumission had a profound effect on me as an individual. What we have read so far has been very influential overall, but poetry particularly strikes me as an individual. I think it’s interesting that supposedly, practitioners somehow ‘didn’t know any better.’ Somehow, even after taking apart millions of unwilling black people– these institutions were still curious. They still believed they were different- that they were inferior. Something that I brought up in class recently was that if these ‘scholarly’ persons ‘didn’t know any better,’ they wouldn’t have done what they did, and excused it in the same way every single time. As Washington mentions in the early-middle section of “The Surgical Theater,” medical students were specifically instructed on what to say and do in the case of being found out or accused of any sort of wrongdoing. They were told that what they were doing was wrong- or at the very least, that it was controversial. They should’ve inquired further as to why it was wrong, and surely, some of them did, especially coming to the end of the twentieth century. Now, the inherent racism of numerous medical institutions and practices is widely ignored. It isn’t addressed anymore. It doesn’t happen anymore- it’s a ‘different time,’ and racial-anatomical differences are an idea of the past. But they aren’t. Things still need to change.