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Arts & Culture
Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Singing Fortune’s Bones

Fortune as he may have looked in life. Painted by William Westwood, a medical illustrator, based on Fortune's skeleton.
Collection of the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut.
Fortune as he may have looked in life. Painted by William Westwood, a medical illustrator, based on Fortune's skeleton.

This Sunday the Jeremy Winston Chorale will perform their concert “Black Bodies, Black Bones.” This features the Ohio premiere of “Fortune’s Bones: A Manumission Requiem. David Seitz traces Fortune’s story and the music.

For forty years, from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, a man’s skeleton hung on display at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. Children grew up fondly remembering their visits to see “Larry,” the name that was written on the skull. Only later did the museum researchers find out the skeleton was of an enslaved man in Waterbury. His name was Fortune, and his slave master was a doctor. When Fortune died in 1798, Doctor Porter boiled and bleached his bones to use for anatomy lessons.

“This was a new slant on the injustice, right?” says nationally renowned choral director, Jeremy Winston. “Because now we’re not just talking about the injustice of life and limiting one’s access to education and opportunity and freedom, but we’re also saying that even in death, there is an injustice.”

In 2003, Marilyn Nelson, an African American poet, wrote Fortune’s Bone’s: A Manumission Requiem. The title pulls together the joy and sorrow of black history. Manumission means the freeing of a slave, but here that freedom only comes from death, as sung in a requiem. Black composer Ysae Barnwell then put Nelson’s poetry to music.

The first voice we hear sing is Fortune’s wife Dinah. Each day, Doctor Porter’s wife orders Dinah to dust everything in the room where Fortune’s bones lay. Candace Potts sings the role of Dinah and describes this moment for her character. “You know, having to look at the person who caressed me and who hugged me, who loved me. And now, I’m brushing off his bones. I couldn’t even imagine how she made it through each day.”

The painting of Fortune as he may have looked in life was based on the photograph of his skeleton. Painted by medical illustrator William Westwood.
Collection of the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut.
The painting of Fortune as he may have looked in life was based on the photograph of his skeleton. Painted by medical illustrator William Westwood.

Tammy Kernoodle, professor of black women’s music says you can hear the suppressed anger in Dinah’s Lament. She traces this lament back to the rituals of many West African tribes. The ritual was built around people being able to express their anger,” Kernoodle explains.

“There always had to be some resolution with, you know, the exhortation or the performance of this anger. You know, sometimes a whoop, a holler, a moan, a stretch, you know, all of these things could have anger embedded in them," they said.

We also hear from the Doctor who dissects Fortune’s body, the doctor’s grandchildren who play with the bones, museum visitors to the unnamed skeleton, but the final solo belongs to Fortune. It’s called “Not My Bones” and is sung by Stanley Baldwin.

“Even though his bones are the only thing that remain of him, he is somebody,” Baldwin said. “He was a husband, he was a father, he was someone’s son, and his life has value. We shouldn’t be so mournful about it. It should be more of a celebration.”

Jeremy Winston, the choral director, agrees. “In the mistreatment or the ill treatment of Fortune’s bones, because you stole my bones and put them in a museum, it’s a reminder that yes, you ill-treated me, but you didn’t, did not, steal who I am.”

For Kernoodle, “Not My Bones” is the climax of Ysae Barnwell’s cantata. It pulses with African rhythms to underscore the message of freedom. Kernoodle reflects, “When you understand that you are not merely your body, it means that you cannot be contained, controlled, or named in limited ways. It’s resistance culture at it’s best.”

The Jeremy Winston Chorale will perform Fortune’s Bones this Sunday afternoon at the Kettering Adventist Church as part of their concert Black Bodies, Black Bones, which also features the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

For information on the concert visit: https://www.jeremywinstonchorale.com/

To learn more about the history of Fortune’s Bones visit: http://fortunestory.org/

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.