Friday, September 13, 2013

Race Relations

There's been a lot in the news this week about the burial of Mr. Fortune, a man who was enslaved in Waterbury more than 200 years ago. About a decade ago, when I worked at the Mattatuck Museum, I spent a lot of time researching his life, his family, and the lives of other people who were enslaved here. I spent a lot of time with his skeleton, handling the bones, assisting with the project as I could. I spent a lot of time wondering exactly what happened when he died, what happened to his flesh after it was stripped from the bones, how his wife and children reacted to the trauma of his death and dismemberment.

His story has stayed with me all these years. Every so often, I pour through archival records, looking for any hint of what happened to Dinah, Roxa, Mira, Jacob, and Africa. They all left or were sent away from Waterbury soon after Fortune's death. How could they stay with his bones lying out for them to see?

I wasn't able to attend the funeral this week (I had to work in Norwalk), but I read every news article I could find. It was so powerful, so moving, to see how many people attended the funeral, to see how many people were touched by Fortune's story.

Earlier today, someone posted a link on Facebook and Twitter to Mr. Fortune's obituary in the Rep-Am . I hadn't read it yet, so I clicked on the link. The obituary was sparse, and I soon found myself reading three comments posted by anonymous readers. The comments made me ill. The "authors" were apparently outraged that an African American, who had suffered outrageous treatment sanctioned by the state during his life and during his death, was finally being honored and laid to rest. A sacred moment in history was being denigrated by a trio of ignorant people who were more concerned about pushing their agenda than respecting the weight of history.

I normally avoid engaging internet trolls in any form of discussion, but I felt obligated to at least try to show them why the events of this week, of Mr. Fortune lying in state at the Capitol, of being escorted back to Waterbury, of his funeral being national news, were so important. Weirdly, the most long-winded of the trio accused me of being a racist and claimed that I had accused him of the same.

Perhaps foolishly, I read more of the comments posted to articles about Fortune on the Rep-Am website. Many of them were steeped in disturbing resentment towards African Americans. I've been pondering this all evening. How could such a powerful, beautiful day inspire such venom?

We've come a long way in race relations, but we still have a ways to go.

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