History is the collection of significant events and turning points that are documented and stitched together in some sort of chronological order. Its function is to inform new societies about the modus operandi, the motivations, and the movements of old societies. At its best, history is cohesive and lacks ambiguity. It is consistent and honest in its depiction of the people, culture, and attitudes of yesteryear. At its worst it is duplicitous—shaped and shifted as far from fact as untruths usually are. Flawed history leads us astray. And often, the retelling of the Black past falls victim to the latter. It is failure due in part to an overarching culture that is disinclined to acknowledge Blackness as a profound entity; much less a subject of consideration worthy of historical accuracy. White history is a dishonest bitch—but then so is whiteness.
White history sings praises and erects statues and monuments to some of the foulest shit known to [Wo]mankind. Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy knew this savagery firsthand. Between the years 1843 and 1846, their Black bodies suffered under the ogle and gaze, poke and prod, scalpel and needle of MAD scientist and ain’t shit physician J. Marion Sims. In his ambitious quest to resolve Rectovaginal and Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF)—a condition resulting from obstructed childbirth that causes urine or feces to flow through the vagina—Sims acquired the usual sacrificial lambs: enslaved women.
Having endured chattel slavery—bondage, brutality, breeding, and harsh labor—Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy were subject to Sims’ medical violence, which involved a slew of vaginal surgeries void of anesthetics. None indeed. Anesthesia, available at the time, was not administered to them because of the racialized understanding that they were thick-skinned, tolerant of pain, superhuman—and well, Black. Yep. They were human science projects—slave-women exploited in the name of groundbreaking gynecological developments that we benefit from today. The most popular to date is the speculum.
To put this in its proper context, imagine yourself lying on a state-of-the-art exam table, wrapped in a paper gown, awaiting your annual Pap smear. Your gynecologist enters the room (with a female nurse, if he’s male), washes her or his hands with warm water for your tactile comfort, asks you to place your feet in those steel stirrups, suggests you relax, encourages you to take a few deep breathes, lubricates a speculum, inserts the ungodly instrument into your privates, and completes the procedure without incident. Routine. Dignified. Great.
Now, visualize Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, in the 19th century, perched atop a wooden table (held down by Sims’ medical assistant), disrobed (stripped butt-ass naked), spread eagle (forced in a prone jackknife or doggy-style position), surrounded by curious physicians (beneath the perverted white gaze), receiving a pelvic exam (having numerous fingers and metal speculums jammed up their vaginas), undergoing fistula repair (having a hole between their bladder or ass and vagina sewn closed with silver-wire sutures). Now, picture Anarcha, who underwent this process thirty… fucking… times… without that available ether, over three years, before it was finally perfected.
Routine. Dehumanized. Rape.
Of his own accounts, leaving nothing to the imagination, the bastard documented his abuses. In his memoir, Sims notes “Lucy’s agony was extreme…she was much prostrated and I thought she was going to die.”
Need I stress that anesthesia was available for these surgeries and subsequently used to repair VVF in white women? That’s ’cause white vaginas matter. Western culture is obsessed with preserving white vaginas. And though Black vaginas mattered to Sims, it was solely as a personal proving ground for his vile medical experiments.Regarding Sims' practices as merely unethical is like oversimplifying 9/11, Katrina, hellfire. Click To Tweet
Rogue whiteness and oppressive racism gave Sims the space and security to perform life-threatening procedures on unsedated Black women, who could not consent or contest because their Black skin did not belong to them. They’re bodies were acted upon—raped—without intervention. To regard Sims’ practices as merely unethical is like oversimplifying the 911 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the book of Revelations, hellfire. This Neanderthal fuck boy was a maniacal, brutish, fortuitous quack, performing recklessly, beneath the guise of modern medicine. Unsurprisingly, he is lifted into the stratosphere of Kanye-dom, for his gynecological advancements. Statues and memorials exists in his honor; several in New York City, Columbia, SC, and Montgomery, AL, but the monuments to his subjects Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy are invisible. You won’t see or hear of them either—because they don’t exist. No indeed. White history perverts Black history by casting these women, their service and pain, into obscurity.Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, Black women, shed blood for modern gynecology. Say their names. Click To Tweet
It is not enough for us to shake our heads in disgust or shed a few tears. Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy shed blood. Modern gynecology was born through their traumatized genitalia. Each woman is indeed its rightful mother. Whether we are scheduling annual Pap smears or exercising reproductive rights, we must remember each of them. We must honor them in our hearts and at our alters. Their existence must roll off our tongues. We must always say-their-names. Anarcha. Betsey. Lucy… and others.
Ida Harris is a journalist and cultural critic covering a range of topics that intersect with Blackness, including art, activism, pop culture, parenting and womanhood. Ida is especially known for her critical writing on sexual assault against Black women and girls. Her work is featured in ELLE , DAME , Blavity, Teen Vogue , and USA Today.