Gold Statues And Questionable Gynecologists – Memory In Public Space

Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha, Robert Thom. Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Pearson Museum.

The year is 1845 in America’s deep south. Gynecology is still a new field and there is little practical knowledge of the female anatomy. Physician J Marion Sims brings enslaved black women to his backyard Alabama hospital, grants himself access to their bodies and repeatedly performs excruciating surgeries on their sexual organs, without anesthesia, in the name of medical progress.

Lucy, Anarcha, Betsy (and many other women whose names have been lost to history) haven’t truly consented to Sims’ procedures because legally, they are the property of their white masters. Contrary to the argument some peddle, they don’t have an abnormally high threshold to pain because they are descended from Africans. They feel each cut of the scalpel and the pull of the thread as it’s woven through their flesh.

Despite the evident horrors of Sims’ work, there is a statue of him in modern-day Montgomery commemorating him as ‘the father of modern gynaecology’ and ‘benefactor of women’. Earlier this year, New York City removed a different sculpture of Sims amidst a heated debate on whether keeping statues of problematic historical figures endorses them or whether their removal erases an uncomfortable past we cannot change.

Statue honoring Dr. J. Marion Sims, Montgomery, Alabama. Photographer Unknown

Plaque on statue of J Marion Sims, Photo Credit: @kwglenn

 

At a recent Intelligence Squared debate that Museum Detox attended, journalist Afua Hirsch argued that the issue is not that the sculptures exist, but that clinging to the partial histories of the figures they represent stops us from confronting our dark past. Historian David Olusoga advocated that just as no one would ever dream of keeping up a sculpture of Hitler, we should remove the sculptures of those whose bad undoubtedly outweighs their good.  Writers Peter Frankopan and Tiffany Jenkins argued that the past is the past and implied the futility of such a debate.

But such a debate is not futile because public statues matter. There is so much power in symbols as demonstrated by the glittering ensemble that is the Prince Albert Memorial. A gilded bronze statue of Queen Victoria’s husband sits regally at the entrance to Kensington Park overseeing the majestic Royal Albert Hall, Victoria and Albert Museum and the rest of his miniature kingdom, ‘Albertopolis’.

Albert Memorial, Photo Credit: Travel Signposts

150 life-size or larger than life sculptures explode all over the 53m high sculpture. Clean white marble groups represent Europe, Africa, Asia and America as a symbol of Britain’s colonial conquests without hinting at how Victoria’s empire was fed in blood. We’re bombarded with more symbols of Medicine, Chemistry, Astronomy and Geometry which represent Prince Albert’s vast knowledge and by extension, that of the British too.

Drawing your eyes further upwards are gilded angels with arms outstretched to the heavens probably invoking more blessings on what they see below them. Such an ostentatious display purposefully evokes notions of Britain’s glorious past. This commemoration of Prince Albert is a boost to our national ego, as is Nelson’s towering column and Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square.

Churchill was a known racist and Nelson ‘used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters’, a euphemistic term for slave owner. There is no denying that these two men made tremendous contributions to British history just as Sims made life-changing discoveries in gynecology. We can never demand perfection from any human being, alive or dead, but there is an unhealthy desire to ignore the disturbing aspects of the behaviour of these men so that they can remain on their pedestals unquestioned.

History cannot be re-written but if we want to tell the entire truth within our public spaces, we need the adequate commemoration of all parties involved. The real heroes in the Sims stories are Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy.  The abuse their bodies went through resulted in a breakthrough in treating fistula and so surely they are the real benefactors of women deserving of commemoration?

Less than two miles away from the statue of J Marion Sims in Montgomery now stands the sobering National Memorial to Peace and Justice. Visitors meet with a harrowing group of seven life-size figures in shackles, chained together at the neck. Traces of the trauma their black bodies endured under their white masters are acknowledged in the rusty blood flowing from their necks. A woman reaches out in vain towards her husband while clutching her baby. The baby too can be torn from her at the whim of her proprietor. We’re shocked when we see such scenes on the Handmaid’s Tale but such horror has been the reality of so many others.

Nkyinkyim Installation, Kwame Akoto-Ba. Photo Credit: Human Pictures/Equal Justice Initiative

Being reminded of the atrocious acts that humans have committed should stop us from tolerating the abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable groups. Nelson promoted tyranny and exploitation in the Caribbean in the 18th century and just a few months ago, British citizens of Caribbean descent, who are largely pensioners, wrongly found themselves in a hostile environment being torn from the lives they worked hard and honestly to build. They weren’t seen as people but as mere numbers that had to be decreased in order in order to meet a few Home Office targets.

It may seem like a leap jumping from the issues in the United States to Nelson to the Windrush Generation but there is something to learn from the National Memorial to Justice and Peace. They are clarifying the line between America’s brutal past and the inequality in today’s society because injustice has a legacy.

There have been attitudes and narratives for centuries that have allowed us to tolerate injustice and suffering. We celebrate our efforts in abolishing slavery but are awfully silent about the preceding century and a half when, for incredible financial gain, we played a key role in the horrendous trade which dehumanised and hurt black people. In the month that it was once again reported that the Met Police ‘use force more often against black people’ we have to ask ourselves as a nation how violence against black bodies has been implicitly sanctioned.

Frankopan and Jenkins have the luxury of saying that we should leave the past where it is because they aren’t within the social groups whose histories and traumas are constantly being erased. As a Black-British woman, there are plenty of other things I would rather be talking about instead of slavery but silence won’t move our society forward. Let’s rightly celebrate our victories and achievements but never in exchange of the justice deserved by those that have been wronged along the way.

Chiedza is a Detoxer whose favourite topics of conversation (over slavery) include visual art, creativity and social change.

Images

Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha, Robert Thom. Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Pearson Museum.

Statue honoring Dr. J. Marion Sims, Montgomery, Alabama. Photographer Unknown

Plaque on statue of J Marion Sims, Photo Credit: @kwglenn

Albert Memorial, Photo Credit: Travel Signposts

Nkyinkyim Installation, Kwame Akoto-Ba. Photo Credit: Human Pictures/Equal Justice Initiative

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