Remembering Rightly: Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsy

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Two of the most important skills to learn when we begin to take repentance seriously are naming oppression and remembering rightly. It can be hard for most of us who were born with various privileges to learn to listen with skepticism to the way histories falsely construct our ideas about the world around us. Too often, the stories most of us learn to tell about the world have been crafted by people with power and privilege that overlook the struggles, pains, abuses, and oppressions of those whose beauty and natural agency have been stolen from them. It is becoming more and more common, however, to hear on mainstream media narratives of real truth from the underside that overturn the traditional and more common power-based method of storytelling. They are still few and far between, too few and too far between. But they are there.

Just this morning I heard a great example on NPR’s The Hidden Brain Podcast, hosted by Shankar Vedantam. The episode was “Remembering Anarcha.” The summary of the podcast on the NPR website explains:

There are three statues in the United States honoring Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician dubbed the father of modern gynecology. Invisible in his shadow are the enslaved women whom he experimented on. Today, they are unknown and unnamed except for three: Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey. This week, we grapple with their story and the troubling history of medical experimentation on African Americans.

While I would describe myself as a person who generally operates under a kind of “politics of dissent” approach to the world, I have only recently began to think more critically about medicine and “the altar of science.” Of course, I have long been critical of the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex and the way that doctors and medical institutions fail to take seriously the illnesses and livelihoods of the people at the margins of society. I have even, at least for a couple of years, began to think critically about mainstream science’s violence toward the lives of animals. But I had not really given much thought to the way science treats the human body, especially the human bodies of women, much less women with black bodies.

Thirty-four weeks ago my wife, Zion, became pregnant with our first daughter, Olivia Joey Sarang. As vegans with a more wholistic outlook on the human body, we naturally had a kind of skepticism toward our doctors’ approaches. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to trust them, it was just that, especially for my wife, it was hard to believe that they took our values seriously. We began to feel as if the doctors were annoyed by us being there. Now, let me be clear, they were never unkind. They were always polite and never acted in a way that was “unprofessional.” But it was clear that they were not prepared to handle long discussions with us about our options–particularly when it came to how my wife’s body would be cared for. Needless to say, we recently changed our birthing plans and have found a place where we feel–and it is how my wife feels that is most important–more comfortable.

So, anyway, back to the NPR podcast. The story of Sims (I almost hate to even give him the dignity of repeating his name) has really haunted me. The medical profession still continues to credit him as the “father of modern gynecology,” while refusing to tell the horror stories that give credit to the women he abused, repeatedly, in utterly horrific ways, in order to perfect the kind of techniques that would benefit women for generations to come.

To summarize the podcast, Sims was a physician in the mid-1800s who apparently provided “medical care” to many different women. He is credited with developing many of the techniques that would eventually become standard practices in gynecology. Yet, Sims used various women to experiment on, including Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy. Anarcha was experimented on, without drugs, and was operated on, perhaps, 34 times.

It is not the scientific method that should be on trial here, it is the method of science. Too often–and this is true for most of our society, even outside the scientific community–those with power and privilege are willing to sacrifice too much on the altar of “discovery,” or “science.”

It is stories like those of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betty that teach us to think differently about science, medicine, and the beauty of the female body. After hearing this piece, it will be hard for me to set with my wife in the birthing center and not remember the torture women have gone through–women whose stories almost always go unremembered–to teach modern medicine how to provide “medical care” for today’s women. But how can we, they, our society ever really care for the female human unless we begin to learn to tell the truth about how we came to learn the secrets of modern medicine? Until we can be clear that those secrets, even if they do bring benefit, were stolen. We must begin to remember rightly by not giving credit to the violent victors for their “discoveries,” but giving credit where it is really deserved, to those whose bodies have been sacrificed on the altar of modern medicine.

Here is that episode from the Hidden Brain podcast.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/466573011/467118470

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