Gynecology and the Ungendering of Black Women

*This post is part of our online roundtable on C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. The author discusses the first chapter: ‘Anatomically Speaking: Ungendered Flesh and the Science of Sex.’

Black women successfully demanded the removal of Central Park’s statue of J. Marion Sims (Photo: BYP100).

On multiple occasions, I passed by 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City without fully taking in my surroundings. I had passed by the statue of an unmemorable man that faced the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem countless times and didn’t realize who I was passing, or what he/it was memorializing. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that this stranger was J. Marion Sims, a medical doctor from South Carolina who performed gynecological surgeries on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthesia in the middle part of the nineteenth century.

Earlier this year, activists from BYP 100 and other community members gathered in front of the statue located on the perimeter of Central Park to contextualize the “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims. Four Black women named Darializa Avila Chevalier, Jewel Cadet, Alexis Yeboah-Kodie, and Jamilah Felix stood in front of the statue (which was protected by a pedestrian barricade at the behest of the City) dressed in hospital gowns stained with faux blood at their midsections. They read excerpts from Sims’s autobiography, medical journals, and other historical material to show how his experimental medical procedure to repair tears in the vaginal walls that occurred during child birth were only possible because of chattel slavery and pornotropic visions of Black women as ever yielding, unfeeling “flesh,” detached from any sense of humanness.

That J. Marion Sims occupies the first chapter of C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides is no mistake. Snorton writes in the introduction that Black on Both Sides:

“is a meditation on an eclectic collection of materials, including mid-nineteenth- and twentieth-century medical illustrations, pickup notes, fugitive-slave narratives, Afromodernist literature, twentieth-century journalistic accounts of black people ‘exposed’ as living in/as different genders, true-crime books, documentary film, and poetry…It is an attempt to think more precisely about the connections within blackness and transness in the midst of ongoing black and trans death and against the backdrop of the rapid institutionalization of trans studies” (7).

Sims’s place, then, in this text operates as the gateway into the relationship between gender and race that readers encounter throughout.

Snorton is especially interested in outlining how part and parcel to the founding of the field of gynecology is chattel slavery. White women were considered human; Black women, on the other hand, were flesh—one is subject, the other is object (of experimentation). This brings us to the heart of Black on Both Sides: “to feel black in the diaspora…might be a trans experience” (8). To be Black is to possess a gender that is elusive, unrecognizable, but necessary for simultaneously establishing how white people in general, and white women specifically, embody true genderness or womanness, respectively.

The Black experience as the trans experience, in Snorton’s text, does not suggest that all Black people are trans, a kind of stable category that describes one kind of experience. Nor does he suggest that trans people all experience Blackness. These are the ontological formulations that he explicitly wants to avoid. Instead, his argument is that the social experience of being trans is akin to the social experience of being Black inasmuch as they both refer to the “thingification” of persons, to the removal of personhood and the societal assigning of fleshiness. As he states in the introduction: “I propose that ‘blackness’ is in apposition to Colebrook’s formulation of ‘trans’—that is, that they overlap in referentiality—inasmuch as blackness articulates the paradox of nonbeing, as expressed in its deployment as appositional flesh” (5). “Transference” and “nonbeing” should be guiding concepts for understanding Snorton’s argument regarding plantation logics of race and gender.

Chapter one of Black on Both Sides opens with a reading of what Snorton calls the “Sims archive,” (19) with particular attention to Sims’s “plantation hospital” – his makeshift laboratory. From assuming medical consent to denial of name, Sims’s lab, set up in the same quarters where enslaved people were forced to sleep, exemplifies the way that slavery marks a “critical context for VVF [the procedure described above] and its cure” (22) without directly indicating that “slavery was a necessary condition of VVF’s cure” (33). In other words, the circumstances that birthed gynecology would not have been possible without chattel slavery. Snorton here turns to Michel Foucault to help explain the tension in this complex relationship. Quoting Foucault, he writes that gynecology constitutes “‘a type of power…that can only function thanks to the formation of a knowledge that is both its effect and also a condition of its existence’” (33). Sims’s experimentation required bodies that were removed from their humanness, who could be operated on without analgesic, and who had no other choice than to be objects. In sum, the founding of the science of women’s health relied on the idea that some women were not women; they were less than. Sims, and thus gynecology, ungendered Black women by regarding them as less woman than their white counterparts. Not properly women, Black women inhabit a trans space.

During the beginning years of Sims’s experimentation, the science of the day ruled that Black women were more susceptible to VVF because of their race and as a result of their larger buttocks (19). However, as Snorton points out, Black women were more susceptible because of (the conditions of) their enslavement. He quotes health specialist Durrenda Ojanuga [Onolemhemhen]: “chattel persons were particularly at risk for VVF, because of ‘poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, and birth at an early age’” (19). Slavery thus creates the necessary conditions for VVF to take place and simultaneously creates the necessary conditions in which Sims can experiment.

It was not only a loss of proper gender that enslaved Black women experienced, but also a loss of name. Nonbeing meant one also lacked the proper continuativeness to be named as fully human or even named. This means that the enslaved are not worth calling by name or remembering by name. That one enslaved person can, and, indeed, does, stand in place of another enslaved person, without recognizing them as different persons or beings, further signifies their lack of proper humanness and their expendability. Sims does this in his autobiography when he conflates two of the three named women whom he experimented on. In discussing how he intended to send a Black woman named Betsey back to her enslaver, he misnames her as Lucy, one of the other named women he experimented on. Snorton describes it in this way: “The substitution of Betsey’s name for Lucy’s provides another view of how chattel slavery was a critical context for VVF and its cure, wherein the logics of fungibility gave rise to Lucy’s nominal interchangeability with Betsey’s” (22). Expendable, enslaved women were signified as non-human in all of its meanings, including their ability to manage pain without medication and their inability to be fully classified as women. Enslaved women inhabited a completely different sphere of life. Important to note here is how Snorton’s work in this chapter complements the work of scholars like Deirdre Cooper Owens and Hortense Spillers. His specific focus, though, on the potentials of this fungibility of Black people in the subsequent chapters is what makes his work distinct.

Snorton’s work brings to mind the power of the archive. As he dug through the “Sims archive” to investigate the history of plantation medicine, Black on Both Sides elicits questions about the nature of history, where it is enshrined, and what its enshrinement means for contemporary individuals. Just days before I finished writing this essay, the Confederate statue (often called “Silent Sam”) on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill was brought down by activists.1 Sam’s removal calls to mind the removal of Sims’s statue from Harlem and questions about erasing history.2 If Sims and Sam mean anything, it is that Black people and their history have never mattered. As Black transwomen are violently murdered and dead named in newspapers, one must consider the nature of fungibility in contemporary contexts. Moreover, how our context inherits the legacy of the plantation.

However, Snorton’s text does not end with death. Black on Both Sides is written in the wake of Black death, attempting to articulate “a vocabulary of black and trans life” that pushes against impositions that would seek to define Black life as Black death, per se (xiv). Snorton writes of a way forward in the face of Black death.

As discussions of statue removal embroil many parts of the country, it is worth noting that some would call this “erasing history,” because without Sims’s statue, how else would one learn about the history of gynecology? Certainly, the conclusion that tearing down statues erases history begs the question. Here we can formulate a new set of questions: Were not Black women gathered in front of 103rd and Fifth Ave on August 19, 2017, telling you about the crimes perpetrated against Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha, and several other unnamed enslaved women? Did Maya Little not pour her own blood on Silent Sam? Perhaps instead of statues dedicated to violent histories of enslavement, we should listen to the words of Black women when they speak.

  1. Please note how the News and Observer, a local newspaper in the Raleigh-Durham area, prefaces the video of the toppling with a warning about graphic content.
  2. The original title of the article, published on Nature’s online editorial website, read “Removing Statues of Historical Figures Risks Whitewashing History.” Since then, Nature has changed their headline noting how their original intention was obfuscated in it.
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Alejandro S. Escalante

Alejandro Escalante is a Ph.D. student researching gender and race in Caribbean religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is concurrently pursuing graduate certificates in Women’s and Gender Studies and Latin American Studies. His dissertation project centers on la fiesta de Santiago Apóstol in Loíza, Puerto Rico (a predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican town), where each July hundreds gather to celebrate the feast of St. James by parading his statues through the streets, accompanied by traditional food, music, and dance. Follow him on Twitter @aescalante0.

Comments on “Gynecology and the Ungendering of Black Women

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    I struggled with this chapter mightily–its graphic descriptions primarily–, so I thank you for your words and context here. I keep coming back to these words: “Black on Both Sides is written in the wake of Black death, attempting to articulate ‘a vocabulary of black and trans life’ that pushes against impositions that would seek to define Black life as Black death, per se (xiv). Snorton writes of a way forward in the face of Black death.” This is such a tremendous reminder–a lesson really–for my own writing and thinking . Thank you for bringing it so central in your commentary. And thank you for drawing me into a current moment of activism so deeply with your connection to Maya Little and the inquiry you raise at the very end. I appreciate these words so.

    • Avatar

      Thank you for your kind words, Rachel. I truly appreciate them.

      We truly live in tumultuous times here in Chapel Hill, NC. The day after this essay was posted, the UNC Board of Trustees proposed the funding of a $5.3 million building to house Silent Sam, which would cost $800,000 annually to maintain. That night, a protest was held and a strike is underway. Maya Little, who I mention in my essay, was charged with two misdemeanors, inciting a riot and assaulting a police officer. I was there, neither happened. A warrant was issued for her arrest and she turned herself in.

      Thinking about Maya Little, who is a scholar and historian, and Stalling’s essay, I can only think about how Black feminism has influenced Maya. If there is one thing that I took away from Snorton’s book is that relationship between scholarship and activism. As Stallings points out in her essay, Snorton begins “Black on Both Sides” (BoBS) with attention to Tamara Dominguez and Blake Brockington. Brockington’s words especially stuck with me through my reading of BoBS: “My family feels like this is a decision I made…They think, ‘You’re already black, why would you want to draw more attention to yourself?'” (x). The emphasis that Snorton puts on “already black” conjured up for me real feelings of the already presumed non-beingness of Black people. However, as I kept reading, it seemed like for me the attention to futurity was trying to draw on the already presumed death/non-being of Black people and showcase how future already exists for Blacks (maybe thinking through Schalk’s “Bodyminds Reimagined” here, too?).

      Maya Little, L.H. Stallings, and C. Riley Snorton all remind us of the importance of centering a Black feminist politic; one that is radically inclusive, non-linear, and open to new possibilities.

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