Monday, December 3, 2012

Defining Blackness Lecture

I found Deirdre Cooper Owens’ lecture very interesting. It was titled, “Defining Blackness: Examining Slavery, Race, and Immigration in the Antebellum Era.” A lot of her work focused on Dr. James Marion Sims. Dr. Sims was a gynecologist in the 1800s. In the 1840s, he primarily experimented on slave women. He acquired about a half dozen female slaves to experiment on in hopes of “fixing” them to make them worth more in the future.
What interested me the most about Dr. Sims’ experiments, was his work with a white woman. Mary Smith was a young white immigrant from Ireland whom Dr. Sims performed many experiments on throughout the course of six years. In 1851, Dr. Sims published an article on his work with slaves and blacks. However, the majority of this article was about Mary Smith. Dr. Sims treated slaves and poor white immigrants the same and wrote about them solely as black in his works. This caught my attention because Dr. Sims seems to be making the claim that blacks and whites have the same “interworking” and are the same on the inside. This goes against what 19th century doctors believed.
Most 19th century doctors believed that black women were “over-sexed.” Black slaves were being forced to produce more and more slaves for their owners to raise and sell. To justify the over-sexing of female slaves, doctors came up with the idea that black women had less pain with labor and pregnancy because, due to natural selection, they had tougher bodies than white women. Therefore, they were meant to be slaves and breed slaves. They also believed that because a black woman’s body was tougher, it was acceptable for them to go right back to work after giving birth. The truth is, slaves couldn’t talk to a doctor about what was wrong with them or how much pain they were having during pregnancy. White doctors of the time just assumed they were capable of being used for breeding purposes.
I just can’t seem to get over the fact that Dr. Sims agreed with other doctors of his time that blacks had tougher and different bodies than whites, yet still counted white immigrants and black slaves as the same for his research. Dr. Sims is separating “different” bodies by social class instead of by the color of their skin. I am not saying that either is right, but how could blacks and whites be thought of as different both internally and externally if they were counted as the same for research purposes? 


  1. I also saw this lecture and thought it was very eye opening. Dr. Owen's use of pictures is what interested me the most about her lecture. She debated whether to show the graphic pictures or not but ultimately decided to. She reasoned that seeing pictures of the surgeries rather than just hearing about them would make them that much more real. The role of shock value was also thrown into play, for seeing actual pictures can make people truly believe the horrifying stories of the surgeries performed.
    In addition, I also found the justification to perform on some women rather than other women very baffling. The belief that blacks had "tougher" bodies that other women, and that low class white immigrants were also fine to be operated on, yet, white women of higher classes were too delicate to be involved, just blows my mind. I don't understand either how blacks and whites could be thought to have different bodies but could be operated on in the same ways. Obviously, white doctors of the time were willing to make any absurd justifications necessary to only experiment on blacks and low class whites. This shows that doctor's belief that whites and blacks had different bodies made no sense. Even if doctors only experimented on blacks and specific whites, the fact that they then would turn around and perform the same operations on higher-class whites proves that everyone’s bodies were the same.

  2. I too attended the Deidre Owens’ lecture, Defining Blackness: Examining Slavery, Race, and Immigration in the Antebellum Era. I was perplexed by both the gynecological experiments done by Dr. Sims as well as the treatment of his patients. The matter at which Dr. Sims handled his experiments reminded me of how modern scientists experiment on animals, such as mice and monkeys, in order to project the results an experiment will have on humans. However, blacks are not animals and their body structures and functions are no different than that of whites and other races. As you stated, Dr. Sims’ experiments contradicted everything most 19th century doctors believed. There is absolutely no way two creatures can be similar enough internally for research purposes but different enough externally to justify inferiority. Any doctor that believes that blacks and whites have the same internal structures must admit to himself that blacks and whites are equal. Instead of admitting the undeniable truth, doctors focused their attention elsewhere and concocted more stereotypes about their negro patients. I found it interesting that Owens mentioned that several of the medical stereotypes about blacks are still believed by doctors.