Opinion: J. Marion Sims – Keeping White Supremacy on Its Pedestal

On Aug. 26, 2017 an unknown vandal spray-painted “racist” on the back of the J. Marion Sims statue and splashed red paint over his face. (Photo by Marina Ortiz via Virtual Boricua)

The East Harlem community was pleased to learn that Mayor Bill de Blasio had (finally) agreed with their seven-year call for the removal of the J. Marion Sims statue from its location on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

But, rather than abolishing the theme of a white southern doctor who experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or informed consent, the city has chosen to keep the Sims pedestal (and signage) in place with new language added “to provide context” for his work. This is an unacceptable insult to the East Harlem community – one which has robbed us of the possibility of creating an entirely new, more empowering, artistic vision for the site.

According to a Jan. 12 press release, the city will “relocate the statue to Green-Wood Cemetery and take several additional steps to inform the public of the origin of the statue and historical context, including the legacy of non-consensual medical experimentation on women of color broadly and Black women specifically that Sims has come to symbolize. These additional steps include: add informational plaques both to the relocated statue and existing pedestal to explain the origin of the statue, commission new artwork with public input that reflects issues raised by Sims legacy, and partner with a community organization to promote in-depth public dialogues on the history of non-consensual medical experimentation of people of color, particularly women.”

The placatory “move” comes in the wake of a public debate surrounding the removal of symbols of white supremacy. Although certainly not new, the topic did gain significant national media attention on June 27, 2015 when activist Bree Newsome removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House – 10 days after the murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston by self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof.

Community activists and legislators across the country stepped up their efforts even further after Aug. 12, 2017 when James Fields Jr. – a white neo-Nazi protesting the removal of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia – drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more.

While addressing the Charlottesville protests, Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Steve Benjamin also singled out J. Marion Sims. “I believe there are some statues on our state capitol I find wholly offensive,” he said. “The most offensive statue I find on our capital wasn’t a soldier, it’s J. Marion Sims, who’s considered to be the father of modern obstetrics and gynecology who tortured slave women and children for years as he developed his treatments for gynecology.”

The issue had thus broadened to the point where local opposition to symbols of white supremacy could no longer be dismissed as a matter of censorship or removing “art” for content – which had been the previous administration’s position. Mayor de Blasio then responded to the growing controversy – which included older protests against monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henri Philippe Pétain – by announcing the formation of a Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers in August 2017.

Not surprisingly, no further public action was taken by the administration until after the general election. In mid-November 2017, the Mayor’s Commission held hearings throughout the city – during which thousands presented testimonies on monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henri Philippe Pétain. Although the debates were often contentious – with dozens of anti-racist activists, progressive educators, and radical artists sounding off against conservative historians, “traditionalists,” and even members of the NYPD and FDNY – not a single person testified in defense of the Sims statue.

In January 2018, the Commission presented a Report to the City of New York with recommendations. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Mayor de Blasio then announced that only the Sims statue would be moved. The symbolic “move” was seen as a slap in the face by many who had for years maintained that the statue’s presence did a huge disservice to the neighborhood’s majority Black and Latino residents – groups that have historically been subjected to medical experiments without permission or regard for their well-being.

Although we are grateful for the mayor’s gesture, we are also displeased that the wishes of over 20,000 petitioners, activists, and legislators who strongly objected to the monument’s presence in our neighborhood have not been fully acknowledged. New York City should not be keeping White Supremacy on any pedestal – and certainly not in this community.

J. Marion Sims: ‘Savior of women’ or medical monster?

Dr. Sims is not our hero, and we don’t need any reminders of his barbarities. We bear the pain and burden of inter-generational trauma every day. There are many African American and Puerto Rican women (and men) who have made great medical and scientific contributions that have benefited the East Harlem community – Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias and Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, to name a few. These are the s/heroes residents would prefer to have children learn about as they stroll in Central Park, confident in the understanding that Black Lives Matter.

Nonetheless, we will take this opportunity to continue the dialogue on racism and violence against women of color that East Harlem Preservation helped initiate. We congratulate everyone involved in this effort and invite them to join us in calling for a new artistic vision for the site.

This opinion piece was originally published in Virtual Boricua.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: – Sims Statue Relocation Sparks Letter-Writing Campaign

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