In 2018, New York City officials ordered the removal of the Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims. Sims is the so-called father of gynecology, is perhaps best known for perfecting, in a grotesque way, the widely feared speculum — “the cold, clicking, duck-billed apparatus that lifts and separates the vaginal walls so a near-stranger can peer inside,” Rose Eveleth wrote of the instrument in a 2014 Atlantic article.
Eveleth explained that the idea for the modern speculum (there had been iterations on the basic idea for centuries prior) “came to Sims while treating a white patient who had been thrown from a horse. After he helped her ‘reposition her uterus,’ he had an idea. He fetched a slave, had her lay on her back with her legs up, and inserted the bent handle of a silver gravy spoon into her vagina.”
I learned about J. Marion Sims on Monday evening while interviewing Dr. Michelle J. Alexandre, an Oak Park physician who owns and operates a small family medical practice in Melrose Park that she said is on the brink of closure because of mounting debt and chronically late Medicare reimbursements.
At least 90 percent of Dr. Alexandre’s patients are Black and Brown and poor, she said. They can scarcely afford yet another loss of medical care. Last year, nearby Westlake Hospital — a roughly century-old community hospital that was one of the few places, say, a mentally ill homeless person who speaks only Spanish could go and feel understood — was bought by California investors and promptly closed down.
Dr. Alexandre, 48, said the hospital’s closure left many patients lost and confused. They didn’t know where to go, so they came to her for guidance. When COVID-19 forced the state into lockdown in March, Alexandre’s clinic closed for a few months before reopening in early June — but not before thrusting her patients, yet again, into a state of pained confusion.
She wants the state to do something to staunch the bleeding and relieve the pain before she’s forced to close her clinic (perhaps the government can start by paying the backlogged Medicare reimbursements it owes her, she said).
J. Marion Sims and his dreaded contraption came up while we were talking about the connection between racism and Black pain. Whether it’s Sims experimenting on enslaved women or Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck — both instances involved white people offloading physical pain onto Black people.
Too often Black pain — a fundamental fact of racism — is obscured by euphemisms and monuments, which are the opiates of white people, prompting them to doubt that our pain is even real, as opposed to one of their “Hollywood-movie ectoplasms,” as Ralph Ellison once said.
“What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past,” writes Caroline Randall Williams — whose white male ancestors raped her Black female ancestors — in her powerful essay, “My Body is a Confederate Monument,” which appeared in this past week’s New York Times.
“If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument,” Williams writes. “My skin is a monument.”
Dr. Alexandre said the myth that Black people have higher pain thresholds has even taken hold in our own heads.
“A lot of times with African-American and Latinx men, there’s a level of machismo — they don’t want to come to the doctor,” she said. “You’ll even see it with parents who bring their kids to the doctor and say, ‘Stop crying! I’ll give you something to cry about. You’re a big boy, you can handle it.’ We’re taught not to feel pain or even express pain, so it’s something that’s very deeply rooted.”
The Oak Park physician felt that rich, monumental legacy of whites discounting Black pain while she was in labor with her third child. Doctors at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, where she delivered all three of her daughters, sent her back home, she told me.
“My daughter was almost delivered on the Eisenhower Expressway,” she said. “Could that be because of race? ‘Oh, you’re fine, you’re fine. Just go home.’ If they did that to me, a physician, what are they doing to my patients? As a Black female physician, I owe it to my community to be here because, a lot of times, you’re not going to be believed. … Even with George Floyd — ‘We’re not hurting him. He can take it. He’s faking it.'”
Dr. Alexandre — who has dipped into her personal savings and mounted the burden of debt and risked financial insolvency to save a place she feels obligated to be — carries the weight of racism’s present and its past.
It is exhausting.
“I think society is tired,” she said. “That’s why we’ve seen the protesting and rioting. We’re tired of this. We don’t want to take this anymore.”
And it hurts.