Video: Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology, by Deirdre Cooper Owens

Event Recap

Friday, February 21, 2020

Flier for the Feb 21 Deidre Cooper Ownes talkDeirdre Cooper Owens, an Associate Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY and the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, presents a talk titled "Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology" at UC Berkeley on Feb. 21, 2020.

In her talk, Owens reveals the United States' genealogical origins regarding not only modern gynecology but also the history of reproductive medicine. She explains how the institution of American slavery was directly linked to the creation of reproductive medicine in the U.S. Dr. Cooper Owens provides context for how and why physicians denied black women their full humanity, yet valued them as “medical superbodies” highly suited for experimentation. Engaging with 19th-century ideas about so-called racial difference, Dr. Cooper Owens sheds light on the contemporary legacy of medical racism.

Transcript:

Denise Herd: So good afternoon, I'm Denise Herd. I'm a professor in the School of Public Health and I'm also the Associate Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute here at UC Berkeley. And so I'm really happy to welcome you here today for a talk by Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens. She's going to be talking about what genealogies reveal, slavery race and American gynecology. The talk is part of the Othering and Belonging Institute's research impact series, and we focus on developing conversations and hearing from scholars and researchers on various dimensions related to inclusiveness and social justice in the society. So, given our focus in the institute as a whole on human rights and justice, we will begin today's event with a land acknowledgment to the indigenous people who made our presence at this university possible. So, we recognize that UC Berkeley sits on the territory of the Huichin the ancestral and unseeded land of the Chochenyo Ohlone the successors of the historic and sovereign Verona Band of Alameda County. This land was and continues to be a great importance to the Ohlone people.

Denise Herd: We recognize that every member of the Berkeley community has and continues to benefit from the use and occupation of this land since the institution's founding in 1868. Consistent with our values of community and diversity, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and make visible the university's relationship to native peoples by offering this land acknowledgement, we affirm indigenous sovereignty and we'll work to hold the University of California Berkeley more accountable to the needs of American Indians and indigenous peoples. I'd also like to thank the staff at the Othering and Belong Institute, including Takiya Franklin, who contributed to this event as well as the staff here at the Banatao Auditorium. So this year, our series that we hold every year, on research to impact is focusing on the importance of commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves to the American colonies that later formed the basis of the United States of America.

Denise Herd: We began the academic year, I don't know how many of you are with us that were with us back in August, where we had a full day symposium on the legacy of slavery. So this semester, we're having conversations around specific topics relevant to the research areas of our faculty clusters which include educational inequalities, economic disparities, religious diversity, challenges to democracy, disability studies and inclusion of LGTBQ populations and health inequalities. And so all of those talks and all those other areas are coming up this spring. So, be on the lookout for them. So, the talk today is sponsored by our health inequities cluster and it's chaired by Professor Osagie Obasogie. Osagie didn't want to say anything, but he should at least stand up. So, I'm a medical anthropologist, I've been a longtime member of this cluster and I teach in this area. And so I know that the impact of slavery has had a tremendous effect on the practice of medicine and on public health.

Denise Herd: All of us working and doing research in this field are aware of the tremendous gaps in health in black and white health status that are partially shaped by the lack of health care access and quality. And that lack of health care access and quality is embedded in a larger context of structural and institutional racism. And so that template of structural and institutional racism in medicine was developed and practiced in slavery and includes a strong belief on the inherent biological differences between African Americans and whites. In other words, the belief that the races constitute separate species and also the belief that African Americans are biologically inferior. So, these beliefs were used to justify political and social domination in the slave based caste system in America. Examples of these beliefs include those of Benjamin Rush, who was considered the founding father of medicine, he taught that blackness was a form of leprosy. Other writers of the day claimed that African Americans were less likely to feel pain and can tolerate heat better than whites. And these beliefs are alive and well today unfortunately.

Denise Herd: For example, in a recent survey of 222 white medical students and residents about half indoors false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. And those who did also proceed blacks is feeling less pain than whites and were more likely to suggest inappropriate medical treatment for black patients. And this was according to a paper published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, as part of these belief systems and practices, unethical experimentation on African Americans was a hallmark of slavery that continues to hot medicine to this day and to also contribute to the poor health status and early mortality of contemporary African Americans. Professor Cooper Owens work provides much needed illumination on one of the most important areas of the impact of slavery on medical research and of the oppression of black women in developing the American medicine in Gynecology, American reproductiveness in Gynecology.

Denise Herd: So, we're really thrilled to have her here today. So, I'd now like to welcome my colleague Professor Anu Gomez to the stage, who is a member of the Health Disparities Faculty Cluster and also of our Reproductive Justice Working Group, and she will introduce Professor Cooper Owens.

Anu Gomez: Good afternoon everyone. So, it's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens. Dr. Cooper Owens is the Charles and Linda Wilson professor in the history of medicine and director of the humanities and medicine program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. She's also an Organization of American Historians distinguished lecturer, a popular public speaker. She has published essays, book chapters and blog pieces on a number of issues that concern African American experiences. Her first book Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology won the 2018 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the Organization of American Historians as the best book written in the African American Women's and Gender History.

Anu Gomez: Dr. Cooper Owens is also the director of the program in African American History at the library company of Philadelphia, the country's oldest cultural institution. Currently, she's working on a second book project that examines mental illness during the error of US slavery and also is writing a popular biography of Harriet Tubman that examines her through the lens of disability. As Time magazine has called her one of the country's most acclaimed experts in US history and she's steadily working towards making history more accessible and inspiring for all.

Anu Gomez: She believes that the job of the historian is to break the chains of ignorance, one lecture, one book and one lesson plan at a time. We are so lucky today to hear her talk about her work on the racialized history of reproductive medicine and the ways that it informs contemporary medical racism. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Cooper Owens.

Cooper Owens: Great, it's so wonderful to be here. I went to your rival to UCLA in the early 2000s and so I had never stepped foot on Berkeley's campus but it's a beautiful campus. Thank you for having me. So, I'd like to first start with how I came to this project. Because initially, when I began dissertation research and that was maybe 2005 ish. People are like, "I don't understand slavery and gynecology, what does that have to do with each other?" Because at that time, we didn't really know about Henrietta Lacks. We only know about Tuskegee. And so I remember I was moderating a conversation between genetical and James Lawson a Civil Rights pioneer in LA and like any good moderator is supposed to, I read a book genetical and Beverly Guy-Sheftall who was then a professor at Spelman had written called Gender Talk. And I was also taking, bless their hearts, a really boring class. I'm not going to name the historians, but it was on the scientific revolution.

Cooper Owens: And I was like, "If I read one more page about steam engine, I'm going to tear my hair out." So I was like, "Why am I taking this class? I don't do history of science." And so we're reading Gender Talk, in the middle of the book, there were about two or three sentences. And it mentioned this guy I'd never heard of before James Marion Sims, who was known as the father of American gynecology and it also mentioned his pioneering experimental work on enslaved women. So, I thought this is weird because A, I had a bachelor's degree from a black woman's college, not Spelman, Bennett College and a master's degree in African American studies from Clark Atlanta University. So, I thought here I was a graduate of two HBCU, historically black colleges and universities and I had never heard of this. So, I remember calling my mother who has a degree in professional biology and was a science teacher at the time and I was like, "Mother, had you ever heard of this guy and experiments on slaves?" And she said, "No."

Cooper Owens: And this is before the big debate about slaver enslave, back then we were saying slaves. So, she was like, "No." And so I thought, "I think this is a really good dissertation project." And so here we are 15 years later and I am talking about a subject where people are still shocked about the intersection of slavery and this particular branch of medicine. So, I like to give that story because I'm also really interested in laying out points of origin. And so that's where what genealogies reveal comes from. There's a political point where I want us to really understand that although there had been a branch of medicine called gynecology and obstetrics long before Sims had come along, the point of origin that makes the United States and the kind of Atlantic world really important is many of what were then called pioneering surgical developments, were literally done on the bodies of enslaved women.

Cooper Owens: And so I also have a personal reason. I grew up in South Carolina and Washington, DC. And my father worked for the National Archives for over 30 years. And my mother was like many black women in the late 70s roots came on and she was hooked. And so literally from now until then, my mother has been researching our family's history going all the way back to South Carolina to the 18th century when it was still a colony. So, genealogy has also been something that has been very present in my life. And it helps to provide context, which is what historians are supposed to do. Right? So, I said all of that because I want us to begin on the same page. So number one, I hope this is the clicker. All right good, because I need to walk around, I have a cold. That's the other thing Berkeley gave me too. It's a cold.

Cooper Owens: So how did I, a historian of slavery, who had never... This is a sad thing to admit, but I had never taken a class on US slavery or medicine when I was at UCLA and yet here I am, a historian of medicine and slavery, right? How did I become interested in this branch of medicine and also why was it relevant? How was it still relevant? Why does it resonate for so many people? Because I'll be honest with you, when I was studying people were kind of... This is before the budget crisis of the UC system and before the market kind of fell through. People were like, "She'll get a job she does slavery, there's always a need for slavery historian." And so I don't necessarily know if people were really interested in the topic, but all of a sudden, this topic and Sims in particular begins to resonate for a lot of Americans and I happen to be in the right place at the right time. So, I was living in Brooklyn, New York and working at Queens College.

Cooper Owens: And I remember in I think it was 2017, I started to get these calls and DMs, I don't get a lot of DMs, I'm middle aged, I'm married, my DMs are always like, "Can you do a talk at this place?" All right. It's never anything scintillating. So I'm like, "What in the world is going on?" And for those who might be my age or older DMs are direct messages into Twitter or Facebook. So I'm getting all of these messages that I typically don't get and I'm like, "What's going on?" And so people are really curious whether I had anything to do with this. So, this slide here is a picture of the James Marion Sims statue that was, now it's a past tense. At the easternmost corner of Central Park. And this part of Central Park is in East Harlem.

Cooper Owens: So, it's a largely Latinx and Afro Latinx community. And it is also directly across or was directly across in the New York Academy of Medicine, where Sims was a very prominent member. So, people are like, "Did you organize this?" And I'm like, "Organize what?" So, it's the F white supremacy rally. And you can look to my far left in the corner there's a red black and green fist that has BYP 100. The Black Youth Project 100. I couldn't have been involved if I wanted to because the cutoff age is 30. And that ship passed many moons ago. So, I was like, "No, I don't know what's going on." Well, this is the thing, all across the country, especially in the south, college students the age of many of you in here had been demanding that confederate statues be removed from their campus or they had been vandalized and we're trying to topple them themselves. So of course, those in the north thought were safe, except for James Marion Sims.

Cooper Owens: And the work of Marina Ortiz, who was the founder of the East Harlem Preservation Society, she had been since about 2008 is when I first learned of her work. She had been steadily calling for his removal. Right? So, this happens. All of a sudden, my editor from UGA Press contacts me, he said, "I think we need to ride this wave." And I'm like, "What wave?" And he was like, "It's going to blow up, we're going to release your book two months earlier." I was like, "Okay." And literally like that, I was transformed to the country's foremost historian on James, Marion Sims. And so my book is actually not about Sims at all right. But I wanted to do something, I wanted to be able to just like at the beginning of this talk, I wanted to be able to provide context, because I knew journalists would ask me one question, should the statue stay or should it be removed? And that's not what I was motivated to write about. I'm really interested in the lives of these historical actors, but more importantly what's the legacy that has been left? What do we have to contend with? And so I didn't play nice, right?

Cooper Owens: So, this is a picture many of you probably have seen if you haven't, this is what made the issue, even Marina Ortiz's work blow up. Jewel Cadet who was the person with the head wrap was the vice president of the New York Chapter of the black Youth Project 100. She staged this artistic and political protest. And so it brought a lot of attention to this particular contentious issue around Sims. Well, April 17th 2018, almost a year later, my DMs are blowing up again, I'm getting text messages. "Oh my God, did you have anything to do with this? Do you know what's happening?" I'm like, "What are you talking about?" A, it was my birthday. And clearly, I thought people loved me. They didn't, they were worried about Sims, Sims statue was being removed. And I was like, "My God!" So, there were a couple of things as a historian I didn't want to do. I didn't want to focus solely on Sims because my book was about the patience. But I recognize Sims would be the hook. And so I had to discuss him.

Cooper Owens: The other issue was for me, how do I remove myself from the safety of talking about dead people? A part of what I do and a part of the reason I was attracted to the 19th century, I was a journalism major in undergrad, a broadcast journalism major at that. And as much as I like talking, I didn't like talking face to face trying to extract information, because I hate it when people would lie to me or you could tell they were performing and so there was something about the comfort and safety of dealing with people where I had to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And so, for most historians who deal with dead folk, we don't often get asked our opinions about present day issues. And so I was really safe until I started doing these talks. And I started to have activists and medical practitioners and they were like, "Thank you very much, this is interesting. So, now what are we going to do about maternal morbidity? What are we going to do about infant mortality? What are we going to do about these inequities?"

Cooper Owens: So, I had to talk about Sims and I had to be able to have a conversation where I could put the past in literally intersected with the present, right? And so that's the beauty of the second Life of Medical Bondage. Because this dies down, this stuff is sensationalism. This dies down after a while and the journalists will stop calling and nobody's really asking you your opinion. The book literally gets a second life When doulas and midwives and nurses and OB-GYN ends and social justice activists, reproductive justice activists, birthing justice activists were really interested in understanding the history and being able to make this information applicable to the work that they're doing today. And so this has literally been kind of the second life of Medical Bondage. And a large part of why I didn't want to take the sensationalist track and solely focus on his statue, was because I didn't like the way that the questions were often set up. They were always set up either or. I come from African American Studies background for my master's degree.

Cooper Owens: And we always kind of shake our heads at the either or binary, because things are always more complicated than that. So if you say, "Was Sims a monster or was he some benevolent healer of white women?" The answers can be yes or no, I wasn't interested in that. Because for me, this was about making Sims exceptional and Sims was not exceptional at all. And I remember having to say this at the College of Charleston, where there is still an active James Marion Sims society. And the room was packed and there was a little contingent of these elderly white men with their arms folded looking at me, and I was like, "Oh, Lord." But at the end, they did a slow clap and they were like, "Very good, I learned a lot." So, even they were convinced that Sims wasn't exceptional. And the reason that I show Sims wasn't exceptional is because they had already been a thriving medical and cultural practice that Sims inherited. Dr. Herd talked about Benjamin Rush and I was like, "Wait, did she read my talk?" Because the father of American medicine is doing the same thing.

Cooper Owens: Black people are inherently different, except his cure for black people with leprosy was white people must show them a portion to fold of their humanity. So, that eventually because of the cold weather, and this is all based on hippocratic medicine, they can eventually kind of outgrow the defect of blackness. So, this had already been in the air in the Atlantic world. And so I was very clear to begin chapter one with an assessment of all the folk who came before Sims to show in fact, he wasn't that exceptional. So, I'll begin with these folks. Some of you know the names some of you might not be familiar with the names but I start off with George Cuvier and his relationship to Saartjie Baartman or Sara Baartman, who was the derisively known as the Hottentot Venus. Once again, I wasn't interested in the kind of spectacle of Baartman as this kind of sideshow circus freak that she became unfortunately, in Europe. I was really interested in how did Cuvier think about right about treat this woman as a medical specimen, because that's how he was assessing her.

Cooper Owens: And then I left France and I concentrated on this new nation called the United States of America and Ephraim McDowell another father, father of ovariotomy. So, he was the person who placed America the United States on the map medically although was derided. And I'll get into him a little bit, but he was known for removing ovarian tumors and also performing on record the first successful abdominal incision in surgery and the patient lives. John Peter Mettauer, early pioneer of vesicovaginal fistula. That's the operation and I'll explain what that is in a few that James Marion Sims pioneered. John Peter Mettauer had done the same surgery almost a decade before. And so he was also known as the father of American plastic surgery because of his work on the cleft palate. And then Francois Marie Prevost, I don't have a whole lot of information on him because most of the work he did was secluded in some cases. And also in the 18th century, but he becomes known as the father of the C-section.

Cooper Owens: Why is he so more important? He was French born just like Cuvier and he goes to France's most valuable economically worthy colony. And at the time it was Haiti. And he performs experimental surgeries on enslaved pregnant women to perform C-sections. Of course, many died. There was a thing that happened in 1804 and it wasn't quite safe for him to be there. It was called the Haitian Revolution. So, he's got daddles and go through another former French colony, Louisiana. And guess what he does, performs the same experimental work on enslaved women until he dies in the antebellum era. So, what I wanted to show was literally from the 18th century on, Sims is doing what others have done and it's not a kind of, "Well, he was just a product of his environment and of the age." It's not that at all. What I wanted to show was, he is literally reading the textbooks, the writings, getting trained by the very men who were colleagues these men. And that if we implicate Sims, you really have to implicate the entire system and structure, because Sims makes it easy to make him a historical Boogeyman.

Cooper Owens: And I'm not interested in that, because the way that structural racism is set up it's not about the individual, it's about the actual structure. And so when you see the structure of American gynecology was so deeply involved in slavery. We then have to pull apart those pieces as opposed to focusing on Sims. And so that's why I did not want him to be the central figure. And I started chapter one with a kind of examination of their lives, but also excavation of their work. But I also went to do a little thing called revisionist history. It's always been thrown about two scholars... You're all Berkeley's, so I know you all are aware of revisionist history labels, you elite liberals, you... So, I was like, "Let me take this label and own it and wear it because the information had always been wrong." People don't sometimes listen to grad students.

Cooper Owens: So, I knew when I had the book, I was like, "The first word, the first sentence on the first page will be..." The first hospital for women was on a little slave farm in Mount Meigs, Alabama, because I was revising an accurate information not based on what I think, it's based on what Sims wrote in his autobiography and also his article. And I even have pictures. I like to bring receipts. All right. So with that said, let's start. Now I can put on my professorial cap and we can go. All right. So, Saartjie Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus unfortunately, born in South Africa, she was a Khoikhoi woman, she was enslaved, she was more domestic slave, at 17 years old she was sold by her owner to his brother and business partner. The owner's brother's business partner was an Englishman.

Cooper Owens: Now, the earlier history was Saartjie Baatman was a smart woman. And so in conversation with these men, she decided that she would leave South Africa and go to Europe where she could become famous. And I'm like, "So a woman who was about to get married, who didn't speak English. In fact, lived in a country near the Indian Ocean might not have been aware there was Atlantic Ocean, decides... Oh yeah, right before her wedding, to just leave the only place that's home and go to Europe to make money!" Once again, I'm revising the history, because that's not accurate and that's not how slavery works. So, Saartjie Baartman was sold by her owner to his brother and his business partner. She goes over to Europe, she is literally made into this freak, she has to perform and dance and present herself nude or partially nude. And about two years later, she's sold to a Frenchman, who then is in conversation with Cuvier and she's placed in a menagerie. That's a place where plants and animals are housed and displayed.

Cooper Owens: So, you can see and the reason I picked this illustration is not to kind of re-inscribed the objectification but to show the ways that these European folk are fascinated and also repulsed by her. And then they're largely fascinated and repulsed, because she has a big butt, it's literally that simple. To the point where her physical structure is given a medical condition. She is said to have steatopygia an enlargement of the buttocks. And I was like, "Oh Lord, that's me and every woman in my family." So, they literally make her physical frame a medical condition. So, this is the way for me to start thinking about how are people thinking about Baartman in terms of medicine and biology. And so you see someone here who wants to touch her buttocks, another woman is literally at crouch looking at her knees gazing. There's someone trying to look at what's underneath the flap. Because Hottentot women were said to have a hot and top flap or an elongated labium because they were so different, supposedly than white women.

Cooper Owens: And there's even someone from my far left here, who is trying to tighten the gaze with a monocle. It's an illustration that symbolizes everything that we read, that we see about how these men particularly these men of science and medicine, were writing about black women's bodies. I'm sorry, I forgot. So, Cuvier when she is in a menagerie at the National Museum of Paris, Cuvier is intent on trying to examine Baartman and she resists, she resists, she resists and eventually dies at the age of 25. Literally hard life. Engaged in sex work, over uses alcohol and has venereal diseases as they were called then just a really rough life for someone who was so young. And when she dies, Cuvier has control of her body, her cadaver, and he performs the autopsy and he discovers there's no Hottentot hood. In fact, her skeleton looks like any other person. And so he removes her brain, he preserves it, puts it in a bell jar, he cuts out her genitalia, preserves it, puts it in a bell jar, takes out her skeleton preserves it.

Cooper Owens: It's on display and also used for educational purposes in the museum, the National Museum of France until 1974. She dies at the beginning of the 19th century. And just as an aside, when South Africans are finally and rightfully angry, they're like, "We want her remains, we want to bury her, according to her Khoikhoi custom. France has the audacity to say we don't know if you have the infrastructure to be able to hold her remains. Number one, they don't want to hold it, they want to bury her and you lost her remains in 1974. And so thankfully, in the 21st century her remains were sent back to South Africa. For me, it was interesting though, the ways in which Saartjie Baartman is now seen as a pathological or different human being, perhaps species. We don't know they're trying to figure it out. And what it does right through these notes and these writings, it sets the stage for how black women and enslaved people would be written about, thought about, treated for centuries to come.

Cooper Owens: And this brings us to Ephraim McDowell. Virginia born to her elite family, he then moves as a child with his family to the west, Kentucky. And he decides as a young man that he wants to become a doctor. And so his family says okay. And back then you didn't have to go to Med School. So, he and a friend decide they are going to apprentice for the local doctor. And I'm giving you this information, so that you can hold on to it because it makes sense. Remember, I like context. The doctor is known as the town drunk as well. So, they're apprenticing for the doctor and they're upset because apprentices and students at that time cannot touch patients. They literally have to just stand there and observe the doctor treat patients examine patients. And they're getting their information from observation and reading. And so McDowell and his friends are sick of this and they decide, "Okay, we actually want to learn about the body and anatomy and touch patients." They learned of the death of a recently expired enslaved man.

Cooper Owens: And so in the dark of night, they dig up this man's grave, it was actually a thing. It was called grave robbing. So, they dig up a grave and they exude the man's body and they perform an autopsy on the cadaver. But this is a small town. I grew up in a really small town in South Carolina. People are always watching you. Small towns then and now, somebody is always like this. So, they... Of course, you see somebody digging up a body that had recently expired and so folk tell. They run and tell. And when McDowell and his friend are confronted, they blame it on the doctor because of course, people will believe the town drunk did this. But the doctor has witnesses and so the town's folk are livid. McDowell's parents did what lots of folk do. They sent him away to the best medical school in the Western world. Edinburgh. So, that's his punishment. You get to go to Edinburgh to Medical School. And so he doesn't finish his course to study, but he comes back he establishes his practice and a white woman comes in a few years later, Mrs. Merrill.

Cooper Owens: No, I'm sorry, Mary Jane Todd Crawford. Excuse me. Mary Jane Todd Crawford comes in and she describes intense abdominal pain. And so her stomach is also swollen. And so he at first is wondering if she's pregnant, she says, "No, I had children before it doesn't feel like a pregnancy and I'm in so much pain." And so after speaking with her and her husband, the doctor decides that he'll need to perform surgery. But remember, he has a reputation, the town's folk are not really that trusting of him, because he was known as a grave robber. And so they catch wind of this and they want to tar and feather this man. So what he does, he and Mrs. Todd Crawford and her husband hatch a plan that on Christmas morning in 1809, she will come to his home which also serves as his hospital and he'll perform surgery then at 7:00 AM, because it's Christmas morning people are going to be sleeping with their families in church they're not going to be out.

Cooper Owens: And he performs a surgery that last a little bit over 20 minutes, he removes an ovarian tumor that was almost 22 pounds. And it was an abdominal based incision, no anesthesia, none of that. Because it's 1809 and this is the thing. Guess how people are operated on in 1809, conscious. What's the best way to know if your patient isn't going to bleed out or die, they can move, they can scream, they can resist. So, this is one of the things that I had to tell a lot of folk. Jewel Cadet, the woman with the head wrap, very different of mind, but when she was like, "That man didn't get them anesthesia." I was like, "Anesthesiology wasn't a branch of medicine." So, for a historian of medicine, if I made that the center of my critique, I would have been laughed out. The book would have been panned because I'm talking about something that folk who studied in the 19th century already know. You don't want your patient to bleed out or be asleep for we don't know how long. So, this is why they always had teams of surgical assistance to hold the patient down.

Cooper Owens: That's surgery, that was surgery back then. So, she survived. She was in her late 30s, early 40s at this time, the woman lives into her 70s. So, one would think he would run off and report this. Nope. He wants to make sure that he has perfected this surgical technique. So, Ephraim McDowell goes across the county in Danbarry Kentucky and he gets about five cases. All of them knee grasses in they were called in the article. One might have been a free woman of color but everybody else enslaved. And he performs these experiments from 1809 till around 1816, 1817. One person even dies, writes about it. One would think, "Uh oh, the United States is getting ready to get on the map. No, he is derided. And he's derided in one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, The Lancet. Dr. Johnson even says and I'm paraphrasing here, he says, "Well, of course, you will perform these experiments on knee grasses they bear the cutting of the knife with impunity, like dogs and rabbits. So, they bear cutting like dogs and rabbits.

Cooper Owens: And so once again, that's another moment where people are like, "Sims came up with this idea that black people didn't experience pain." I'm like, "No, it was there." People just believed black folk didn't experience pain for lots of reasons, thicker skin, you could go on and on and on. So, this is Ephraim McDowell. John Peter Mettauer, another name that's not as well known. Virginia born like McDowell to a family who was considered pretty elite. He even founds a medical school Randolph-Macon Medical College, is no longer in existence, but he even founds a Medical School. Mettauer who was a slave owner like McDowell, that's another thing that these men have in common. They all were slave owners and physicians. Mettauer is really confounded by this condition vesicovaginal fistula. Today is called obstetrical fistula. There's a pretty famous Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia. People learned about it from Oprah a few years ago. So, it's essentially the same condition. And what would happen is a woman is giving birth and it's considered a protracted labor process. And what that means is it's really long, lasts anywhere on average two, three days.

Cooper Owens: And so as you're trying to expel the fetus out, there's a lot of friction that goes on, especially in the upper vaginal area. And that friction creates fistula or holes, the bladder or vesicle is right above. And so the end result is incontinence. You can't die, it's not a deadly condition, but it was really common. And as we know, women who have a lot of babies and also a lot of miscarriages as well. So, there were two women, young women around the age of 19 or 20. One was an enslaved woman, one was a white woman. And Mettauer decides he's going to try to repair the fistula to suture the fistula. And so he begins experiments on them. So, he does the same thing for the white patient and the black patient. Same technique. The white patient has a chance to recuperate in the lying-in hospital, that means hospital for pregnant women or those who had recently given birth. Black patient, same thing. White patient is then cured, as he said, "She's fixed." The black patient, isn't.

Cooper Owens: And for me, I'm thinking about this, here's where the kind of social historian side of me, as a historian of slavery on women's history, I'm really interested in what this means between freedom and unfreedom. And for eight trials. So, a matter of years Mettauer continues to try to suture this woman and repair the fistula and it doesn't work. And he finally in the 1830s publishes an article in the American Journal of Medical Sciences, it's the same journal that Sims publishes in. And he says... And it's really transparent with his frustration, but for me as a modern historian, I was so happy right about his honesty, because he says, "The patient could have been cured in a matter of time had she stopped engaging in sexual intercourse." Sir, you own slaves, what enslaved woman can say, "No honey, not tonight I'm recuperating." They don't have control, they don't own themselves. You have legally defined them as movable property, not even as human beings. She doesn't have control over her own healing. And so you're saying if she stopped engaging in sexual intercourse, she could have been healed.

Cooper Owens: What this tells me is the difference between unfreedom and freedom is that when you are not free when you are owned by someone else, you don't even have a luxury of not engaging in sexual intercourse to heal yourself, to be allowed to be healed. And so for me as an historian of slavery, it was a really telling moment where there was no euphemistic language, none of that use in his frustration, he literally told us why she couldn't be healed. Once again, well before Sims. The person everybody's interested in. James Marion Sims. Unlike the others, he was not born into an elite family kind of middle class. Born in upcountry South Carolina and he first begins his medical study against his father's wishes at a medical college in South Carolina. He is really disappointed with the course of study and so he goes up north to Philadelphia to Thomas Jefferson University, there completes his degree moves back to South Carolina and starts kind of bustling medical practice.

Cooper Owens: What happens is... And I've had folk tell me about a book, I'm not going to Say the name of it, but there's a book where this author and it's also self published, where the author says, "Sims murdered two Negro infants." No, you had a really high chance of dying if you went to any doctor in the 19th century, which is why people hated to go to doctors in a 19th century. Because you go to a doctor, you might not come out alive. It was exploratory, it was risky. And so these two Negro infants have what was called trismus nascentium, essentially in the 19th century was called lockjaw. And so the Negro infants died, but it just Marion's, his reputation because nobody wants to go to a doctor where patients are dying. And so he leaves, moves out west with his family, to Alabama. And Sims writes in his autobiography, the story of my life, he had to build up his reputation, beginning with the rabble, a society poor whites, Jews and free inwards. This is from his autobiography.

Cooper Owens: So, after he builds up his reputation, he can then create his own hospital and his life changes when he just much like from Ephraim McDowell, when a white woman comes to him a Mrs. Merrill, who had fallen off a horse. After asking Mrs. Merrill who was in extreme pain, "Can I examine you?" Because it also wasn't normal for 19th century male doctor to vaginally examine a woman patient. So, she gives her consent and because once again, she gives consent because she can, because she's free and she's white. Consent didn't exist for enslaved people. So, oftentimes in the 21st century, people are like, "He didn't ask these enslaved people's consent." I'm like, "They were owned." You don't ask people who are considered legal property, whether they consent to anything, you go to their owners. So once again, I can't make that the central point of my scholarship, because my peers would deride me, because for us as historians, that's not a topic.

Cooper Owens: It's not that it's not important, but it's already established. If you are a scholar slavery, consent is not a thing for people who are enslaved. Just legally. So, he asked this woman she says yes, when he virginally examines her, he says, essentially this light bulb experience happens where he is reminded of a lecture he attended when he was at Thomas Jefferson, were if you allow through the vaginal opening, a widen of space the rush of air can reverse the uterus. I know I always get laughs, that's what he wrote. Read it. I'm telling you read his memoir. Every time I say this in front of medical practitioners, they laugh. So, he opens her up and a rush of air happens. He says she was even so embarrassed because they made it sound like flatulence and She thanked him because now her uterus was made right side up.

Cooper Owens: And she walked up out it there happy. But this is a moment where he now becomes a doctor of women's troubles. There was an enslaved woman who had been sent by her owner a day or two before in this hospital, she suffered from vesicovaginal fistula, and her owner rightly wanted her repaired because this is the other thing if I can put on my colonial history cap. European society for millennials, especially Western Europe, had a rule. If you were in a legitimate marriage or partnership, children inherited the status of their fathers. All of a sudden you find out how lucrative slavery is in these British colonial spaces and you change the rules in the 1680s and you say, "Wait a minute, now children inherit who are born to enslaved women inherit the condition of the mother. Because guess who the daddies were often, so they didn't care about the paternity. A white man could be the daddy of, a black man or indigenous man, but those men might have been free.

Cooper Owens: So, what that means is a black woman now passes on the condition of herself to her child. Up ends everything that a nation that was supposedly built on traditions and heritage was supposed to hold dear except when money was involved. And now it's turned on its head. So, this woman is set by her owner because he knows her womb literally carries his wealth. And so now, he needs her to be repaired. And Sims initially before Mrs. Merrill came said, "I can't help you." So, he said you can spend the night here but you got to go back to your owner, to your slave farmer plantation. But after this supposed intervention with Mrs. Merrill, he says, "Oh my gosh, if I could see..." And he writes this, "As no man had seen before, I might be able to solve this condition." So, he takes two pewter spoons and he opens up this enslaved woman's vaginal area so that he could see as he says with his nose as close, "My nose was as close to her as it was on my face and I saw as no man had seen before."

Cooper Owens: And he could see the holes, he could see the fistula. Now, later those two pewter spoons becomes a duckbill speculum. What he calls the Sims' speculum. If anybody has ever had a pap smear, that's the template. He didn't create the speculum, but he perfects it. So, he then once again I'm using Sims' words, "I canvass the county for cases, I get about a half a little more than a half dozen cases, all of enslaved women." Now this is where that... Remember that either or question? Because there are a couple of scholars, there not a whole lot of them. A couple of scholars who had said, "Anybody who wants to... Sims was not at least caring and benevolent. He takes on the cost of these enslaved women on his own." Sims was not a rich man and yes he was a slave owner, but he only owned a few. Now what Sims did was what a lot of slave owners did. He went to their owners and he said, "If you allow me to lease the slaves and help to repair them, I'll take on the cost. It had nothing to do with his benevolence.

Cooper Owens: It had everything to do with, "I'm not going to damage your property." And so Sims had a... Also, there was a cost benefit analysis if he can solve this condition, that means wealth can continue to be generated. So, Sims collects these cases and he says, "I had a little hospital built for myself." Now you see why I had to change that line. They said the first hospital for women was created in 1855 in New York, it was the New York State Hospital for Women. No, it wasn't. No, it wasn't. Sims wrote, "I had to have a little hospital built for myself." And this was it. Now this is a picture from 1895, but this was the same hospital where those experimental surgeries were began. And in 1895, it was sold to Nathan Bozeman, who was one of his surgical assistants and it was still being used for Negros at the turn of the century. Here's a little black girl here, there's a black woman who's washing clothes and an elderly black man sitting on the porch. So, in Mount Meigs, Alabama. He later finishes the experiments in Montgomery.

Cooper Owens: So, a lot of things come out of this almost five year experimental trial. The perfection of the Sims' speculum, he eventually cures in his language or finds a fix for vesicovaginal fistula. He tried everything. He tried silk sutures, which is what John Peter Mettauer had used. He tried to lead sutures. Eventually, he finds that silver sutures work best. Two and a half years after these experiments, he's failing, nobody's being healed. These women are responding to these experimental surgical developments in various ways. Either they're not being healed or their bodies are responding negatively. And so his two white surgical assistants leave him and this is the other point of contention, people are like, "Can you believe Sims' made these enslaved women work for him?" Yeah. What do you think slaves did? It's an economic labor system. Do you think when an enslaved person got sick, the owner is going to say, "We'll you go on and take a little nap. What do you need from me?" They weren't. Healthy, sick, it didn't matter. And so he did what any slave owner would do. He made his enslaved patients, his nurses and surgical assistants.

Cooper Owens: But now this is where I start to think about things. As a woman's historian and also historian of medicine. And I like a little bit of intellectual history too. Remember, the reigning scientific paradigm around these bodies is women are a subset of men, but black people are intellectually inferior. Well, if this is the case, why in the world would you train enslaved women to do the same work that white surgical assistants had done? Who were your apprentices and had gone to Medical School, unless you knew through practice everything that was written was not true. That's what I call racial cognitive dissonance. Is the same way you can say Jefferson can write about black people, black women in particular preferring to meet with animals, rather than having sex with black men in Africa, but you could build a secret bedroom next to yours and Monta Cello for Sally. Racial cognitive dissonance. The same way that they could experiment on black women's bodies who were supposedly inferior, but you knew that they had the same cervices, same uteri and you knew that whatever you developed on their bodies would be used to fix white bodies.

Cooper Owens: So, it's interesting that you have this set of really ignorant black women, also illiterate and yet they were the team that helped you actually develop the surgical technique that gives you fame. I'm like, "He kind of got it right when he worked with that team instead of those two surgical assistants." But you know, that's just me. So, there are a lot of things that you can read into this. You have to read between the lines when you do this kind of history because I don't have records from enslaved people. They're all records from the doctors, from the owners. So, I have to read between the lines, if black people didn't experience pain, why did you still need surgical assistance to restrain them? It's all there. You just have to... When you start to place the patients first, as opposed to the doctors, then you start to see things from another perspective. And that's all I did.

Cooper Owens: So after the surgery, boom Sims publishes this article on vesicovaginal fistula 1852. By 1855 world renowned, establishes the hospital in New York. There're all of these articles and tribute to him. This is one of them. Look at the nurse. Look at the patient. I'm like, "Unless everybody in Alabama looks white." If you see the pictures on people, typically they'll remember a picture sometimes they won't even remember the narrative or the text. Now the text was servitors, slaves, servants, Negresses, the pictures are of a white nurse who is essentially inserting the medical instrument while Sims just holds the patient who's fully clothed even has on shoes. And this is an enslaved person, Sims never said it wasn't. And Sims is also, I have to say that he's not the one who drew this, the editor and the illustrator decided that this was the image that would be used. Sims had worked on other enslaved people before doing oral surgeries. Always would cut illustrations of the enslaved person. Less we think once again he was unique. Remember the former surgical assistant he sold the hospital to? He publishes that article same place in Alabama.

Cooper Owens: And like I said, "Unless every enslaved person in Alabama looked white, there's an issue." All of a sudden you have a eraser of blackness and slavery from gynecology. So, now it made sense to me in 2005, when I was beginning this dissertation research, where people were like, "Why? There's nothing there." I don't want slavery in medicine. I don't see the connection." Well, of course, if we looked at the sources that were left for us, how would we know? There was literally an eraser that had been done. Now, I'm going to hurry up, because I want to get your questions and comments. This is the really interesting thing for me. So, if I can go back to the beginning when everybody thought I was doing all of this stuff to organize things and I was like, "No, I just wrote a book and had nothing to do with these protests." But what was really interesting now, a lot of the protests tended to focus on Sims not asking enslaved women for consent, the fact that he made enslaved people work as his nurses and surgical assistants.

Cooper Owens: And those tended to be the kind of ethical concerns that people had. Oh, and that he wanted to mangle the body of insane patient and I was like, "Slavery was propagated through black women. Trust me, a slave owning physician is not going to want to mangle any enslaved woman's reproductive organs." Why would you do that? How were slaves going to be born? How's your wealth going to be regenerated? Doesn't make sense for him to do that. And he entered into legal contracts with their owners. You do that you're going to get sued. He'll lose all his wealth. So, I had to say that and that's... I'm a black person if you hadn't noticed, I know we live in a Rachel Dolezal world, but I am black. I promise you. I promise you. Been black all my life. So, when I'm saying that people are like this, "Oh gosh! Is this a black woman defending Sims?" No, this is just a black woman telling you 19th century landscape and the facts. That's all I am. Because to me, I don't have to create a thing because what actually was, according to his writings is far more interesting to me.

Cooper Owens: Remember, this little hospital out of those half dozen women, one of them had a baby by white man. And the census had marked out of 17 slaves that he owned or leased, it marked one person is not Negro, but M mulatto. So, here I am putting the women first and not Sims. So, when I read the census, I wasn't reading it as a determination of how wealthy he was. I'd say, "Everybody else who had written on Sims had written about him before." "Oh, he owned at least 17 slaves, which meant his wealth was X, Y, and Z." I was like, "What if we look at it from a woman's point of view? How many were male? Five, all of them children." So, I can guesstimate that they're probably the children of the enslaved women.

Cooper Owens: And then I start to look at race. This is the 1850 census, N, N, N, N, N, N, N, N, M mulatto, the youngest person on the plantation. Little girl. So, that lets me know this little girl was born during the experimental trial. Now I don't know anything else. I don't know who her daddy was. Could be Sims, maybe it was one of the surgical assistants, maybe it was... I don't know, because the census can't tell you that. But I also know it's not outside the previews of normalcy for slave owning white men to have sex with an enslaved woman. That's the ethical concern. So, when Sims starts to write in his articles and his autobiography, "The community abandoned me and my surgical assistants left. During this time period, they started to say there were whispers that perhaps I was experimenting on these women like guinea pigs."

Cooper Owens: Now I'm a historian, I'm not a mathematician. I never did that well in math. However, I can't count. So I said, "Wait a minute, he starts talking about these people leaving him withdrawing support, resigning around the same time she would have gotten pregnant." All I can do is ask questions I may never get the answers to, but that for me became the more important ethical concern that during this experimental trial, a white man had access to an enslaved woman's body hearkens back to Mettauer, "Had she stopped engaging in sexual intercourse, perhaps she could have been healed in a matter of time." So, that's the question. For me, how do I keep the archives relevant and use the information that was left for us? And how do we attempt to read the silences Ula Taylor a wonderful historian has a great article on reading the silences especially when you're reading archival sources that don't come from the very people that you study.

Cooper Owens: So, those are the questions that I was left with, and that I still ponder and that centers biomedical ethics for me. It also was the thing that makes this really important. How do I put this in conversation with the present? What's the legacy of medical racism now? When Dr. Herd mentioned those stats, that was from... And I knew UVA is 2014 study. I can pick on UVA because I was a postdoc there. 2014 study published in 2016, makes a huge splash. And literally when I've taught this to students and Sharla Fett and I wrote a commentary for the American Journal of Public Health. And we also use those stats one of the anonymous reviewers. "Are you sure?" "Am I sure? Child,I got receipts I can give you all of them. Yeah, I'm sure." These people are literally being traded a premier institution much like UC Berkeley, where it is highly competitive to get in and they are coming out with the same information about black people as Sims and his colleagues did in the 1830s.

Cooper Owens: Incredible to me. And so when people were like, "What can we do?" I was like, "Number one stop raising your children to be anti-black." That's not me being hyperbolic, that study shows that. You literally are raising kids who are getting into elite spaces who have ideas from the 18th and 19th century. That's number one. So, we don't matter how well they're trained, if they have those beliefs that my black patients are inherently drug users, their pain, the manifestations of pain and articulations of pain are fake, they've been history on it, we can't believe them, they're on drugs, they have thicker skin, their blood coagulates more. The women are hyper-sexual lovalicious. All of this stuff is coming from Sims' time, from Cuvier's time, from a Mettauer's, from McDonald's time. And these are people in the 21st century, not the 20th 21st. So, that's number one. How do we raise people to not center anti-blackness? Because the thing is everything that had been about patient blaming, especially with black women, the white folk have been doing the same thing. Black women they're larger than white women. On average American woman wears a size 14 to 16.

Cooper Owens: I lived in one of the fattest states in the nation, Mississippi for five years trust you me. In the McDonald's line, you saw black and white women. I promise you, black people might have been eating this whole food, but white people were eating squash casserole and green bean casserole. Same thing literally. So, I'm like, "But black women are being punished for their diets?" How, when the average American woman is when double digits? Shoot, I'm in double digits, I'm considered obese medically. So, that's number one. Patient blaming. Same thing 18th, 19th century journals. Number two, it cuts across race for white women. And I don't want anybody, any woman any birthing person, I don't care who you are, what you are, no one should be dying when they're giving birth.

Cooper Owens: Their children shouldn't be dying when they're giving birth. So, that lets me know that for white women, the markers of education class, all of those things matter for black women it doesn't. CDC reported. Do you know who the most vulnerable person in the African American population to give birth and suffer from attempt maternal morbidity or high risk pregnancy? Someone like me, a black woman with a PhD. Once again that's anonymous of can't give us facts. Yeah, we give you lots of facts. Unfortunately, I met more risk than even a black woman with a high school diploma. So once again, the markers for black folk don't even measure up to the mark as were white folk, it doesn't matter about our education, our class, none of that. So, it has to be how does the medical profession change the way it looks at, treats, examines black folk where it's not replicating these 18th, 19th century ideals.

Cooper Owens: Number two. And in New York, where I still have a home in Brooklyn and in California, you all are actually ahead of the curve in many ways in terms of the ways that the state is taking very seriously the concerns of maternal morbidity, infant mortality. It's largely done by the work of reproductive justice and birth and justice activists and medical practitioners. So, I thank you I know some of you are here. Thank you, thank you. But these are the folk who are doing it. I did a BBC program. I was shocked this is happening in the UK. Same thing. Same thing. I like, "Jeez! It's safer for me to have a baby in the places that we like to denigrate?" Remember, Trump called them shithole countries. It's safer to be a black person in a so called shithole country and have a baby than it is in the US. If I could ever get pregnant, I'd rather go to Ghana, Rwanda, Nigeria and have a baby than in Brooklyn, New York, where the risk are higher. And that was startling for me.

Cooper Owens: In America, I want for the medical practitioners and you all probably notice I'm probably teaching it, repeating it and telling us to acquire form alliances within the United States. Immigrant groups do a really good job. Asian women kind of pan Asian across the board have much better numbers in terms of the maternal morbidity. When I found out I was like, "We need to be doing something, what are you all doing in your communities? Because you're doing it right." So, having those kinds of alliances as well helps. So, this is essentially why I am running myself ragged and kind of having these conversations because the past is really important, but how in the world do we make sense of it for the present crisis that we're in. And it takes all of us. So, the very things that historians of medicine have known for a really long time, other people haven't known and same thing with me, there're certain things I didn't know.

Cooper Owens: And so we have to be able to have these conversations outside of these kind of hallowed spaces and have a kind of accessible style of communication. So, you never really here me use a lot of jargon when I do I always define it, because I want everybody to be on the same page. And so I will stop with that. But I'll just say that, with me doing this work, it had led me literally to the realization that black women had stood as symbols for literally humanity and science. And so I was really, really... And I don't typically use this word, but I'll use it intentionally today, blessed to be able to have a subject matter that allowed me to show that. And also, I would like to dedicate this talk to the memory of Claudia Booker, who was a midwife who recently passed in DC. So, thank you very much.

Anu Gomez: We have about 10 minutes for questions. I can come around with this mic. If anyone would like to pose a question to our speaker.

Speaker 4: My question is, as a person that wants to enter the medical field... Can you hear me? As a person who wants to enter into the medical field how do we as an historian, how do we confront the structural legacies of medical racism from the perspective of medical education? Because I feel like there's a lot of implicit things that continue to perpetuate these 18th and 19th century ideals that are already just sort of embedded within how we train doctors. So, from an academic standpoint how as a student can you address those issues?

Cooper Owens: Yeah, that's a great question. I know I'm looking at Dr. Karen Scott, who is here if you just wave. Yeah, she's an OB-GYN and I think massive public health and all of these things, where she's entering the Academy. There's another dear colleague of mine in New York, Uche Blackstone who is also a black OB-GYN doing amazing work and she wrote a piece maybe a few weeks ago about why she left the Academy. I would say it has to be with medical education. I'm not the kind of person who's going to have a bullhorn and be in front of a statue. Jewel invited me for the year anniversary of that picture and I said my little piece and I was like this, "Let me take these buttons off and go to the..." Because I'm scary, that's who I am. I'm not trying to go argue with folk. But what I know I can do is help to change curriculum. And so that's where I can stay in my lane and also see it as advocacy.

Cooper Owens: So, I'm able to talk to... I just gave a talk about a week and a half, maybe two weeks ago in South Dakota, is even wider than Nebraska, where I live. And I was speaking to a group but also there was a little camera setup for the Med School. The chair, this white man from South Dakota originally, the chair the OB-GYN department was like, "I need you to write us something. We need to understand this, we need to do better." And so those are the kinds of things. What are the books that you suggest, what are the... So, I'm able to be in conversations with people because I'm also running a medical humanities program. I'm also able to change the curriculum in places where sometimes we don't think about racial health disparities. I am always going to hospitals and talking to people about what they can purchase in terms of the curriculum, Karen Scott and I are supposed to be doing some stuff to change the medical curriculum in California. So, she has some things where she's doing that. I do webinars.

Cooper Owens: So for me, it's about how do we supplement some of these really outdated books? How are we continuing professional development, particularly for hospitals in underserved communities where people just don't have access and time and they're kind of inundated with patients and work and all of those kinds of things. So, how do we create space for those folks to be able to continue to learn? It's a long hard trek, but I as an academic, I'm also constantly putting myself in places where I'm not just kind of speaking to other academics.... I mean not to say that and I'm at Berkeley, but I promise you, I'll give talks in different places as well and I have webinars. So, that tends to be the way for a lot of people who aren't able to afford those things and they're really interested in reading list as well. So I'm constantly doing that too.

Speaker 5: Thank you for your excellent talk-

Cooper Owens: Oh, you're welcome.

Speaker 5: ... and shout out to a fellow New Yorker. Well, roots to Southern but why I don't... You said what the crux of it is that the more educated African American women and then in England too are dying at higher rates, but why it's very counterintuitive. So, can you put some light on That?

Cooper Owens: Yeah.

Speaker 5: Thank you.

Cooper Owens: I get asked that a lot. And this is me... This is an educated guess, because I don't know. But my educated guess is the ways in which we interact with people who are not used to our presence. So for instance, I have had a lot of jobs before I became an academic and they were typically low wage earning jobs. So when I was a receptionist, when I did manual labor, even when I taught fourth grade, people had an expectation that I was supposed to be in those environments. Now, when I go to places it is, "I can do, I don't have kids, I got a little bit of disposable income. So, I'm almost always in first class." And I can see that there are people who are visibly upset I'm in that space with them. They don't say it, but I'm like, "I've been black for 47 years and I'm also a black person who's married to a black man who looks super white." He look like his white Mama and sound like his black daddy.

Cooper Owens: So, I have a hypersensitivity and awareness to how people treat me and how they respond to me because for 20 plus years of my Life, I've been with a person who looks white. And so I'm always looking at that and I absorb it in ways that my sister who is in a public school system in a largely black city, oftentimes will go places and I'm like, "Did you notice how that person spoke to you?" And she's like, "No." Because also she doesn't go to the restaurants that I tend to go to. She doesn't go to the stores that I go to. She's not writing... She doesn't take plane rides. So, I think sometimes just by the very space that I occupy, I'm almost always the only person who looks like me. I am the only person of color in my entire department at Nebraska, who is not affiliated with the ethnic studies program. I am one of two black women in the entire country who runs a medical humanities program. I work at a place that library company of Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin founded in 1731. So, I am almost always the only person who looks like me unfortunately.

Cooper Owens: And so when you're in those spaces all the time, you absorb things and you are treated in a way where it impacts you on a cellular level. So when I go home, I'm very clear. I only look at Black shows, I'm for real. I've seen every episode of Good Times and... I know they're not even good Black shows many of them, but I just want to see Black people, because I don't get to see myself. I write about... I have to teach the history of Western Medical Tradition. I'm talking about Greece and Rome. So, I think it is largely because of these experiences that tend to be really unique experiences and they're these racial and class intersections that can be quite deadly. And so there are lots of... But those are just kind of some of my observations and some of my kind of ruminations and hypotheses on it.

Cooper Owens: My life was a little less complicated on the class divide. And I'm not trying to in any way romanticize poverty, but when I had those low wage earning jobs, there's a particular way I think the people who don't have money kind of expect to be treated, you don't expect to be treated well anyway. And so when I got a little teeny bit more, I was shocked. I think that there was a lot more resentment. And so a lot of the resentment comes about because of who I am and the places that I can access.

Speaker 6: Hi.

Cooper Owens: Hello.

Speaker 6: Thank you so much.

Cooper Owens: You're welcome.

Speaker 6: I am a doula and a student of Midwifery at UCSF.

Cooper Owens: Oh, wow! I spoke there almost a year ago. Yes.

Speaker 6: My question for you is how you feel that gynecologic providers can address this legacy and address the silence in the work that we want to do. 

Cooper Owens: Thank you. Thank you for your work. I think some of them just don't know. They don't think this is important. This is the humanities part that they don't think is important. Sharla Fett and I begin our public health commentary piece and it was me who kind of set this up with Ralph Northam, the governor in Virginia, who became infamous because of the photos of him in blackface and he addressed it. I mean, what can you do? Photos of him. But then he says, "But I'm a doctor and it takes a doctor to heal the nation." I was like, "Sir, you were a doctor in Med School with blackface and you were a pediatric surgeon at that. And you couldn't even see coming from that environment." He couldn't even see how anti-blackness was infused in his being. Because it was so normal for him. I went to high school in South Carolina across the street from a cotton field. I messed that was the golden bowl weasel. That's how country I am. And I recognize race in that way and racism in that way.

Cooper Owens: And so I think many of them just don't know, they think, "Oh, we're here to help people." But they don't recognize the kind of power of anti-blackness but also the fact that they don't like poor people. And so they will treat patients horribly because they don't speak a certain way or dress a certain way. I do public speaking all the time and I've been in doctors offices and they will literally, "Well, I don't understand you." And I was like, "That's funny because I just got a $10,000 cheque for speaking. But you don't understand my words. Really? Oh, okay." So, it's that kind of thing. And then all of a sudden, "What do you do again?" "Oh, my goodness. Wow, what an interesting topic," but just a few minutes ago, you were yelling at me as if I was a mumble rapper.

Cooper Owens: So, they don't know. So unfortunately, we have to be able to continue to say, "Why don't we have this person come or this workshop? Or what about this book as a supplementary book?" Or if you have a reading room library in there, create spaces where they're available, but we have to keep making noise.

Anu Gomez: We have two final questions. So Dr. Marshall over there.

Marshall: Thank you so much for this.

Cooper Owens: You're welcome.

Marshall: I feel blessed really from hearing you speak.

Cooper Owens: Oh, thank you.

Marshall: Thank you. I'm a public health person. So my team tendency is to want to ask a health question but I'm not going to.

Cooper Owens: Good girl, I'm a historian, I write about dead people. Go ahead.

Marshall: I'm going to ask you something different, which is I loved your discussion of exceptionalism. And I think we have this tendency to do this in a lot of species. And I'm wondering, which I think is a way that people, my thought on it is it allows us not to confront what's really there. And like you said, see it on a structural level. So, I guess my question for you is when you're speaking and you're doing your work, how do you confront this tendency to make people exceptional?

Cooper Owens: Yeah. So I always say, and this is a joke. The only person I consider exceptional is Harriet Tubman, but there are lots of reasons why. But most folk are not most folk are not. And it's easy because I think, when we study the past, we want to have good guys and bad guys. And the world is much more complicated than that. And so we also can't say we have to attack these structural things, whatever the things are, that we define them to be, but yet you want to just focus on this one person. And so I remember being on a panel with a couple of activists in New York and they were like, "We're going to do this to the same statue." And I was like, "Okay, and then you're going to have to go to Columbus and then you're going to have to go to the Daniel Webster one and then you're going to have to go to the Teddy Roosevelt one and then you're going to have to go to... Because Sims is no worse than anybody else who did all of those things back then. He's one in the number.

Cooper Owens: And so for me, it's about are we going... And I'm not... And I don't want people to take this as me putting down their work. I'm not doing that at all. I'm happy the community spoke and people responded to the community's demands. However, the focus on Sims can have us lose sight of what's really important. And so for me, what was really important was this. That's what we're still dealing with. So, whether his statue was there or not, these numbers haven't changed. So, how do we get these numbers to change? So, that's what I had to be focused on and exceptionality narratives, once again it kind of reduces things to a kind of historical boogeyman or woman or person. And I'm not necessarily focused on that in my research at this point. And it doesn't interest me as much.

Ife Chuku: Thank you so much for your talk. I'm a Nigerian undergrad here and I hear you in regards to thinking about building alliances across communities and immigrant communities and sort of this mystery around childbirth and women's health and the way that traditions, I'm happy that they're starting to come up again, but they've sort of been demonized in a way and medicine has sort of brought up this idea that this is more pure, when you give birth in a delivery room, that's more sterile and all these ideologies. And I'm also wondering in terms of communities building alliances, I also know that colorism is a big thing when it comes to taking care of women and taking care of poor women in particular. Of course colorism also ties into income levels and educational access and just ease of life in general. How do we as black women start to address these things within our own selves and within our communities in terms of healing and sort of getting to a place where there's this understanding that we're all we've got essentially in terms of thinking about ancestral heritage and these really, really traditional ways of taking care of ourselves?

Cooper Owens: Thank you. What's your name?

Ife Chuku: Ife Chuku.

Cooper Owens: Ife Chuku?

Ife Chuku: Yes.

Cooper Owens: Girl you just answered your question. You literally did. You answered it. You discussed it, you have community, you build community. In terms of the colorism and the set it's there unfortunately. I think we are a lot more open about it, we are discussing it, people are I think a lot more open to rebuking those who invoke that foolishness. So, that's wonderful I think. But in terms of I don't know how it is in Berkeley, but I do know, when I lived in Brooklyn, there was a real divide between people who were African born and Caribbean born and those who were American born and not the children of immigrant folk. And so I always have to remind them SUNY Downstate, which is in Brooklyn and in New York, I was like, "Guess who the black folk whose numbers resemble those?" They're Haitian and Jamaican. Because those doctors don't care about your ethnic background, all they see is black.

Cooper Owens: So, it makes sense for us to be able to have community and allies ship around those things because a lot of folk are coming from where I'm from. In my hometown, everybody can almost change trace their ancestry to their county to the 18th century when it was a colony. I live in a very black white world in South Carolina. So, this room looks very different. If you say, Caribbean, they're like, "What?" They know West Indian and that means Jamaican. They say Spanish speaking, that means you're Spanish, you're Puerto Rican or maybe Mexican. It is a world that is solely black and white and families have been there for centuries. So I'm constantly having to tell people in Brooklyn that the rest of America doesn't look like Brooklyn or Berkeley. And so I think in these spaces where you are, you just build alliances. You build alliances and you hear each other out. That's where you start. But other stuff, you are like, "We are, we got we..." I was like, "Okay, check one check two, you said it all. I was like, "Yeah." So, thank you.

Anu Gomez: Thank you Dr. Cooper Owens and everyone for attending today's, let's give her another round of applause

 

Resource Type: