I used to walk past the statue of Marion Sims in Central Park. When I first looked him up in 2012, he was the father of modern gynecology, the founder of New York’s first women’s hospital, the 19th century surgeon who perfected a technique that today still saves the lives of third-world women.
When I checked his biography again in 2018, he had become a racist misogynist who conducted medical experiments without anesthesia on enslaved women. His statue was removed from Central Park while protesters chanted their “ancestors can rest” and “believe black women.” I’m glad they just got rid of the statue instead of putting up a modern plaque “explaining” it in woke-talk.
The thing is Sims did all that he was said to have done. He developed surgical tools and techniques still used today. He did surgeries on both free white women and enslaved black women, mostly without anesthesia in part because anesthesia was not in wide use at the time and in part because he subscribed to the racist theory of his time that blacks did not suffer pain the same way whites did. His often life-saving surgeries (on blacks) have been relabeled “medical experiments” to connect them to Nazi horrors, purposefully ignoring the difference between non-therapeutic and therapeutic procedure and leaving his white patients who died out of the story altogether. Easier that way.
Also left out of the ranting is primary documentation suggesting Sims’ original patients—black and white—were willing participants in his attempts to cure vesicovaginal fistula, a condition for which no other viable therapy existed until Sims invented it. That meant they would have died without his surgery.
I’ll confess there are times that I, too, struggle with Jefferson. No one is anyone but a beginner on the road to Galilee, but Jefferson’s gifts contrasted with his cruelty make him among the hardest to understand. Yet Jefferson the slave owner did not pass that portion of his ideas to our future. He, Mason, and the other Founders created a system which would eventually correct itself and eliminate slavery. Evil was defeated at great cost but we seem unable to let it die.
We crave simplicity in our history when there is only complexity. It is ridiculous to ignore world-changing accomplishments thinking that will somehow fix our racial problems. We just don’t want to grapple with the questions of personal responsibility and the problem of inter-generational lifestyle victimhood.
We instead want the simplicity of reparations, imagining we can buy our way out of racial troubles. We do not question the value of changing a school’s name or knocking down a statue because that promises a simplistic fix that protects us from hard questions. We like it that way and it is unlikely anything that needs fixing will get fixed until that changes.