Black female slave vivisection and nonhuman animal experimentation: Intersecting oppressions
- Published: 14 May 2011
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The same mentality that made it okay to conduct cruel experiments on black women by the ‘father of gynecology’ in the 19th century is the same mentality that continues to allow nonhuman animals to suffer heinous atrocities today, writes critical race feminist Breeze Harper.
15 May 2011
I began thinking about a piece that Petra Kuppers wrote about black women in the mid 19th-century, who had been experimented on by a man named Marion Sims who, in medical schools focused on gynecology, is considered the father of gynecology in the West. And if you read Petra Kuppers’ piece about the Anarcha project, she talks about how Marion Sims experimented on many African American women slaves.
He experimented on them to benefit white middle-class women who would use his services – his gynecology services, and what he did was really disgusting and very cruel. He experimented on these women, of course without their consent, but when you’re a “slave,” you’re property so you don’t actually have any say in what white people do to you.
What Sims was trying to do was solve the problem of fistula amongst white middle-class women. A fistula is a condition in which there is a tear in the bladder that happens during a long labor sometimes, or the improper use of forceps during labor tears the bladder, so women are constantly leaking urine – and he was using black women’s bodies to solve this “problem.”
He did this without anesthesia, and one of the women that he did this on, he did more than 30 times. I mean, he cuts up their vaginas, their wombs, without anesthesia. Can you imagine that?
It’s really disgusting, but he’s the father of gynecology, and we all know – most of us in the West – that if you’re a critical thinker, when it comes to knowing the history of suffering and oppression, that the case of these black women is not singular.
Experimenting on beings – human beings, nonhuman beings – it’s been a reoccurring problem. And I also think during this time there was a huge push to end vivisection – the cutting up of animals while they’re alive, for the “benefit” of medicine. It’s very, very, very cruel and very painful.
Nowadays I get a lot of questions from people asking me how is it that I merge black feminist theory and activism with the subject of caring for animals, animal ethics, animal liberation, and veganism.
I know each person has their own unique opinion which is invested in their interests and their desires, and of course interests and desires are never apolitical, and one should really do a deep genealogy and why they desire certain things even if it causes harm to other beings.
One of my reasons for integrating black feminist theory and activism with studies around animal liberation and veganism is that I believe the same mentality that makes it okay to conduct cruel experiments on the black women in Dr. Sims’ “care” (remember, he’s the father of gynecology), is the same mentality that continues to allow nonhuman animals to go through incredible hell – from factory-famed animals to animals used for testing cosmetics on their eyes to animals used for vivisection.
And I think to myself, what happened to these black women is just … there’s no excuse for it, there’s no rationalization for it. I’m sure during the time there were people that benefited from it, such as the white middle-class women and the white male doctors who truly believed that it was integral for these these black women or, these black women’s bodies, to be a sacrifice for the greater cause.
And isn’t it funny that those people who always say that, who always talk about how, while this one being will have to be sacrificed for the greater cause of “humanity” – isn’t it interesting that they’re always in the power or the position where they will never be that being or that person?
And if you skip forward to today, you’ll hear the same rationalizations for why hundreds of thousands of nonhuman animals are cut up and tortured, for the “betterment” of humanity and medicine. And you’ll hear people argue, ‘Well, it’s for the betterment of humanity. They just have to be sacrificed,’ and I ask myself, now, at least in the West, most people would actually say, ‘No that is very, very wrong to do that on a human being.’
Now back in the day when people of color were not seen as beings that could suffer, it was okay to actually have the same mentality, to say, ‘It’s okay. They don’t feel, they don’t have actual pain.’ And Dr. Sims actually said – and believed, with a bunch of other people, who created this concept of scientific racism – that people of African descent have a higher tolerance for pain and suffering than white people.
Now you skip forward to today, and you hear the exact same rationalization when it comes to experimentation, abuse, and cruelty, when it comes to nonhuman animals in “labs,” used for medicine, cosmetics.
And I’m just really trying to understand why it’s so difficult for me to actually say to people – people who are very much invested in the abuse and exploitation of nonhuman animals in the United States – why it’s so difficult to have them see the larger picture, to see history, and how the same type of mentality, the same type of logic has been used on Native American people, African slaves, freed African Americans, who – remember the Tuskegee experiment, not treating human beings with syphilis, but saying that you were, for decades – experiment on people seen not “fit” enough to be intellectually productive in society, such as those with mental disabilities.
And we can’t forget the experimentation, cruelty, torture of the millions of Jews, and not just Jews – there were those who just didn’t agree with Nazi Germany who were also placed in the concentration camps – that were experimented on, and unfortunately many people in the world today benefited from the medical “knowledge” created from such cruel experimentation.
So then when I talk to people about why I’m so interested in fusing black feminist thought with understanding humans’ relationships to nonhuman animals, to this concept of veganism, what we consume, I think the answer is clear: if you don’t want someone to strap you down and cut you up, if you are disgusted by what was happening during antebellum period in America where people like Dr. Sims strap these women down and cut up their vaginas, repeatedly, without any anesthesia, without any remorse— if you’re disgusted by that, I just need to understand why you may not be disgusted by the same thing happening to nonhuman animals, and to put yourself in that place and really ask yourself, ‘Do I think that nonhuman animals really deserve to be treated this way because they’re made for “human use?”
Or do I just say that because I have the power and privilege to dictate how nonhuman animals should be treated, so it can benefit my desire to eat them, because I like the taste, or my desire to wear a particular popular cosmetic because it’s supposed to make me look very beautiful.’
And I just really need to understand: How is that one’s right? And how is it that so many human beings can be disgusted at the thought of experimenting on a human being (or not even experimenting, just torturing somebody), or putting them in slavery? I like to understand why there is this defense when so many people like myself not necessarily parallel African slavery or the Nazi Germany and the Jewish Holocaust to nonhuman animal suffering today, but ask people to understand how this all fits into a huge matrix of oppression where all of these pieces are contingent upon each other and influence each other.
One cannot fully understand how African American women have been oppressed because of sexism, racism, colonialism, unless they actually understand how nonhuman animals have been treated in the West— mistreated.
You really need to understand that colonialism and racism have been built upon this understanding by those that were ruling – and to some degree even the, the elite of today – that those who are truly and fully “human” are white, property-owning males who can think “rationally.”
And then there’s the other, the other that can actually be colonized and dominated – the other being women, non-white people, people without “property” or owning land, and that these others conveniently fit into the elite’s conception of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism.
So when you start talking about people of color, and you start talking about the mistreatment of animals within the context of how the other has been constructed, within the perception of the white, male, formally educated, class-privileged property owner, you begin to see how othering, distancing, cutting off your capacity to empathize and sympathize is incredibly important when you want to create a world based on imperialism and capitalism, and you want to objectify, you want to colonize, and you want to dominate the “other” as resources, as commodities, so you can continue to benefit in that particular position of power.
That isn’t just that particular white racial status quo – that’s just an example – but when I ask many people to seriously consider why is it they quickly dismiss the suffering of nonhuman animals when it comes to their consumption habits, they other them, they dismiss their suffering, they dismiss the fact that these nonhuman animals have pain and suffer, and they really are not necessarily there for your desire or your entertainment.
And I’m always, always perplexed when I encounter non-white minorities who are very, very against institutionalized racism, have the visceral experience of being othered, of not having their pain and suffering taken seriously – why the walls come up when I ask them to think about, ‘Well how do you think nonhuman animals feel, as well, about being othered, about their pain and suffering not being taken seriously?’
I get very, very perplexed. This is not judgement, this is more just curiosity: How do you, if you have been an omnivore, or if you are an omnivore – how do you rationalize to yourself that it’s okay for certain beings to go through pain and suffering, and for other being not to?
How is it you’re able to separate and how is it that you’re able to convince yourself that you don’t need to acknowledge or recognize the pain and suffering of certain nonhuman animals?
And this also goes for many people that don’t want to acknowledge the pain and suffering of human beings they’ve othered— what is going through your head?
Breeze Harper is an anti-racist black feminist critical race theorist and author of Sistah Vegan. She is a PhD Candidate at University of California - Davis in the field of Critical Food Geographies. She researches how race, class, gender, and region in the USA affect one's relationship to, and perception of, plant-centered food ways. She was born and raised in Connecticut and lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and baby boy.
This article is an edited transcription of Breeze Harper’s video presentation Intersections: Black female slave vivisection, non-human animal experimentation, and the foundation of Western gynecology. Transcription completed and provided by Lori Adorable.