A Voice to the Voiceless
Birmingham poet Kwoya Fagin Maples seeks to give a voice to the voiceless with new collection
By Javacia Harris Bowser
My coworkers are cooler than yours.
I’m a teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts where I work with people like Corey Craft, who’s a features programmer for the Sidewalk Film Festival, renowned visual artist Darius Hill, flutist Kim Scott, who’s well-known in both the classical and jazz worlds, and award-winning poet Ashley M. Jones, who also founded the Magic City Poetry Festival.
Another colleague of mine you should know is Kwoya Fagin Maples, the poet behind Mend, a groundbreaking poetry collection set to be released this month by the University Press of Kentucky. Mend seeks to give a voice to the enslaved women who endured experimental surgeries under the hand of Dr. James Marion Sims, the man who’s celebrated as the father of modern gynecology.
I had a talk with Kwoya about her forthcoming book and what inspired her to write the collection.
For people unfamiliar with the book, what is Mend about?
Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. Between 1845 and 1849, Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, Alabama, performed experimental gynecological surgery on at least eleven enslaved women who suffered from fistula. He only recorded three names in his notes: Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. Mend is a collection of historical persona poetry written in the voices of these women. This collection is concerned with the lives of the women who were subjected to his experiments. The poems in Mend are imagined memories and experiences told from the women’s hospital beds.
Sims built a crude hospital behind his home where he housed these women—mothers—who were in hope of being cured. After a series of unsuccessful surgeries, Sims declared he had successfully repaired the injuries of one woman, Anarcha, who underwent a recorded thirty surgeries. After publishing his findings, he achieved the recognition he desired and became known as one of the first American doctors to conduct groundbreaking work in the field of gynecology. There were monuments dedicated to Sims in Alabama, South Carolina, and New York. Gynecologists today still use devices he developed, the most famous being the Sims speculum.
What inspired you to write a collection of poems on this topic?
This collection was initially borne out of my curiosity regarding motherhood, and writing it became my companion through my own experience of matrescence. I say matrescence because it covers it all: the cultural process of pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood. I read about Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the unnamed women at the beginning of that time in my life and was stunned by their story. I value stories, especially women’s stories. So, as I entered this new part of my life, I naturally considered how motherhood was experienced by women who came before me. I was struck by the injustice of this story and how the women’s experiences were completely overlooked. Research was incredibly difficult because we only have Sims’ notes and autobiography, which do little to describe the lives or experience of the women he considered subjects.
What are you hoping will come from giving a voice to these women in this way?
These women were wholly exposed; laid bare for an audience daily, yet wholly unknown. More than victims, more than slaves, these women were humans—with lives and experiences Sims would never know. Their stories are like our own—reflective of the beauty, hardship and complexity of life. It became my mission to share what the women would have wanted the world to know of them. Within Mend, I imagined and created scenes from their lives. Some of the poems were hard won. Sometimes, though, it only required knowing they were human, like me— that they would have tried to catch fireflies as children. That they would have known the scent of sweet potato pie, like you.
You were a part of demonstrations to get the statue of Dr. Sims removed from South Carolina. Tell me more about the event you organized and why this is so important to you.
Last year, Sims’ statue was removed from Central Park in New York and moved to the graveyard where his body is buried. Statues to Sims are still located in Montgomery, Alabama, and Columbia, South Carolina.
When I heard that the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina was interested in having the statue of Sims removed from the Statehouse, I knew I wanted to be part of efforts to make it happen. A couple of weeks after the mayor made his statement, I contacted Joy Priest, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, and we began organizing a protest in the form of a poetry marathon. I travelled from Birmingham to South Carolina. The protest was held in front of Sims’ statue. All day we read poetry, essays and facts related to this case in medical history and the experience of black women. Poetry is a powerful form of resistance. While we held up posters, we also passed out fliers with information about Sims and the experimentation. We reverenced the voices of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy and the unnamed women by bringing them into the frame.
People who cause trauma to others should not be reverenced or held in such high esteem that they have statues erected in their honor. People with any moral decency should agree. Sims’ actions as a doctor jeopardized the lives of human beings and caused irreparable harm. Sims’ monuments were built in his honor without consideration of the circumstances surrounding his success. The women whose bodies he profited from became meaningless the day his statue was erected. Their existence was completely ignored. With these statues and others like it, marginalized people repeatedly receive the message that their experiences are of no importance. When we rectify our mistakes by removing or modifying problematic monuments or statues, we give people an opportunity to heal.