Poetry as Protest (Protesting at the James Marion Sims Monument)

Read about James Marion Sims, here. Sims is known as the “father of gynecology.” He conducted gynecological surgery on at least eleven slave women without anesthesia from 1845-1849 in Mt. Meigs, Alabama. This case is the subject of my book of poetry.


It was the morning of the solar eclipse. I woke and started my day pretty normally—breakfast, dressing my daughters and doing their hair before they left for school. Between walking around the house with coffee and checking faces for crumbs, I mentioned the New York protest and  Steve Benjamin’s statement to my husband. Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, had just said he believed that of all the statues at the South Carolina statehouse, Sims’ statue should be removed.   Once the kids and Marcus were in the car and headed to school, Marcus called me on my cellphone.  “Let’s go to Columbia,” He said. “Do whatever you need to do, but let’s make it happen.” Since we have three young children together, Marcus and I always have to partner on all our ventures. We support each other’s careers and individuality.  We try to make it so that regardless of the fact that we have three young children, we both feel free to pursue the things that are important to us. I think honoring each other this way keeps our relationship strong.

After this call, my mind went in to overdrive.  I went to my computer. I started by finding the number of the mayor’s office. “Hello.” I said. “Uh, I read an article about how Mr. Benjamin is interested in having the Sims statue at the statehouse removed, and I wanted to offer my help.”

I awkwardly explained who I was and that I’d written a book on the case of Sims.

“Oh.” She said. “So you’re a poet, you’re a researcher…so, do you want to meet with the mayor? What’s your end goal?”

I told her I would call her back. I didn’t know what my end goal was. I didn’t know what form this need would take. I made calls and wrote emails all morning, trying to get in touch with a network of people I’d never met. I didn’t know anyone personally in Columbia. That day at work I was so exasperated and mentally worn out, I couldn’t even hold a conversation. I hate when I get like that. I call it hyper-focus. It’s when my mind gets so stuck on one thing that I can’t do or think of anything else, even if I want to. That night was the first of two weeks of sleepless nights.

“It’s just the first day,” Marcus said that night. “Of course nothing happened.”

But it did. I’d compiled a list of names— writers in South Carolina from a Cave Canem friend of mine. (Cave Canem is an organization for black poets.) Among this list of names, one stood out. Joy Priest. I contacted her on Facebook, found out she was at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and the wheels began to turn from that moment. I contacted the statehouse and Joy got an event form sent through by her department head. After we decided on a poetry marathon, we wrote an email to potential readers, and made decisions over the phone on how we wanted the event to go.

The statehouse offered electricity so we brought five heavy duty electrical cords that would stretch from the statehouse outlet out to the monument. Once I arrived in Columbia we had to buy three more electrical cords because the ones we had didn’t reach. We sped all the way to Lowe’s— I was driving and broke a few traffic laws, including running a red light to make a last minute deadly left into the Lowe’s parking lot, and thankfully Joy only nervously laughed while gripping the dashboard.

I wasn’t prepared for seeing the statue of Sims. For years I’d researched this story and never seen the monument in person. It was moving to actually stand in front of the depiction of a person who I knew had caused so much trauma to women whose voices I’ve sought to reverence.

I didn’t have time to process how it made me feel. The marathon began at two and lasted six hours. Ten readers read poems all day on women’s pain, histories, and empowerment. Lucille Clifton was there with her love, and Bettina Judd’s poems were read again and again.  Instead of a traditional protest, this was a meditation on the black female experience, and of course, in particular, on the experiences of the eleven unnamed women that were Sims’s experimental subjects.

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