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bodies in the news

I’ve written, in the past, about the importance of taste and the palate as markers not only of identity, but also as tools for politics, histories, and more. Now, in the past two weeks, I’ve read a few articles that actively examine the possibilities of other senses – sound and movement – as ways of understanding and making meaning of the past. In the first, Michael Schmidt assesses the relevance of sound and sound archives to historical research. In the second, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes about attending a baroque dance workshop.

Culinary historians taste the past, bringing to life the textures, smells and flavours of common historical meals. In so doing, they bring to the present flavours that had been lost to us. But these textures, smells and flavours are not merely curious experiments; rather, they infuse our reading of other documents, from intimate letters to royal proclamations.

Dance and fashion historians ask us to consider the ways that historical bodies moved through space: What did it mean to wear 25 pounds of clothing? How does one sit with a bustle skirt? How does one play violin with a ruffled collar? What are the physical relationships between individuals when a dress is four feet wide? How does candlelight reflect and play with intricate lace? How do bodies move through a detailed Sarabande? And how does any and all of this shape things like posture, breathing, comportment? Exploring these questions opens new windows into historical experience, identity, and subjectivity.

Specialists in musical performance practice, meanwhile, explore sound, rhythm, texture and harmony. In their hands, physical space becomes meaningful not only as a resonating chamber, but also as a space that unites performer with audience. Performance practice asks us to consider not only the performer, but also the listener, and the space between the two. Indeed, it critically interrogates the space between “text” and “act” (to follow the terminology put forward by Richard Taruskin). Historically-informed performers (HIP, ironically), seek to explore the myriad ways of bringing the textual remnants of history into a performative present. Indeed, HIP-sters are never solely concerned with notes, markings, and text. Rather, their performances emerge in spaces and with audiences: How long will a note resonate? What is the physical relationship between the performer and the audience? How does an ornament speak in different physical spaces? What role does the instrument itself play in the realization of the composer’s musical vision? What, indeed, are the relationships between the performer, the composer and the audience?

In all of these cases, interest lies not in the text, but in the embodiment of the text; that is, in bringing the text to life both through and with the body. As scholars working with embodiment have argued, embodied knowledges offer conceptually different ways of approaching research and produce very different results. But these results are just as vital as any that might emerge from more conventional conceptual lenses.

I’m headed off to the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in October. On the agenda: minuets, musical performance and the university classroom. When was the last time you actively engaged your body – or those of your students – in the university classroom? What did your body tell you, not only about the material you were exploring, but also about embodied knowledge? What did it tell you about yourself?

Corinna da Fonnesca-Wollheim observes that:

According to Ms. Turocy, many dance manuals of the period emphasize the primary importance of the figures the dancers draw in space as they move through a work, with one dance master recommending that performers first memorize a piece by walking this blueprint and only then adding the steps, jumps and ornaments. In the dance notation of the time, these outlines have all the symmetry and grace of a manicured French garden. Perhaps in music, too, the harmonic progression holds its own geometric logic that needs to be honored before we consider the virtuosic embellishments above it?

By the end of the workshop, my feet were no closer to mastering the Sarabande than before. But my ears had learned to see Baroque music in a new way.

Come, dance with me.

This summer, I’ve invited my graduate students to submit blog posts to tellingtheflesh.com. Luckily, they’ve almost all expressed an interest. They’re a highly diverse bunch and I’m really looking forward to reading and posting their thoughts.

The second of these comes from Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, a doctoral candidiate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program here at MUN. Margot, who has vicariously wandered through this blog before, is working on The History of Mary Prince, a slave narrative published in 1831. Margot is working with supervisors spread around the university: Elizabeth Yeoman (Education), Neil Kennedy (History), Rob Finley (English) and me (Gender Studies). You can find out more about Margot, her work, and her publications, here.

Like the Moon Illuminating Shadows at Night: The
Memory of Slavery in the Public Spaces of Bermuda and Prince Edward Island
by Margot Maddison-MacFadyen

At length the vendue master, who was to offer us for sale like sheep or cattle, arrived, and asked my mother which was the eldest. She said nothing, but pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out to the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words–as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beasts. I was then put up for sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven, when I was known to the highest bidder; and the people who stood by said I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave.

(Mary Prince 1831)

I’m planning a research trip to Bermuda this fall, where the memorialization of my research subject, Mary Prince, is hotly contested by the descendants of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, the enslaved, and the descendants of the perpetrators of the trade, the slave-owners and the slave-merchants.

In short, it looks like I’m headed for a dustup.

Coming from Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada’s tiny island province, purportedly the ‘gentle’ island where lobster suppers and Anne of Green Gables form identity, you might wonder how I’ll fare, and how I’ll enter the fray.

Prince, born in Bermuda in 1788, is the first known freed black West Indian woman to author a slave narrative. She is the storyteller of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, which was compiled and edited by an abolitionist team in 1829-30, and published in 1831.

She had five successive Bermudian slave-owners, and she lived in three West Indian colonies–Bermuda, Grand Turk Island, and Antigua–before self-emancipation in London, in 1828. She walked out of her last slave-owner’s London residence and was a free woman, at last.

I’ve already been on research trips to Grand Turk Island and Antigua where I found buildings associated with her life in those islands still standing. I also found her listed in the Slave Registers of Former British Overseas Territories for Antigua. These findings are written up in my 2012 article, “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua,” that is published in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies.

In June, 2012, Bermuda’s first black local government, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), designated Prince a Bermudian National Hero. Her new status as hero, long overdue in my mind, unleashed a wave of debate, one of many in Bermuda’s current convulsion of racially-charged political tension. This is exemplified in the following excerpt from the Bermuda Royal Gazette and the comments that follow.

The article, written by Owain Johnston-Barnes, appeared in the Gazette in the early morning of June 19, 2012. Bermudian Premier Paula Cox was quoted on her announcement of Prince’s induction as Bermudian National Hero:

“Mary Prince is the hero of her own story,” Premier Cox said. “She is a woman who stood up for principle. She is a woman who stepped outside her comfort zone, and she is a woman who felt we have to become the change that we want.”

“She did it at considerable risk, cost and peril to herself and here tonight it is certainly a privilege for us all to celebrate and acknowledge and salute the 2012 National Hero.”

Reading the official proclamation, she said: “Her words live on in the pages of her autobiography, a first hand description of slavery whose publication in the UK in 1831, while slavery was still legal in Bermuda and the Caribbean, contributed to its abolition in Bermuda and the Caribbean.”

On the heels of this Gazette story, readers took to their keyboards leaving over 40 comments and an ongoing interchange in the Gazette’s comments (weblog) section to the story. The following exchange, between two participants known only by their pseudonyms – Observer and Only in Bermuda – launched this discussion. Their comments illuminate what became a much lengthier racially-charged debate.

Observer: June 19, 2012 (9:40.)
Nominating a character from a work of fiction as a national hero is an insult to real heroes and to the intelligence of Bermudians.

May as well have nominated the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny!

Only in Bermuda: June 19, 2012 (10:06)
Observer — What work of fiction?

Observer: June 19, 2012 (10:14)
Only in Bermuda — The pamphlet written and published by members of the Anti-Slavery Society in London purporting to be about a former slave called Mary Prince is the whole basis for this ridiculous and politically motivated award.

Curiously, these comments – and others posted in response to the original story – have since been expunged from the comments section. Is this yet another rewriting of history?

Dr. Quito Swan, Associate Professor of African Diaspora History at Howard University, recently published a book chapter (2012) titled, “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” Although the chapter was written prior to the public controversy surrounding the nomination of Mary Prince, it illuminates the issues underlying the debate.

Sally Bassett, an enslaved sixty-eight year old black woman, was burned at the stake in Bermuda in 1730 for allegedly poisoning the slave-owners of her granddaughter, Beck. In 2009, the PLP, the same black local government that designated Mary Prince a Bermudian National Hero, erected a ten-foot-tall sculpture of a pregnant Bassett in front of the Government’s Cabinet Office. Swan attests that this was to: “memorialize the struggle of blacks against slavery” (p. 71). As in the case of Prince’s 2012 nomination, a racially charged-public debate ensued. (For images of the statue, click here)

The process of publicly memorializing slavery is fraught with contention, particularly in such a small colonial space as is Bermuda, “a society that has historically criminalized black protest but now features a black government committed to the promotion of Bermuda’s ‘national’ heritage” (Swan p. 71). These memorializations of slavery in Bermuda are hotly contested spaces of thought and culture that are reflected in contemporary issues of power, race, racism, and colonialism.

Historically, white Bermudian pamphleteers, journalists, and historiographers promoted slavery in Bermuda as a ‘benign’ institution, insinuating that in Bermuda slavery was less horrific than in other colonies. In this discourse, colonialism is legitimated, racism is downplayed, and black protest is made invisible, insignificant, or criminal. It is this depiction of Bermuda’s past that is currently contested.

Scholars are bringing forward from memory a different past for Bermuda, one that is replete with numerous instances of slave resistance, brutality, and racial division, of which the burning of Sally Bassett and the History of Mary Prince are but two examples. Significantly, these two historical figures selected by the PLP for memorialization are evocative of women and children. A gendered account of slavery recognizes that enslaved women working as domestics and, therefore, living in close proximity to their slave-owners, were subject to torture and sexual abuse.

As a result of this revisionist work, scholars are also bringing forward from memory a different past for Europeans, Africans, and South and North Americans, ones in which racial exploitation is ferocious, terrible, an abomination. In The Smithsonian for example, Henry Wiencek’s October, 2012, article, “Master of Monticello,” paints a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Founder of the American Nation, which he “decided from evidence recently unearthed or long suppressed” (p. 40).

A unique finding excavated from archives is that Jefferson clearly knew he was making a 4 percent profit from the births of black enslaved children, and that he fostered this, the silent profit of enslavement. Writing to one of his plantation managers, Jefferson instructs that, “A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly . . . . [With] respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration” (Wiencek 96).

“In his lifetime,” Wiencek relates, “[Jefferson] had owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain, [Monticello]” (p. 42). They had been owned by his family for generations and were all descended from the enslaved matriarch Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hemings.

Slaves being his largest asset, reclaimed memory shows that Jefferson, purportedly the moral leader of his era, used them as collateral for a 1796 bank loan to rebuild Monticello. Like Mary Prince, who was first on the auction block at about age twelve, Jefferson’s slaves were monetized.

What’s this got to do with Canada, the True North Strong and Free?

It turns out that PEI isn’t all about lobster suppers and that hot-tempered little red-headed orphan with pigtails running around Cavendish shores.

In August, 2012, Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, visited PEI to not only give a public talk about his craft and published works, but to be present when the municipality of Stratford held a street-naming ceremony to honour the Shepard family. David Shepard and Kesiah Wilson were two of four slaves owned by Edmund Fanning, a former PEI lieutenant-governor who first came to PEI in 1786. Many islanders descend from this couple, and the road named after them is Shepard Drive.

Shepard Drive, Stratford, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

Shepard Drive, Stratford, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

Fanning left the colony for England in 1813, and it is assumed that he emancipated his slaves that same year. Although slavery was legal in British colonies until Emancipation on August 1, 1834, court cases that ensued in Great Britain in the 1770s (beginning with Lord Mansfield’s 1772 Somersett v. Stueart ruling) – thus forty years prior to Fanning’s departure – implied that slavery was illegal in England, Wales, and North Briton. There was, therefore, no reason for Fanning to take his slaves with him to England.

The first slaves had arrived in the colony in 1730, eighty-three years earlier. Are we to believe that slavery here on PEI was benign, a notion clung to by some Bermudians about their territory to this day? Slavery is never benign. Owning others and monetizing them as if they were farm animals is not. The resistance of the enslaved, whether they be personal acts of defiance or group acts of rebellion, shows that it is not. And the violence perpetrated by slave-owners and slave-merchants to control uncooperative slaves teaches us that it is not.

Sally Bassett was burned at the stake. Mary Prince reports beatings and whip lashings by four members of the five different families that owned her, one a woman. A second woman, though she did not beat Prince herself, incited her husband to do so.

In her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angélique, which is a Canadian slave narrative, Afua Cooper brings forward from memory the enslavement story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave owned by Thérèse de Couagne de Franchville. Marie-Joseph Angélique was hanged in 1734 for the burning of Old Montreal.

In the book’s preface Cooper writes that “[s]lavery has disappeared from Canada’s historical chronicles, erased from its memory and banished to the dungeons of its past. This in a country where the enslavement of Black people was institutionalized and practiced for the better part of three centuries” (p. 7).

Moreover, George Elliot Clarke, in his forward to Cooper’s book, informs us that “slavery was practiced in a solid third of what is now Canada–in Upper Canada (Ontario), New France (Québec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia” (p. XVI). I would add Newfoundland to this list. In my 2012 article in the Newfoundland Quarterly, “Turks Islands’ Salt, Enslavement, and the Newfoundland-West Indian Trade,” I show that at the very least, Bermudians fishing the Banks in 1788 and using vacant fishing rooms south of St. John’s to land their catches, used slave labour brought with them from Bermuda.

My research in Bermuda, Grand Turk Island, and Antigua lies at the crossroads of public and private histories of enslavement. By examining the unfolding of abolition and contested freedom in these small island communities, I hope to be able to speak to current debates about the legacies of enslavement, not only in the West Indies, but here in Canada, as well.

I’ll do this as a white woman raised in the wealthy community of West Vancouver, with the privilege of an excellent education. My ancestry traces back to early colonists in North America in the 1600s, Ojibwa peltry brokers working in the fur trade, fishers in Newfoundland, and to British Empire Loyalists settling in Upper Canada. Certainly, some must have been slave-owners, if not slave-merchants.

My white ancestors are memorialized in Canada: pioneers, settlers, explorers, war heroes, and politicians. I see their statues everywhere. A 2010 addition on PEI is a statue of Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, reposing on a Charlottetown bench at the entrance to Victoria Row, an area highly visible to tourists flocking off cruise ships at dock in the harbour.

John A. Macdonald statue, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

John A. Macdonald statue, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

The statue is situated right next to the Anne of Green Gables Store, which sells Anne hats, Anne calendars, Anne dolls, Anne snow globes, Anne mugs and cups. Indeed, just about anything to do with the commodification of L. M. Montgomery’s fictional character Anne, can be got at this store.

John A. Macdonald seated outside of the Anne of Green Gables store at the entrance to Victoria Row, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison MacFadyen, 2013

John A. Macdonald seated outside of the Anne of Green Gables store at the entrance to Victoria Row, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison MacFadyen, 2013

The Anne of Green Gables Store, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

The Anne of Green Gables Store, Charlottetown, PEI. Image copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

I’d like to see the ancestors of others memorialized, including black men, women, and children who came to this country enslaved, those who fled here to escape enslavement, or were freed here, either by emancipation or self-manumission. It’s long past time to see this done.

Our anonymous Gazette commenter, Observer, whose words introduced this discussion, remarks that nominating Mary Prince a national hero is an insult to real heroes–that she is a fictional character.

I would say that she’s more like the moon illuminating shadows at night.

I’d like to see a ten-foot-tall statue of her when I get to Bermuda, right next to the one of Sally Bassett. I’d also like to see a ten-foot-tall statue of Kesiah Wilson, ancestral matriarch of so many Prince Edward Islanders, at Victoria Row.

References

Clarke, George Elliott. Forward. The Hanging of Angélique. By Cooper. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. xi-xviii.

Cooper, Afua. Preface.  The Hanging of Angélique. By Cooper. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. 1-13.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007.

Johnston-Barnes, Owain. “Mary Prince Inducted as National Hero.” Bermuda Royal Gazette, June 19, 2012: http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20120619/NEWS/706199921.

Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. “Mary Prince, Grand Turk, and Antigua.” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies. published online 26 November2012.

Maddison-MacFadyen, Margot. “Turks Islands’ Salt, Enslavement, and the Newfoundland-West Indies Trade.” Newfoundland Quarterly  104, no. 4(Summer 2012): 40-44.

Swan, Quito. “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Sphere. Ed. Ana Lucia Araujo. New York: Routledge, 2012. 71-91.

Wiencek, Henry. “Master of Monticello.” Smithsonian 43, no. 6 (Oct. 2012): 40-49 & 92-97.

text and images copyright Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, 2013.

This summer, I’ve invited my graduate students to submit blog posts to tellingtheflesh.com. Luckily, they’ve almost all expressed an interest. They’re a highly diverse bunch and I’m really looking forward to reading and posting their thoughts.

The first of these comes from Master of Gender Studies student, Pearl Sedziafa. Pearl came to MUN in 2012. She has an academic and professional background in Nursing and is currently working on a thesis proposal that considers the intersections of kinship and marital violence in Ghana. Pearl published this post on her blog as well.

Identity: Political Terrorization of Victoria Hama
by Pearl Sedziafa

Femininity involves subordination, calmness, politeness, passivity, modesty, sexiness, and physical attractiveness. The framework for femininity works to keep women in the private sphere, where female gender roles are confined to domesticity. When a woman subverts her traditional roles, she faces hostility, intimidation and terrorization, and this inherently culminates in violence towards the female body. In Ghana, there are quite a number of women who are actively engaged in the public sphere, but this subversion of traditional roles by women has come with its own gender politics. Indeed, the recent nomination of the Deputy Communications Minister, Ms. Victoria Hama, under the current government administration highlights 3 key areas of gender politics: the politics of the socio-cultural construction of women, the politics of difference in terms of femininity, and the politics of women’s involvement in the public and private sphere.

Ms. Victoria Hama was among the 26 listed candidates on March 26, 2013, for deputy ministerial positions in Ghana. Out of the 26 nominees, 5 persons were women (GhanaWeb, 2013). Although self-identified ‘Women’s Groups’ would have wanted more women in Parliament to serve as ministers and deputies, progress was said to have been made since Ghana began its journey on the road to national democracy (see African Women Development Fund’s congratulatory message for women politicians in Ghana). I was quite thrilled about the nominations, too, as an upcoming feminist, but my stance is not conservative. Yes, I do wish that more women would occupy the seats in Parliament to take a massive part in legislative decisions, but like many concerned Ghanaian citizens, I want to see women who have the ability to work towards women’s economic and social empowerment as well as gender equity. I want to have female leaders who can use power to remove the tentacles of oppression hanging around the neck of women and children, and also, work towards policies that make Ghana a better place in which to live (and this attention to developmental issues is what I demand from men in power too).

In that regard, one of such nominee who raised the eyebrows of many Ghanaians, especially those within our male-dominated media, was Victoria Hama. Victoria raised questions among many Ghanaians in relation to her ‘fit’ for a ministerial position. Ms. Hama is a young lady of 32, unmarried, very dark skinned, thick black hair and lips, about 6feet tall, practices Hinduism, and takes much space because of her ‘back-defense’. She is described in the media as the real ‘goddess of beauty’ (in the African context of beauty). To use a popular Ghanaian phrase, Victoria is often described as a type of woman with a ‘thick body’. In the media, it is noted that ‘the Deputy Communications Minister […], Victoria Hama, attracts so much attention with her looks’ (GhanaWeb, 2013). No doubt about it, it seems Victoria has ‘caught’ excessive attention within the male-dominated media unlike the other female nominees.

Instead of Ms. Hama concealing her body in much ‘bigger’ clothes and look ‘dull’ in order to wade off the male gaze a little, she is smart, and very fancy. Women who are closer to her body type will usually wear loose clothes that cover their entire bodies just to avoid excessive attention, or gaze in Ghana. On the contrary, Victoria has been spotted in skimpy and tight clothes all the time, thus, attracting much media attention, and her appearance in public spaces dominate discussions—she is ‘talked’ about as if she were not ‘present’—with the male-centered society throwing their wishful sexual desires in the air (see myjoyonline page for Victoria’s pictures and comments). She never shies away from the public space. Her biography shows that she has been involved in numerous political activities such as the Student’s Representative Council, the Women Commission and a National Women’s Organiser for National Union of Ghana Students during her time as a university student. She identifies as a ‘women’s activist’ and strongly demands the political, economic and social empowerment of women.

In the 2012 December polls in Ghana to elect a new president, including parliamentarians, in which Victoria stood as a parliamentarian on the ticket of the National Democratic Party, she lost flatly to her colleague, Ursula Owusu. Ms. Owusu has received so much attention for being ‘hard,’ and cutting her hair ‘flat’ like that of a man, and she has also earned the name ‘iron lady’ in media narratives (see GhanaWeb, 2010). Following this loss by Victoria to Ursula Owusu, Victoria Hama’s nomination as a deputy minister for communications came as a shock to many Ghanaians. To my surprise, critics dwelt on the ‘looks’ of Victoria Hama to disqualify her for the position of a deputy minister. Allegedly, media conversations about Victoria implied that she practices prostitution and so she is not ‘dignified’ enough to merit any position in a public office (see GhanaWeb). It was said also that Victoria ‘used her body’ to acquire the deputy ministerial position. With these piercing critics, one is tempted to ask why other female nominees are not receiving excessive media attention like Victoria Hama. Could it be that Victoria’s femininity is a threat in the public space? Or, is Victoria’s presence in the male-dominated space capable of preventing proper legislative decision-making? Why does Victoria seem to have a strong public presence in the media for her ‘looks’?

I will not deny that the presence of women in the public space attracts excessive news and blasphemy generally, but Victoria seems to have been attracting so much ‘news’. Victoria’s social critiques about her ‘looks’ have lasted more than that of any political female figure in history. Currently, while Victoria gets media coverage for her political duties, her ‘looks’ never escape the lens of the male-dominated media, especially with an emphasis on her ‘behind’ (see GhanaWeb). It is obvious that society is enacting true femininity through the male-dominated media. I suggest that society has a ‘perfect’ feminine image, or ideal, and this type of feminine image is desired in the private space. That is to say that the more beauty or physical attraction is inscribed on a particular female body (in the context of a specific culture), the more sexualized she becomes, and she is much more desired in the private space. This way of sexualizing a particular body could be uncomfortable in the public space. A female body is largely sexualized when she is particularly read through a socio-cultural feminine lens. Hence, such bodies are seen as least capable of handling power (in the public space). While there have been other women before Victoria in the public space, none have had such ‘gargantuan’ embodiment and media hype as Victoria. Victoria’s terrorization in the public space I suggest is due to her specific femininity, which is desired in the private space rather than in the public space. Clearly, Victoria’s body denotes the politics of women’s experiences with femininity and how society is largely a part in its being.

References
“Minister Victoria Hamah is a ‘goddess of beauty’” (2013; 2010). Retrieved May 25, 2013, fromhttp://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=271828

 

text copyright Pearl Sedziafa, 2013.

Today I am mourning. Or I am enraged. Or I am so very depressed that I don’t know where to begin. Or I want to shake the bars behind the yellow wallpaper until I go mad with sorrow and pain. I want to yell and scream. But mostly, I am in mourning.

The completely unfathomable death of Savita Halappanavar hit the news last night and was all over world news today. The senselessnes. The tragedy. And the absolute and complete horror of a medical system that would dare to tell a woman she was in a “Catholic country” and then deny her the medical care she so desperately needed.

Inside, I am raging. I am seething. And I am weeping. For all the women who have died because they have been denied abortions. For those who have had to seek unsafe or illegal abortions. And for Savita Halappanavar, whose own life ended in unspeakable horror.

It shouldn’t be like this.

Today’s post brought to you through the good folks at Nursing Clio, a really fabulous blog on all things histories, bodies, medicine, gender and politics. The blog’s tagline – “Because the personal is historical” – says it all. On Sunday mornings, Nursing Clio publishes a post called “Sunday Morning Medicine,” a compendium of random blog posts, newspaper articles and images that relate to the kinds of things the blog’s authors find interesting, important and relevant.

Here, for your delectation, is one of those links from yesterday’s Sunday Morning Medicine:

http://streetanatomy.com/2012/09/04/the-objectification-of-female-surface-anatomy/
What’s interesting, at least to me, about this anatomy book are the assumptions made by the authors: medical students are male, medical students are hetero and therefore, medical textbooks that cater to these normative (and yes, essentialist) categories will be successful. It’s an equation that many of us try to make in current courses as well: how do we best make our material accessible and engaging to our audience? But these assumptions – together with the images themselves – also tell us a lot about the society in which this text is produced. They tell us about how desire is imagined, who gets to imagine desire and what counts as desirable, for example.

And another thing this book reminds us is that, in the words of Edward Halperin (in a link helpfully provided by one of the commenters on the blog post), author of an article on the genesis of this particular book:

“medicine is fundamentally a social activity which occurs in the context of social mores and customs, that there is rarely a consensus on how to display the human body for anatomical education, that mutual respect between student and teacher or author and reader is an essential element of education, and that a teacher must be mindful of the risks of imposing his/her views regarding controversial social subjects on students.”

We all bring our biases into our research; it’s an inevitable aspect of the human condition. We can’t escape it. Our histories, our politics, our heritage, our experiences…all of this affects the questions we ask, the ways we go about finding answers, the kinds of analyses we undertake and the stories we ultimately  tell. And while we might just see this textbook as a curious find of nothing more than antiquarian interest, I think it can serve a higher purpose: it might just, even for a moment, allow us to make our own world strange; it might allow us to consider some of the bodily assumptions that we take for granted, assumptions that, I suspect, will form the basis of the next generation’s cabinet of medical curiosities.