Get Out, the Sunken Place, Slavery, and the History of J. Marion Sims

by Adiza Sanchez-Rahim ❦

 

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There’s plenty to be dissected within Jordan Peele’s social thriller, Get Out. I’ve personally read a handful of incredibly insightful pieces since watching the film—twice!

While each character had their own unique story, Georgina, played by brilliant fellow Juilliard alum, Betty Gabriel, is the most haunting character. With very few lines, Betty’s artistry conveys to the audience a deeper subtext—a tragic story of unspoken and untold Black pain, specifically that of Black women. Peele gives us a front row seat to Black horror in American history in a way that hasn’t really been done before, at least not within the film genre of a psychological thriller.

In more ways than one, Georgina is representative of the enslavement of Black women throughout history, but even more specifically, the Black women who were used as the human guinea pigs of  J. Marion Sims. As defined by Jordan Peele, “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” In essence, both generations of women are trapped within the Sunken Place, shackled in either body or mind.

J. Marion Sims was a physician who was born in South Carolina in 1813. He is lauded as the father of modern gynecology. Aside from owning his own clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, he was also a plantation physician. From 1845-1849, Sims conducted a series of experimental surgeries on enslaved women sans anesthesia. He sought to perfect a technique to repair a condition called vesicovaginal fistula (abnormal fistulous tract). This basically means that there’s an opening between the vagina and the bladder, or rectum and usually occurs after traumatic childbirth. Having these fistulas meant one couldn’t bear children, nor could they continue working, which ultimately lowered these women’s value to their slave masters. During his experiments, Sims would use sutures in order to close up the opening.

One can’t quite imagine just how painful this operation must’ve been without anesthesia. There was a belief at the time that Black people didn’t feel pain in the same way that White people did, especially Black women. Sims did treat white women; although, he always treated them with anesthesia.

 

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Sims not only performed these experiments without anesthesia, he would invite other physicians to watch while he conducted surgeries on naked Black women. So, while we consider the physical pain these women experienced, we can’t forget about their loss of dignity and sexually exploited bodies.

Much like Georgina to the Armitage family, these women’s bodies were property to Sims. They could not consent to anything. I stress this point because we still have to remind white people that as a slave, you’re not afforded the privilege of self-determination. This means that you don’t do what you want; you do what you’re told.

People love to romanticize everything about slavery. So much so that enslaved women have now become “mistresses” to the white masters who raped them. Recently, the Washington Post published an article referring to Sally Hemings (an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson), as his mistress. In what reality can one engage in a consensual relationship when you’re the enslaved party? Hemings was born as Jefferson’s party and he started raping her when she was 14 and he just north of 40. Even by today’s standards, this is predatory grooming and statutory rape. For a person who legally could not say “No,” it is an even deeper level of violation. So, no: Hemings was not Jefferson’s mistress. She was a victim of rape.

Today, Sims is memorialized in statues in South Carolina, Alabama, and New York. When I think about these statues and the memorials to Sims, what I see is what’s not shown. Where does it say that this technique was perfected on the bodies of enslaved Black women? The medical advancements that all women are still benefiting from today, were obtained at great human cost. How many Georgina’s did it take for Sims to accomplish his great medical breakthrough?

Yet, our society refuses to even entertain the discussion. People would rather forget about Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy. The character of Georgina acts as a staunch reminder of the generational trauma that we as Black women carry with us from the days of slavery. We carry it within our DNA. If we toss away these images, these women’s stories will be lost. I want to hear their stories. As Viola Davis said, “Exhume those bodies, exhume those stories.” It is our responsibility to make sure their names aren’t forgotten. We do not know what Georgina’s name was prior to her entering the Armitage house and becoming the slave of Grandma Armitage. Like Andre, later known as Logan, her name was most likely changed. Her body was stolen and her identity erased.

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There’s plenty to be said for how Black bodies have been conceptualized by the medical profession throughout history. Jordan Peele makes direct reference to this dynamic, along with the lack of agency Black people have had over our own bodies for millennia. It shines a light on the longtime legacy of Black female bodies repeatedly violated, and how we’ve been forced to carry the burdens of others.

While many would find it easy to say, “That’s all in the past,” I invoke the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”