America’s Love for Mediocre White Men and Hate for Black Bodies

‘Lovecraft Country’ reminded me just how much basic White men ascend off the backs of Blacks

Photo by Kelsey McEuen

Last Sunday, I watched the bittersweet finale of HBO’s spectacular series Lovecraft Country. What does anyone with a fine palette for television do after the richest African-American-rooted show to ever grace television concludes? Obviously, circle back to episode one and rewatch the entire season. What I love most about Lovecraft (aside from the villain in every episode being White supremacy) was how the writers wove African-American nonfiction into each plot. From the vile reaction to Black residents in Chicago’s Cicero suburb (1951) to the stench of Emmett Till’s funeral to the pillaging of Tulsa in 1921, we were constantly reminded and informed of the Black experience’s beautiful, bad, and ugly. It was during a third watch of episode 3 (“Holy Ghost”) when I slid down a particularly dark and gruesome rabbit hole. (For those tardy to Lovecraft’s greatness, I promise not to spoil)

As ep 3’s title suggests, its plot focuses on souls from the past. In the scene that sent me spiraling, Leti (played to perfection by Jurnee Smollett-Bell) informs Atticus (played by the new Mahershala, Jonathan Majors) that certain Black women went missing in Chicago and may or may not have ended up the test subjects of a mad scientist. Two of the names mentioned were Lucy and Anarcha. History tells that these women were not missing persons from Chicago. They were in fact Alabama slaves who became the sacrificial guinea pigs for James Marion Sims to be ultimately recognized as the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” Sims is most renowned for inventing the speculum and first repairing vaginal tears. The horror exists in the fact that his medical advancements were accomplished through relentless and excruciating experimentation on slaves. Sims, like so many Americans in the antebellum South, felt Blacks were lesser beings and thus had a considerably higher threshold for pain. He opened the skulls of slave children with a shoehorn. He often operated on female slaves without anesthesia. Unbothered by their deathly wails, he would probe and tear and break their insides as often and as long as he felt fit. After all, these poor women belonged to plantation owners who granted Sims control over their being until whatever ailment was “fixed.”

While learning the details of Sims’s medical atrocities (and downing a bit of bourbon), I was struck by exactly how he came into power. His ascendance in the medical field is accredited to the subordination of the African-American. Just as the backs of Blacks served as the foundation for the raising of America’s economy, other ebony body parts and organs were sacrificed for the progression of modern medical practice. The country’s rancid race and class systems allowed rich slaveowners to gift an inadequate White man sovereign over the bodies of their breathing property, subsequently resulting in his professional advancement and legacy as innovator.

It froze me just how unqualified Sims was as a practitioner. His scholastic history is amazing. Guess how many years of medical school Sims accrued? That’s a trick question. The South Carolinian attended Jefferson Medical College for a single year before launching his practice in 1835. Prior to that, he took a three-month course at the Medical College of Charleston and interned with a doctor. Sound like the beginning of a tale of a young comet too advanced for conventional study? Nope. There wasn’t any Doogie Howser in Sims. In his autobiography, he referred to his post-graduate self as “a lackluster student who showed little ambition after receiving his medical degree.” Nonetheless, mere months after graduation, he launched his practice at the age of 22. When you’re White in America — whether in 1835 or 2020 — you can do and be whatever you desire. Even if that title costs lives (see Donald Trump).

With a single year of med school under his White coat, Sims began operating on humans. His first two patients died. He wasn’t so much as penalized. Instead, he was allowed to continue endangering lives. Assuming the young quack felt his professional failures were scenery related, he moved his practice from South Carolina to Alabama. There is where he found his niche: slave doctor. This was during a time when physicians viewed operating on women and Blacks as undesirable. Sims, who was admittedly focused on attaining fortune more so than prestige in his field, became the largest plantation doctor in the state of Alabama. With slaves having no rights of refusal and their owners concerned solely with their production — whether through physical labor or fertility — Sims found subjects for occasionally innovative and often inhumane testing.

As a person of color staring at American history, you have to muster laughter for the pathetic ridiculousness in its consistencies. It’s astounding just how loyal this country has remained to mediocre White men; how these basic beings are allowed to soar with underdeveloped wings or repeatedly crash but never burn. This is especially the case when they cater to the one percent. The rich and mighty not only grant men like Sims power and the American dream of their choosing, it’s as if there is extra credit given if said dream somehow devalues or destroys Black lives.

Today, the powering of Caucasian mediocrity can be seen from the ivory halls of government to the pay walls of entertainment (see former Hot 97 employee Paddy Duke). It has allowed trust fund babies to head culture vulture corporations. It’s how today’s Def Jam got bleached and why it’s been decades since the Knicks had leadership congruent to its legacy. It’s the reason Post Malone and Dane Cook have sizable careers; why Ralph Macchio will forever be the Karate Kid and Keanu Reeves Neo (The One). Steve Nash, with zero head coaching experience, received the keys to the Brooklyn Nets over Mark Jackson (father of Golden State’s Splash Brothers). If you’re a White man, you can be a C student at Yale and eventually get elected as president of the United States. You won’t even be required to like Black people.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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