Revising History, One Monument at a Time
Speaker 1: Why are monuments important? What is important to you about having a physical representation of history?
Speaker 2: I don't really see too much importance in monuments, just because American history isn't the best history, but there are pretty to look at.
Speaker 3: I think it's important to just give people a piece of history so they can read and understand things that happened before they were here.
Speaker 4: I feel like a lot of people try to sweep things under the rug, especially if it was something not so positive, so I feel like having a physical representation of that is set in stone, literally.
Speaker 5: I think having a physical symbol of freedom and liberty is super important, but also having a symbol that represents both the good parts and bad parts of our own history. If we are very conscious and aware of our history, we're able to make sure that the negative parts don't repeat.
Kai: It's Notes From America. I'm Kai Wright. Welcome to the show. Think about your city or even your neighborhood. Is it home to a monument that's just so iconic, it's impossible to visualize the space without seeing that work? I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and there's this massive neoclassical obelisk called the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, right in the middle of downtown. It's such a deep part of the city's life that, as a kid, it just disappeared into my subconscious, became a meeting place, a directional landmark, a Christmas tree in the winter, a backdrop for graduation photos in the spring.
Monuments, these structures of public memory, they are intimate parts of our built environment. They get under our skin even when we don't realize it and sometimes for totally unintended reasons. I for one cannot walk past the angelic Bethesda Fountain in Central Park without being caught in the emotion of the first time I saw Angels in America. Monuments can define a place and they can alter its definition, too. Artist, Michelle Browder lives in a city that is increasingly being altered by monumental works, including one she created herself.
In the fall of 2021, she unveiled a work called The Mothers of Gynecology in Montgomery, Alabama. It honors the enslaved girls and women who were subjected to horrific experiments in the 19th century by a man named J Marion Sims. Sims has been known as the Father of Gynecology, precisely because of the work he did during those awful experiments right there in Alabama. There's a monument dedicated to him at the Alabama Capitol building, and state law makes it challenging to remove it.
Michelle Browder was moved to create a new public memory in Montgomery, and she joins us to share the story behind her work. Michelle, thanks for coming on the show.
Michelle: Thanks for having me.
Kai: Since you are an artist, let's start at the very beginning of your artistic journey toward creating this particular work, The Mothers of Gynecology. As I understand it, it began more than 30 years ago when you were an art student in Atlanta and you encountered a painting called the History of Medicine. Can you describe a bit what you saw in that painting?
Michelle: Yes. I was really focused on the girls in this painting. It's by Robert Thom. It was created, I believe, in the 1930s, and it was great moments of medicine. He was commissioned by what was called Parke-Davis, which is now Pfizer to create these 45 great moments in medicine. I can just remember as an 18-year-old girl, looking at that postcard on my professor's desk, very curiously I asked him, "What does this mean? What is this?" It's a very famous one. You probably have seen it before, but it's an enslaved girl woman on a table.
There's three white men surrounding her, one holding a speculum, which would be perceived to be Sims and then the other two are solidly standing over this one particular girl while two Black girls, enslaved girls are peeping behind the curtain densely. You can just see the horror almost on their face. I didn't understand it because, in Alabama, they had CRT long time ago. They didn't teach you any history, what they taught you was King had a dream and Rosa Parks had aching feet. That was the extent of our history.
We didn't talk about enslaving people, we didn't talk about trafficking. When I asked this professor, "What does this mean?" Very snarky, he was like, "You go figure it out." I said, "Okay, I'll go figure it out." There's just this place called The Shrine of the Black Madonna. I was attending the Art Institute of Atlanta at the time, and this was back when Atlanta was becoming the Black Mecca. All the Black folks were fleeing to or migrating to Atlanta, and so The Shrine of the Black Madonna just taught me the history. I'm going to go and read books and ask questions.
These people really shaped my purview on really who I am as a Black woman and what it meant to be in the transatlantic slave trade. That was the first encounter that I had of J Marion Sims.
Kai: What was the history of that? There's J Marion Sims who was the person doing the research and who was doing the experiments that was called the Father of Gynecology, but what was the history of the girls depicted in the painting? You went out to learn about them. Tell us what you learned and what you came to understand about them.
Michelle: That they were enslaved, that they were trafficked, that they were on breeding plantations, they were girls that became pregnant. Anarcha, as early as 17, the birth of her first child formed a fistula. These girls were forming this hole in the bladder that would create this constant flow of urine or fecal matter, and of course, once they give birth, the child would inherit the condition of the mother. They needed to continue this legacy of slavery, and of course, the commerce, Black women in their bodies, if they were needed to continue to produce this wealth.
That's what I learned of them, that they were in a backyard hospital, makeshift hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, literally two blocks from the slave auction block which is called the market, and no one in my city and/or state was talking about this. At the age of 18, of course, Sims was heralded as the Father of Modern Gynecology, and no one was challenging that narrative.
Kai: As an art student, you decided to dedicate your whole portfolio, and this is way back then, to these girls' stories. As I understand it, that led you to leave school, right? Can you explain that?
Michelle: Who have you been talking to?
Absolutely. Yes, so that same professor--
Kai: What happened?
Michelle: I learned about these girls, and I came back. I was emboldened and empowered to create my whole portfolio, my graduation portfolio around The Mothers of Gynecology. It was in my head then, The Mothers of Gynecology, and I did that, I created t-shirts, and a whole campaign to honor them. My professor literally looked at me in my face and said, "You need to diversify your portfolio to Black," and I said, "Okay." The way I diversified is I just dropped out of college, I'm not going to give you an extra year of my money.
I dropped out of college, started my own business but that was a defining moment for me that these girls, at that time, still needed to amplify their voice--
Kai: Their story still was not enough on its own.
Michelle: Absolutely, absolutely.
Kai: Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, you lead civil rights tours in Montgomery now, and you're regularly confronted with the monument at the State Capitol that's dedicated to J Marion Sims who did this horrific research. What was it like and how did it inform your choice to return to those stories when you would encounter that statue?
Michelle: I started giving tours. Actually, I got a call to move to Alabama in 2002. My mother called and said they needed some help with their organization, helping formerly incarcerated people. I said, "Can I do something for young people? Do you have a space to help young folks in the organization?" and she said, "No." I said, "I'll come if you allow me to create one," and she said, "Yes." When I returned here, one of the ways where I wanted to fund this youth organization is I started giving tours. As I did my research and I learned, I was triggered all over again to learn that this J Marion Sims stands at the State Capitol that Black people built, that the State of Alabama bought over 200 enslaved people or enslaved these people to build this building, and here there's a statue, this monument in his honor. I freaked out. Just for lack of better word, I was really triggered. Then I started telling that story about these women and what I had learned as a kid myself, literally just one year older than Anarcha--
Kai: As a part of the tour, you started telling it?
Michelle: Yes. I started formulating these tours to talk about the real history, the forgotten history, the erased history of Montgomery, and that was it. Sims was on my radar and I was determined to tell the truth about what he actually did to these Black bodies.
Kai: Why a monument? There was so many different ways you could have honored these girls. What is it about that form as an artist? Why were you drawn to a monument?
Michelle: Well, first, we're surrounded. The iconography of Montgomery Alabama's that of enslavers, oppressors, but yet, there's this marker outside that stands literally about a couple of yards from Sims that claims him to be the father of gynecology. As I begin to give these tours and talk about the atrocities that happened with them, I said, "Well, where are the mothers? Where is their monument? Why aren't they reverenced in the capacity?"
He's in bronze and he's tall. He's, I guess, about 12 feet tall on this marble pedestal that stands in front of the Capitol when it was erected by the MASA, for lack of a better word, the Medical Association for the State of Alabama erected him in 1939.
Kai: Oh, wow. That's the actually the acronym.
Michelle: Absolutely. I'm like, "This is not right. It's not fair. It's the 21st century. Why aren't we challenging this?" I felt as Nina Simone said that, "It's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live." I felt a calling to do it and thankfully, my family, we owned property near downtown, so it was the right space at the right time.
Kai: Because of the idea that we are surrounded by monuments, that was part of like you wanted a physical representation.
Michelle: Absolutely. Can I just say that we spend, according to Monument Lab, we spent about $40 million in taxpayers' money to restore and to keep these monuments in pristine conditions. I was, again, triggered by this.
Kai: We need to take a break. Listeners, we want to hear your dreams for new monuments. If you could create a monument to someone or some event in your city, what would it be? Just as important, what emotion would you invoke with it? What do you want people to feel? Maybe we've got some artists listening who want to let us in on their process, would love to hear from you, but anybody can contribute. We'll take your calls and learn more of Michelle Browder's story after a break. Stay with us.
Rahima: Hi, everyone. My name is Rahima and I help produce the show. I want to remind you that if you have questions or comments, we'd love to hear from you. Here's how. First, you can email us. The address is email@example.com. Second, you can send us a voice message. Go to notesfromamerica.org and click on the green button that says Start Recording. Finally, you can reach us on Twitter and Instagram. The handle for both is noteswithkai. However you want to reach us, we'd love to hear from you and maybe use your message on the show. All right, thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai: It's Notes From America. I'm Kai Wright and I'm joined by artist Michelle Browder. Michelle's work called The Mothers of Gynecology is a monument in Montgomery, Alabama, memorializing the enslaved girls who were subjected to horrific medical experimentation in the 19th century. The monument is one of a growing number of new works of public memory around the country. Listeners, we want to hear your dreams for new monuments. If you could create a monument to someone or some event in your city, what would it be?
Michelle, since you do lead tours as well as make art, I'm going to ask you to take us to stand by The Mothers of Gynecology right now. If we were there with you standing in front of this work, what would we see? What details would you point out?
Michelle: I would point out their hair, which was the first design that I did, even when I was a kid at 18. I would point their hair out because for Black women our hair is like our glory. You have Anarcha that stands about 15 feet tall. Her hair is made out of the angular screws. Then Betsy, she has cornrows. Then Lucy has the ban two knots made out of bicycle chains. You would notice that they are discarded items, pieces that people didn't want, discarded steel, scissors, and silk sutures.
It's a body of discarded metal that I found at junkyards or that people donated. Whether it's a candelabra or just interesting pieces that we found just meddling around in a pile of junk.
Kai: You took those pieces and constructed them around the statue, or made the-- and it's three statues.
Michelle: The inner piece of the statue is that of-- there's a form already, it's like a skeleton and so you just build on top of that. It was a really fun time for me to learn how to weld from Burning Man artists. It was during the time of COVID that I flew out to San Francisco and rented out this place called the Box Shop. I got to give my kudos to San Francisco because they got me started and they taught me everything that I needed to know. This woman by the name of Dana Albany took me under her wing and just taught me the ins and outs of welding.
When I returned to Montgomery, Alabama, after a month and a half, I had literally a half head, half pair of legs, and skeletons in 10 different boxes, the head to torso and the legs. Found another team to help me put the skin on them, which is perforated metal, and it really represents the poking and the prodding that these girls went through. There's holes in this metal. After two weeks, I had three full canvases and I was ready to commence to welding. I started March of '21 and was finished by September of 2021.
Kai: Had you welded a monument previously?
Michelle: Had never welded before. As a matter of fact, my Jewpanese friends-- you want to know how I found them?
Michelle: I was visiting some friends in San Francisco, and I call them Jewpanese because my girlfriend's Japanese and her husband is Jewish. I was visiting them, and they said, "Let's go to dinner. Let's go have something to eat." There's this place called Hayes Valley, and there was this beautiful tall monument who a woman by the name of Tara, Greek goddess or a Hindu goddess. I was like, "Wow, this is what Anarcha needs to look like." They didn't know anything about Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy and so I began to tell them the story.
Literally, two weeks later, they're at a Jewish seder and they're sitting across from a woman who volunteered on Tara. When she asked them where are you all from, they said Hayes Valley and that's how it all came about. I had already started my project. I was dealing with the company in New York to help me scale up and to do what I thought was to be the mothers, but it took a turn.
Kai: Seder was part of this, Seder's coming up for folks. This is going to be on the site of creativity for some people to make our next monument. Just to make sure everybody's clear on this, so there's three girls that are depicted, and their names are-- say their names?
Michelle: Anarcha, Lucy, Betsy. Anarcha being the tallest.
Kai: These are three real girls. Those are actual people from the girls who were experimented upon?
Michelle: Yes, these are three girls that J Marion Sims literally wrote about in his memoir. He wrote about them the most because they suffered the most. You had Anarcha that had 30 surgeries without anesthesia, you had Lucy who had 12 surgeries, who cried out in agonizing pain, and then you had Betsy who was pregnant. He talked about these girls. That's where I received their reference, but now, there's a book coming out in June that gives more names like Delia and Lavinia and their ages as young as nine.
It's called Say Anarcha, so be on a lookout for that, but I took the three that he spoke about the most because Anarcha suffered 30 surgeries, and so I wanted to honor her in particular.
Kai: Wonderful. Let's go to Jennifer in New Haven, Connecticut. Jennifer, welcome to the show.
Jennifer: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I just wanted to thank you guys and also wanted to thank your guest, Michelle, for having me. I also wanted to thank her for her words because it actually stirred something in. First, I had never heard of The Mothers of Gynecology in a sense. Also, it brought it back to this thing that I've always argued with in my life which is about Uncle Tom and the idea behind it. It's funny because I argue most about it with African-Americans because I think that the representation of what the, "Fictional character Tom represented."
I think that going back to what Michelle spoke about with the having monuments and the physical representation, and why we should switch them, or even take down some of those who support it or lead slavery initiatives is so important because it also, in my opinion, ties back to why we have this argument about the apology and the reparations argument towards Black people and towards slavery. I think that we're constantly surrounded by these mental, almost like a mental slavery, when we see these monuments being supported by the government, being supported by our local governments.
Just going back and saying about Uncle Tom, in my opinion, that was a representation of someone who was able to take what he learned from slavery and also monetize it for those who are also separating themselves from the stature or becoming free. I just wanted to thank you guys for this segment.
Kai: Jennifer, just to be clear, so you're saying you feel like that character's life and what he represented has come to mean something different than how you read it and you want a monument that revisits that history.
Jennifer: Also, it would be nice just to be able to have the debates. Just like right now, Michelle is saying how some people are arguing about Dr. Sims and The Mothers of Gynecology, it's like just to be able to bring the conversation and not have such a close argument when it comes to the idea of Uncle Tom, so exactly. [crosstalk] It's one of those things where-- Exactly, just bringing the argument, just bringing the conversation in.
Kai: Thank you so much for that, Jennifer. Let's get one more, and then we'll talk about both of them. Let's go to John in Forest Hills, Queens. John, welcome to the show.
John: Hi, thank you. I am working on a design. I don't really want to describe it yet because it's not out but it's a monument to the transit workers in New York City who perished in the early weeks and months of the 2020 pandemic. It's about 147. They went down fast and they need a memorial.
Kai: It's a really good point, John, to think about new history that needs to be memorialized when we think about COVID, and how much would impact. John, what about the transit workers for you were moved to that. Are you a transit worker? Do you did you have someone in your family?
John: No, I'm a retired architect from the city government.
Kai: Got it. You just want these folks remembered. Well, thank you for that, John. Michelle, two things for you. One, first off, just to talk about what John brought, I wonder about something like COVID and the new monuments that need to come from that. I just want to prompt you to think on that. Have you met artists? Are you thinking of artists who are starting to think about how we memorialize the pandemic that we've been through?
Michelle: The pandemic?
Kai: The pandemic, yes.
Michelle: Well, different ways, it's not just in the monument style, but a lot of paintings and mixed media, I've been noticing a lot of artists are starting to come through with some very truthful pieces. With the monument that we've created, when I say we, I mean my team, it speaks to where we are today, maternal health, I live in a state. First of all, I live in the cradle of the Confederacy. That's what it says on our city sale. Yet, it's the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. I live in a place that heralds these with Robert Lee and Jefferson Davis as these heroes.
If I can just double back to what the young lady said earlier, to Uncle Tom, I took a page out of the daughters of the Confederacy, out of their handbook, where they pretty much said, "Okay, at the end of the Civil War, our fathers and our uncles and our family, even though South lost the war, they created a narrative." A lie, the lost cause. Although the south loss, but it was because of the Northern aggression, so this is a lie that they created. With the monument that we have today, with The Mothers of Gynecology, it's, "Okay, where are we at now?"
In the state of Alabama, we are the third state have the worst maternal health. We're in the worst maternal health crisis there is. We're the third worst state, Alabama. Why is that? How can we talk more about it and so going back to the gentleman talking about the-- did he say transit worker?
Kai: Yes, transit workers.
Michelle: What's going on with him today? Dr. King was murdered during the time of the garbage workers, the Poor People's Campaign. I just think that we're trying to lead the way in how we view these monuments and what they actually mean. We have more than a monument. I don't even like to call it a monument. It's more of a living memorial of women-- [crosstalk]
Kai Wright: Talk about that. I've heard you talk about it's a living memorial. What does that mean when you think about its design, and how you put it together? What does that mean?
Michelle: It's a living memorial because we're talking about eugenics today and what happened in 1973, with Relf Sisters, and how they were sterilized, right here in Montgomery, Alabama because your mother couldn't read it, she marked the X when she thought she was sending her daughters off for contraceptives, she was really sending them off to be sterilized by the county. With the monument, we've been able to raise money for these sisters, the Relf Sisters who are now 62 and 64 years old, still living in public housing.
We decided to use this monument as a way to talk about them. Now, we have informed consent, because of their case, Relf versus Weinberger. We're trying to pull this into where we are today with maternal health, with Serena Williams in what she went through as much as Beyoncé almost losing their lives around maternal health crisis. That's what I mean when I say it's a living memorial because we want to talk about how the legacy of slavery has penetrated healthcare, and especially in the maternal health crisis that we're in.
Kai: Art as a conversation starter. Let's go to David in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. David, welcome to the show.
David: Hi. Well, I love this show. I love the idea of creating monuments to people who are totally overlooked for their unwitting, I guess, participation. My idea was to create a monument for peacemakers and peace activists who don't often get recognized and who often put their lives at risk or on hold, to try to keep fewer wars and horrific situations for military people.
Kai: Thank you for that, David. Peace activist, we've got monuments perhaps to COVID, we've got monuments to peace, we've got monuments to start a conversation about Uncle Tom, I really liked that idea. You mentioned earlier, Michelle, that Montgomery is a place that it's almost got these battling versions of history when you walk in there. When I go there, there's Confederate monuments everywhere. There's also you can't avoid civil rights history everywhere. It just feels like history is at war in that city.
I wonder if you have seen here recently between your monument, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Is this new movement, is it changing the city in any way? Is it changing the conversation in any way?
Michelle: It is changing the conversation, I will say, economically. Here, we are, once again, making great strides economically because of the backs of Black folk, and the horror that we've suffered, but yes, there is a conversation. I've had people from all over the country, come here, and say, "We can't talk about race the way you all talk about it." There's a different perspective because we're so free to talk about these horrors, people are now energized to go back and have these conversations around how they're going to change narratives in their boardrooms, and on their jobs, or in their synagogues, or churches.
I really feel that this city has become a place to empower and educate, but also motivate not to just have the conversation, but there's a call to action here. That's what I'm seeing. Also again, it's a double-edged sword. You have some folks whose family has made money off of enslaved Black folks since the beginning of time and they're still profiting because you're building hotels and restaurants. It's [crosstalk] a two-way sword but I'm grateful that we're seeing lives that are changing around this conversation.
Kai: In our last minute here, wat about for you? We've asked listeners about their dreams for new monuments. What are your dreams for the new monuments? If you could make another one now, do you have somebody else you feel like, "This is what I would build monuments to in Montgomery"?
Michelle: Man, we don't have a statue to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the city.
Kai: I didn't think about that. That's really true. There's this church.
Michelle: One that doesn't erase him. We have the one that's in Boston now with the erasure of his face and his wife's face. The one in DC, there's no legs. I would like to see an embodiment of King doing what he did which was walk, protest, power, and set free.
Kai: Are you going to be the artist to make it then?
Michelle: I'll be back next year to talk to you, Kai.
Kai: [laughs] You will be back. All right. Well, I'm going to hold you to that, Michelle. We will look for you next year.
Michelle: You will be the first to know.
Kai: We will look for you next year with this new monument to Martin Luther King. Artist Michelle Browder's monument, The Mothers of Gynecology was unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama in the fall of 2021. Do go check it out. Michelle, thanks for this time.
Michelle: Thanks for having me.
Kai: Thanks to everyone who called in. If we didn't get to your call, you can still talk to us. Go to our website notesfromamerica.org and look for the Record button. Leave us a voicemail right there. We listen to everything and sometimes develop whole new shows based on what you've said, notesfromamerica.org to share your thoughts and your questions with us. Notes from America is a production of WNYC studios. Follow us where ever you get your podcast and on Instagram @noteswithkai.
Theme music and mixing by Jared Paul. Milton Ruiz was our live engineer this week. Recording, editing, and producing by Karen Frillman, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. André Robert Lee is our executive producer, and I'm Kai Wright. Thanks for hanging out.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.