Gynecology Was Built On The Backs of Black Women, Anyway – An Interview With Bettina Judd.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern California, Bettina Judd is an interdisciplinary writer, artist and performer. She is an alumna of Spelman College and the University of Maryland and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary.

She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, The Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her poems have appeared in Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies.

Most recently, her collection of poems titled Patient. won the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Book Prize and is available here. As a singer, she has been invited to perform for audiences in Vancouver, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Paris, New York, and Mumbai.

Phillip: Thank you Bettina for speaking with me today. I wanted to start off with the basics before we get into the depth of your debut collection of poetry Patient. Can you briefly describe how you got into writing poetry and who your early influences were?

Bettina: This is so embarrassing. Okay, so Alan King wrote a review in which I answer this question at a reading in DC a few years ago. This is still true. I’m a 90s kid and I wanted to be as fine as Janet Jackson and seemingly as deep as her character in Poetic Justice. This is what influenced me to keep a journal. The deeper truth, however, is that my grandmother is a poet. She was a mathematician for the Department of Defense and a poet. At around the age of twelve, I was handed a collection of her poems and charged with making a book out of it with this new computer software I had. I remember that the first poem I transcribed was about her mother’s death. My mama. Mama was my first encounter with death in this life. Reading my grandmother’s poem allowed me to think of her as someone’s daughter. I was never without poetry. My mother would recite Dunbar. I was often in poetry recital contests in grade school. Those are the early influences. Grandmother, mom, Maya Angelou read by Janet Jackson.

P: That’s not embarrassing at all! Did you have the Janet braids?

B: You know I did. And a black body suit. I was not playing.

P: Nice! So fast forward to present day, or at least more recently. You find yourself as part of a writing fellowship called Cave Canem. How did this organization add to what your grandmother, mother, and Maya Angelou via Janet Jackson taught you about poetry?

B: Well, by the time I got to Cave Canem, I had a sense that I didn’t know much about poetry at all. The overwhelming feeling that I didn’t know much made me question whether or not I was a poet. But I had this thing in me, and I wasn’t going to stop writing. At least for me. Cave Canem–the people in it, including you, Phillip–have taught me so much about poetry as a craft and poetry as a space for experimentation. I like to create in other ways, and being introduced to people like Claudia Rankine, Khadijah Queen, Natasha Marin, Ashaki Jackson, Anastacia Tolbert, and I’m going to get into trouble naming all of these folks and not others, allowed me to see how there are some ways that poetry can open up space for a thought, an idea, and focus that idea as well. It is where the first few poems for my first collection were penned. It would not have been written if it weren’t for Cave Canem.

P: Patient. is that first collection. It’s one of those books that looks into the history of what was hidden, forced into hiding, and pulls the veil completely off. What made you want to write about these women and their violent treatment? Please name them and say a little about how you wanted to portray their stories.

B: Anarcha Wescott, Lucy Zimmerman, Betsey Harris, Joice Heth, Esmin Green, Saartjie Baartman, Henrietta Lacks. Hm. I don’t really think about pulling any kind of veils. I feel as though, if anything, I am behind the same one. The story starts behind hospital curtains. That false sense of privacy that one knows is false. It’s a selfish book in that it is about my own story. It was a process for me to make sense of my own story and connect it to history. It is a book about the absurdity of trying to tell someone’s story while also being burdened with the fact of it. You know that feeling? Knowing something and being the person charged with breaking bad news to everyone? It is kind of what being a researcher of difficult history is about. Then you have to go about the business of trying to tell a story meant to never be told. It feels clunky and awkward. You step on people’s toes and you make mistakes because really, as a researcher, in the end, you are just trying to make sense of something within you. Haha, even those sentences were about me trying to escape that feeling.

The speaker has gone to a teaching hospital for a gynecological emergency. She experiences microaggressions there. She leaves the hospital with one less organ. The hospital owns that organ now. During her stay, she has an outburst that invokes history. She says, “Gynecology was built on the backs of Black women, anyway.” What else but being haunted would make someone in acute pain, under a lot of meds invoke such a very specific history? This history is that the father of American gynecology, J. Marion Sims, experimented on enslaved Black women (Anarcha Wescott, Lucy Zimmerman, and Betsey Harris) and launched his career on their bodies. This history is that the same hospital in which our researcher/patient has an outburst, is the hospital where Henrietta Lacks’ cells were harvested and where she suffered greatly and eventually died. These histories are enough to make a simple question like, “How much does it hurt on a scale from one to ten?” a truly existential question.

P: So is part of the project to treat these women with the decency they were not given when alive? Do you want to humanize them?

B: I do want to humanize these women. I wanted to tell their stories, or at the very least, allow for an audience to hear that they exist so that the next question could be: “Well, what is their story?” But there is that tension. I was writing this while completing requirements for a PhD and asking questions about ethics, citations. Who gets to survive and tell the stories of Black women? So with regard to the curtain, I like the curtain as a metaphor, I’d rather have us acknowledge that it is there, than attempt to pull it back. A few of the women I write about are enslaved. They were meant to disappear behind the legacies of the white men who owned them. That fact, the very fact of erasure is something to be examined. So I write in “their” voices, but they sound very much like the sympathetic present day Black woman researcher who is researching them. This sympathetic researcher is understanding her story through their story. That is a tragedy, but it is a way to them, and it is a way toward her healing.

P: When I read the book, I was struck by how the history that disallowed the voices of the many women included was rewritten by allowing them to speak here – by giving them space to say what they might have wanted to say. But, then there is also the puppeteering of the poet under the speakers, that these women are not actually saying these things, rather the poet is. It felt as though the poet was possessed by the spirit of these women, meaning that the stories did not feel appropriated. What was it like actually writing in these voices, from these various points of view, while understanding that this level of agency was not actually available to them?

B: Yes! Puppets! Glad you saw that. The women I focus the most on in the collection, Joice Heth, Lucy Zimmerman, Anarcha Wescott, and Betsey Harris all felt very different. I don’t exactly know how to explain this other than being haunted is real. If I must back this up with some sociological research, see Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters. I was being haunted by the trauma of their stories, the repetitions and repercussions of the legacies of their experience of pain.

Writing about Joice Heth was actually quite fun. Heartbreaking at times, but fun. It seemed as though she was very much with me in wanting to tell her story. I was helped along by Benjamin Reiss’ The Showman and the Slave which attempts to recover Heth’s story. I will say that the first poems I wrote in the voice of anyone but the researcher was in Heth’s voice. I was actually in Greensburg, PA for Cave Canem and I was reading The Showman and the Slave there. He mentions in that book, that Greensburg was one of Heth’s last stops before her death. I felt deeply connected to her and the first poem in her voice was the one that announces her death. That voice was so clear and distinct that it didn’t feel like me, but it did feel like the part of me that can be pretty snide. Anarcha was harder to write about. There was so much pain there. When first hearing about this history with Sims and these first three women, I most often heard about Anarcha. There is particular interest in Anarcha because she had the worst case of fistula–the condition Sims was attempting to cure in his experiments. She also endured the most operations. So when I think of her, Anarcha, and this appropriately radical sounding name I do think of pain. It was scary trying to write through that. So I tried to find the hints of another story with her to access something about her. Sims actually visits Anarcha during her labor–she is the only one of the three mentioned that meets him so early on. So I thought about that, days of labor, the escape from the every day of enslavement that involves. But it isn’t particularly fun. That’s one example. The rest was about finding the little spaces where they existed and expanding from there. That is where the researcher is most present in their voices.

P: Let’s move into the form of the poems. How did you decide when to use prose poems and when to use the more nonce stanza forms?

B: Prose was mostly for the researcher/patient as researcher. The more nonce stanza form poems signaled haunting, ghostly voices, the patient attempting to articulate something about her story and finding difficulty. These rules are not fixed.

P: We’ve talked a lot about hauntings and it seems as though the past is never far from the present. Recently, in an article from The Guardian, I read “Nearly 800 plaintiffs have launched a billion-dollar lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University over its alleged role in the deliberate infection of hundreds of vulnerable Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, during a medical experiment programme in the 1940s and 1950s.”

What is it about America’s history that allows for these recurrences of medical infidelity and mistreatment? What are we really looking at when we see Anarcha and the many other women you mentioned, the Tuskegee Experiments, and John Hopkins University’s deliberate infection of Guatemalans?

B: Well with the teaching hospital in question we definitely see a pattern right?

Some bodies are made to be more available than others for exploitation, for examination, experimentation, and ultimately control even if that control means death. Karla Holloway’s Private Bodies, Public Texts really explains this and the importance of creative work in opening a space in which those whose bodies are most vulnerable, can center their narratives. When it comes to this particular legacy of control over the bodies of women of color by medicine we need look no further than our prisons who continue to shackle pregnant women in labor to beds, who are forcibly sterilized or coerced into sterilization.

What is also intrinsically connected to how the bodies of women of color are made more available for experimentation is also how they are made available as spectacle. Joice Heth’s presence in the book is very much about this. She is the only one whom I talk about after her death because even in death she was spectacle. Her public dissection was an event. There is a legacy of our deaths as spectacle. This is why security guards and nurses would not come to the aid of Ms. Esmin Green, her pain could not be registered to them until she was dead. Now, those of us who only know her through death, know her because of security camera footage of her last hours. Some bodies are made more available for this kind of consumption than others.

This is also why it is absolutely possible for us to trade in images of Black death in the news and social media. Yes we need these images for public outrage, but why we need them is a double edged sword. Our culture fails to register Black pain as real so that Black death is equally disbelieved. The image of it–even if that image is moving–is reduced to spectacle. It is a picture show, not live murder. She’s performing pain, not in pain. We are routinely witnessing live murder. I can’t get over that. This isn’t a TV show, it is real life. But it isn’t the first time this has happened. This country’s legacy of lynching is about exactly this story, this rule that black bodies ought to be controlled, even in death. It wasn’t enough for white mobs to torture victims, it wasn’t enough to leave them dead, the lynching spectacle, leaving the body there, dismembered, burned, was a lesson to the community around the human whose life was just stolen: You belong to us.

P: The opening poem speaks volumes about the kind of haunting you mentioned earlier. Here it is in full:

In 2006 I Had an Ordeal With Medicine.

I must have been found guilty of something. I don’t feel

innocent here lurking with ghosts. See it happens like that. I

start at a thought that is quite benign and end up peccant,


I had an ordeal with medicine and was found innocent

or guilty. It feels the same because I live in a haunted house.

A house can be a dynasty, a bloodline, a body.

There was punishment.  Like the way the body is murdered

by its own weight when lynched. Not that I was wrong but

that verdicts come in a bloodline.

In 2006 I had an ordeal with medicine. To recover, I learn

why ghosts come to me. The research question is:

Why am I patient?

Please talk about the this poem in detail, in particular what started the first draft for you, what idea. How did you know it was the opening poem and is it one of the first poems you wrote?

B: I wanted to write a few poems that gave the project context. There may have been drafts of poems that attempted to do what this poem ultimately got right for me. I wanted to introduce the story of the researcher. But that is hard, because the researcher is haunted. When she tries to tell her story she ends up talking about someone else’s story. She finds difficulty in addressing her own body outside of history. So the intent was to show how many drafts of this poem there were or could be–how the voice attempts to tell a story, but in order to tell that story, has to clarify terms, which, in turn, leads her to telling another story. The story is memory, and memory is complex.

P: Who are some women critics/thinkers/artists who are pushing back against or critiquing with wide intelligence the ways violence against women, in particular women of color, is ignored or made into spectacle?

B: So that I can feel like there are boundaries to this question, so much work is being done out there and I don’t want to miss anyone, I will list one of each: a critic, a thinker, and an artist. In addition to Karla Holloway, whose work I mentioned before talks about which bodies are made available to violence and spectacle, I would also include Andrea Smith whose academic and activist work has really shed light on the function of sexual violence in the genocide of American Indian peoples. Finally, an artist who I really admire and love, Rhodessa Jones has gone into prisons and created space for women in prisons to tell their stories through The Medea Project. Most recently, she is doing some really interesting and important work regarding reproductive justice.

P: What do you see in the future of Bettina Judd? What else can people expect from you?

B: Oh, no! Third person Bettina Judd! Right now I am teaching. That takes up a lot of my time. There are always new projects in my head. I’ll be focusing more on criticism for a while. I’ve been going to Lucille Clifton’s archives recently. But in order to endure that I will have to have another creative project to keep me company. I work through tiny obsessions, something that will keep me close, interested, and vulnerable with a project.

Curated by Phillip B. Williams.

Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He’s also co-authored a book of poems and conversations called Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.

His book of poetry Thief In The Interior comes out January 12, 2016, and is currently available for pre-order.



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