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Racism and dehumanization in a biography of Millie and Christine McKoy

Racism and dehumanization in a biography of Millie and Christine McKoy published on No Comments on Racism and dehumanization in a biography of Millie and Christine McKoy

I've been reading Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: The Remarkable Journey of Siamese [sic] Twins from Slavery to the Courts of Europe, by Joanne Martell. It's a biography of conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, who were born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851. Owned/Managed by a variety of people during their lifetimes, they toured with sideshows in both the U.S. and Great Britain as singers and dancers. They died in 1912.

From the time they were born, Millie and Christine suffered invasive examinations and exhibitions of their body by eminent men, physicians and otherwise. These men visually and manually inspected the twins' anatomy in detail, including their genitals.

At approximately 15, Millie and Christine refused to submit to these exams. Martell writes (p. 109):

Surely, there was nothing new to see or feel that countless doctors hadn't already reported in graphic detail.

I've already been irritated by Martell's lack of footnotes for her copious quotes of contemporary ephemera, as well as her irrelevant tangents, but this line makes me want to throw the book across the room. In a spectacular failure of empathetic imagination, Martell portrays Millie and Christine's attempt to assert some bodily autonomy as mere boredom and annoyance with being poked.

No, you stupid author, Millie and Christine were not being merely inconvenienced by a tiresome routine. They were being repeatedly raped by white men in a cultural context where the bodies of African-American women were automatically considered available for public consumption. They didn't want to be sexually assaulted any more, and, fortunately for them, they were in the rare position of enforcing at least this particular boundary of theirs.

I shouldn't be surprised that such dehumanization continues, over 150 years after Millie and Christine's birth. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has an online exhibit, From 'Monsters' to Modern Medical Miracles, where people can read about conjoined twins at various points in history. Illustrations and photos are included in a Gallery of Images, as well as a "closeup" of Millie and Christine's "shared genitalia." Now we, too, can participate in a rape across time, examining Millie and Christine's body against their express wishes!

The whole situation reminds me of Sarah Baartman (~1790-1815), a Khoisan woman who was exhibited around Europe in the early 1800s for her supposedly unusual body features. She didn't want her genitalia to be public knowledge either. However, from the time of her death until the mid-1970s [!], France's Musee de l'Homme had some of her remains, including her genitalia, on display, and they weren't returned to South Africa and interred until 2002. Of course, pictures of Baartman's body remain in circulation. The dehumanization goes on.

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