A Q&A with Dominique Christina
Enslaved Black women suffered and endured the painful medical experimentations of Dr. J. Marion Sims, commonly known as the father of modern gynecology. They were ultimately relegated to the footnotes of his life and medical history. Not any longer. Award-winning poet and artist Dominique Christina gives voice to one of Dr. Sims’s victims in her poetry collection Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems. Selected as a National Poetry Series winner by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess, Anarcha Speaks reimagines the life of a woman facing the brutalities of medical racism, the legacy of which we still see playing out today. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Christina to chat with her about her collection.
Christian Coleman: Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into poetry and poetry slams?
Dominique Christina: Those are two very different answers. I started writing when I was a senior in undergrad. I whimsically elected to take a creative writing course solely because the man who taught the course was a professor I would see on campus walking around in tye-dyed shirts and Birkenstock sandals with uncommercial hair. He was profane and funny, and I thought I would enjoy being in a classroom with him. What I did not know was that his course would change the trajectory of my life. He refused to let me hide in the writing which I fully intended to do. He insisted on authenticity and transparency and confession, and I found myself, for the first time really, having permission to say things I thought I would die with.
Slam was different. I didn’t want to participate in it at all. But I was pressured by individuals I knew well who were competing in Slam. They knew I was a writer and were frustrated by my reticence to read anything out loud. I gave in. I subsequently won a lot of national competitions. The rest is kind of history.
CC: What was your reaction when you found out Anarcha Speaks was selected by Tyehimba Jess as a National Poetry Series winner?
DC: I wept. Hard. And in total transparency, I scarcely remembered entering the competition. I do that. I force myself to submit work to various competitions once a year and then I forget about it. I don’t want to ever get complacent, but I also do not want to focus too much on receiving accolades. That’s not why I write. Still. It is an incredibly high honor. One I am doubled over in gratitude for.
CC: What was the inspiration for telling Anarcha’s story in poems?
DC: Oh, she needed a reckoning. She deserved one, really. She, like so many others, cry out from the grave. I chose to listen. I found Anarcha by accident. In looking for the etymology of the word “anarchy,” her name appeared with an asterisk by it. When I searched her, the results led me to a conversation about J. Marion Sims, the doctor who experimented on her. I was not content to let Anarcha exist as mere footnote—a means to discuss the doctor. That wouldn’t do. She deserves to stand in the center and announce herself.
CC: What kind of research went into writing this collection?
DC: I had to exhume her. Using the census bureau’s records facilitated a good amount of insight. And drilling down into the history available to me about the doctor’s work on enslaved women between 1845-1849 was also very useful and important. Finding Anarcha’s humanity amidst Sims’ clinically distant reporting was key. There are a number of important books on medical experimentation during chattel slavery. Many of them were also useful in providing me with a breadcrumb trail to follow to better understand the time and the realities of individuals who lived during that time.
CC: How did you decide to write poems from the perspectives of both Anarcha and Dr. J. Marion Sims, and what was it like getting into their head spaces?
I didn’t want to include the doctor at all actually. That wasn’t my original intent. However, my mother, a professor of African American Studies, suggested that I allow for a more even-handed exchange between Anarcha and Dr. Sims. The juxtaposition between the two, in my opinion, amplifies Anarcha’s experience and reveals who J. Marion Sims really was—not a conquering hero but an opportunistic exploitation artist.
CC: Your bio on your website says that your work is greatly influenced by your family’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement and by the idea that words make worlds. How is Anarcha Speaks influenced by these two? And tell us a little about what you mean by words make worlds.
DC: My family participated in the social experiment of desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. They are change agents and way-makers. They also are people who have done seismic things and bled for it, but they choose not to bleed out loud. My creative side always seems to require exposing the blood and the bruising. It is no small way, part and parcel of growing up in a family that worked hard to not reveal those things. I am compelled to illuminate that which my family of origin tucked away. I’m sure there’s some psychology to that.
And in terms of the idea that words make worlds, it means simply that language is a culture keeper and a culture creator. It reveals the individual and the group or groups to which they belong. Language can be a noose or a tourniquet. The language we employ to describe ourselves, our world, our people is therefore critical to the reality we acquiesce to. I am interested in closing the wounds, not widening them, so my language has to line up with that intent. And I hope it does.
CC: And lastly, what’s your take on New York City removing the statue of J. Marion Sims from Central Park in April this year? Many Black women activists were successful in leading the long campaign to have it removed.
DC: Simple. About damn time. Dr. Sims does not deserve to be lionized. The women he tortured, however, do.
About Dominique Christina
Dominique Christina was a classroom teacher at the secondary and post-secondary level for ten years. She was the National Poetry Champion in 2011 and Women of the World Slam Champion in 2012 and 2014. She is the author of The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm; They Are All Me; and This Is Woman’s Work. She has been a featured speaker at hundreds of colleges and universities nationally and internationally. Follow her on Twitter at @nyarloka and visit her website.