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  • Alison Caddell

When Writers Become Superheroes

Superman can fly. Wolverine can heal. Batman can beat the bad guys. And Kwoya Fagin Maples can resurrect the dead.



On January 18, 2018 I went to a poetry reading and listened to Kwoya Fagin Maples read selections from her upcoming book, MEND, a collection of persona poems that tell the "imagined memories and stories" of black women who suffered at the hands of Dr. James Marion Sims. Sims was a doctor who promised to cure them of the damage left by their harrowing pregnancies, but instead gave them new wounds and scars because of his maltreatment and abuse. As Kwoya shared the plight of these women (human beings who were already suffering through the oppression of slavery in America), I thought of a similar injustice I've often heard about as a native of Tuskegee, Alabama.


The world calls it the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, but the word "experiment" makes it sound humane, when that is the last thing it could've been. Even still, the men who suffered as a result of this atrocity were at least afforded the right to have their stories told. The injustices they endured have been shared across the world as another marker of America's infamy and shame. Their descendants have emerged from the shadows to give a face to the continued suffering they have inherited. And they frequently meet with one another to share their pain, while many still await the reparations promised as a result of the class-action lawsuit filed in 1973.


But Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy are the only women whose names were recorded, out of the many who suffered through Dr. Sims' so-called "experiments." The record that bears their name is not through the story they would have told. Instead, they are a quick mention in the autobiography of Dr. Sims, mere tools used to further support his desire for fame and acclaim. They were never afforded a chance to speak about what they went through. Instead, they died as voiceless women while their abuser shot to fame through the successes he claimed to have experienced as a result of what he called research and experimentation.


Hearing Kwoya read what she imagined to be their memories and stories, I was amazed at the power she had as a writer, a power she explained that day, when she admitted to "finally giving these women a voice for the first time." Through the gift of writing, she has pulled Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the other unnamed women from the grave of forgetfulness, awakened their stories formerly buried in silence.


I think that's why Batman is my favorite superhero. He's not someone who I would look at and say "I could do what he does if I were bitten by a radioactive spider; or cursed with a mutation that actually gives me power; or sent to live on another planet whose environment makes my abilities more powerful and useful to the people there." If I look at Batman and all that he does as a superhero who is simply a determined to use his resources to help others, I can say "I can do that too."


Looking at Kwoya Fagin Maples and recognizing that she is simply a woman determined to use her writing to awaken the voices of the silenced, I can say is "I can and must use my writing to tell the stories of the ones stripped of their voice and legacy."


Kwoya Fagin Maples at the University of North Alabama (January 2018) with UNA student Alex Aaron, after reading selections from MEND, which was published in November 2018 and is still available for purchase.

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