The Racial, Class, and Reproductive Politics of Birth Control in British Colonial Jamaica, 1938–41

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM
Nassau Suite A (New York Hilton)
Darcy Hughes Heuring, University of Chicago
This paper analyzes the controversy over birth control in British colonial Jamaica between 1938 and 1941 in order to demonstrate the crucial role that racial, class and reproductive politics played in the formation of Jamaican nationalism. In these years, the British imperial government made elusive promises that Jamaican self-government was on the horizon. In anticipation of building a nation out of a colony, colored and black middle-class Jamaicans united with British activists in an effort to address the colony’s severe socio-economic problems through the dissemination of knowledge about contraception. In doing so, they sought to control the birth rate of the black majority, improve quality of life in the colony, and teach the masses to behave more ‘morally.’ For working-class Jamaicans, however, such efforts were anathema, going against the laws of God and demonstrating just how low middle-class Jamaicans would stoop to ensure their elite status once Jamaica became a nation. The result was a class conflict over contraception bound with tensions of race and gender that helped to shape Jamaican identity at a decisive moment in regard to the colony’s future. My analysis reveals how this conflict not only contributed to divergent visions of the new nation, but to the reification of these visions in two competing political parties that continue to control Jamaica today. More broadly, my paper demonstrates the centrality of racial, class and reproductive politics in the British West Indies to debates about ‘overpopulation’ and imperial decline that raged throughout the British Empire during the Second World War.
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