Bio-Racialized Bodies: Racism, Illness, and Medical Practice

AHA Session 276
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Leslie M. Harris, Emory University
Leslie M. Harris, Emory University

Session Abstract

Our panel, Bio-racialized Bodies: Racism, Illness, and Medical Practice, illustrates the AHA’s 2016 theme of “global migrations” by exploring how ideas and practices surrounding black people’s health in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries helped to inform how “empires, nations, and neighbors” conceptualized understandings about race.  Within the broader historiography, scholars often examine how economics, law, and even gender shaped understandings of race; yet, as our panel reveals, medicine played a significant role in shaping how ideas about race gained momentum across the globe.  Medicine and science provided theories that rationalized racial difference and offered societies across the globe with so-called proof that variations between people existed.  The production and dissemination of race has not been limited to the field of medicine but also been articulated within the worlds of epidemiology, slave auctions, pediatrics and countless other spaces, all of which have been overlooked by scholars concerned with the history of race. 

Each of our papers also investigates how the intersection between race and medicine unfolded within a broader global context. While the sites of our particular analyses may focus on particular locations, the ideas that developed in these specific regions had implications for how empires and nations defined race and ideas about the body.  In Jim Downs’ paper on the Caribbean and Cape Verde, he examines how British and Portuguese doctors’ insights about black health in these two settings influenced the development of epidemiology in the British metropole.  Stacey Patton’s paper on pediatric anxiety and fascination with the indeterminacy of black skin color at birth explores how white supremacist’s efforts to define blacks as a race began in the birthing room. Sowande Mustakeem interrogates the bodies of newly arriving Africans, using the scars and wounds littered on their flesh to show that while the Middle Passage help supply a viable black labor force, the manifestation of disease, disability, and trauma bore within their bodies reinforces the importance of health in the value and devaluation of slaves. 

 Our panel’s emphasis on the relationship between race, health, and medicine offers an important often understudied intervention into understanding the meaning of global migrations.  Each of these papers, while distinct in time, location, medical subjects, and medical fields, demonstrate how doctors, scientists, and even slave markets created and articulated meanings of blackness. Seeking to consolidate their authority and legitimize newly emergent professions, people in both the medical and scientific community coalesced around their collective participation in global discussion of blackness.

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