“A Eugenic Endeavor”: African American Physicians and the Medicalization of the Negro Problem, 1900–40

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:50 AM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ayah Nuriddin, Johns Hopkins University
During the early twentieth century, African American physicians began to embrace the racial possibilities of eugenics. In response to a prevalent narrative of black victimization in the historiography of eugenics, I argue that they mobilized what I call black eugenics, which I define as a hereditarian approach to racial uplift that emphasized social reform, public health, and reproductive control as strategies of biological racial improvement. It emerges from a longer tradition of black political organizing for racial equality and the beginnings of black engagement with medicine and science as a result of greater educational opportunities after Reconstruction. Black eugenics allowed African American physicians to challenge assumptions about the inferiority of black bodies. African American physicians used targeted reproduction and public health programs in response to the medical problems that were used to justify racial discrimination. Using African American newspapers, medical journals, and archival material, this paper will show the ways in which these physicians respond to and reinterpret the scientific racism embedded within the eugenics movement as part of a larger discourse of black eugenics. Their medical work illustrates the ways in which they understood the possibilities of eugenics for addressing racial inequality and dismantling problematic and violent stereotypes about blackness.