Saving Babies, Saving the Race: The Politics of Black Infant Health, 18901930

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:30 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Wangui Muigai, Brandeis University
This paper explores African American discussions and experiences of infant mortality in the Progressive Era. Drawing from black historical newspapers, memoirs, medical articles, and public health reports, it considers how the issue of black infant mortality became central to debates about black health and the black family. In the early twentieth century, during the height of Progressive Era infant welfare campaigns to “save the babies,” African American mothers, physicians, social reformers, and community leaders used a variety of public platforms, including newspapers and memoirs, to share their concerns about infant death. Black women wrote to newspaper health columns such as “Keep Healthy” of the Chicago Defender, seeking professional medical advice on how to bear and raise healthy children. These widely-read columns, with letters coming from across the country, reflect the important role black newspapers had in disseminating ideas about reproductive health, hygiene, and racial fitness. At the same time, some African Americans insisted the race’s high rates of infant mortality were neither reflections of immoral nor unhealthy behaviors, but a product of racial discrimination. Black leaders such as Mary Church Terrell and W.E.B. Du Bois argued that the death of a black infant represented the tragic consequence of living in a Jim Crow society which limited African Americans’ ability to get medical care. Intensifying racial violence introduced new political stakes in the decision to bear children or terminate a pregnancy, as black women linked concerns about giving birth to threats of racial and sexual violence. In examining these multiple debates over the causes and meanings of black infant death, this paper bridges scholarship in American cultural history, history of medicine, and African American history to highlight the politics of black reproduction in the Progressive Era.
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