Reading List: Edna Bonhomme

The author writes about books whose true power comes from excavating the perennial endemic diseases that never leave our sight.

Little Haiti, Miami 1994. Image credit Carl Juste via University of Texas on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

For most of my life, reading has been my therapy, a way to strengthen myself against the over-elusive daggers that cut through the lives of that I was most familiar with: Black, coarse, and poor. As a historian of science writing a book on the perennial cycles of epidemics, especially as it relates to captivity, several key texts have given me a nuanced and piercing language to not only write about the role that racism has played in fostering the spread of diseases, but also how Black writers have expanded the intellectual possibilities for writing narratives that also show marginalized people’s power to heal. But even before getting to the point where I could careen down the path of Black radical imagination, I needed a philosophical approach to navigate a history that had not been generous to Black life. To read Achille Mbembe is to submit oneself through a philosophical journey—to meditate on how capitalism–both on the plantation and in the colony–has impacted the contours of black life. “To a large extent, racism is the driver of the necropolitical principle,” wrote Achille Mbembe in Necropolitics,” principle insofar as it stands for organized destruction, for a sacrificial economy, the functioning of which requires, on the one hand, a generalized cheapening of the price of life, and on the habituation to loss.” Without a doubt, Necropolitics should be read tenderly and in its entirety, with lightness and heaviness, and possibly with friends, over tea.

The first time I came across Roberts’ work was in my Master’s in the public health program at Columbia University, when I was at the Low Library, surrounded by books and speculating about which direction my thesis would take, and dwelling over my narrative arc. Like in her book Killing the Black Body, Roberts unspools the assumptions we hold about race and the myths that reappear. This is Dorothy Roberts’ central question in her book, Fatal Invention. Roberts fearlessly complicates our perceptions about racial categories by going directly to the experts and showing how race is constructed. She notes, however, that “scientists are resuscitating biological theories of race by using cutting-edge genomic research to modernize old racial typologies that were based on observations of physical differences.” The book gives readers permission to find clarity in genetic innovation and biocitizenship, so that we can collectively activate a scientific future that is free of political divisions.

Why are so many Black people blamed for ill health? The answer, according to Sabrina Strings, can be traced to 200 years ago. In Fearing the Black Body, she explores how obesity, a phenomenon that disproportionately impacts Black American women, can be traced to a lack of healthcare, but also how Black women’s bodies have historically been vilified. Braiding archival records and visual materials, she traces how Black bodies were not just an independent vessel, but also an extension of where people were born, how they were perceived, and whether they were granted full humanity. Relatedly, the stigmatization of Black women’s bodies in Western societies, Strings argues, cannot be decoupled from who is deemed desirable, how Black women’s sexuality is misrepresented, and why it is a revolutionary act for Black people to love their bodies unconditionally. Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, a Black woman who was born in Southern Africa, had her buttocks exhibited in Europe well past her death, on the assumption that her groin was abnormal and undesirable in 19th century European society. The complexities of her body and other Black bodies, being considered grotesque yet easily accessible for display, echo the astute commentary by sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, who notes, “It is interesting how deeply we hold that beauty is natural, and our desires are immune to capitalism and racism and colonialism and sexism and ableism and politics and, well, social construction.” In Fearing the Black Body, Strings provide the intellectual weight to link the cultural history to the history of medicine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many meditating on two pressing issues: What makes more people susceptible to an outbreak, and how we attend to marginal and unrecognized ailments that inflict millions? Reading Linda Villarosa’s monograph, Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, provides a snapshot into how the US deals with race, epidemics, and chronic pain in medical institutions today. Villarosa, a New York Times journalist, has documented health and society well before the pandemic. Her investigative reporting weaves stories about everyday people who cope with morbidity, loss, and invisibility. In one chapter, “Discrimination and Ill-Treatment Can Harm Every Body,” centered on people who are underinsured, low-income, and marginalized, “contracting COVID would make their fragile lives so much more tenuous.” Villarossa speaks from the vantage point of an African American science writer who has seen firsthand the devastating impact of how members of her community have died prematurely, while also providing a perspective that looks outward to the history of “invisible” illnesses.

How do Black people join their ancestral history with their future? For some people, that decision arises when they are confronted with the mortality of an elder. “As I mother,” the gender studies scholar Jennifer C. Nash transcribed for the Boston Review, “and as I watch my own mother fade, I am hungry to collect stories of the past, to share them with my daughter, so she can hold them and do whatever she pleases with them, including freeing herself from them.” That holding, the tenderness to document and preserve one’s history at all costs, is a radical act that she fully displays in Birthing Black Mothers. As of 2022, Black women in the US were three times more likely to die of maternal mortality than white women. This phenomenon is not due to biology, but the widely documented differential treatment in healthcare. While the statistics might deter someone from becoming a parent, Nash is not bothered. Using her expertise in gender studies, she cuts through literary and popular culture to render the expansiveness of mothering. She offers a Black feminist reading of motherhood that migrates away from “the rhetoric of crisis.” Instead, she considers how black women have “used motherhood as a platform for activism.” Because the author suggests that through radical dreaming, everyone can hopefully create new modes of being that are not just about Black maternal death. It’s a gutting exploration of what it means to be a Black mother, illustrating how people find avenues to raise the families they choose, unapologetically and with joy that extends beyond tragedy narratives that many people are accustomed to.

These texts do more than the unsavory sociological reports of the past, like the 1965 Moynihan report, which scapegoated Black families, instead opening up and pulling through a range of communities that are navigating ill health. What these authors do is situate science and history with compassion for the people who are just trying to survive. Their true power comes from excavating the perennial endemic diseases that never leave our sight, and handling that history with radical care.

Further Reading

Reading List: Ari Gautier

Writer Ari Gautier owes his own blend of mythology, Dalit consciousness, and surrealism to literary stylists such as Amos Tutuola, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.

Reading List: T.J. Tallie

Among the books historian Tallie has on his reading list is one about the food of the American Old South—“… a forgotten Little Africa but nobody speaks of it that way.”