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Medicalizing Blackness: Lessons from the American Atlantic and Antebellum Worlds

Air date: Tuesday, June 9, 2020, 11:00:00 AM
Time displayed is Eastern Time, Washington DC Local
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Description: Medicalizing Blackness: Lessons from the American Atlantic and Antebellum Worlds will highlight how white physicians in the Americas generated ideas about racial difference that were rooted in the body. The process through which physicians transformed race into a function of physiology was gradual, messy and at times contradictory. Indeed, part of this process, involved the medicalization of blackness, a phrase I use to show physicians in slaveholding societies in the Americas defined blackness as a surrogate marker of difference to stabilize and reify racial differences. More to the point, the medicalization of blackness, resulted in the creation of a corpus of knowledge about black people’s bodies and health that aided consolidating white medical authority and expertise. That said, this process was not without challenges. Physicians had to contend with competing cosmologies of healing from enslaved practitioners and acts of resistance from their enslaved patient populations in ways that could throw their assumed expertise into question. Recognizing this tense negotiation of power between two unequally positioned groups reminds us of existing asymmetries in the historical record. Scholars, then, are tasked with asking new sets of questions to reconstruct knowledge production in the past from various perspectives. In other words, emerging scholarship must grapple with how objective descriptions of illness or the discovery of new medical knowledge can diminish or even silence the experiences of marginalized historical actors. Delving into the medicalization of blackness means asking fundamental questions like how and why differences between black and white people became real. That is, real in the sense that they could be sensed visually and made legible in and on the human body. Part of the answer, I contend, has to do not only with how bodies were perceived superficially, i.e. read as different through skin color, but also through how these bodies were perceived to experienced sickness. To date, national discussions of health disparities continue invoke race as a surrogate marker of difference. In my proposed lecture, I locate this impulse within medical discourses that emerged within the era of slavery and urges us to consider the long history of pathologizing black people’s bodies. Attention to the process through which blackness was imbued with clinical and social value, helps bring into focus the ways in which our current expectations about health still depend on ideologies of race."
Author: Rana Hogarth, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Runtime: 1 hour