Saturday, November 17, 2012

Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Discrimination

URG: Notebook on Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul

By Christina Gutierrez

In Body and Soul, Alondra Nelson situates the Black Panther Party (BPP)’s health activism within a broader historical trajectory that “was firmly rooted in a tradition that had developed during slavery in interface with how bondage, racism, and segregation affected the well-being of black communities” (8). Nelson’s emphasis on the protracted tradition of health activism in black communities signals an important progression in African American political organizing with respect to the struggle for wellness as a fundamental human right. This progression demonstrates African Americans’ ongoing resistances to racial science and medical oppression, which manifested (and continue to do so) in distinct yet overlapping ways according to historical context.

As Nelson notes, the BPP’s approach to health activism was informed by “the social and legal developments of the civil rights era that immediately preceded the Party’s birth” (xv). In spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, continued health disparities reinforced institutionalized racist practices that excluded African Americans and poor people from accessing any or adequate healthcare. Thus, in the wake of civil rights, concerns about citizenship emerged alongside those focused on systemic health injustices.

For the BPP, persistent inequalities in healthcare were symptomatic of a greater societal ill grounded in a history of US racism and magnified by the steady corporate overhaul of medical institutions. To account for the fissure between civil and social rights, Nelson introduces the concept of citizenship contradiction in which “individuals are dependent on powerful institutions, organizations, and others to secure their rights. Alternately, members of these groups may possess an emaciated citizenship that may be ‘conditional on political whim’ or the vagaries of the market” (10). Nelson contends that by declaring healthcare “a right and not a privilege,” the BPP worked to demystify the citizen contradiction and demanded rights for poor black communities (11).

Body and Soul foregrounds an activist agenda of the BPP that until now has “received mostly passing mention in both scholarly analysis and popular recollection” (4). However, Nelson’s study of the BPP’s health activism makes clear the profound significance of their commitment and contributions to a more expansive history of African American health politics and struggles for the right to individual and collective well being.

Christina Gutierrez writes about 20th and 21st century Latina and African American women’s illness autobiographies, Black and Chicana feminist theories, and the history of science in the US as it pertains to the medicalization of women’s bodies.  She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective.

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