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  • "My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience":Afro-Modernist Critiques of Eugenics and Medical Segregation
  • Jess Waggoner (bio)

"This is the situation of the Negroes of Philadelphia to-day: because of their physical health they receive a larger portion of charity, spend a larger proportion of their earnings for physicians and medicine, throw on the community a larger number of helpless widows and orphans than either they or the city can afford. Why is this? Primarily it is because the Negroes are as a mass ignorant of the laws of health. One has but to visit a Seventh Ward church on Sunday night and see an audience of 1500 sit two and three hours in the foul atmosphere of a closely shut auditorium to realize that long-formed habits of life explain much of Negro consumption and pneumonia; again the Negroes live in unsanitary dwellings, partly by their own fault, partly on account of the difficulty of securing decent houses by reason of race prejudice."

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro, 18991

In his discussion of American modernism and the New Negro Renaissance, Mark Sanders writes that "[f]or African Americans most of the 'chaotic conditions' of modernism stemmed not from epistemological concerns, but from the harrowing dissonance between constitutional guarantees and systematic political oppression."2 Disappointment in modernity's false promises of progress is often designated as one of the defining affects of modernist production—therefore, black responses to the withholding of civil rights, Sanders reasons, are explicitly modern and modernist. "Systematic political oppression" of African Americans in the early twentieth century is generally represented as employment discrimination and housing segregation enforced by institutionalized Jim Crow laws in the South and less formalized patterns of segregation in the North. This article, however, situates the state of black health and access to care throughout the United States as a primary component of subjugation in the Jim Crow era and crucial to understandings of US Afro-modernisms.

The modernism of black medical protest may be best described as an alienation from the fantasy of citizenship, set into motion by the blatant failures of US democracy to provide care for the ailing.3 However, the exclusionary nature of health was also driven home by the bodily and mental normativities inherent in the uplift ideologies of race leaders. These tensions manifest in the contradictory yet overlapping discourses of progressivist black health activism, scientific racism and medicalization, and the open desire in Afro-modernist literature and culture for desegregated care and recognition of patient experiences. Rather than vilify W. E. B. Du Bois and his contemporaries for their emphasis on respectability, I highlight first their problematic activism as one possible response among many to the alarming state of racialized medical neglect. I then introduce three works by Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston—some widely read and some less known—in order to display a complex relationship among eugenic thought, medical segregation, and black disability and illness that extends beyond the more official discussions in 1930s periodicals such as The Crisis or The Birth Control Review. Hughes highlights the experiences of a black teenager who has died of tuberculosis in his tragicomic one-act play Soul Gone Home. Thurman questions the reliability of medical authority and eugenic thought in his novels The Interne and The Blacker the Berry. Finally, Hurston practices a form of noncompliant patienthood against medical segregation by recounting her experiences with white medical supremacy and highlighting alternative means of care.

The characterization of these works as Afro-modernist decenters the Harlem Renaissance as the aesthetically and temporally definitional moment of black modernism, following instead William J. Maxwell's proposal that scholars pursue "an Afro-modernism free from Harlem's clock-setting arrival."4 This approach draws from a widening pool of scholarship that temporally dislocates the primacy of the Renaissance, which occurred, according to a tentative dating by George Hutchinson, between 1918 and 1937.5 The broader, "amorphous" New Negro movement, both separate from and connected to the Harlem Renaissance, shifted between a politically radical anti-racist movement in the teens and early twenties into a "cultural affirmation of Negro identity expressed in poetry, fiction, drama, and...


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