- Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination by Alondra Nelson
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011; 312 pages. $18.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-8166-7649-1
In their recent collection of essays on the insurgent form of sociality they dub “the undercommons,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney describe a temporal paradox at the heart of radical world-making. Struggles for racial, social, and economic justice entail an unwavering commitment to a future less immiserating than the present, an antagonistic thrust that pushes toward the upheaval of pernicious, often apocalyptic, structures of violence and death-dealing. But underneath this negative orientation toward the modal future—toward what must be destroyed so that collective flourishing might commence—there also lies an unambiguously optimistic impulse: the imperative to protect and affirm those already existing forms of life that function as the source of, and as a resource for, collective struggle. To clarify this double tense at play in the affective form of the undercommons, they turn to the Black Panther Party (BPP)—founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Moten and Harney would surely underscore, as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. “[The Panthers’] twinned commitment to revolution and self-defense,” Moten and Harney write, “emerged from the recognition that the preservation of black social life is articulated in and with the violence of innovation.”1 In other words, there is, they insist, a correspondence between destruction and preservation that forms the crucible of a Black radical tradition.
In her magisterial study of the BPP’s health radicalism, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, [End Page 177] Alondra Nelson imaginatively captures this pivot between the preservation of an actually existing Black social life and the revolutionary struggle to dismantle the deadly conjunctures of state terror, racial capitalism, and their offspring—the medical–industrial complex—that animated the Black Panther Party’s health initiatives of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Combining new archival research into the organizational forms of the BPP’s multifaceted medical activism with an intellectual and social history of the philosophical underpinnings of the Party’s “social health praxis” (125), Nelson reconstructs how the Panthers theorized and performed a redefinition of “health” that linked individual well-being to the well-being of the social body while also insisting on “a conception of healthcare as a human right, rather than a commodity” (80). Although “more spectacular facets” (xiii) of anti-Black violence such as police harassment, surveillance, and murder have often been taken as the impetus for the Panthers’ militancy, Nelson compellingly argues that “health” provided a potent heuristic—until now underexplored in scholarly work on the BPP—that enabled the Party to link various scales of violence and to contest the quotidian operations of a racial calculus that makes Black bodies disproportionately available to premature death. “[H]ealth,” Nelson avers, “was a powerful and elastic political lexicon that could signify many ideals simultaneously” (5), a capacious and polysemic site through which the Panthers articulated their political–economic visions, enacted concrete programs for Black survival, and mobilized working and workless poor Black communities across the United States. What emerges from this insight is a historically dense and conceptually rich monograph that sheds light on the innovations of the Panthers regarding medical practice and biomedical knowledge, which will be of equal interest to sociologists and historians of race, technoscience, and social movements, as well as to scholars of the Black freedom struggle.
Chapter 1, “African American Responses to Medical Discrimination before 1966,” situates the health activism of the Panthers in the larger context of “the long medical civil rights movement” (24). Nelson charts how twentieth-century Black health activists variously responded, through institution-building and knowledge production, to social abandonment by the medical establishment and to overexposure to medical control and exploitation. Far from rejecting health science, Nelson shows how African [End Page 178] American organizations and intellectuals seized on health and biomedicine as formative terrain for social transformation, from DuBois’s challenges to racial science...