Vitality Politics. Health, Debility, and the Limits of Black Emancipation

Knadler, Stephen
Corporealities: Discourses of Disability
Anzahl Seiten
312 S.
€ 84,50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Olaf Stieglitz, Institut für Amerikanistik, Universität Leipzig

In the genre of the book review, it is a common practice to designate the new release as “timely”. Used maybe too often such praise likely raises suspicion but that should not be the case with Stephen Knadler’s new book Vitality Politics that won the Tobin Siebers Prize for Disability Studies in the Humanities in 2018. Reading this monograph against the backdrop of both the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, calling Vitality Politics a most timely publication not only seems appropriate but highly necessary and important because the book is a compelling reminder that topics such as systemic racism, biopolitics, and resistance strategies are immensely interrelated and have deep historical roots.

In five dense chapters plus introduction and epilogue, Knadler demonstrates and discusses how Black lives were made not to matter during the post-Reconstruction United States from the 1890s into the first four decades of the 20th century. His aim is to “broaden our understanding of racial violence to include the gradual, toxic, and everyday assaults against African Americans that occurred through unsanitary housing, polluted drinking water, unequal segregated health care, the absence of sewage lines, unsafe food, or traumatic environmental stress […], and to argue we need to pay as much attention to a biopolitics of debilitation and medicalization as [to] criminalization, police violence, or surveillance […]” (pp. 3-4). Through this focus on health issues, Knadler strongly argues against a colorblind liberalism that continues to “naturalize and accept African Americans’ exclusion behind a language of equal opportunity, personal accountability, and character” (p. 4). In doing so, Vitality Politics not only addresses white supremacists’ politics of neglect or “slow violence”, but also points towards how different voices within the African American community argued with each about how to counter these long lasting biopolitics of debilitation.

The book’s argumentation develops on three strongly interrelated levels. First of all, Vitality Politics is deeply rooted into Black history, in the age of Jim Crow segregation and lynching violence, in an era of the Great Migration and the rise of the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance. In opening chapters, Knadler engages with the health-related opinions of two of the most important Black leaders of that era, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. By discussing their key texts in detail – Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), and Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks (1903) and the part on health in his The Philadelphia Negro (1899) – Knadler not only introduces his readers into how both community leaders considered medical issues for their projects of racial uplift and emancipation, but also how they both were “shaped by a post-Reconstruction racial biopolitics that operated through the calculated maiming and debilitation of the physical bodies and mental health of freed Black populations” (p. 44). While scholars usually underline the two authors’ different racial-political agendas (Washington’s gradualism vs Du Bois’s immediate political action), Knadler demonstrates that both described the bodies and minds of Black men and women as being in a state of chronic crisis and that both realized that such an almost essentializing characterization posed several problems for political projects of uplift and emancipation. Vitality Politics then adds other important voices of early-20th-century Black America, of its organizations and media to underscore the frequency and urgency that health issues were debated within the African American community of that time. The contributions and the impact of Black women become especially evident in following chapters. Readers learn how the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC) incorporated questions of health into its program, how local Black communities often led by women organized “Health Weeks” to raise medical awareness among its clientele, and how different African American newspapers and magazines offered platforms for physicians, nurses, and other experts to transmit important knowledge to their Black readers.

Next to highlighting the historical setting and its actors, Vitality Politics on a second level asks its readers to immerse themselves in theoretical concerns. In fact, the author uses large parts of his almost 50 pages long introduction to talk about a broad variety of terms and concepts, making this part of the book a highly readable outline of current debates along the intersections of (dis)ability studies, the social and cultural histories of medicine, and Black studies. Knadler makes use of the ideas of a large group of scholars from these academic fields, from Orlando Patterson to Cedric Robinson, from Jodi Melamed to Jasbir Puar and to Robert McRuer. Two concepts stand out as particularly crucial for Knadler’s argumentation. A first one, as already indicated in the book’s title, is vitality politics that identifies “a post-Reconstruction politization of biological health as an instrument for insisting on a racial state of exception in which African Americans’ own unhealthy habits and disease susceptibility justified their legitimate suspension from full rights to social justice, economic opportunity, political equality, and freedom” (p. 6). What makes that term especially relevant is that it refers to two opposing uses within post-Reconstruction discourse: first, it invokes a language of medicalizing economic, social, and political discrimination against Black men and women in the early 20th century, and second, it also “registers the focus of African American reformers on hygienic behaviors and environments to rehabilitate African Americans into ‘vital’ citizens practicing self-care and private risk management promoted within modern liberal […] multicultural racial capitalism” (p. 6). Vitality politics, hence, precisely points towards the ambiguities within the discourse that Knadler analyzes. Another central theoretical reference of the book is antiblackness and its critique of racial liberalism, a concept pushed by the Black Lives Matter movement because it insists on racism as being a structural, not an individual problem. Knadler argues in favor of a strictly materialist understanding of how racism works, and along this framework, he speaks of antiblackness to note “how U.S. notions of personhood, citizenship, agency, and even basic human value in the early twentieth-century racial capitalist order were grounded on structured vulnerabilities and a resulting oppositional Black disposability, debilitation, and worthlessness” (p. 7).

On a third and final level, Vitality Politics combines its historical and theoretical arguments with a literary studies perspective and the close reading of several works of fiction written by African American authors, among them Charles Chesnutt, Marita Bonner, Ann Petry, Angelina Weld Grimké, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, and Jessie Fauset. Knadler here guides his readers into a Black literary archive that enriches his analysis of African Americans’ post-Reconstruction health discourse and hence exemplifies that historical studies can profit immensely from reaching out to somewhat “softer” primary sources. What makes this approach particularly useful is that it allows Knadler to address different perspectives, different opinions, and different strategies within Black America. Most middle-class African American health reformers idealized a disciplined “citizen-patient” whose self-control should underline the respectability of the Black community. Confronting this point of view with that uttered in many fictional texts, we learn that many of their authors offered an important critique from an urban, lower-class, and often feminist perspective.

Because of its multi-levels-approach, Vitality Politics certainly is not an easy read, the book demands an attentive reader who is willing to engage with its ambitious theoretical framework and to put it in dialogue with both Black social history and literary studies. Knadler assumes a lot of prior knowledge from his readers, and not all of the texts used will be known to all readers, especially some of the novels, poems, and plays discussed in later chapters. The time frame of the study is rather broad and sometimes one wonders if and how precisely the debates of the 1900s found their way into fictional texts 30 years later. But these are only minor observations on a book that offers a stimulating and rewarding reading. Vitality Politics will make a tangible impact in several related research fields, and the teachers of advanced classes in early 20th-century US social history and Black studies are well-advised to add this study to its lists of assigned readings.