Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

by Alondra Nelson
     
 

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Between its founding in 1966 and its formal end in 1980, the Black Panther Party blazed a distinctive trail in American political culture. The Black Panthers are most often remembered for their revolutionary rhetoric and militant action. Here Alondra Nelson deftly recovers an indispensable but lesser-known aspect of the organization’s broader struggle for

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Overview


Between its founding in 1966 and its formal end in 1980, the Black Panther Party blazed a distinctive trail in American political culture. The Black Panthers are most often remembered for their revolutionary rhetoric and militant action. Here Alondra Nelson deftly recovers an indispensable but lesser-known aspect of the organization’s broader struggle for social justice: health care. The Black Panther Party’s health activism—its network of free health clinics, its campaign to raise awareness about genetic disease, and its challenges to medical discrimination—was an expression of its founding political philosophy and also a recognition that poor blacks were both underserved by mainstream medicine and overexposed to its harms.

Drawing on extensive historical research as well as interviews with former members of the Black Panther Party, Nelson argues that the Party’s focus on health care was both practical and ideological. Building on a long tradition of medical self-sufficiency among African Americans, the Panthers’ People’s Free Medical Clinics administered basic preventive care, tested for lead poisoning and hypertension, and helped with housing, employment, and social services. In 1971, the party launched a campaign to address sickle-cell anemia. In addition to establishing screening programs and educational outreach efforts, it exposed the racial biases of the medical system that had largely ignored sickle-cell anemia, a disease that predominantly affected people of African descent.

The Black Panther Party’s understanding of health as a basic human right and its engagement with the social implications of genetics anticipated current debates about the politics of health and race. That legacy—and that struggle—continues today in the commitment of health activists and the fight for universal health care.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nelson, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, reports exhaustively on the Black Panther Party's role in the radical health movement of the 1970s, positioning the BPP as important players in the long tradition of civil rights health activism. She discusses the social function and day-to-day activities of the free health clinics each BPP chapter was obliged to maintain, as well as the party's campaign to fight sickle-cell anemia, a genetic disease primarily affecting African-Americans (and one that was largely ignored by the medical community). Nelson gives an in-depth explanation of how the BPP's anti–sickle cell fight became a means of highlighting racially biased medical neglect. The most exciting part of the book comes toward the end, where Nelson explains the BPP's (ultimately successful) challenge to the formation of the UCLA Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, a group whose research programs hypothesized that violence was "the product of the inherent pathology of individuals (black men, in particular) and not a political or social phenomenon." Chillingly, several of the center's researchers were advocates for psychosurgical manipulation of the brain as a means of curtailing violent behavior. Nelson's writing is dry and repetitive, but her work deserves commendation for its thoughtfulness and thoroughness. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

In Body and Soul, Alondra Nelson combines careful research, deep political insight, and passionate commitment to tell the little-known story of the Black Panther Party's health activism in the late 1960s. In doing so, and in showing how the problems of poverty, discrimination, and access to medical care remain hauntingly similar more than forty years later, Nelson reminds us that the struggle continues, particularly for African Americans, and that social policies have profound moral implications.

—Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This book is a revelation. Alondra Nelson uncovers two remarkable histories in Body and Soul. First, she provides the deep context for our current conversation about the health disparities that plague the African-American community and that are, as she puts it, ‘quite literally sickening.’ Second, she adds immeasurably to our knowledge of the Black Panther Party, complicating its commonplace designation as a radical, militant organization to unearth its dedication and hard work in advocating for and providing equal and quality health care for even the most underserved African Americans. Nelson is the first scholar I know of to bring these two histories into dialogue with each other, and she does so with spectacular results. This is a tremendously important book.

—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University

The activities of the Black Panther Party have long been reduced to stories of violent police confrontations and empty propaganda. By taking seriously the claims and the practices of the Black Panthers with respect to the health of Black people, Alondra Nelson has provided a critical corrective to earlier studies. More importantly, this is a brilliant analysis of a significant moment in the long tradition of health advocacy on the part of African Americans. Body and Soul is a major achievement.

—Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard University

In her revisionist account, Nelson insightfully guides the reader through the range of campaigns by which the Black Panther Party paved the way to broad efforts to promote biomedical inclusion and democratize access to medical knowledge and practice.

—Steven Epstein, author of Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research

Library Journal
The Black Panther Party, while famous for its militant activism on behalf of black Americans, also contributed much to improving their health care. Nelson (sociology, Columbia Univ.) presents a sympathetic, scholarly account of this lesser-known aspect of Panther activism, describing how the organization demanded—and provided—accessible health care for black Americans while challenging abusive, coercive, and discriminatory care. The first two chapters offer context with brief histories of the Black Panther Party and medical discrimination against black Americans. The remaining chapters focus on three areas of Panther activity in health care: founding free medical clinics, raising awareness of and testing for sickle-cell anemia, and lobbying against a proposed research center on the biological origins of violence. Nelson draws on interviews with former Panthers as well as an extensive list of secondary sources, emphasizing the political, social, and theoretical underpinnings of the Panthers' work. VERDICT By focusing on the health-related activities of the Black Panthers, Nelson makes a valuable contribution to the literature, but excessive redundancy may frustrate the reader. Recommended for academic readers in sociology, medical and social history, and African American studies.—Janet A. Crum, City of Hope Lib., Duarte, CA

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781452933221
Publisher:
University of Minnesota Press
Publication date:
10/20/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author


Alondra Nelson is associate professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also holds an appointment in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is coeditor of Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life and Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History.

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