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Body and Soul

The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

2013
Author:

Alondra Nelson

Body and Soul

The legacy of the Black Panther Party’s commitment to community health care, a central aspect of its fight for social justice

Alondra Nelson recovers a lesser-known aspect of The Black Panther Party’s broader struggle for social justice: health care. Nelson argues that the Party’s focus on health care was practical and ideological and that their 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.

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

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.

Awards

2012 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award, American Sociological Association, Race, Gender, and Class Section (co-winner)

2012 Letitia Woods Brown Book Award, Association of Black Women Historians

2012 Association for Humanist Sociology Book Award

2013 Mirra Komarovsky Book Award, Eastern Sociological Society

Body and Soul

Alondra Nelson is 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 between DNA, Race, and History.

Body and Soul

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

By focusing on the health-related activities of the Black Panthers, Nelson makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Library Journal

Alondra Nelson provides a smart and timely evocation of the Black Panther Party’s forgotten community health care initiatives.

Blood Beats

Body and Soul presents an analysis that is rare and badly needed in US colleges and universities today.

New Orleans Independent Media Center

Body and Soul is well researched and powerfully argued, and it skillfully bridges several scholarly fields.

The Crisis

An excellent companion text. Nelson’s work extends that lens to the present day and
demonstrates how that struggle continues, and does so without resorting to tropes of Black pathology.

Racism Review

Alondra Nelson has brought forth highly informative, meticulously documented, extremely relevant, and deeply engaging historical account of precisely how the daily activism of the Black Panther Party, in the area of health care, positively impacted Black and poor communities throughout the United States. It is an important narrative that heretofore has been largely untold and unknown.

The Black Commentator

This book is quite informative in describing the role of the Black Panther Party in promoting better health for blacks.

Choice

I hope Body and Soul will serve as the catalyst for continued analysis of other useful aspects of BPP history.

The Journal of American History

Along with useful history, Body and Soul provides a guide to what communities can do today to get—and stay—healthy.

Real Health

Nelson’s work stands out as the first major book length treatment of the BPP’s medical initiatives. Moreover, her insistence that the BPP’s medical programs be appreciated as a continuation of previous initiatives of the medical civil rights movement; and that discourses related to them serve as precursors of present debates about health care as a right and not a privilege is compelling.

Mobilization

In Body and Soul Alondra Nelson advances the sociologies of health/medicine, race, and social movements.

American Journal of Sociology

Nelson’s in-depth exploration in strategically outlining the political organization of the Panther’s health activism, and at times ‘unorganized’ approaches, towards fighting medical discrimination definitely has current relevancy. This book produces an opportunity for dialogue concerning the future formations of our country and its healthcare delivery system.

Social Identities

Body and Soul is a much-needed and major work that will set the standard for scholars who continue to excavate and highlight the critical importance of the community survival programs that were the BPP’s bread and butter, and that accounted for so much of the group’s success as the country’s most effective black revolutionary organization of the twentieth century.

American Historical Review

Body and Soul is a valuable addition to the literature on this organization, rendering the Black Panthers in greater complexity than most other accounts have achieved, and pointing the way to archival collections largely untapped.

Journal of American Studies

Her work shines a needed spotlight on this important aspect of the Party’s work and helps fill a void in the scholarly literature on the Party.

Timothy V. Johnson, Social Forces

This analysis of the BPP’s social welfare politics is a welcome contribution to the complex history of the organization’s multifaceted activities, too often overshadowed by its reputation for violence.

Transatlantica

Body and Soul is a rich and valuable resource that provides a clear picture of the history of African-American health activism, and forces us to think more closely about the relationships between health and social justice.

New Genetics and Society

Body and Soul

Contents

Preface: Politics by Other Means
Acknowledgments
Abbreviations

Introduction: Serving the People Body and Soul
1. African American Responses to Medical Discrimination before 1966
2. Origins of Black Panther Party Health Activism
3. The People’s Free Medical Clinics
4. Spin Doctors: The Politics of Sickle Cell Anemia
5. As American as Cherry Pie: Contesting the Biologization of Violence
Conclusion: Race and Health in the Post Civil Rights Era

Notes
Index

Body and Soul

RELATED VIDEOS

Nelson on medical discrimination in America

Nelson on the Black Panthers' health activism

Nelson on race and genetic testing

 

UMP blog - Health Care and the 99 Percent

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Prior to the violent turn of recent days, when members of the Oakland police department shot tear gas and rubber bullets at the city’s occupiers, one of the Occupation’s most climactic moments involved civil rights paragon Reverend Jesse Jackson. On the evening of October 17, Jackson joined arms with the Zuccotti Park protesters to block the NYPD’s efforts to dismantle the OWS medical tent as the world watched via Twitter and Ustream. When this tense standoff was over, an interracial, inter-generational phalanx of activists had successfully bent the course of a determined thin blue line.

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