Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Imagining Southern bodies: A review of 'Sex, Sickness and Slavery'

Some Southern physicians twisted medical science to aid the proslavery argument, writes historian Peter McCandless in the journal Southern Spaces, a digital initiative of Emory University Libraries.

McCandless' article is a review of "Sex, Sickness and Slavery: Illness in the Antebellum South," by Marli F. Weiner with Mazie Hough. Below is an excerpt:

"A Gullah proverb warns, 'every sick ain't fa tell de doctor' (don't tell the doctor all your ailments). After reading 'Sex, Sickness, and Slavery,' the wisdom of that saying seems more obvious, especially as it applies to women and blacks in the antebellum South. The late Marli Weiner, a professor of history at the University of Maine, demonstrates convincingly how antebellum southern physicians—white males all—used information about their patients to advance their own professional and sectional political agendas. They actively used medical science to justify racial and sexual hierarchies, to define and characterize bodies by sex, race, and place, and to enhance their authority as physicians and white men. In the process, they wrestled with the problem of what Weiner calls 'ambiguous bodies' (mixed race, sexual hybrids, and 'monstrosities') and with the complex relationships between minds and bodies. ...

"They debated what aspects made blacks medically suitable for slavery, but southern physicians accepted the assumption that slavery benefited blacks, and some actively sought to provide medical evidence for it. Southern physicians had no difficulty justifying black subjugation.

"Justifying the domination of women should have been even easier. European and northern academics and physicians had already provided plenty of arguments and evidence. Nevertheless, as 'Sex, Sickness, and Slavery' shows, southern physicians faced a unique problem: How could they reconcile arguments for sexual and racial subordination in a way that did not undermine either? They had to categorize people by both race and gender, and in ways that supported male gender and white racial superiority. Few physicians doubted white or male supremacy, but a coherent racial ideology required that white women be shown to be superior to black men. Moreover, if women were indeed the weaker and sicklier sex, demanding protection and gentle care, how could one justify making black women perform hard physical work alongside black men, even when close to giving birth and shortly after delivering?"

Read the whole review in Southern Spaces.

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