“Unsanitized Domestic Allegories” begins the work of recovering the complex history linking Progressive-Era biomedicalization, gender expectations, and ideologies of racial uplift within African American culture. Through a close reading of early-twentieth-century African American health care activists, including C. V. Roman, founding member of the National Medical Association (1895) and the first editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association, E. Elliott Rawlins, health columnist for the Amsterdam News, and Mary Fitzbutler Waring, chair of the Committee for Health and Hygiene of the National Association for Colored Women, Knadler's essay argues that race leaders recruited a language of health and hygiene to shape, manage, and regulate the class divisions and cultural disorientations of urban migration. But this community epidemiology was also connected to a particular biomediated image that functioned as part of a politics of risk and affect to preempt women's freedom: the (un)sanitized woman who was said to endanger the health of her family and the community at a time when many African American neighborhoods were experiencing epidemics of diseases as a result of health-care disparities and environmental racism. Knadler then turns to a close reading of Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) to show how its unruly, unsanitized domestic allegory exposes and destabilizes this interworking of medical language, affect, and gendered risk within racial uplift. Quicksand testifies to the complex meaning of agency in a world in which political, economic, and moral crises have been recast as the medical condition of specific “risky” bodies and doubts over their competence at maintaining sanitary self-care.
Stephen Knadler; Unsanitized Domestic Allegories: Biomedical Politics, Racial Uplift, and the African American Woman's Risk Narrative. American Literature 1 March 2013; 85 (1): 93–119. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1959553
Download citation file: