Resistance, Resilience, and the Sojourner Syndrome: A Forum in Honor of Leith Mullings

Note to readers

This is a special MAQ forum on “Resistance and Resilience: The Sojourner Syndrome and the Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem,” by Leith Mullings, published in Transforming Anthropology in 2005. Please download the article here. Access is free through June 15, 2021.

Editor’s Introduction

Alex Nading

This is MAQ’s first scholarly forum centered on a single article, the 2005 Transforming Anthropology essay “Resistance and Resilience: The Sojourner Syndrome and the Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem,” written by the late Professor Leith Mullings, of the CUNY Graduate Center.  As the journal’s Editor, I’d like to encourage everyone to download, read, and share the article via the link above, and to explain this forum’s origins.

As far as we have been able to determine, “Resistance and Resilience” has never been cited in the pages of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.  This does not mean that it has not been influential.  Indeed, Google Scholar’s algorithm identifies some 175 unique references to it.  Mullings’ 2001 book Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem, co-written with Alaka Wali, has more than 200 citations according to Google.  Of these, one appears to be from MAQ—from 2018.

That the major outputs from the Harlem Birth Right Project have received so little recognition in a journal that calls itself the “flagship” organ for the field of medical anthropology is disturbing, to say the least.  As many readers already know, it is also not surprising.  Medical anthropology journals have been fully complicit in the reproduction of whiteness in what passes for mainstream disciplinary scholarship.  Our hope in sharing this forum, however, is not to achieve some sort of settling of accounts.  Rather, it is to celebrate a work whose excellence is already well-known to many of our colleagues—even if that awareness has been systematically muted in the pages of our journal.

In “Resistance and Resilience,” Leith Mullings meticulously and clearly illustrates how facts that may seem biological—facts, for example, about reproductive risk—are thoroughly political and economic.  More notably, perhaps, she pushes beyond what (back in 2005, at least) were familiar narratives about structural violence and social suffering.  Her concept of the Sojourner Syndrome calls our attention instead to how differently positioned members of marginalized communities creatively resist and cooperatively confront the cross-cutting gender, racial, and global economic forces that threaten social reproduction.  Sojourner Syndrome is not jargon. It’s not a shorthand for distilling or simplifying the dynamics of birth, life, labor, and death in Central Harlem.  Rather, it is a prying, probing, provocative idea that opens rather than closes our eyes to complexity. 

As you will see from the essays in this forum, one reason why the concept of Sojourner Syndrome has had such a lasting impact on such a range of scholars is that it is the result of collaborative, cross-sectorial scholarship.  This is the kind of work to which many of us aspire but fewer of us manage to practice: research that disappears the arbitrary line between “applied” and “theoretical” and speaks not only to academic audiences but also to the subjects of our research.  The collaboration behind the theory isn’t just acknowledged in a footnote or a gesture: it is infused in Mullings’ writing and thinking.  If you want to give students a model for how to do engaged medical anthropology, look no further.

We are fortunate to be able to offer readers limited-time free access to “Resistance and Resilience” via Anthrosource.  I am grateful to Professor Aisha Belisio-De Jesús, Editor of Transforming Anthropology, for facilitating this access and for working with MAQ to bring this forum into being.  Thanks also to TA’s managing editor, Michiko Tsuneda, and to the MAQ Editorial Board members who launched the project, including Julie Livingston, Zoë Wool, Daisy Deomampo, and Amber Benezra.  Our hope is that we’ll be able to continue featuring regular web forums that allow us to enrich our scholarship through engagement with BIPOC medical anthropologists.  But web fora are not enough.  We must bring a greater range of voices into the pages of our journal.  We will be better anthropologists—all of us—if we do.

Please read on and join us in celebrating the lasting impact of a remarkable medical anthropologist:

The Power of “Resistance and Resilience”

Dana-Ain Davis | March 10, 2021

Honoring Dr. Leith Mullings: The Personal is Political and the Political is Personal

Iris Lopez | March 10, 2021

The Role of Methodological Innovation in the Conceptualization of the Sojourner Syndrome

Alaka Wali | March 10, 2021

A Survival **and Fighting** Strategy

Nessette Falu | March 10, 2021

On Resistance and Resilience

Daisy Deomampo | March 10, 2021

A photograph of Professor Leith Mullings.  She is smiling, wearing a red shirt.
Professor Leith Mullings (1945-2020)