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

Iris Lopez

The Political is Personal is a phrase that resonates deeply in my life and with my life experiences with Dr. Leith Mullings. I was blessed to meet Dr. Mullings when I was 22 years old, a second-semester graduate student at Columbia University in the anthropology department. In my first year at Columbia, I wrote a paper on the social responsibility of the social scientist, which one of the senior professors in the department did not like because I criticized his mentor. Dr. Mullings, with the help of Dr. Elliot Skinner, stepped in to defend my work, and from then on, she would be my lifetime mentor. 

I did not realize then, but Dr. Mullings was only 8 years older than I.  Even then, she was a formidable force who showed me that Black women are powerful, brilliant, and command respect even in a white male-dominated Ivy League environment.  As a powerful woman of color, she gave me, a young working class Puerto Rican woman from Brooklyn, the confidence to follow my own inner voice and vision of what anthropology could be, which I am happy to say that I have seen unfold throughout the decades.  Leith’s intellectual vision encouraged me to do research on sterilization among Puerto Rican women in my own community in Brooklyn at a time when conventional anthropologists were arguing that it was taboo to work with one’s own community because one could not be objective.

The Personal is Political: Like the great women before her–Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict–Leith Mullings was not granted tenure in the Columbia anthropology department.  After I graduated from Columbia, Leith and I became colleagues at City College.  For my first five years at City College, I co-taught a two-part course with Leith on the Principles of Illness and Health (I & II) at the Sophie Davis School of Medicine.  At Leith’s invitation, we were privileged to occasionally have Eleanor Leacock join us.

Dr. Mullings’ work has always been an inspiration for me.  I assigned her publications to my undergraduate students at City College, many of whom live in Harlem, Washington Heights, and other poor neighborhoods in New York.  They appreciated the clarity of her style and her no nonsense sociopolitical analysis. I recall that one of my favorite articles Leith wrote when I was in graduate school was “The New Ethnicity: Old Wine in New Bottles.”  Even though it is dated today, it is one of my favorites because Leith analyzes how old ideas in the social sciences are recycled and rebranded, an important lesson for us to remember.  

A photograph of Iris Lopez, a woman, in front of a mosaic tile wall, taken in Lisbon, Portugal.
Dr. Iris Lopez, Lisbon, 2019

 My undergraduate students also love her classic ethnography on the lives and health of Black Women in Central Harlem.  This ethnography is unique because it compares the social conditions in which poor Black and middle-income families in Central Harlem live and demonstrates how their race, class, and gender intersect to create multiple oppressions that lead to social inequality and poor health outcomes.  In her work, Leith explores why Black babies in Harlem have the highest rate of infant mortality in New York City and the United States, and why African-American women, regardless of their socio-economic status, have problematic birth outcomes.  As Leith noted, even college-educated African American women have twice the infant mortality rate of college-educated white women.

In this ethnography, Leith also brilliantly connects the past with the present by providing a historical, global, and national analysis of the economy and how it affects the middle-class and the poor disproportionately, especially women of color. In other words, she explores the social reproduction of disease from an integral and dialectical framework. 

Leith Mullings adeptly coined the phrase the Sojourner Syndrome to emphasize the multiple forms of agency that the community exercises to resist oppression (and poor health).  Leith analyzes the coping mechanisms that families and communities have developed to resist and mitigate the onslaught of daily stressors in housing, employment, health, nutrition, and the justice system. All these stressors put Black people at risk for high rates of hypertension and poor health.

She also breaks with the binary public health framework that seeks an explanation for the high rate of diseases in the culture and and/or lifestyle of the individual and community while often ignoring the ways poverty and its oppressive constraints translate into poor health.  Her work provides a holistic framework for understanding why poor people of color have higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes, Aids, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. 

Dr. Leith Mullings was always a vanguard anthropologist, researcher, and intellectual.  Her engaged research in Central Harlem is a brilliant embodiment of organic anthropological fieldwork from the ground up. Her research on the Sojourner Syndrome charts a historical dialectic of the community’s resistance and resilience. Ever since I was a graduate student, I remember the emphasis that Leith put on the importance of partnering with the community to fight for social change.

Dr. Mullings, Like Sojourner Truth, was disciplined, brilliant, honest, courageous, and fought against ignorance and social injustice her entire life.  She understood the ways that the personal is political and the political is personal.  Thank you, Leith, for making this earth a better place to live, and for creating a space in the field of anthropology where People of Color, in and outside of academia, can follow our own vision. 

Author Bio

Iris Lopez is a cultural anthropologist and the director of the Latin American & Latin@ Studies Program at City College. Her ethnographic research focuses on Latinos/as in the United States, where she has worked extensively on immigration, gender equality, reproductive rights, and social justice. She has done research on health and reproductive issues ranging from prenatal care to the high rate of sterilization of Women of Color in the United States. Among her publications are Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Freedom (Rutgers University Press 2008). Professor Lopez has also done ethnographic research with the Puerto Rican community in Hawai’i, and she is writing a book on the diaspora of Latino/as to the Pacific.