I remember clearly when I was first introduced to the scholarship of Leith Mullings. I came to anthropology with a deep interest in studying the relationship between inequality and health, and I knew I was most inspired by works that explicitly highlighted social injustice and called for transformative change. Yet it was not until I read On Our Own Terms (1997) in my first year at the CUNY Graduate Center that I encountered this approach so explicitly, so clearly, so urgently. Here was a model for the kind of anthropology I aspired to do: one that was transformative, engaging, and focused on challenging structures of inequality. Just as instructive was Leith’s methodology and commitment to centering the experiences of African American women, through a praxis rooted in Black feminism and the African American intellectual tradition.
So I aspired to join the generations of students and scholars inspired by Leith’s anthropology. Leith’s death is an enormous loss to the discipline. Fortunately for those of us touched by her work, Leith provided a clear roadmap for how to embrace the responsibility of the scholar to her community—as she believed that scholars have the moral and theoretical responsibility to “speak truth to power” and address people’s real problems—and to center inequality and struggles for justice in people’s everyday lives.
As my own research interests shifted to focus on reproduction, it was Leith’s article “Resistance and Resilience” that I found myself returning to again and again (and still do, in both my teaching and research). Leith’s elaboration of the Sojourner Syndrome as a critical framework for understanding infant mortality and other health issues was remarkable in its emphasis not only on an intersectional approach to explaining racial disparities but also in its attention to resistance. How did African American women address their challenging circumstances? What are the histories of resistance and activism that illuminate women’s strategies to obtain power, autonomy, and resources? As Leith called attention to the structural factors that constrained women’s lives, she simultaneously emphasized the “‘transformative work’ that are generated by Black women’s location at the intersection of class, race, and gender” (80). In the context of my own research on transnational surrogacy in India, Leith’s work prompted me consider the broad ways in which women address their conditions of marginality, inequality, and insecurity, never underplaying their creative energy and strategies for survival.
Moreover, Leith was among the earliest scholars to foreground the importance of intersectional analyses in studies of health—as invitation to understand race, class, and gender “as relational concepts: not as attributes of people of color, the dispossessed, or women but as historically created relationships of differential distribution of resources, privilege, and power, of advantage and disadvantage” (2005: 79-80). Put another way, race, class, and gender are not accumulative; they are interactive and relational categories that demand consideration of the dynamics and consequences of the interlocking nature of various forms of oppression.
Thus, as Leith argued for intersectional approaches to health and rejected explanatory paradigms of biological race or lifestyle choices, she prompted me to pay close attention to the ways in which such paradigms might sneak into the analysis. She taught me to constantly be on the lookout for when one might inadvertently fall into the trap of racial essentialism, pushing me to examine how race (and class and gender) are, again, relational concepts, ever-shifting products of historically created relationships of inequality and power.
“Resistance and Resilience” is an essential and powerful work that not only shows how women were active participants in efforts to “address and transform the constraints that confronted them in the domains of work, household, and community” (82) but also highlights African American women’s resilience in the face of interlocking oppressions with deleterious health effects. Leith clearly prioritized the need to describe the lived experiences of African American women, to allow for “the recognition and naming of issues that are frequently unlabeled” (87). “Resistance and Resilience” is part of a remarkable corpus of work that shows the power of antiracist scholar-activism in unsettling systems of oppression. These are lessons that we need now more than ever.
Leith conducted incredible work in a discipline that still hesitates to center Black feminist materialist approaches. Medical anthropology in particular has much work to do in providing intellectual and institutional space to Black women scholars. Despite recent calls to decolonize anthropology and attend to the power structures in the production of knowledge, the problematic centering of whiteness in our subdiscipline remains evident. Medical anthropology still attracts too few Black, Indigenous, and students of color in the US. Fortunately, Leith provided an incredible model for public engagement and intellectual rigor that will inspire future medical anthropologists who wish to bring about transformative change in a world mired with inequality.
Not only did Leith offer a model of productive, collaborative, and publicly engaged scholarship, she was also a deeply committed teacher and mentor. She was rigorous, demanding, sometimes intimidating, but always careful; her keen eye, critical comments, and stylistic guidance are unparalleled. She held her students to high standards and was adamant about the importance of clarity and specificity when writing about race. Her practice and care as a teacher and scholar enabled generations of students to become teachers and scholars in their own right—to continue the work of centering inequality and emphasizing social movements for justice. Indeed, we need Leith’s work now more than ever, as “we are all interconnected in the struggle to achieve our full potential” (88).
Mullings, Leith. 1997. On Our Own Terms: Race, Class and Gender in the Lives of African American Women. New York, Routledge.
Mullings, Leith. 2005. “Resistance and Resilience: The Sojourner Syndrome and the Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem.” Transforming Anthropology 13(2): 79-91.
Daisy Deomampo is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University. Dr. Deomampo’s research interests lie at the intersection of science and technology studies, gender and critical race studies, and reproductive health and politics. She is grateful to be among the many anthropologists mentored by Leith Mullings at the CUNY Graduate Center.