Dana-Ain Davis, MPH, PhD
Leith P. Mullings—the brilliant Black scholar and warrior for social justice, was many things, among them prescient. The evidence? Leith Mullings and Alaka Wali’s 2001 book Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem (2001) and the subsequent articles that emerged from the research. The Sojourner Syndrome was the sine qua non of the Harlem Birth Right Project, which Mullings and Alaka Wali directed from 1993 to 1997. The Harlem Birth Right Project sought to examine the meaning of and response to inequality in women’s everyday lives, and it specifically focused on how race, class, and gender operated to produce health outcomes, particularly morbidity and mortality.
Elaborating on the findings of the book, Mullings wrote two articles on the Sojourner Syndrome, one of which is under discussion here, “Resistance and Resilience: The Sojourner Syndrome and Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem,” published in Transforming Anthropology, the journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists, in 2005. Both the book and the article have been cited a mere 403 times, according to Google scholar! If we are to measure the degree to which Mullings’ important work has been reproduced in the academy by Google Scholar, then we must acknowledge the accuracy of what Safiya Umoja Noble identifies in her book Algorithms of Oppression (2018), whereby there exists a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against women of color. Or, our discipline’s citational politics are abysmal.
It is a good thing that such measures do not stand as supreme indicators of a scholar’s importance or of the impact a piece of work can have on others and their intellectual genealogy. It was with fluid thoughtfulness that Mullings gave us a theoretical and politically informed approach to thinking about race, class, and gender and an astute interpretive framework.
I want to linger for a moment on the structure of Mullings’ article, which is typical of how she approached her work. Mullings begins the article by summarizing the life of Sojourner Truth, who was born in to slavery in Ulster County New York and emancipated in 1827. She deploys Truth make the connection she always made—there is a past to our present. Thus, she historically grounds African American women’s lives by way of metaphorical interpretive framework that symbolizes the race, class, and gendered complexities that produce ill health effects.
What Mullings so carefully crafts is an invitation to think about the relationality and hierarchical domains of Black life in the U.S.: to “shift our analysis from race to racism.” In so doing the Sojourner Syndrome both underscores how African American life is structured by racism, classism, sexism, and global processes. Importantly, what every piece she writes possesses is a laser focus on the defiant ways in which African American women struggle against various webs of oppression.
Throughout, Mullings weaves together lived experience, hard data, and complex contradictions. You do not find a neat narrative of oppression shrouding American African women; rather, you find that some women experience housing fragility in Harlem and that some of those women’s lives are structured by gender discrimination. Among others, you find the joy of being in a community where culture and Black life hold people together. By showing the integrated effects of class, race, and gender on health, Mullings uncovers the many ways that constraint is challenged by transformative politics and actions.
In my own work, on battered women and reproduction, time and again I return to the careful and thoughtful way that Leith always reminded us that the consequence of not exploring multiple domains of Black life and ignoring the ways that people struggle for change creates ethnographic, theoretical, and political voids. From her work, I learned to embrace and think through the discomfort of contradictions rather than solely searching for ideal ethnographic evidence that supports the easy route to analysis. Constraint is always met with resistance, somewhere.
Now I find myself switching to the more familiar and referring to Leith by her first name. I do so because I feel like I want to talk to her about her impact. Looking back at my book, Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (2019), Leith, your influence is astoundingly clear. Of course, it is in hindsight that I see even more precisely how your provocations and writing shaped my work. There are two points, of many, that I want to explore to show how my work resonates with your intellectual and political dictums. First, the importance of history and making connections to enslavement in the US is taken up by my use of a passage from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (1871). In the first chapter, I set the stage to underscore the temporal continuance of what pregnancy is and the conditions under which black women have reproduced in the U.S. This is exactly what you do in almost everything you write. You harken to the past and push its content to the present to make the claim that only a type of “hysterical blindness,” as Toni Morrison would say, would allow one to write about blackness with a scholarly indifference to the past. (Morrison 1992). Back people’s lives signify so much in the historiography and present of the U.S. and, indeed, internationally, that there is little way we can write without situating black people and our past in the most intentional of ways.
The second way that you shaped my work is found in the last chapter of the book. After having described the traumas of racial hierarchy, vulnerability among the Black women, and the medical encounters they endure while pregnant, laboring, and birthing, I heard your voice insisting that I had to find the resistance. I am not kidding when I say I thought the research for the book was complete. It was September 2016, and I could not see a clear path to writing about resistance and organizing at that moment. But I knew you would probe and question the incompleteness of a project that had not found and engaged with on-the-ground organizing and community analysis. Then quite serendipitously, I attended the first “Decolonizing Birth” conference and met doulas for the first time. There was a radical resistance to over-medicalization, there were radical black birth workers talking about owning our bodies and trusting ourselves. There were Black women (and some men) ready to disrupt the complexes governing Black women’s reproduction. Doulas and birth workers’ labor, activism, commitment, and engagement with national organizations, were right there in that room. I had worked through the contradictions and tensions of being Black and experiencing racism with being Black and not experiencing racism. All that was in the first five chapters of the book. But your demand that we look for and lift up resistances and how people recruit or lift up support networks for disruption, survival, and transformation found me interviewing doulas, contacting people in the reproductive justice networks of which I had been a part, and even becoming a doula.
I would like to think that the way you braided the complexities of life into a strategy for liberation is a skill which so many of your comrades continue to master. Each of us, taking a strand of life, theory, and justice; crossing one strand over the other. But we don’t finish the braid. We keep braiding as you would have wanted us to, always mindful that what are styling, if you will, is one remembrance. Carrying forward the responsibility your legacy leaves.
I can no longer call you, but I hear you anyway.
Davis, Dána-Ain. 2019. Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth. New York: NYU Press.
Jacobs, Harriet. 1861. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Oxford University Press.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press.
Morrison, Toni. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mullings, Leith and Alaka Wali. 2001. Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
Mullings, Leith. 2008. “Resistance and Resilience: The Sojourner Syndrome and the Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem.” Transforming Anthropology 13 (2): 79-91.
Dána-Ain Davis, MPH, PhD. is Professor of Urban Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the Graduate Center. She is the author of the award-winning Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (NYU Press 2019).