études féministes/ estudos feministas
The Eight Debate: The Hottentot, the Handmaid and the Octomom
This essay revisits the sensationalism surrounding the case of Nadya Suleman when she gave birth to the second set of octuplets born alive in the U.S. in January of 2009 after undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments, on top of the six children that she already had and at a time when she was living with her parents and using public assistance. The essay frames the media spectacle in relation to pathologies of black mothers on welfare and reads the body politics on Suleman against the backdrop of discourses on Saartjie Baartman, who was paraded in England and France as the “Hottentot Venus” in the early nineteenth century. It primarily draws on literature, including Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), to ponder Suleman and ways in which reactionary political climates impact women’s health while considering what is at stake in political stalemates on funding research on the Zika virus in the U.S. and fighting it.
Key-words: media, black mothers, pathologies, women´s health
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967)
“She slowly flipped through the expensive studio poses of the babies. Dorian, Brucie, Sammy, Maybelline-Dierdre and Daphne (how pleased she had been that year to have two come at once). Her babies-all her babies-stared back at her, petrified under the yellowing plastic. She must get Sonya’s pictures taken before it was too late.”
Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place (1982)
The initial press conference on January 26, 2009 at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, which featured the physicians Karen Maples, Harold Henry, and Mandhir Gupta, emphasized the historical significance of the birth in that hospital of the second set of octuplets born alive in the United States. Their report, which withheld the name of mother, stressed the success of the delivery by C-Section that had required four delivery rooms, the collective effort of forty-five doctors, nurses and attendants, the surprise of discovering octuplets when prior ultrasounds had led them to expect sextuplets, and the relatively healthy state of the newborns. The anonymity of the mother, to whom media reports began to attach the sensational name “Octomom,” and the stories that began to develop after the birth and in the wake of its announcement, added intrigue to questions related to her identity.
Her name, Nadya Suleman, was first revealed on February 10, 2009 in an in depth interview with Ann Curry on the NBC show Dateline. By then, news was in widespread circulation that the pregnancy was the result of the mother’s most recent in vitro fertilization treatment that resulted in the birth of eight babies, that she had undergone this procedure four times in the past to have her six young children, bringing her total number of children to fourteen, and that she had chosen to expand her family in spite of being jobless and single and living with her parents in a small, three-bedroom household. The interview with Curry only raised more questions about Suleman’s readiness to take care of her newborns and the demands of such a large family with so few financial resources. Increasingly, Suleman became a spectacle in contexts from a video blog on Entertainment Tonight to comic monologues and skits on late night television shows. Suleman emerged as the embodiment of the woman in nursery rhymes, who lived in the shoe, and who had so many children that she didn’t know what to do. Indeed, it seemed that making her choices to continue procreating while lacking resources and living with her parents was part of what made her outlandish in the view of her critics.
The institutions that scrutinized her choices and media that portrayed Suleman as bizarre demonstrate that any maternal productivity viewed as being too excessive can, at an affective level in the cultural imaginary, inspire horror, shock and outrage, and cross over into the realm of social transgression and taboo for violating acceptable social norms, as do extreme acts of willful maternal annihilation witnessed in high-profile criminal cases in contemporary media such as those of Andrea Yates and Casey Anthony. In literature, one of the most familiar examples is Toni Morrison’s character Sethe in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved (1988), who attempts to kill all of her children rather than see them returned to slavery, takes the life of her daughter, is frequently associated with the matricidal Medea of Euripedes’ classical work and is based on the historical figure Margaret Garner. Neoconservative debates about welfare in the national arena shadowed the moment of Beloved’s release and dramatized the accessibility of black women’s bodies to construal as dehumanized and pathological even over a century after slavery and Reconstruction, the periods in which it is set.
Suleman’s representation in the media, I will be arguing through works that I find especially compelling and relevant for thinking about it such as Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1982) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is recognizable as a profound and assertive iteration of the problematic that has shadowed the conjunction of Africanity and maternity in the Western imaginary, including its raced, gendered and sexed scripts of the black feminine body as excessive, grotesque and pathological, which are evident in their most extreme and infamous manifestation in the exhibition of Sara Baartman as the Hottentot Venus. It also foregrounds profound cultural anxieties related to whiteness, family and reproduction.
Yet, stories that have proliferated about Suleman have typically obscured the facts that Suleman sought in vitro fertilization in the first place because she had struggled for years with fibroid tumors and had also suffered multiple miscarriages. Former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently made history as the first woman ever selected as the nominee for president by a top political party in the U.S., helped to popularize the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child” as First Lady in the 1990s. However, in the U.S., the ideal family has typically been imagined as nuclear and headed by a working couple with enough income to purchase a home roomy enough for a nursery at birth, an SUV to shuttle back and forth to soccer practices, private school education, and a college savings fund. When compared to this ideal, the case of Suleman sounds positively whacky.
As startling and shocking as her situation may have been for some of her critics, it provides an opportunity for more serious and focused reflection on reproductive rights and women’s reproductive health beyond the frameworks of the debate about abortion given the concern that it raises about gender, fertility and childbirth. The aim of this essay is by no means to defend the choice that Suleman made or to justify her repeated use of IVF as a procedure to facilitate conception.
Her doctor’s unusual decision to implant six embryos in her uterus when the standard number is one or two has raised questions of the highest order in medical ethics. It should. Rather, my main concerns are that the public furor over her choices obscured the opportunity for a larger and more focused and expansive public dialogue on women’s reproductive health, and that the linkages of her IVF procedure to her struggles with fibroid tumors were not discussed more widely or recognized as part of a health crisis for many women. Indeed, that black women are disproportionately impacted by this problem as a population is obscured through pathologies that link black women to excessive childbearing in public discourses.
As I begin this essay, I am compelled to mention up front that I had myomectomies at both ages 26 and 37, which are surgeries designed to remove fibroid tumors while leaving the uterus intact. They can sometimes result in scarring that leads to challenges in conceiving children, miscarriages, or even infertility. Some methods of incision for the procedure make it necessary thereafter to give birth by C-Section instead of natural childbirth. My second surgery was performed by an in vitro fertilization (IVF) specialist in the northern California region from whom I learned a lot about the process and its uses to address medical circumstances such as my own, though my goal was simply to have the aforementioned surgery. I am not married as yet, but still may, and I remain concerned about the impact of prior surgeries and about how any additional procedures that I have to address fibroids would impact the possibilities for the conception and birth of a child.
Perspectives in feminist criticism and theorizing over the past several decades that position the personal as political, and that validate the use of storytelling in theorizing, are one frame of reference as I think beyond my tendencies toward privacy and choice to reveal this autobiographical detail up front. It seems relevant in this case because it inevitably inflects my thinking on some levels. I make absolutely no pretense of objectivity in this matter. My critical investments in fields such as black feminism, Africana women’s studies, and transnational feminism and training in fields such as American literature, African American literature and cultural studies, including popular culture, ground the discussion in this essay.
In the contemporary era, entertainment news shows and magazines have been obsessed with reporting on the marriages and pregnancies of celebrities. In an era during which paparazzi photographers compete to be the first to capture an image of a “baby bump” on an actress, speculations about pregnancy and even false rumors often circulate freely. The actress Jennifer Aniston has been routinely targeted by paparazzi and highlighted in this kind of reporting. In an essay for The Huffington Post entitled “For the Record” published on July 12, 2016, Aniston addresses what is at stake in this harassment:
“This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status. The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time... but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.” (Aniston, 2016)
In recent years, celebrities have been among the most salient clients of in vitro fertilization and have helped to popularize it. Known to statistically increase the possibility in the conception of twins and multiple births, in vitro fertilization has been linked to the marked increase in the birth of twins among a range of celebrities in recent years, though very few admit to undergoing treatment. That entertainment media has been one of the most prominent venues in publicizing the Suleman story is symptomatic of the sensational interest in the topic of celebrity pregnancy that Aniston critiques.
The obsession with Suleman that happened in popular media in recent years that I am describing, along with the continuing fascination with the pregnancies of celebrity women, makes the deafening silence about the Zika virus in contexts such as in the public sphere of politics in the U.S. all the more unsettling given its widespread public health implications and impact on the lives of so many women and babies in the Hemispheric South.
Zika is a disease that can be transmitted sexually and by Aedes mosquitoes. It is causally linked to microcephaly, premature births, and damage to the brains, hearing and sight of infants whose mothers are infected during pregnancy. At this point, no vaccine is available for its treatment. In spite of dire warnings by the Centers for Disease Control and appeals to Congress for funding to fight the virus and prevent its spread, it is sobering that in the U.S., Congress has failed to approve supplemental funding that has been requested to help to control the pandemic. A July 12, 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal by Kristina Peterson and Stephanie Armour entitled “Zika Stalemate Hardens as Senate Republicans Reject New Democratic Proposal” discusses the most recent failure of Democrats and Republicans to arrive at a compromise on a bipartisan deal to fund the fight against Zika, a stalemate that also threatens to get in the way of research on vaccines.
It is discouraging and alarming that though the health and well being of so many women and babies are currently at stake and in spite of the risk that the spread of this virus poses to women and children, adequate interventions have yet to be made because of partisan disagreements, though continuing to fund research to help find a cure for Zika should be among the top priorities at this point. This is another reason that I have been thinking of and now want to revisit a novel like Atwood’s, which explores the impact of a reactionary and patriarchal political climate on matters related to women’s psychological and physical health.
While Suleman initially denied that she received forms of welfare and public assistance, her situation has led to widespread speculation that tax dollars would be used to finance the high medical bills related to the care of her premature infants, and to the ongoing costs of their upbringing, which some of her critics have speculated will add up to over $1 million by the time they become adults by projecting the cumulative costs of a range of items from diapers in infancy to college educations for all. But subsequent investigations, which have been grossly symptomatic of the media’s obsession with Suleman, have revealed that at the time that she gave birth to the octuplets, she was receiving support for at least two of her children with disabilities and that her parent’s home was on the brink of foreclosure.
Furthermore, the speculation in the media about whether she has ever had plastic surgery, and more specifically, about whether she ever received lip enhancements in an effort to look like the actress Angelina Jolie, imply such choices to be frivolous in light of the number of children in Suleman and her parents’ care. When Suleman’s father, Ed Doud, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show on February 4, 2009, Dr. Oz, a physician and consultant who regularly appeared on the show, joked that Suleman would likely take any donations for her children and get a pedicure, which mirrors stereotypes of black mothers who receive public assistance.
Above and beyond any physical similarities they may possess, the analogy has no doubt also been sustained between Suleman and Jolie in the media in part because of the latter’s repeated international-and transracial- adoptions in countries such as Ethiopia, Thailand and Vietnam, along with the biological births of a daughter and twins with the actor Brad Pitt that have expanded their family size to a total of six, and because Jolie has expressed interest in continuing to expand their family through more adoptions and births in the future.
Furthermore, in the wake of the birth of their twin son and daughter in 2008, Pitt and Jolie admitted that their conception was the result of in vitro fertilization. The association with Suleman, who attempted to contact her several years ago, is one that Jolie deflected in commenting that she is “totally creeped out” by her, phrasing that reinforces the portrayal of Suleman as bizarre and deviant. It may be that the cavalier joking about Suleman, even by women, including a woman as progressive and politically conscious as Jolie, is yet another telling signal of what is so much at stake in assumptions that we are in a “postfeminist” age, which is, in spite of the gains that women have made in recent decades, as asinine as the notions of the postracial and postblackness.
In recent years, the focus on celebrity babies has intensified in the wake of adoptions by prominent female celebrities such as Madonna and Jolie. Whatever controversies their choices may raise among child protection advocates in the United States, as well as in African and Asian nations in which they have adopted children, it must be recognized that in making the choice to adopt not only in transnational contexts but also transracially, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna, by becoming white adoptive mothers of black children, an inherently oxymoronic formulation in light of the conventional laws of hypo-descent in this nation, have in effect undermined the white supremacist ideology established in the late nineteenth century that heralded the rise of eugenics in stressing pure, monolithically white models of family, opposing interracial intimacy, and dis couraging racial intermixture, which racist discourses typically described as “miscegenation.” Some of the criticisms of such adoptive choices may also camouflage anger and shock over the possibility that children classified as “black” will have a legitimate share in the future as inheritors and custodians of the staggeringly wealthy estates of Madonna and Jolie in a society in which property ownership has been historically been governed not only by rules of racial hypodescent, but also by patriarchy.
That Suleman’s story emerged in the midst of a financial crisis of national and global proportions is one factor that may have shaped the public’s response to her. Given that she is the daughter of an Arabic father and Lithuanian mother, her perceived foreignness, along with anxieties related to immigration and associations between Arab identity and Islamic terrorism, has no doubt also played a role in her negative public perception. The hostile public reaction to her situation, however extreme it may seem to be, encourages and helps to consolidate further the withdrawal of the state from any obligation to provide economic assistance for women raising children and struggling with poverty.
The swiftness with which her background was investigated and speculations began about her sanity and whether her children should be taken away illustrates the linkages between her case and the enactment of state-based policies targeted at black and other minority women that result in forms of compulsive birth control, abortion and sterilization. Reportedly, death threats by those outraged by her choices made it necessary for Suleman to receive police protection, which compounds and extends to law enforcement the vectors of her surveillance that have been established and readily proliferated in the national media.
It is especially important, however, to frame Suleman’s depiction in the media as an outgrowth of the nation’s reactionary discourse on welfare. The reactionary discourses in the political arena on “welfare queens” in the 1980s that unfolded in relation to the Right Wing neoconservative movement under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and “welfare reform” during Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s, were mainly aimed at black female recipients of public assistance and in part, I want to suggest, established the climate for the public debate on Suleman. The pathological scripting of this largely urban black female population, which was mainly single, poor and jobless, implied that such women were having too many children that they could not afford to take care of and were inflected by concomitant narratives of their children as being too abundant in number, dysfunctional, and associated with the escalating crime rates and gang activities in urban areas.
Neoconservatives portrayed them as “lazy” food stamp recipients who were driving Cadillacs and literally “getting fat” off the tax dollars of hard working Americans whose interests were being sacrificed by a government whose spending was out of control. Perhaps most famously, prior to the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee that led to his confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas remarked that his sister, Emma Mae Martin, could not wait to get her welfare check every month, assistance that he implied she did not need when the reality was that she was caring for their ailing mother.
In Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997), critical race theorist Dorothy Roberts acknowledges the ideological associations of black maternity with degeneracy. In her words, “White childbearing is generally thought to be a beneficial activity: it brings personal joy and allows the nation to flourish. Black reproduction, on the other hand, is treated as a form of degeneracy.” Furthermore, Roberts relates new forms of “biodeterminism” to narratives of crack babies born in black communities, pointing out that
"[...]the powerful Western image of childhood innocence does not seem to benefit black children. Black children are born guilty. The new bio-underclass constitutes nothing but a menace to society-criminals, crackheads, and welfare cheats waiting to happen. Blaming Black women for bringing up a next generation of degeneracy stigmatizes not only mothers but their children as well.” ( Roberts,1977)
Gloria Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which is cited in this essay’s second epigraph, established foundations for what has unfolded throughout her repertoire as energetic, focused, eclectic and often intensely psychologically-oriented masculine and feminine characterizations. In Cora Lee, one of the seven black female characters, the novel associates this character’s fetish for newborn babies with her childhood fascination with baby dolls, which culminates in a pathological obsession with giving birth to “real babies” beginning in her teen years, who are the object of her affection and her attention as she ignores her older children and dresses them shabbily.
The novel is most provocative in her characterization where it links the idealization of her new infants to persisting anxieties about the intrusive and supervisory power of the state in her life and the lives of her children through the constant surveillance of welfare and social workers:
“Oh for them to stay like this, when they could be fed from her body so there were no welfare offices to sit in all day or food stamp lines to stand on, when she alone could be their substance and their world, when there were no neighbors or teachers or social workers to answer about their actions. They stayed where you put them and were so easy to keep clean”(112).
Cora Lee’s penultimate efforts to provide better care for her children and their outing to attend a performance of the community adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect her visceral consciousness of how ubiquitously welfare shapes the perception of her maternity, her children and her sexuality among her neighbors:
“Where could she be going with all them kids? The welfare office wasn’t open. She was greeted with the friendly caution that women hold toward unmarried women who repeatedly have children-since they aren’t having them by their own husbands, there is always the possibility they are having them by yours”(123).
Attempts in the media, including her father’s, to psychoanalyze Suleman and explain her choices, like this novel’s painstaking exposition on Cora Lee’s formative years in this section, link the seeming obsession with serial childbirths to having been “spoiled” during childhood and indulged excessively as an only child. Sapphire’s novel Push (1996) and the film based on it entitled Precious (2009) also examine the impact of the welfare system on the young protagonist Claireece “Precious” Jones in Harlem for its lack of intervention to protect her from incestuous abuse by her father that results in the birth of two children, and to address her lack of literacy.
On the African American historical record, Malcolm X’s autobiography provides a sobering illustration of how factors such as race, class and gender make minority mothers accessible to surveillance and intervention in his description of how white welfare agents, in the wake of his father’s mysterious death, harassed his mother, Louise Little, protocols that eventually led to her institutionalization and the placement of her eight children in foster care.
In the media’s intensive broadcasting of her story, Suleman has been portrayed as bizarre through the emphasis on her physical features such as her long black hair and full lips. Some of her critics have compared her lips to images of those that result from collagen enhancement, suggesting that she has had cosmetic surgery (an imaging strategy that itself evokes the visual diagrams of comparative anatomy), and her body has also been the target of lampooning on late night television and comedy circuits.
Furthermore, questions have been raised about her mental stability and her sanity has been doubted. News that Suleman has attempted to make the name “octomom “ a registered trademark, like her voluntary video blog established in collaboration with Entertainment Tonight, suggests her visceral awareness of-and even pride in-the currency of her story in the media and its potential for marketing and profiting in the long run. Once Suleman’s identity was revealed, the media engaged her in an onslaught of interviews and highlighted the details of her IVF procedures.
The insatiable media consumption of her story is reminiscent of the perverse and pornographic interest of law enforcement authorities and the state academic institutions in the character Jim Trueblood’s story of an incestuous encounter with his daughter Matty Lou in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, which undergoes repeated iterations and reaches its height in narration in the exchange with the philanthropist Mr. Norton:
“I went to the jailhouse and give Sheriff Barbour the note and he ask me to tell him what happen, and I told him and he called in some more men and they made me tell it again. They wanted to hear about the gal lots of times and they gimme somethin’ to eat and drink and some tobacco . . . Some of ‘em was big white folks, too, from the big school way cross the State. Asked me lots ‘bout what I thought ‘bout things, and ‘bout my folks and the kids, and wrote it all down in a book. But best of all, suh, I got more work now than I ever did have before”(52-53).
Here the novel establishes its narrative trajectory that examines the accessibility of the black body to forms of exploitation and abuse in science and medicine under state auspices. These thematic dimensions seem all the more poignant when we recognize that one of this novel’s earliest settings is rural Tuskegee, Alabama, the site of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that was conducted clandestinely by the U.S. Institution of Public Health for over four decades and illustrates one of the most egregious and systematized exploitations of the black body sanctioned by government in U.S. history.
The possibility remains that Suleman was the victim of a lapse in medical ethics at her IVF clinic, whose procedures have been investigated and fall outside the standard guidelines for treatment in several instances, notwithstanding the increased health risks that come with multiple births for both the mother and her progeny.
Her experience serves as a sobering reminder of how medical institutions can conceivably, even in our day and time, engage in unethical, extreme and potentially harmful or even deadly experiments, and function among an array of institutional apparatuses, from the medical establishment to the media, that can conceivably work in concert to construe the body as pathological. Suleman has emerged as a key illustration in the media of a poster child for non-normative reproductive and relational choices, and the reaction to her situation has been shaped by cultural anxieties that discourage any and all deviation from the prevailing raced, classed, sexed, and gendered social norms.
Reports that Suleman has been negotiating to establish ventures such as a reality television show and gained lucrative profits from the sale of her infants’ photographs led the celebrity attorney Gloria Allred to file a lawsuit against her for the protection of the children’s estate, which is designed to ensure that a share will be set aside for their benefit once they reach adulthood.
The emergence of reality television shows such as Jon & Kate Plus Eight also registered the increasing popular fascination with the phenomenon of multiple births, inasmuch as 1970s television series from The Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family to The Waltons and Eight is Enough reflected a fascination with larger than average families and plots focused on the antics of numerous siblings.
Some critics suggested that the disparities in how nonchalantly the media initially treated the birth of the second set of sextuplets in the U.S. on May 8, 1997, and the first set ever born to African Americans, Linden and Jacqueline Thompson, were based potentially on race when considering the outpouring of support and public recognition that followed the birth of septuplets to Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, a white couple in Iowa, on January 8, 1998.
In a Salon article entitled “A Tale of Two Families: Why is a White ‘Miracle Birth,’ a Major News Story and a Black ‘Miracle Birth’ a Non-Event,” the journalist Earl Ofari Hutchinson points out that
“In an extensive search of all major publications, I found no record of any TV news feature, special report or print feature on them in any major daily. If not for a brief news blurb on the Thompson births in the black weekly Jet magazine, the event would have gone completely unnoticed.”
He notes a double standard, indicating that the fanfare surrounding the white septuplets, which led to a series of donations, including advertising for a family assistance fund, a 12-seat Chevrolet, a year’s supply of groceries, an offer from the Iowa governor to build a new home, cover stories in Time and Newsweek as well as a call from President Clinton and invitation to the White House, a bid from a tabloid for $250,000 for the story, was a far cry from the reaction to the Thompsons a few months earlier.
In the wake of the McCaughey births, the black public reaction to these disparities that some critics highlighted in venues such as the Tom Joyner Morning Show led to some belated donations for the Thompson sextuplets. Similarly, reports have indicated that Adwai Malual and her husband, Sudanese natives, received little public outreach and resources after the birth of their quintuplets.
In the introduction to their landmark anthology Deviant Bodies, Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla point out that
“ [...]in our contemporary culture, bodies have become sites of political struggles precisely over representation and over the meaning of what is normal and what is not. Through their motions, habits, behaviors, and significations, bodies have been territorialized, inscribed, contained, and dispersed in relation to high-stakes political positioning about what should be permitted and forbidden in issues as disparate as abortion, reproduction, homosexuality, genetic screening, drug consumption, and disease control.” ( Terry and Urla,1995)
It is important to situate Suleman’s imaging in the media and the emphasis on her body’s excessiveness, difference, deviance and pathology within the continuum of social mechanisms that malign and construe bodies as other in association with a range raced, gendered, and sexual ideologies, logic that in U.S. culture has frequently been salient in stereotyped portrayals of African American masculine and feminine bodies in contemporary media from film to commercials, and that reflects longstanding views within Western aesthetics of blackness as inferior and undesirable and of whiteness as normative, superior and beautiful.
To understand the implications of Suleman’s scripting in contemporary media, it is necessary to recognize the refraction and defamiliarization of such conventional epistemologies and narratives for disciplining black bodies across a range of racial and ethnic categories, discourses that help in the present era to help constitute the globalization of race. Suleman’s excessive embodiment and abstraction in the national media is a byproduct of the mechanisms that work to disseminate and consolidate her body as a trademark and indicates her raced, sexed and gendered subjection. Her naming as the “Octomom” enshrines and provides testimony of a narrative of perversion and alone evokes and signifies her objectification and perceived ubiquity and exceptionalism.
In history, it is important to mention the case of the South African woman known as Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited in London and Paris early in the nineteenth century because of the fascination with her prominent buttocks scientifically described as “steatopygia.” A concomitant imagined hyper-sexuality, the autopsy and genital excision performed after her death by the famed naturalist Georges Cuvier, along with her postmortem containment until recent years in Paris’s Mussée de l´ Homme, were conceivable because of colonialism and helped to establish foundations for representation of the black feminine body in an era in which transcontinental slavery persisted as a Victorian ethos of womanhood and domesticity steeped in a hierarchy of race, gender, class and sexuality prevailed.
This is an ideological climate that has been linked to the conditions of Josephine Baker’s iconicity in Paris in the early twentieth-century, especially as she gained fame for her performance in the Revue Negre (1925), which introduced her style of dancing topless in banana skirts and established the basis for her popularization in France as a trademark for a range of commercial products, from toothpaste to hair pomade. (Baker, given her sterilization in which she was not complicit in a military hospital during World War II, and her adoption of twelve children across a range of ethnicities and nationalities, is an important example to draw on in thinking about the politics of celebrity interracial adoptions as witnessed in the cases of Angelina Jolie and Madonna, as well as the politics of state surveillance and state-sanctioned sterilization in the lives of women of color).
Some contemporary critics have acknowledged the ironic linkages of representations of black women’s bodies in the rap videos and lyrics of black male hip hop artists in the contemporary era, to this racialist historical ideological economy. The currency of images of Suleman’s body in the contemporary media, and particularly the photograph that friends took of her protruding stomach in the days before she gave birth to the eight babies and eventually sold-an image that seems to have value because it documents her with a ballooned and bloated belly in the days before her delivery-helps to archive and visually illustrate the narratives invested in portraying her pregnancy as extreme and reinforces the perception of her body, as well as her maternity itself, as pathological, unnatural, hyperbolic, and even freakish.
The rise of Suleman as a public spectacle and the representation of her bare and protruding belly are in some ways eerily and strangely reminiscent of Baartman’s historical parading around Europe for her buttocks. Photographs and videos are central technologies that have enshrined this image of Suleman’s body for public consumption and circulation just as a perverse, proliferative and in some ways pornographic economy of engravings, cartoons, and drawings, produced under the veneer of science as a rationale made Baartman’s body accessible for public consumption and sexual fantasy in the nineteenth century.
In contemporary media culture, Suleman might be said to bear the burden of a pariah in the vein of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” read as an encoding of her adultery, only “O” for “Octuplets” is Suleman’s inscription. It does not help either that in the public mind, a prefix such as “octo” typically connotes excessiveness and multiplicity and is most readily linked to animals such as the eight-armed “octopus,” a creature mythologized and imagined as a freakish, strange and lethal sea creature for its ability to poison and inflict injury through its paralyzing ink.
The sea change that occurred by the late twentieth century in light of how associations between black female reproduction and pathology and degeneracy were inflected by a view of black women’s childbearing as excessive, could easily obscure the ways in which they were subjected to pressures to be excessively reproductive as mothers within the institution of slavery. Within Western slave systems, black women were exploited as laborers and for their capacity to reproduce and replenish the slave population, to the point that they were frequently raped and self-consciously cultivated as “breeders.” In the classic slave narrative by Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the author provides an apt illustration of this practice in describing the joyous reaction of the notorious slave breaker Covey to whom he had been sent:
"Mr. Covey was a poor man; he was just commencing in life; he was only able to buy one slave; and, shocking as is the fact, he bought her, as he said, for a breeder. This woman was named Caroline. Mr. Covey bought her from Mr. Thomas Lowe, about six miles from St. Michaels. She was a large, able-bodied woman, about twenty years old. She had already given birth to one child, which proved to be just what he wanted. After buying her, he hired a married man of Mr. Samuel Harrison, to live with him one year; and him he used to fasten up with her every night! The result was, that, at the end of the year, the miserable woman gave birth to twins. At this result, Mr. Covey seemed to be highly pleased, both with the man and the wretched woman. Such was his joy, and that of his wife, that nothing they could do for Caroline during her confinement was too good, or too hard, to be done. The children were regarded as being quite an addition to his wealth "(61).
Covey’s transformation from an ordinarily cruel and steely demeanor to the indulgent and doting paternalism that Douglass describes is telling and suspect. Black births within the slave system were governed by the laws of hypodescent. Reproduction of the slave class through maternal labor was a primary anchor and measure for profitability. Slavery was a context in which black women were frequently presumed to suffer fewer complications in childbirth, and whose childbearing as a practice was routinely compared to that of animals because of the perception that black women gave birth with ease and felt less pain.
The perception of black mothers as animalistic has by no means disappeared. Such narratives become all the more intense when linked to high and perceptibly out of control black birthrates or to large numbers of children in single families. In an August 11, 2008 column entitled “Who Places a Lower Value on Black Lives?”, the bold and flagrant reference of a syndicated columnist known as the “Advice Goddess,” Amy Alkon, to the children of a black woman named Tarika Wilson as a “litter” after Wilson, the mother of six children fathered by five different men with records of involvement in drug activity, was accidentally killed by police in a drug raid, illustrates the accessibility of black women to dehumanization, as evident in this passage suffused with profane words as well as obvious animal imagery on which Alkon draws to describe Wilson’s childbirths, implying that she represents one of many single and sexually irresponsible black woman who fit the same description:
“Not surprisingly, black leaders are outraged. Also, not surprisingly, their outrage is not directed at women in the black community who squeeze out litters of fatherless children who fuck and run, or fuck and deal drugs and go directly to jail.”
Such unapologetically racist statements reflect the legacy and latency of white supremacist ideologies and how intimately pathology is linked to black feminine and masculine sexuality and to perceptions of black family. They illustrate how eugenics, while presumed to be outdated and anachronistic, even in our day and time, shadows to some extent perceptions in the public sphere of family and inflect dialogues about criminality, who is worthy of social support, and who deserves life.
While democracy and equality are key components of values in the U.S., the bitter truth is that a raced and gendered hierarchy governed by patriarchy and based on race and gender inequality emerged from the time of the nation’s origin as a republic in the late eighteenth century in which the white wealthy and middle class men were most valued, and whiteness served as the signifier of humanity and citizenship rights, in contradistinction to blackness as a signifier of inferiority.
That white children are overwhelmingly coveted as adoptees as minority children linger in the foster care system, and that young, healthy fertile white women also tend to be preferred as surrogate mothers, and as egg donors, are not coincidental facts, but instead reflect the U.S. racial climate in which whiteness is a most prioritized, privileged and valued category of identity and there is a lower value placed on black life.
The economy of ideologies related to welfare and their intricate and seemingly inextricable and insistently overdetermined relationship in the public sphere to the race, class, gender and sexuality of black women referenced in this article, which even crosses the line to hate speech, is precisely what had me admittedly somewhat worried-for days- that Suleman would be a black woman and paraded as the most extreme realization conceivable of the condescending and castigating stereotypes of black women that the Right Wing and reactionaries have propagated at the national level in the U.S., beginning with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 Report on the Negro Family, which portrayed black women as emasculating matriarchs who disproportionately headed black households, and reached their height in Ronald Reagan’s attack on policies such as Aid for Families with Dependent Children as governor of California and later nationalization of the ideology when he became president that portrayed poor black women on welfare as “welfare queens.”
The media indifference to multiple births in African American contexts and the material conditions of their families, when compared to the intense public interest in Suleman’s case given that her children are perceived as “white” and therefore entitled to a stable and comfortable upbringing, points to the racialist dimensions that inflect the widespread concern about her limited resources such as her small home and low income, which are viewed as being insufficient for the support of such a large family. Suleman in some ways emerged as a modern day example of the “fallen woman,” a type recurrently invoked in late nineteenth century literature that failed to live up to the tenets of the “Cult of True Womanhood” such as purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity as wives and mothers, and that engaged in what was perceived to be sexual transgression that violated Victorian norms of respectability.
Vestiges of this ideology have persisted to the present day and explain why, for example, white women who are raped by black men or even those who choose to engage in exogamous relationships with them are perceived to as “bad” and sometimes become pariahs alienated from the white social world, a phenomenon that works ranging from Harriet Wilson’s novel Our Nig (1859) to Jean Toomer’s sketch entitled “Becky” in Cane (1923), which depict white women who are alienated and become impoverished once giving birth to children with black men, have acknowledged. That the politics of the case related to gender and class, given Suleman’s status as an unemployed and economically disadvantaged woman, were also shaped by race became all the more apparent in the midst of the speculation that an interracial male, her friend Denis Beaudoin, was possibly the father of the octuplets.
Beaudoin claimed that he had a three-year relationship with Suleman and when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, donated his sperm to help her achieve her goal of having children. However, Suleman, perhaps sensing the intensity of the controversy surrounding her and how much more rebuke she might undergo were a black or interracial male identified as the father of her children, who would then be viewed as non-white, quickly denied this possibility and asserted that he was not the father.
Suleman’s choice to bear multiple babies out of wedlock is diametrically opposed to the values and expectations linked to the dominant model of white middle class patriarchal family in the U.S. and is a reason that her choice has been perceived as alarming-and even threatening. The conservative Right to Life/Pro-Life movement was curiously silent about Suleman’s situation in the public sphere, even though one could conceivably view her choice to give birth to such a large number of babies as heroic from their point of view when considering that abortion might have been an alternative. This outlook mirrors its typical indifferent attitudes regarding minority populations.
Such indifference suggests the extent to which some prolife agendas draw their momentum from an eerie and unstated eugenics tacitly focused on engendering and sustaining the lives of children of white mothers exclusively. At the same time, it seems to be premised on a view of minority populations as excessive and expendable, refuses to register their interests as vital political and social concerns, and reinforces perceptions of minorities as pathological and undeserving of governmental-based support.
Suleman’s situation has become provocative in the nation’s public and popular spheres in the contemporary era and is coded as aberrant and pathological within a social order, though shifting, that continues to be white-centered and patriarchal, as evident in the complex raced and gendered ideological significations and expectations attached to white femininity. In the stories about her, there has been a highly surreal quality to her representation, from her psychology to her body.
Up this point, I have been considering the status of state, media and health institutions in shaping aspects of Suleman’s lived reality. I want to turn now to consider momentarily Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a work that can also help us, by its presentation of the worst case scenario of the transmogrification of the United States into the Republic of Gilead in which women experience sexual abuse based on a turn to the most extremist, hegemonic, violent and racist ideological manifestations of white fundamentalist Christian conservatism.
It is useful to draw on to understand what is at stake in the intensive and intrusive scrutinizing and surveillance directed at Suleman under a range of state and social apparatuses. It is a useful work of literature to center in this dialogue in light of its innovative and provocative use of the speculative fiction genre, along with satire, to examine how the violent takeover of the U.S. government by an extremist conservative regime falsifies and misuses the doctrine of Christian faith to instate a raced and gendered hierarchical system dominated by older white men in which choice, fertile young white women are sexually exploited and forced to serve as concubines.
Their purpose, as handmaids, is to replenish a population in which the birthrate has drastically decreased and birth defects have become normative following a series of nuclear, natural and chemical disasters that have ravaged the environment. As the novel reveals,
“Men highly placed in the regime were thus able to pick and choose among women who had demonstrated their reproductive fitness by having produced one or more healthy children, a desirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birthrates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time”(304).
The main setting, the Republic of Gilead, is in the heart of what used to be Harvard University, which emphasizes the resentment and irreverence for intellectualism and the irrationality underpinning this regime, along with its self-righteousness.
In this unapologetically racist new social order whose design is intrinsically shaped by eugenics, blacks, deemed the “children of Ham,” are implied to be undesirable for reproduction and have been relegated to urban outposts such as Detriot; in Gilead, black men are entirely invisible, and the only possible role therein for black women at which the novel hints through certain linguistic and gestural indicators, seems to be as “Marthas,” midwives and caretakers for the handmaids and their children, or really, one might as well admit, as “mammies.”
This myth, which emerged during slavery in the antebellum South, portrayed black women as caretakers who nurtured the children of the master class and served as wet nurses. Furthermore, it idealized black women who worked in this capacity as being plump and asexual. Black women also seem to be implicit in the “Unwomen” to whom Aunt Lydia refers when describing a past in which women always wasted time and were subsidized by the government, implicitly through its welfare policies, to do so, though at the same time she supports the idea of the government enabling compulsive childbirth.
If Offred’s identity as a white woman makes her a prized and coveted feminine object in this oppressive system, it is equally true that the specter of race on the opposite end of the color spectrum, in terms of blackness, as determinedly imprints and shapes her characterization, including the narrative trajectory of her story and the path of her experience. The analogy between Offred’s condition and that of black slaves is evident in Atwood’s allusions to the historical Underground Railroad of slavery, the path of escape and gateway to freedom in the North, and in the Underground Femaleroad on which Offred may have even escaped Gilead.
The tone of Offred’s narrative draws on and evokes in form female slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), particularly in its confessional aspects related to the sexual choice to pursue a consensual sexual relationship with the Guardian Nick, echoing the pseudonymous Linda Brent’s chronicling of the decision to get involved with the lawyer Mr. Sands, the father of Brent’s son and daughter.
Offred’s family has been separated in the fashion that was typical of American slavery as an institution and she also suffers rape, which was often the fate of slave women, so that even as she has lost her lover and her small child has been taken away from her, her body is repeatedly subjected to the Commander’s sexual violation with the hope that she will give birth to another child, a child who would then be taken away from her and raised by him and his wife.
Moreover, the fate of the women in the Colonies, where “They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to” (248), evokes the economics and logic of slavery in places such as Jamaica, where it was reasoned that it was cheaper to work slaves to death in the sugar fields rather than to invest in treating them well. Even in Gilead, however, handmaids, while valued for their bodies, are viewed as being expendable so that in instances when one has committed suicide or been executed, the replacement is given the same name as her predecessor.
The narrative unfolds in a first person voice of its captive protagonist, who has been, in the vein of all handmaids, renamed “Offred” (i.e. of Fred), a patronymic designed to emphasize that she is owned and lacks individuality, given that the main purpose of a handmaid is “to be a vessel.” A series of flashbacks embedded throughout the novel, punctuated by an omniscient afterword set in the year 2195, adds complex layers to the story that she tells and helps to establish the most immediate temporalities early in the twenty-first century.
The Chaucerian title also alludes to the biblical Virgin Mary’s Magnificat, including its words “behold the handmaid of the Lord,” that convey her compliance to give birth by the power of the Holy Spirit in the book of Luke, making it an unlikely coincidence that “Luke” is the name of Offred’s male companion in her former life and also suggesting the ubiquitous and corrupt power of the regime and its haughty self-righteousness in thinking of itself as God-like.
It is also impossible not to recognize the likely double entendre in “tale” to evoke the word “tail,” a colloquialism for sex, given that Offred’s body is valued for it, a body whose reduction to this function is literalized in her awkward positioning between the legs of Serena Joy, the wife of her Commander, during the rigidly timed and monthly ritual of intercourse with him, in which she remains fully clothed to the waist and only her legs and buttocks are exposed. That this ritual is highly sacred and rhythmic in Gilead seems all the more absurd when considering the irony of its resemblance to group sex and linkages to pornographic contexts.
Acknowledging the resonances of the word “tail” here also fully extracts the levels on which the handmaids are dehumanized and treated as breeders like animals. That they must travel in pairs “two by two,” for example, alludes to the walk of a male and female representative of each animal species in pairs into Noah’s ark in the Bible. Offred describes her posture during intercourse with the Commander as that of a “dead bird,”(255) an image associated with flight and freedom that also points to her confinement. The long dress that is the handmaid’s requisite uniform forces Offred to take small steps and walk like a trained pig. Significantly, the costume that the Commander gives Offred to wear one evening reminds him of an animal.
If debates in the U.S. national context on the status of the government in shaping legislation related to marriage and reproduction have intensified in recent years given issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, in Atwood’s Gilead, state power has been usurped and dismantled altogether and replaced by a regime whose violence and militarism evoke terrorism and are unimaginable in modern democratic state governments.
As Offred recalls, the takeover occurred “after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency”(174). This regime’s brutality and terror are epitomized in its “salvaging,” violent and inhumane techniques of punishment such as beatings and cutting off hands, and is symbolized through the wall on which the hanged bodies are publicly displayed to humiliate those who have in some ways defied the system, while terrifying the witnesses of this anachronistic and ritualized form of punishment.
In this system, it is telling that the handmaids are considered to be a “national” and implicitly “natural” resource, especially given that the conventional ones are so imperiled, but the reality is that Gilead, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, is a prison for them. In Gilead, funerals for fetuses are an extreme embodiment of the national fetish that Lauren Berlant has related to the salient emphasis on the fetus and children in the public sphere in U.S. politics during the rise of the neoconservative movement in the 1980s.
The intensive surveillance under which the handmaids live is iterated in regularly scheduled medical examinations to assess fertility, examinations that illustrate how the rise of the regime that dismantled medical institutions, and commandeered and redefined ambulances as Birthmobiles, deploying their emergency signals to hurriedly drive the handmaids of Gilead to witness childbirth ceremonies, is entirely shorn of medical ethics.
In Gilead, Offred’s appointments with her doctor, beyond the compulsive sexual encounters with the Commander, are another context in which she experiences gross sexual violations, given his use of her examinations alone with him as a method for sexual arousal, touching her body, naked though mostly covered, lustfully in ways that make her feel uncomfortable and embarrassed as she endures his invasive probing in silent and shocked disbelief. He exerts a maniacal power over his female patients in light of their desperation to conceive and birth children, phenomena on which their safety and survival depend in the repressive regime and, attempts to exert psychological and sexual control over them, posturing as the arbiter of their destiny who is uniquely equipped to help them achieve the results that they seek.
In the novel, the episode in which he gives Offred her routine medical examination foregrounds his perverse strategies of manipulation and methods of intimidation, including using such appointments as a context to barter for sexual encounters. Where it materializes and intensifies and it attempts to renegotiate and abuse the conventional terms of doctor-patient confidentiality, and indicates the grossest and most obvious transgressions of medical ethics, the exchange between Offred and her physician merits quoting at length:
“I could help you,” he says. Whispers
“What?” I say.
“Shh,” he says. “I could help you. I’ve helped others.”
“Help me?” I say, my voice as low as his. “How?” Does he know something, has he seen Luke, has he found, can he bring back?”
“How do you think?” he says, still barely breathing it. Is that his hand, sliding up my leg? He’s taken off the glove. “The door’s locked. No one will come in. They’ll never know it isn’t his.”
He lifts the sheet. The lower part of his face is covered by the white gauze mask, regulation. Two brown eyes, a nose, a head with brown hair on it. His hand is between my legs. “Most of those old guys can’t make it anymore,” he says. “Or they’re sterile”
I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.
“Lots of women do it,” he goes on. “You want a baby, don’t you”(60-61).
The dialogue plays on the Edenic story of Eve’s temptation with the forbidden fruit. Therein, Offred is conscious that the consequence of a sexual encounter with the doctor would be death. He goes on to remind her that her options are limited and that she is running out of time, and to think about his offer. She realizes his power over her, including the ability to falsify her records by saying that she is diseased and having her shipped away to the Colonies, and so tries not to offend him in declining his proposition to impregnate her. He crosses a line with her in a way that reveals a lack of professionalism. His sympathetic condescension about her situation adds to her discomfort.
This scene, which foregrounds a young and vulnerable woman facing distinct reproductive pressures and anxieties and feeling the urgency to conceive, precisely because it is scripted within a genre such as speculative fiction, provides a most visceral illustration of the conceivable intimacies, sexual and otherwise, between a doctor and female patient, the power dynamics that can inflect their interactions, and how methods of control and coercion can have both physical and psychological manifestations in such situations.
The evening that the Commander takes Offred to Jezebel’s, a recreational preserve in Gilead for prostitution and illicit sex for the mens’ pleasure, he urges her to put on a garish and scant costume with feathers, makeup and high heels. She finds once they arrive that all women are wearing these outlandish outfits. As Offred concludes, “I am to understand also that I am on display”(251). The evening culminates with a retreat to a private room with the Commander where they have sex. It is telling that Offred’s movements to contexts outside her own bedroom, to places such as her doctor’s office and Jezebels, extend her sexual degradation, violation and abuse in the Republic of Gilead by men in positions of power and authority.
I have long appreciated the courage of writers in the genres of speculative fiction and science fiction to frame bold and compelling questions, as well as the close alliance of these genres with philosophy, in the sense that if philosophy asks the basic question “What is?”, they typically ask, “What if?” Notwithstanding its extreme and hopefully unlikely plot, a fiction novel such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and specifically a character such as Offred, can help us to understand how the presumptions of freedom and agency in Suleman’s choice to be implanted with so many embryos have entirely obscured the impact of medical institutions, including her doctor, on the outcomes.
Moreover, the extremity of the Gilead example reveals that the forces that have the potential to control and subordinate women’s bodies and to shape the processes of conception and birth are more complex, and can lie well beyond the purview of dominant political parties. In this case, a regime that masquerades as church becomes state and displaces it, as well as church, altogether and an elder patriarchal white masculinity becomes the god. I want to underscore what it teaches us about the destructiveness that happens in societies in which women are denied a voice and subjected to sexist and patriarchal political establishments that are premised on controlling women and that fail to make choices in their interests.
Current statistics report that as many as 33% of all women in the United States suffer from fibroid tumors, percentages that are even greater in the African American population, and also report that by age 50, 60% of adult women have undergone a radical hysterectomy. However, at this point, there seems to be very little awareness in the U.S. about the extent to which many women are dealing, typically in silence, with fibroids, which need far more discussion and recognition as a public health concern.
To be sure, if a closer and more complex look had been taken at Suleman’s biography in the midst of all of the debates about her, the result might have been more salient public dialogues on how and why fibroid tumors may develop in the first place and strategies for preventing their growth, and on questions concerning the long-term impact on the human body of growth hormones in food sources and their differential impact on male and female bodies in childhood, puberty and later life stages.
It would have also been useful to see some dialogues unfold on the psychological anxieties and traumas that result from suffering miscarriages and on how such painful experiences as those of Suleman may impact reproductive choices. Furthermore, it would have been helpful to hear more conversations on how such experiences as those of Suleman may shape a female patient’s attitudes about in vitro fertilization treatments and her relationship to her IVF specialist. As a result of investigations of decisions that he made in her treatment, her physician, Michael Kamrava, was dismissed from the American Association of Reproductive Medicine in 2009 and had his license revoked by the Medical Board of California in 2011.
In more recent years, as she has worked with her parents to continue raising the octuplets along with her first six children, Suleman has faced bankruptcy, mortgage default and charges of welfare fraud in California. It is sobering that even many women have pointed the finger at Suleman, laughed at her, and self-righteously criticized her choices.
But when considering the specific constellation of health concerns that put her on the path to such extreme choices in the first place, and the concerns related to women’s health that remain invisible and unspoken in the debates about her, I feel that there were many valuable insights that could have been learned from how her struggles with fibroids impacted her infertility and miscarriages. Moreover, while the fertility crisis happens in Atwood’s novel for very different reasons from Suleman’s, thinking about hers, the fertility challenges of so many other women and also wondering if one may impact my life at some point leads me to wonder whether in that sense, hers is actually the face of the future.
Finally, looking back on all of the widely sensationalized public dialogues about Suleman that unfolded as the public remained largely oblivious and indifferent to the health crisis that had informed her choices makes the lack of more discussion about a public health crisis of the seriousness and magnitude of Zika right now all the more glaring, disturbing and disappointing. This is an issue that is exponentially more important and urgent to address.
Though I now live and work in New York State, I was born and raised in the Southern region of the U.S. where the threat of Zika looms large. I am concerned about its potential impact there and in many other places. I am concerned about the extent to which the very same Southern state officials that staunchly refused to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid in recent years- partisan choices that left many minority women and children at a disadvantage- may impact how Zika is addressed in states where they preside once funding is made available from the federal level to address this serious crisis.
I understand the importance of recognizing that the reproductive health circumstances faced by women and children in the larger Hemispheric South are also linked to the fate of many women throughout the global context, including the region where I was born. It is in the interests of everyone that a vaccine be developed to treat and eliminate Zika. The time to act to eliminate the threat that Zika poses is now.
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Riché Richardson is an Associate Professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. She is a scholar of African American literature with additional specialties in American literature, Southern studies and gender studies. Born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, she attended Spelman College, and received her Ph.D. in American literature from Duke University in 1998. She spent the first decade of her teaching career in the University of California system at UC Davis. Her first book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), was highlighted by Choice Books among the "Outstanding Academic Titles of 2008," and by Eastern Book Company among the "Outstanding Academic Titles, Humanities, 2008." She is now completing a book manuscript that examines black femininity and the national body.
études féministes/ estudos feministas