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Title: An Awful Gladness: African American Experiences of Infant Death from Slavery to the Great Migration
Authors: Muigai, Wangui
Advisors: Wailoo, Keith
Contributors: History of Science Department
Keywords: Medicine
Public health
Social sciences
Subjects: American history
African American studies
Science history
Issue Date: 2017
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation examines the history of infant death in African American communities. It traces the medical, scientific, and cultural ideas of the causes and meanings of black infant mortality from the era of antebellum slavery to the height of black migration in the mid twentieth century. By examining infant death in this shifting landscape, this dissertation explores how widening cultural expectations that all babies should survive, alongside African American demands for equal treatment as citizens and patients, and the growing role of government in matters of infant welfare, generated fierce debates regarding who was responsible for protecting young lives and who was to blame for their deaths. Chapter One looks at the nineteenth century, exploring the transformation of black infant death in the antebellum period from a problem of plantation management to a racial trait and evidence that blacks’ newly won freedom was detrimental to their health. Chapters Two and Three analyze municipal and federal government responses to black infant welfare in the Progressive Era, first by tracing the rise and fall of a local Washington D.C. agency responsible for the care of abandoned and destitute infants, followed by an examination of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and how it came to see black infant mortality as intimately tied to debates about the “midwife problem.” Chapter Four delves into the artistic works and public forums through which African Americans shared their experiences with infant loss and debated the racial and gender politics of “saving” black babies in an era of Jim Crow. Chapter Five returns to the rural south by way of the 1953 midwife training film All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story, to show how black infant welfare concerns became enfolded in growing postwar critiques of the nation’s expanding, but deeply segregated, health care system. To foreground black experiences of infant death, this study draws on a rich array of archival and primary source material, including slave narratives, folk practices, medical articles, government documents, memoirs, songs, photographs, and film. Through its focus on black health, this project contributes to scholarship in history of medicine and African-American history, while also speaking to scholarship on the history of childhood and the politics of reproduction.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:History of Science

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