Bookbeat: February 2008

African Americans and the Culture of PainAfrican Americans and the Culture of Pain

by Debra Walker King, Department of English
(University of Virginia Press, 2008)
Available through the University of Virginia Press

In this study Debra Walker King considers fragments of experience recorded in oral histories and newspapers as well as those produced in twentieth-century novels, films, and television that reveal how the black body in pain functions as a rhetorical device and as political strategy. King's primary hypothesis is that, in the United States, black experience of the body in pain is as much a construction of social, ethical, and economic politics as it is a physiological phenomenon.

As an essential element defining black experience in America, pain plays many roles. It is used to promote racial stereotypes, increase the sale of movies and other pop culture products, and encourage advocacy for various social causes. Pain is employed as a tool of resistance against racism, but it also functions as a sign of racism's insidious ability to exert power over and maintain control of those it claims--regardless of race. With these dichotomous uses of pain in mind, King considers and questions the effects of the manipulation of an unspoken but long-standing belief that pain, suffering, and the hope for freedom and communal subsistence will merge to uplift those who are oppressed, especially during periods of social and political upheaval. This belief has become a ritualized philosophy fueling the multiple constructions of black bodies in pain, a belief that has even come to function as an identity and community stabilizer.

In her attempt to interpret the constant manipulation and abuse of this philosophy, King explores the redemptive and visionary power of pain as perceived historically in black culture, the aesthetic value of black pain as presented in a variety of cultural artifacts, and the socioeconomic politics of suffering surrounding the experiences and representations of blacks in the United States. The book introduces the term Blackpain, defining it as a tool of national mythmaking and as a source of cultural and symbolic capital that normalizes individual suffering until the individual--the real person--disappears. Ultimately, the book investigates America's love-hate relationship with black bodies in pain.

- Publisher

Cholera and Nation: Doctoring the Social Body in Victorian EnglandCholera and Nation: Doctoring the Social Body in Victorian England

by Pamela Gilbert, Department of Englsh
(State University of New York Press, 2008)
Available through Amazon

Drawing from sermons, novels, newspaper editorials, poetry, medical texts, and the writings of social activists, Cholera and Nation explores how the coming of the cholera epidemics during a period of intense political reform in Britain set the terms by which the social body would be defined. In part by historical accident, epidemic disease and especially cholera became foundational to the understanding of the social body. As the healthy body was closely tied to a particular vision of nation and modernity, the unhealthy body was proportionately racialized and othered. In turn, epidemic disease could not be separated from issues of social responsibility, political management, and economic unrest, which perpetually threatened the nation and its identity. For the rest of the century, the emergent field of public health would be central to the British national imaginary, defining the nation's civilization and modernity by its sanitary progress.

- Publisher

"This is a very skillful example of historically sound literary criticism; it combines attention to narrative with relevant historical contextualization, and offers a detailed account of the literary history of a subject not commonly treated through literature. This is innovative and complements more conventional historical work on the subject of public health and medicine in the Victorian period."

- Antoinette Burton, editor of
Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History

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