LLC African American Forum Executive Committee:

Jervette Ward, January 2023 (2021-January 2022 Chair)
Kristin Moriah, January 2024 (2021-January 2022 Secretary)
Sharon Lynette Jones, January 2025
Dorothy Tsuruta, January 2026
Julius Fleming, January 2027

MLA 2023 CFP Disability and Public Health in the U.S. South

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    Delia Steverson

    Disability and Public Health in the U.S. South 

    A key part of colonizing in the U.S. South depended on the rhetoric of health, such as Ponce de Leon’s mythical fountain of youth and nineteenth-century boosterism claiming Florida as the “winter sanitarium of the country” (qtd in Knight 5). The semi-tropical warmth of the South invited justifications for intrusion and settlement, and for the environmental destruction necessary to transform a place “heavy with the poisons of malaria” into something habitable for white Europeans. Yet, beneath this rhetoric, we find evidence that ties the South to a history of public health disasters, especially the mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities. As historians Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy and Dea Boster argue, nineteenth-century discourse around disability medicalized blackness for both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists in ways that shaped southern discourses around issues of humanness and citizenship. This context extended into racist medical practices of the twentieth century; for example, Junius Wilson, a deaf, black man who was falsely accused of rape in 1920s North Carolina, was declared insane, castrated and sentenced to more than 60 years in a mental institution. As disability scholars Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner explain in their biography of Wilson, in order to avoid the historical pitfalls that result from isolating a single identity, we must examine history and culture through a mosaic of human experience that accounts for multiple identities throughout time and across place and space.

    This panel then situates disability as a methodological approach to explore and challenge histories, locations, and ideas of the South and southerness. Disability has always played an integral part in the construction of the U.S. South, intertwined with eugenics and racism. We can consider the figure of Jim Crow, which was created as a minstrel character modeled as a disabled enslaved person, long before it became associated with racial violence, oppression and segregation. Furthermore, we can even think about how stereotypes about the South and southerners have been created and sustained through negative rhetorics of disability and illness that categorize southerners and the South as abnormal, inferior, and backwards. How, then, have genealogies of (dis)ability and illness transformed in the US South across space and time? How have disability, illness, and health been experienced, constructed and represented in the U.S. South across race, gender, sexuality, class and other identities? Considering the theme of the conference, working conditions, what are the intersections between disability and labor in southern right-to-work economies with a legacy in the plantation? As we consider disability within the context of public health in the South, issues of access arise as we question who gets care and who doesn’t and how inequities of access remain tied to discourse of humanity into the twenty-first century.

    Possible topics include:

    • Disability justice, activism, and resistance in the historic or contemporary U.S. South.
    • How able-bodiedness and disability have been shaped by labor, either historically in a plantation context, or in the contemporary COVID-19 health crisis that has caused labor unrest in places such as Amazon warehouses in the South.
    • Representation of disability and illness in literature and culture of the U.S. South, and how authors such as Pearl Cleage, Carson McCullers, Delores Phillips, and William Faulkner have contended with ideas of community via disability.
    • The legacy of the institution, including medical research centers such as Johns Hopkins and Tuskegee, and the politics of care and access, and/or the histories of abuses in institutional spaces.
    • Histories of medicine, eugenics, and medical industrial complex as they are represented in literature and culture of the U.S. South, such as Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded.
    • How environmental racism and climate change have impacted disability and/or public health discourse.

    We especially encourage submissions from disabled artists, activists, and creatives.

    Please submit abstracts of 250 words and a short bio by March 18th to

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