Book Review

Killing The Black Body

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

  • Author: Dorothy Roberts
  • Genre: Social Science/Current Affairs/Politics
  • Publication Date: October 13, 2020
  • Publisher: Random House Audio

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a no-holds-barred response to the liberal and conservative retreat from an assertive, activist, and socially transformative civil rights agenda of recent years–using a black feminist lens and the issue of  the impact of recent legislation, social policy, and welfare “reform” on black women’s–especially poor black women’s–control over their bodies’ autonomy and their freedom to bear and raise children with respect and dignity in a society whose white mainstream is determined to demonize, even criminalize their lives.   It gives its readers a cogent legal and historical argument for a radically new , and socially transformative, definition of  “liberty” and “equality” for the American polity from a black feminist perspective.

The author is able to combine the most innovative and radical thinking on several fronts–racial theory, feminist, and legal–to produce a work that is at once history and political treatise.  By using the history of how American law–beginning with slavery–has treated the issue of the state’s right  to interfere with the black woman’s body, the author explosively and effectively makes the case for the legal redress to the racist implications of current policy with regards to 1) access to and coercive dispensing of birth control to poor black women 2) the criminalization of parenting by poor black women who have used drugs 3) the stigmatization and devaluation of poor black mothers under the new welfare provisions, and 4) the differential access to and disproportionate spending of social resources on the new reproductive technologies used by wealthy white couples to insure genetically related offspring.

The legal redress of the racism inherent in current  American law and policy in these matters, the author argues in her last chapter, demands and should lead us to adopt a new standard and definition of the liberal theory of “liberty” and “equality” based on the need for, and the positive role of government in fostering, social as well as individual justice.

I came across this book in a collection of books to read regarding abortion and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It’s been on the back burner of my TBR, as I slowly work through the backlog, but I figured that Black History Month was the perfect time to get this read started. I read it in audiobook version, and while it is densely packed with facts and information, narrator Shayna Small kept it intriguing and engaging for the entire time. Since I read this as an audiobook, I didn’t keep track of trigger warnings, but beware, there are plenty—including enslavement, sexual assault, violence, medical experimentation, racism, and substance use, just to name a few.

It’s organized in a linear manner, starting with the challenges that enslaved women faced, and how those impacted not only the women, but the men and the children as well. Enslaved women were frequently subjected to sexual assault, and didn’t have a say over the control of their families, which could be broken up at any time at the whim of the slaveowner. In addition, enslaved people were tasked with their responsibilities to the slaveowner as their primary job, and childcare came second, to the detriment of the children, who had higher rates of mortality. Enslaved women were even experimented on to advance medical learning, with Dr. Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology being known for his extensive surgeries on enslaved women (without anesthesia of course), leading to the persistent myth that Black women can handle more pain than white women. 

While the introduction of birth control was viewed as a positive for so many people, Black women were once again thrown under the bus. If you’ve read Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, you already have some insight into what this meant for women of color. In an effort to control birth rates among Black women, they were forced to take birth control or even get sterilized without even realizing it, based in the principles of eugenics. 

Once crack cocaine came onto the scene, with the hysteria about crack babies making headlines across the nation, the legal system decided to come down hard on Black women, while simultaneously ignoring white women who used substances during their pregnancy and gave birth to babies who tested positive. Yet Black women in the same situation were taken to jail and forced to terminate parental rights, often heading to jail directly from the hospital. The welfare system also exerted control over the reproduction of Black women, promoting the idea of a “welfare queen,” or a Black women indiscriminately giving birth to multiple children simply to remain on welfare, when in reality, the system is stacked against a woman with even one child. A single parent who is struggling financially can probably find a job, but factor in childcare, rent, food, transportation, clothing, and any other basic needs, and a job doesn’t even cover the minimum. Each additional child means that more money is needed to get on your feet, and it becomes harder to get off welfare and become independent. 

Reading this book gave me even more of an idea as to what Black women have gone through in the last few centuries, and it isn’t a pretty picture at all. This is the ugly side of American history that needs to be understood, and while we all know about the Tuskegee experiments, there’s so much more about the way America has worked to uphold the ideals of white supremacy while continuing to oppress Black people. Despite telling Black people that they are free and have the same freedoms as anyone else in America, after reading this book, it’s plain as day to see that this hasn’t been the truth at any point, and there’s a really long way to go before this is anywhere close to being true. 

This is an incredibly powerful book, and despite the fact that the story only goes through to the 1990s, it’s still relevant today. There’s a long history of systemic racism in America, and it’s hard to ignore after reading this book. This is one of those books that needs to be required reading, to help people understand about the systemic racism, misogynoir, classism, and control that has and continues to be exerted over Black women, especially poor Black women, in an effort to start making the changes that are needed to improve our society.

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