Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Book Review)

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Book Review)
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  © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: doi: 10.1093/sf/sot033 Book Review Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination By Alondra Nelson University of Minnesota Press. 2011. 289 pages. $24.95 paper. Reviewer:  Timothy V. Johnson,  Bobst Library, New York University  A londra   Nelson’s Body and Soul   examines an important aspect of the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP)—their medical activism. In recent years the historiography of the BPP has progressed from journalis-tic accounts and personal chronicles to scholarly examinations of local histories (J.L. Jeffries’ Comrades: a Local History of the Black Panther Party  and Donna Murch’s Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California ) to broad narratives (Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party ). In Body and Soul  , Nelson sheds light on one of the major areas of activity of the BPP—their “Serve the People” programs. Because much of the existing literature on the BPP focuses on their antagonistic relationship to law enforcement and self-defense stance, a study of their programmatic activities is welcome. Although their most conspicuous program was the Breakfast for Children initiative, Nelson brings needed attention to the neglected aspect of the Party’s free medical clinics.Nelson places the BPP within the historical context of the Long Civil Rights Movement and the medical activist tradition within that movement. She charts that activism through organizations such as Booker T. Washington’s “Tuskegee Machine,” Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the National Medical Association, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. By utilizing the analytical categories of institution building, inclu-sion and the politics of knowledge, as approaches used by medical activists, Nelson demonstrates how the BPP’s activities were an extension of these earlier interventions into the struggle to realize better health care for African Americans.She also draws out the theoretical influences on the Party’s program. By analyzing some of the concepts embedded in the political theories of Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, who referred to health care activism as a “bedrock of social transformation,” Nelson demonstrates that the importance of health care has long been an issue among activists influenced by Marxism. Book Review 1   Social Forces Advance Access published March 27, 2013   a  t   N e  wY or k  Uni   v e r  s i   t   y on J   ul   y1  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s f   . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om   After laying the historical/theoretical grounding of the BPP’s health activ-ism, Nelson discusses the concrete aspects of the Party’s health work. She notes that concern over health issues was part of the Party’s program at its inception and was included in its 10-point platform. In 1968, two years after its found-ing, the Party initiated its Serve the People Programs and the first People’s Free Medical Clinics (PFMC) were opened. Between 1968 and the early 1970’s, more than 13 PFMCs were in operation throughout the country. Nelson describes how the Party combined the deployment of its own members as well as tap-ping into ideologically compatible health care workers as volunteers to staff the clinics. In addition, they coalesced with other local neighborhood clinics to share resources. The staffing was comprised of trained nonprofessionals, allied health professionals and physicians. Their services included “testing for high blood pressure, lead poisoning, tuberculosis, and diabetes; ‘cancer detection tests’; physical exams, treatments for colds and flu; immunization against polio, measles, rubella, and diphtheria.”(106)In line with their political beliefs and following the health activism of pre-vious organizations, they offered these services while politicizing the lack of resources available from the government.Nelson provides a detailed examination of the Party’s role in bringing the issue of sickle cell anemia to the consciousness of the public. She details the large-scale testing programs initiated by the Party in several cities with large African American populations, including California’s Bay Area and Chicago. She also discusses the evolution of testing technologies available to the medical community and the Party’s utilization of these tools. The Party played a leading role, along with a number of other organizations, in increasing the knowledge and availability of widespread testing for sickle cell anemia and the sickle cell trait, which had been largely ignored. Body and Soul   opens up a new area of studies on the BPP’s influence on the African American community and the broader political landscape. That the Party was capable of making such an impact in a short period of time is all the more remarkable. The PFMCs that Nelson describes were open for only a few years. By 1972, the BPP had collapsed as a national organization and most of the clinics and programs across the country were closed. However Nelson docu-ments how the experience that activists gained in those few short years led many of them to a lifetime commitment to health activism.Nelson relies on a variety sources to document the health activism of the BPP. She uses published materials, government documents, BPP archival sources, and interviews with former health activists in the BPP. Her work shines a needed spotlight on this important aspect of the Party’s work and helps fill a void in the scholarly literature on the Party. In addition, her work falls within the new scholarship on health issues and the African American community, such as Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid  . 2 Social Forces   a  t   N e  wY or k  Uni   v e r  s i   t   y on J   ul   y1  ,2  0 1 4 h  t   t   p :  /   /   s f   . oxf   or  d  j   o ur n a l   s  . or  g /  D o wnl   o a  d  e  d f  r  om 
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