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Black eugenics focus of next History of Science and Medicine talk

October 14, 2021

Ayah Nuriddin, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, will be the first to admit that the concept of eugenics — manipulating human reproduction to increase certain desired characteristics — is a loaded one, with a history steeped in racism. But early on in her research career, Nuriddin became fascinated with a lesser-known part of racial science history called Black eugenics.

She’ll give a talk on the Black eugenics movement on October 14, 3:45pm as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale and STEM and Health Equity Advocates at Yale. (Those not on campus can join this Zoom link).

“I’m really interested in African Americans who imagined a way to use eugenics in a way that is beneficial for racial improvement and Black liberation,” said Nuriddin.

Nuriddin said she fell into this area of inquiry during some reading and decided to begin digging. She discovered that during the first half of the twentieth century – while eugenics were being used to justify atrocities perpetuated against Jewish people – Black scholars in the U.S. were investigating eugenics as a means to improve their race and susceptibility to disease like tuberculosis and syphilis.

“They imagined that greater sanitation and environmental responses to poor living conditions could improve the collective biology of the race and transmit to future generations,” said Nuriddin. “It’s very different from how we think about genetics.”

In their work, these scholars also challenged the idea that the Black race was more prone to disease and forms of insanity, common assumptions at the time.

“They flipped the script,” said Nuriddin, “and proposed a productive form of eugenics that was not built around racism.”

They flipped the script and proposed a productive form of eugenics that was not built around racism.

Ayah Nuriddin, PhD

Nuriddin received her PhD in the history of medicine from Johns Hopkins University and will be using her fellowship to work on a manuscript about the Black eugenics movement tentatively titled “Seed and Soil: Black Eugenic Thought in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.”

The lecture series will continue through April 2022. Upcoming speakers include Zehra Hashimi speaking on intrusion and belonging in a postcolonial database (Nov. 4), Edna Bonhomme on HIV/AIDS and the carceral state (Dec. 6), and Kristin Simmons on conspirators for an ever-uncertain atmosphere (April 7).

Submitted by Brita Belli on October 14, 2021