Anti-Black Racism and Health Disparities in the United States
“Health is a capacious category, inextricable from the entire social world,” says Anne Pollock in Sickening, about how societies’ intricacies and ills are reflected back in the ways health is conceptualized, stratified, and addressed. A crucial guided analysis of anti-Blackness and its impact on Black people’s ability to live as fully entitled citizens, Pollock’s scholarship is essential medicine for a society in denial about its sickness.
An interdisciplinary scholar of science, technology, and society, Pollock uses Foucauldian biopolitics as a critical framework, asserting that the “state is involved in setting up relations in which some bodies’ flourishing is fostered, and other bodies are relegated to conditions of suffering and death.” When it comes to contemporary racialized healthcare, it’s the “slowness and relative invisibility of these kinds of harms [that] pose challenges for contestation.”
Sickening does an excellent job of making that invisibility manifest through its six chapter-long case studies. All of the cases are from the last twenty years, and they include anthrax deaths in the US Postal Service, Hurricane Katrina, the Scott sisters’ incarceration, police brutality against Dajerria Becton, the Flint water crisis, and Serena Williams’s birth narrative. In her conclusion, Pollock links these examples to the summer of 2020 and its twinned landmarks: Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. Intentional in her case selection, Pollock’s contemporary events counteract the false sense that health inequality is located in the past.
“Simultaneously urgent and slow” enough to present these complex issues in easily comprehensible parts, Sickening is an accessible study with wide crossover appeal for both classrooms and general interest audiences. Moreover, the book is a reminder that “our analysis should begin with the outrage at these events and their ubiquity; it should not end there.”
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (August 15, 2021)
Inspired by Korean folklore, this bedtime story uses cutout ink characters within detailed dioramas to depict a magical summer night, when it is so hot that the moon begins to melt. A quick-thinking grandmother wolf catches the drops in a bucket, making frozen treats to lull everyone to sleep. Before she gets to sleep herself, two unexpected visitors appear at her door, and Granny uses the last of her moon drops to help return them to their melted home.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (August 16, 2021)
Jonathan Wells was small as a child—short, but also quite thin. That trait, the way others reacted to it, and its nonconformity with perceived male norms led to a painful chain reaction of events that Wells captures in his excellent coming-of-age memoir The Skinny.
The book’s inciting incident takes place at a private preparatory school, where a teacher singled out Wells for abuse—first by making him eat large amounts of food, and then by forcing him to the ground and sitting on him. While Wells hid the attack from his parents, his father had his own issues with his son’s small size. Wanting the boy to bulk up, he pressured Wells about his appetite at meals and required him to exercise. More troubling, his father questioned his thin son’s masculinity, even sending him to lose his virginity with a preselected prostitute and making him keep that secret from his mother.
These dark secrets followed Wells when he left for a new school in Switzerland, where he tried to make the best of his fresh start, but still found bullies among his classmates. His interactions with women presented their own challenges after his first few experiences with professionals. And his relationships with each of his parents, and theirs with one another, changed in dramatic ways while he studied abroad. His father’s obsession with his size and sexuality colored all of their interactions, and he felt unable to tell his mother, with whom he had been close, about his struggles, straining their bond.
The Skinny recreates its events and conversations in an authentic way, resulting in a reflective, rounded story. Its material is difficult at times, but is nonetheless gripping in its wonderful articulation of an underrepresented perspective on masculinity.
JEFF FLEISCHER (June 27, 2021)
What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength
Abuelita Faith is a passionate study of the role that marginalized women play in promoting religious values. Citing their “wisdom, persistence, and strength,” it notes the moral resilience of women, and how their modest homes often become the spiritual centers for families and communities.
Evelia, Kat Armas’s abuelita, left Cuba as a refugee in the 1970s. She settled in Miami, worked in a clothing factory,, raised her children, and maintained financial independence despite her widowhood. Through difficult times, she relied on her Catholic faith and longed to someday return to her homeland.
Armas details how, like Evelia, women of color born in the early twentieth century encountered entrenched racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Often limited to domestic or factory work, many found their faith to be a source of hope, as they prayed for better days and encouraged future generations with their righteousness.
Abuelita Faith balances Armas’s bright recollections of growing up amid Miami’s Cuban community with the theological career she pursued as an adult. Emotional and expressive by nature, Armas often felt repressed by traditional evangelical attitudes. She also discovered that women’s religious history tended to be minimized or misinterpreted. She examines the Bible from a decolonized perspective, reasserting Jesus’s healing tolerance, and not the Christianity of enforced conversion.
Here, the fascinating biblical accounts of Esther, Ruth, and Miriam are assessed with renewed vigor. The book also considers the role of devout women in effecting social change, such as Havana’s Ladies in White, who in 2003 gathered weekly in quiet defiance following Catholic Mass to protest the unjust imprisonment of their loved ones.
With its framework of diverse scholarship, Abuelita Faith is a vibrant theological survey. It is also a multifaceted portrait of women like Evelia who sustain their cultures and do God’s true work.
MEG NOLA (June 27, 2021)
Animals in Combat
Ben Towle’s exciting graphic history Four-Fisted Tales covers animals in combat.
Towle reveals that animals have participated in human wars for centuries—sometimes in novel ways. Though covering what’s expected of a book about animals in battle—as with the inclusion of dogs, horses, and carrier pigeons—the book completes its work in fresh, lively style. Unlikely battle participants, including seagulls, rats, and slugs, are featured in active roles, while a chapter on military mascots includes a goat, a baboon, a king penguin, and a pygmy flying phalanger. In eleven sections, the stories of these animals are revealed—most in dramatic vignettes, though some, as with the entry for ships’ cats, are profiled in shorter, caption-centered accounts.
The stories showcase a variety of narrative methods. The tale of Wojtek the Bear is told in six wordless pages, followed by an illustration of a G.I. Joe-style bear action figure, with a caption that provides background on the bear’s service. And the book begins and ends with a group of World War I soldiers who use a jar of glow worms as illumination, so as not to betray their position to their enemies. A courtroom is the setting for an investigation into the supposed military uses of dolphins: locating mines, guarding bases, identifying submarines, and seeking out and injecting enemy divers with compressed nitrogen to cause fatal embolisms.
Four-Fisted Tales is a stellar graphic history whose art is exemplary, capturing action, humor, and poignancy alike. The panels flow together with ease thanks to Towle’s clarity, attention to detail, and eye for accurate, anatomical animal representations.
PETER DABBENE (June 27, 2021)