Final Public Oral Exam: Wangui Monica Muigai

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
July 25, 2017 - 1:00pm

An Awful Gladness: African American Experiences of Infant Death from Slavery to the Great Migration


Keith Wailoo, adviser
Tera Hunter
Michael Gordin
Daniel Rodgers
Dorothy Roberts, University of Pennsylvania Law School


This dissertation examines the history of infant death in African American communities. It traces the medical, scientific, and cultural ideas of the causes and meaning of black infant mortality from the era of antebellum slavery to the height of black migration in the mid twentieth century. By examining infant death in this shifting landscape, this dissertation explores how widening cultural expections that all babies should survive, alongside African American demands for equal treatment as citizens and patients, and the growing role of government in matters of infant welfare, generated fierce debates regarding who was responsible for protecting young lives and who was to blame for their deaths.

Chapter One looks at the nineteenth century, exploring the transformation of black infant death in the antebellum period from a problem of plantation management to a racial trait and evidence that blacks' newly won freedom was detrimental to their health. Chapters Two and Three analyze municipal and federal government responses to black infant welfare in the Progressive Era, first by tracing the rise and fall of a local Washington, D.C. agency responsible for the care of abandoned and destitute infants, followed by an examination of the U.S. Children's Bureau and how it came to see black infant mortality as intimately tied to debates about the "midwife problem." Chapter Four delves into the artistic works and public forums through which African Americans shared their experiences with infant loss and debated the raical and gender politics of "saving" black babies in an era of Jim Crow. Chapter Five returns to the rural south by way of the 1953 midwife training film All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story, to show how black infant welfare concerns became enfolded in growing postwar critiques of the nation's expanding, but deeply segregated, health care system.

To foreground black experiences of infant death, this study draws on a rich array of archival and primary source material, including slave narratives, folk practices, medical articles, government documents, memoirs, songs, photographs, and film. Through its focus on black health, this project contributes to scholarship in history of medicine and African-American history, while also speaking to scholarship on the history of childhood and the politics of reproduction.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review one week before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Area of Interest: 
African American
Cultural History
Medicine & Health
Race & Ethnicity