A review of Black Health and the Humanities, interdisciplinary training workshops exploring Black health, directed by Josie Gill and Amber Lascelles
Black Health and the Humanities
Elizabeth Nelson, IUPUI
Josie Gill and Amber Lascelles
The Black Health and the Humanities (BHH) project is an interdisciplinary training network and collaborative research initiative based at the Centre for Black Humanities at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. Conceived during the COVID-19 pandemic and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the training program consists of five online interdisciplinary workshops for Ph.D. students and early career researchers that explore various creative and critical engagements with Black health and well-being. The project’s starting point is that Black Britons have long experienced inequitable health outcomes, a fact recently brought to public attention by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people and the Windrush scandal, which saw medical treatment wrongly denied to Black British citizens. Yet Black Britons’ experiences of medicine and health services have seldom been the focus of research in the medical humanities. The BHH project seeks to address this by foregrounding rich and varied outputs of Black writers and artists and exploring alternative humanistic frameworks for understanding health and well-being in (post)colonial contexts.
The project’s website includes information about workshop content; a blog written by participants; and a searchable database of resources consisting of literary and theatrical texts, artistic works, films, essays, memoirs, and significant works of criticism and historical and social scientific studies about Black health. The resource list has been designed to foreground Black British experiences of health and medicine, although a range of materials from and about Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas are also included. The list is frequently updated and is searchable by a wide range of health-related keywords, or by any term, and results can be organized into alphabetical or date order. The website is hosted by the University of Bristol through WordPress, and uses the Divi plugin to create a user-friendly interface. We commissioned artwork for the site from a local Black Bristolian artist Naomi Gennery.
Josie Gill, the principal investigator of the project, is a founding member and former director of the Centre for Black Humanities. Amber Lascelles, the project’s research associate, is an expert in contemporary fiction of the African diaspora, and she created the website working alongside web developers at the University of Bristol. The team has discussed the project on the medical humanities blog The Polyphony, at the Northern Network for Medical Humanities, and at the BSA Medical Sociology conference. A project participant has contributed to the LSHTM Libraries and Archives service blog following a workshop, and another two participants have discussed how the workshops have influenced their research as part of a podcast episode.
The website was created with multiple audiences in mind, including humanities and social science scholars, academics and practitioners in medicine, and wider Black publics interested in health, well-being, and the arts. Users can contact us through the website to ask questions or give suggestions for additions to the database, and they can access links to other relevant projects, reading lists, and media platforms. A linked Twitter account with approximately 735 followers offers the public further means of interacting with the project team and participants. Users can also sign up to our mailing list to receive newsletter updates about the project’s workshops, blog posts, and Black health-related virtual lectures and events.
Led by Josie Gill and Amber Lascelles, Black Health and the Humanities is an interdisciplinary training network and collaborative research initiative that was created during the COVID-19 pandemic and is focused on Black health in modern Britain. The project emerges from scholarly interest in the relationships between anti-racism and health justice — themes that were amplified in public discourse by the COVID-19 pandemic and transnational protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Black Health and the Humanities exemplifies a critical turn within the medical humanities grounded in Black/Africana Studies perspectives. Interdisciplinary humanities scholarship is an important complement and corrective to biomedical approaches to racial health disparities. Too often the latter rely on or reify essentialist understandings of biological racial difference or construct homogenous understandings of Black life that obscure the diversity of Africana peoples.
Black Health and the Humanities, on the contrary, defines the humanities to include the social sciences, the arts, history, literary studies, Black/Africana studies, and more. Such perspectives reveal the continuous, embodied presence of historical forms of structural violence, while also presenting creative imaginings of possible futures. It also situates biomedical sciences in a dynamic relationship with the cultures from which they emerge, encouraging consciousness and intentionality in scientific practice. This alignment of the humanities de-centers biomedicine by regarding the production of illness and ill health in broader social, cultural, and political contexts.
At the center of Black Health and the Humanities is a series of five workshops that took place in 2021-2022 and brought together a network of Ph.D. students and early career researchers in Britain to hear presentations from a range of more established scholars and creatives. A list of participants and presentation titles is included on the website.
Featured on the website are blog posts by network members revealing how the workshops have opened not only fruitful intellectual exchange but also an inter-supportive space for reflection on the positionalities and experiences of Black artists and scholars. The themes that emerge from these posts — accountability, community, reflexivity, and imagination — signal the project’s core values, an ethos that can enrich scholarship and effectively promote Black health in Britain. While the workshops promised to seed collaborations and develop junior scholars, the content of the workshops themselves is currently inaccessible to those outside the network, beyond the reflections of workshop participants included on the project blog. A potential area of growth for the site includes making available discussion notes, any recorded videos or audio, and summary white papers or other documents that highlight how the individual workshops align to contemporary scholarly debates.
A key feature of the site is a collection of references to resources that represent humanistic approaches to Black health, drawn from throughout the African diaspora, and include examples of fiction, theater, memoir, academic scholarship, criticism, and film. This is a fantastic resource for both research and teaching that would be made even more useful with the addition of summaries and commentary for each item. The project might also consider creating an export option from the dataset that aligns to citation managers like Zotero or Endnote. This would encourage the distribution of these resources into other research collections. The collection’s eclectic and inclusive nature, like the Black Health and the Humanities Project as a whole, gives it a diffuse quality, but this aspect reflects the multiplicity of ways that medical humanities and Black/Africana studies can be brought into conversation.