This post originally appeared on the Academy Library's blog, Books, Health and History. The guest author is Ijeoma Kola, a PhD candidate in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a former National Science Foundation graduate fellow. Her dissertation examines the history of asthma in urban African Americans in the 20th century, with special attention to medical history, environmental racism, and community activism. On Tuesday, November 14 at 6pm, Kola will speak at the Academy on the topic, “Unable to Breathe: Race, Asthma, and the Environment in Civil Rights Era New Orleans and New York.”
In July 1965, several months after the assassination of Malcolm X and the freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery, the New York Times ran a story about “an emotional epidemic” of asthma sweeping across New York City. Although the writer focused on psychosomatic explanations to link asthma symptoms to the hostility of the Civil Rights Movement, it prompted me to explore the significance of asthma’s emergence as a racial problem during the 1960s.
Before the 1960s, little was written about asthma in African Americans. For much of the early twentieth century, doctors debated whether black people could have asthma, as they understood the disease to afflict middle and upper-class whites, who were believed to have more civilized lifestyles and delicate constitutions than poor blacks.
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