"Racial Capitalism, Chemical Kin"
Chlordécone/kepone (C10Cl10O) was an organocholorine pesticide produced in the United States from 1951-1975. Called an “insecticide of the poor,” the synthetic chemical was used primarily in tropical agriculture in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In the French Antilles, the compound saw widespread use on banana plantations only after its interdiction in France, the United States, and in other countries of the global North. The United Nations Environment Programme considers kepone to be a persistent organic pollutant (POP), and it has been posited that it would take between 150 and 600 years for the chemical to break down naturally in the environment. Thus it is in the land—and in people’s bodies—to stay. Further, kepone is both a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor—a compound that produces estrogen-mimicking and anti-androgenic effects in both human and non-human animal bodies. Claims about the sexual and reproductive consequences of exposure are thus at the heart of concerns about its afterlives in human bodies, bodies of land and bodies of water, and these in turn rely upon ideas about a “natural” body, its optimum health, and its “natural” genders, sexes, and sexualities. Kepone moves many to ask: what does toxicity (have to) do with reproductive futurity? What might detox have to do with a radical politics of care?
In this talk, I join archival research in Hopewell, Virginia (the site of the compound’s production) with ethnographic research in Martinique (one of the primary sites of its distribution), in order to plumb one dimension of the plantation’s long after/continued life, and its relationship to what Michelle Murphy has called “chemical infrastructures of reproduction.” Inspired by M. Jacqui Alexander’s insistence that transnational feminist scholarship plumb how ideologies traffic across multiple sites, I track racialized and gendered discourses about kepone exposure across a trans-imperial Atlantic terrain, offering this commodity story as one way to understand the enduring entanglements of toxicity and care, reproduction and generation-making in the worlds wrought by racial capitalism.
Vanessa Agard-Jones is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. At its most expansive, Agard-Jones' work asks how coloniality is made material: in social forms, in human and nonhuman bodies, and in the landscapes in which we live. With a focus on Black life in the Atlantic world, she conducts historical and ethnographic research on racialization, environmental crisis and the politics of gender and sexuality.
In Body Burdens: Toxic Endurance and Decolonial Desire in the French Atlantic (in preparation), Agard-Jones reframes the toxicological concept of “body burden” to account for the accretion of toxicities in Martinique, a French territory in the Caribbean. Focused on material exposures to an endocrine-disrupting pesticide called kepone/chlordécone and on immaterial exposures to racism, sexism, and homophobia, Body Burdens asks how contemporary debates about sovereignty on the island are articulated through the prism of ideas about porosity and chemical contamination.
Jafari Sinclaire Allen is currently the Director of Africana Studies and Inaugural Co-Director of the University of Miami Center for Global Black Studies, at the University of Miami. His second monograph, There’s a disco ball between us: a theory of Black gay life, was released by Duke University Press this year.
Dr. Allen’s scholarship and teaching has opened new lines of inquiry and offered re‐invigorated methods of Black feminist narrative theorizing in anthropology, Black studies, and queer studies. This work has been funded and recognized by, for example, the National Science Foundation, Yale Center for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Morehouse College SafeSpace, and mostly recently by the Andrew A. Mellon Foundation, for his ‘Miami Initiative on Global Black Studies,’ which catalyzed the founding of the Center for Global Black Studies. An Associate Professor in University of Miami’s Department of Anthropology, he is a former Associate Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology, and the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Director of Graduate Studies, at Yale University.
Professor Allen is the author of ¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba; editor of Black/Queer/Diaspora; and a number of other publications in, for example: American Ethnologist; Cultural Anthropology; GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies; Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society; Current Anthropology; Small Axe: A Caribbean Platform of Criticism; Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power; and Anthurium. Engaged in ethnographic research in Cuba and the Caribbean for more than twenty years, recent research has also taken him to East Africa, Brazil and Western Europe.
Professor Allen is currently at work on two monographs: Marooned in Miami: Ecologies of Black Life on an Edge; and Structural Adjustments: Global Black Survival in the 1980s.