DIFFERENT / FIT: EUGENICS IN ALABAMA, 1919-1935
In this multi-site partnership exhibition with Mobile Medical Museum, curator elizabet elliott, and artists Merrilee Challiss, Carey Fountain, and Chris Lawson explore the heartbreaking history of eugenics in Alabama. Newly commissioned work will be sited at both Mobile Medical Museum, located at 1664 Springhill Avenue Mobile, Alabama 36604, until May 2022 and on-site at ACAC until January 2021.
This project has been made possible by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. The Alabama Humanities Alliance, a state partner with the National Endowment for the Humanities, co-sponsors this project. Additional support from the Edith Mitchell Health Initiative.
The underlying violence of disenfranchisement is a lack of visibility. When we talk about societies ‘most vulnerable’ we are talking about a complex and wildly diverse population out of sight. The power of art in this context might be to drag light into a dark room, or to build empathy. You can’t feel what you can’t see, and feeling this is vital to knowing the harm, and therefore knowing how to heal.
It’s easy for difficult histories to feel foreign. If your life has never been touched directly by one of the myriad of ways we’ve harmed each other through bias, the history of it can seem academic. We look on at the past as some distant wreckage, aweing at the misguided decisions and ideologies as if they have no bearing on who we are today. We clutch our pearls at the thought.
Eugenics is one of the purest forms of active harm through bias in the medical industry. History has sheltered beliefs informing decisions about those that deserve (and those that don’t) all manner of basic human dignities. We are mostly familiar with the practice of unearthing stories like this, if not these specifically. Because we currently live in a cultural moment of reckoning with bias, a time where lots of effort has been made at uncovering and dealing with old and problematic justifications for harm, it’s easy to point to these practices at ten paces. To a certain extent the anger is the easiest part. If you aren’t shaking your fist at the dead men (and occasional women) that advocated for and perpetrated the forcible sterilization of the disenfranchised, then you might be asleep. We lament the power given and the power taken. We lean on the fact that it’s history, thereby not current, an apparition of culture past. We judge it heavily and quickly move on.
The reason to ask artists, or to invite art into this, is to create a stoppage. To build in space for another kind of understanding, one that is more human. The curatorial aim we put forward wasn’t about indictment or outrage, or the undue power of the perpetrators. We trust that you can find that yourself. What’s much, much harder is closing the distance put between perpetrator and victim that informed this practice. Taking the ‘otherness’ away to understand the abiding impact, and to not only grieve what was lost through this history, but investigate how we still may not be fully whole.
The three artists engaged in this project are all at close proximity to the various groups affected: women and men, most often those with different ability, queer, people of color, and anyone else who can be filtered out of the white male supremacist ideology. These three artists were given an incredibly difficult task of making the invisible losses visible. The brief they were given was to hold space for the victims even though very little is actually known about the people themselves. Because the victims were deemed of little importance or value to society, precious few of their stories or biographical details have been preserved— not to mention the generations of people who won’t ever exist as a result of this practice. We wanted to create a space for the dignity of loss, with a hope that by humanizing these individuals for you, and maybe slowing you down, we might start to see how we still carry beliefs and assumptions today, haunted by a past violence and complicated by a current need to move forward unencumbered. We’ve talked at length about what it means to honor the unknown, or the unknowable. At various points these artists have had to grapple with what this history means to their own identity and this is very much felt in the work they’ve made.
What good contemporary science tells us today is that trauma doesn’t end at the event. It shapes our entire experience of the world afterwards and reverberates through generations, it is carried. To honor the unknowable is to make an effort at re-humanizing that which has been reduced to data. It’s having the courage to feel empathy across socioeconomic, race and ability borders. It’s holding longer space for hard stories, hard histories and hard loss. The reckoning cannot be only shaking fists and judgement, we must also know the deep abiding humanity that went into, and was taken out of the various ways we’ve harmed each other through history, lest we carry our traumas even further.
- e. elliott