What Perspectives Did African American Advocates Bring to the Birth Control Movement and How Did Those Perspectives Shape the History of the Harlem Branch Birth Control Clinic?


   How have historians judged the Harlem clinic and the birth control movement in the 1930s? For the most part, the historiography of the twentieth-century birth control movement has overlooked the Harlem clinic. But the question of racism and birth control has been a focus of study for women's historians. Approaches to the racism question have been tightly connected to evaluations of the role of eugenics in the movement.

   In her groundbreaking 1976 book Women's Body, Women's Right, Linda Gordon offered the first contemporary history of the twentieth-century birth control movement as a women's social movement. The book did not discuss the Harlem clinic in any depth, but it discussed a related project conducted by the Birth Control Federation of America in the late 1930s, the Division of Negro Service, and concluded that it had no "socially progressive meaning." This assessment derived from Gordon's more general argument that the strong links between white birth control advocates and eugenicists was a function of their shared racial conservatism. Gordon looked at the middle-class professional status of many of the most prominent African Americans associated with birth control and the reluctance of such individuals to participate in the direct action mass protests supported by the left throughout the Depression and concluded that African Americans involved with the birth control movement were socially conservative.

   Ellen Chesler's 1992 biography of Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement, Woman of Valor, also did not deal directly with the Harlem clinic. But she argued that birth control projects within the African American community were experiments in social engineering and concluded that the intentions were not racist. Chesler found the links between birth control and eugenics much less substantial and less collaborative than Gordon did. James Reed's The Birth Control Movement and American Society (1978) did not discuss any interracial projects from the period and did not sharply contest Gordon and David Kennedy's conclusions about the relationship of birth control to eugenics. He argued that this connection was built primarily through the participation of Clarence Gamble in the birth control movement. Reed's analysis was consistent with Chesler's view on the issue of racism within the movement.

   In the influential Women, Race, and Class (1981), Angela Davis took issue with accounts of the birth control movement that focused primarily on the motives and actions of white activists. She rejected the premise that there was no grassroots interest in birth control in African American communities in the Depression. However, she concluded that the activities of white birth control groups in Black communities did not reflect the aspirations of those at the grassroots level and concluded that such organizations expressed the racial anxieties and paternalism of white advocates. Jessie Rodrique's 1989 article, "The Black Community and the Birth Control Movement," explored new evidence of birth control advocacy by African Americans around the nation and identified economic and racial progress as key justifications for support of birth control. She argued that this activism was often independent of white birth control organizations and blossomed in a period that earlier historians had described as one of waning activism. Her account took note of the Harlem Clinic as evidence of sustained interest in birth control within the African American community during the 1930s. Her discussion briefly outlined some of the activities of council members, but it did not examine the clinic's internal dynamics. She concluded that the activism of African Americans during the 1930s should move historians to reexamine both the history of the birth control movement and the involvement of African Americans in it.

   My 1994 book Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945 discussed the Harlem clinic in some detail in an effort to develop a fuller understanding of the dynamics of interracial collaborations in support of birth control during the 1930s. My account of the Harlem clinic and the Division of Negro Service concluded that these efforts were socially progressive to the extent that they built interracial alliances at a time of extensive racial segregation. This conclusion hinges on my own assessment of a more complex and contentious relationship between Sanger and eugenicists. In her 1997 book Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts also discussed the Harlem clinic in depth. She concurred with recent reevaluations of Sanger's association with eugenics, concluding that racial bias was not Sanger's reason for that association. However, she also made the important point that the birth control movement promoted the "perverse" eugenic logic that "social problems are caused by reproduction of the socially disadvantaged and that their childbearing should therefore be deterred." In "Or Does It Explode?" Cheryl Greenberg noted a pattern with other private agencies in Harlem in the 1930s; like the Harlem clinic, they followed principles that combined formal racial equality and class-based economic criteria for assistance in a way that had a great impact on African Americans' ability to access services. These perspectives, as Roberts noted, legitimated coercive reproductive control policies throughout the twentieth century. And because of racism, African Americans were disproportionately represented among the socially disadvantaged groups targeted by such policies.

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