Lethal Housing: Reading Restrictive Covenants and Urban Black Women's Grassroots Health Activism, 1930-1980

Lisa Young, Purdue University


"Lethal Housing: Reading Restrictive Covenants and Urban Black Women’s Grassroots Health Activism, 1930–1980," is an ecoliterary study of the gendered effects of restrictive covenants—deed contracts prohibiting the purchasing, leasing, and occupation of a home based on race, used largely in urban cities during the Great Migration. This dissertation triangulates literary analysis, archival data from the radical Black press, and trial transcripts from restrictive covenant court cases, in order to examine how the invention of restrictive covenants permanently transformed African American literature and to simultaneously trace Black women writer’s framing of restrictive covenants as environmentally hazardous agents in the lives of urban Black residents. Given that the U.S. Supreme Court heard no cases on restrictive covenants between 1926 and 1940, and didn’t invalidate them until 1968, I argue that Black women writers intervened during this period of legal neglect, using their texts to present their own judicial cases against restrictive covenants as lethal agents and state-sanctioned forms of biopolitical violence. In doing so, they formed an indictment against both restrictive covenants and the state in ways the Supreme Court failed to do. This project illuminates how, through their texts, Black women writers such as Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Paule Marshall used the public spheres of both literature and the Black press to equip their readers with an "urban ecological literacy," bringing about a sustained attention to Black healthcare needs through grassroots activist means. This concerted focus on health by Black writers—many of whom were also journalists—allow us to better understand the "health politics" of Black writers, illuminating how Black women writers presented literary historiographies that publicized issues of race, health, and gender by intertwining the natural and urban worlds they call home.




Patton, Purdue University.

Subject Area

African American Studies|American studies|Black studies|Womens studies|American literature

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