Black Literature and Science in the Age of Coronavirus

Keynote address by Josie Gill

Friday, May 14, 9 am (UTC+2)

It has perhaps never been clearer than now that racism in Britain is a public health issue. The last few years have revealed in public and prominent ways how the health of Black and Minority Ethnic Britons is informed by institutional and structural discrimination and inequality, leading to illness and in many cases, death. The Windrush scandal saw the withdrawal of NHS services from those wrongly labelled as non-citizens (resulting in severely delayed treatment and care), as well as high levels of stress and anxiety caused by the loss of jobs, homes, benefits and wrongful deportation. Many Black Britons labelled ‘illegal immigrants’ and targeted by the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy have died in their 50s and 60s. The Covid-19 pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on Black Britons, who have been found to be four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people, due to living arrangements, jobs, geographical and socioeconomic factors. The global Black Lives Matter movement that saw large protests in Britain in 2020 highlighted once more a long-standing issue that the UN had confirmed in 2018; that in Britain a disproportionate number of people of African or Caribbean descent die due to ‘excessive force by the state’, which is the result of ‘structural racism’.

How do we do literature and science studies, medical humanities, or examine science and narrative in this context? How do we read, imagine, intervene and understand the way that hostile environments and spaces – the street, the hospital, the university – shape the experience of Black Britons in ways which science and medicine are unable or unwilling to capture? Who is the ‘we’ I am referring to here and who is ‘our’ audience for this work? In this talk I will sketch out some possible responses to these questions, in dialogue with Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories (2021) and with the work of other Black thinkers and writers which asks us to carefully attend to our methodological and physiological responses to racism across disciplines.

Josie Gill is lecturer in Black British Writing of the 20th and 21st Centuries at the University of Bristol, where she is also Director of the Centre for Black Humanities. Her research focuses on contemporary literature, in particular on Black British, Caribbean and African American writing.  Her book Biofictions: Race, Genetics and the Contemporary Novel (2020) explores how the contemporary novel has drawn upon and intervened in debates about race in late 20th and 21st-century genetic science. From 2016-2017 she was Principal Investigator of the AHRC funded project ‘Literary Archaeology’: Exploring the Lived Environment of the Slave, which brought together archaeological scientists, creative writers, and literary scholars to develop a new, interdisciplinary approach to the study of the lives of enslaved people.  She is also interested in how the current movement to decolonise universities might impact upon interdisciplinarity research and collaboration.

Image courtesy Josie Gill/University of Bristol