The story of the lungs, or how atmospheric racism becomes embodied
In this talk, I share stories of illness and death, as well as of survival and care, from Black workers and their families in a Southern aluminum company town. For Black workers, whose lungs toiled to maintain life under the burden of toxic wastes, shortness of breath and diagnoses such as COPD are symptomatic of an underlying pathology: a racist world that perverts the essential matter sustaining life into a tool of systematic violence. In these excerpts from my book, A Toxic Alchemy, I adopt Frantz Fanon’s description of colonialism as “atmospheric” violence to describe how racism becomes embodied through taking in contaminated air, and how the struggle for breath asks us to refuse the premise of disposability and demand a reimagining of the world.
Pavithra Vasudevan (she/they) is an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Their research addresses toxicity as a manifestation of racial violence, capitalist entanglements with state and science, and the abolitional possibilities of collective struggle. Vasudevan is a recipient of the 2022-23 American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship for her first book project, A Toxic Alchemy: Race and Waste in Industrial Capitalism. Their research is grounded in collaboration and creative praxis, reimagining scholarship as storytelling in service to building a better world.