Race for Cures: Rethinking the Racial Logics of ‘Trust’ in Biomedicine

In the United States, African-Americans have historically been conscripted for experimental medical research while denied access to quality health care (Nelson 2011; Reverby 2009; Wailoo 2000; Washington 2007).3 As one informant aptly queried, “Why am I in such demand as a research subject when no one wants me as a patient?” Since the passage of the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, there exists a legal mandate to include a racially diverse population in medical research. This fuels a “vexing and time consuming body hunt” because researchers find it difficult to recruit a representative sample of participants (Epstein 2008, p. 806). This purported lack of racial representation is also cause for anxiety in fields that require human tissue samples to hone treatments. In the arena of human stem cell research, for example, some observers are concerned that the inability of stem cell banks to obtain tissue from a racially diverse population will ultimately make it harder for non-Whites to obtain a tissue match if and when therapies develop (Faden et al., 2003; Moller 2008). As one Hastings Center Report contends,

Stem cell therapies should be available to people of all ethnicities. However, most cells used in the clinic will probably come from lines of cells stored in stem cell banks, which may end up benefiting the majority group most (Greene 2006, p. 57).

While social scientists and human geneticists, alike, have demonstrated how this and similar statements mistakenly conflate racial classifications with genetic diversity, the following analysis raises a different set of issues with respect to such calls for ‘stem cell diversity’. Often a primary reason that researchers and policy analysts provide for the low enrollment of African-Americans as clinical subjects or tissue donors is their tendency to distrust science and medicine. Hundreds of peer-reviewed papers have been written to discern why, under what circumstances, and with what consequences Africans-Americans express distrust.4 In this way, ‘Black distrust’ circulates as a biomedical truism, an empirical curiosity, and a cultural trait unique to African-Americans – what sociologists of race call an ‘essentialist’ approach – with little interrogation of the wider discursive field in which it circulates. This article examines the normative underpinnings of trust talk, asking how biomedical recruitment discourse constructs racial group boundaries within the context of stem cell research and what consequences this discursive practice holds for our broader understanding of the politics of medicine.

By putting the sociology of race–ethnicity in conversation with the social studies of science and medicine, the following analysis extends our understanding of how epistemic and normative practices are inextricable. The attempts of well-meaning researchers to use science and medicine to redress prior forms of abuse and neglect are often based on assumptions of inherent racial differences (Bliss 2012; Braun et al., 2007; Fullwiley 2008; Fujimura et al., 2008; Kahn 2012; Montoya 2011; Ossorio and Duster 2005; Reardon 2004; Soo Jin Lee 2005). In particular, Pollock’s (2012) incisive analysis of Derrida’s pharmakon metaphor as simultaneously ‘cure’ and ‘poison’ best illustrates the tension herein: a race for cures resuscitates static group boundaries in the quest to produce novel medical treatments.5 But it is not only biologically reductive notions of race that are revived in stem cell recruitment discourse, but also culturally essentialist ideas about group traits – trusting versus non-trusting groups – that require critical attention.

In challenging biological determinism, extant scholarship in the social studies of science and medicine has focused less on the way that reified notions of culture are routinely employed as a lens to make sense of group differences (see Jenks, 2010 and Shim, 2010 for notable exceptions). For example, this Benjamin (2011, 2013) found that some clinicians and researchers routinely use generalizations such as “Asian-American science-philia” or “African-American fatalism” to explain why people choose to participate in experimental stem cell treatments or not. It is worth noting that, in these instances, racial logics are typically used in an attempt to include and represent a wider spectrum of the body politic, rather than to exclude and dominate, as in previous eras where eugenic ideologies were the norm. The current context is what Epstein has called the inclusion-and-difference paradigm whereby “researchers are enjoined to conduct subgroup comparisons by race to test whether treatments have different effects in different groups” (Epstein 2007, p. 813). In the process, many researchers often mistakenly come to believe that “medical ‘have-not’s’ [are] pounding on the walls of research institutions, demanding to be let into the experimental domain” (Epstein 2008, p. 806). Yet, they must routinely grapple with resistance or indifference to their solicitations, and often try to make sense of their difficulty through the idiom of ‘distrust’. 6 By constructing trust as a cultural trait that some groups have more or less of than others, such discursive practices lead those engaged in trust talk to overlook differences within purported ethnoracial groups, disregard similarities across groups, and most importantly, ignore the larger institutionalized structures of inequality in biomedicine and beyond.

Drawing on a 2-year multi-method study of the world’s largest stem cell initiative, this article interrogates the normative underpinnings of biomedical recruitment discourse. Following a discussion of methods and relevant scholarship in this area, the article identifies three ways in which trust talk in the stem cell field constructs racial group boundaries – through diversity outreach, clinical gatekeeping, and charismatic collaborations. By exploring these practices through three ethnographic vignettes, the paper also explicates counter-narratives – racial profiling, subversive whiteness, and biopolitical minstrelsy – that challenge the normative underpinnings of trust talk in biomedicine. The analysis herein illustrates how biomedicine is a site of group-making, one that does not simply leave existing social arrangements in place, but potentially reifies or resists the racial status quo.

Inside the stem cell initiative

Stem cells have the potential to regenerate any tissue in the human body, that is, they are ‘pluripotent’. But due to the fact that many researchers utilize cells taken from the inner lining of a 5-day to 8-day old embryo to harness pluripotency, some techniques have proven extremely controversial in the United States. In over a dozen states, initiatives to fund or ban stem cell research have spurred legislative action or public referendum. Voters approved the single largest funder of stem cell research in the world, California’s Proposition 71 on November 2, 2004. Prop 71 authorized the sale of general obligation bonds to raise $3 billion over 10 years to fund stem cell research, including contested methods that utilize human embryos to isolate stem cells. The Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, in turn, amended the state constitution to include a “right to research” (Brown and Guston 2005; Ganchoff 2004).

The following discussion draws upon findings from a 2-year (2005–2007) mixed-method study of the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which is the new state agency established by Proposition 71. Through a formal affiliation with the agency as part of its first cohort of “training fellows,” I observed institute board meetings, scientific retreats, academic courses, legislative and legal hearings, and biotechnology industry conferences. I also conducted content analysis of Prop. 71 campaign finance documents, CIRM press releases, and SCR media documents. Finally, I interviewed a purposive sample of 63 people actively engaged in advocating for, implementing, or critiquing CIRM in the regulatory, biomedical, and civic arenas. This included patients and their families, physicians, and other medical staff who utilized or provided medical services at an urban teaching hospital, the Garvey Research Complex (pseudonym). Garvey houses a cord blood bank and stem cell transplant program and a regional sickle cell clinic, as well as a number of other clinical and research departments.

My fieldwork at Garvey entailed shadowing the head physician in the sickle cell clinic, attending medical rounds, observing patients in clinic visits, and observing discussions between physicians, nurses, and social workers, including discussions on patients’ medical and social histories. I was given access to cord blood program enrollees and observed the process by which parents of children affected by an ailment were instructed to collect and store blood for possible use in a stem cell transplant. Unlike other methods that use embryonic stem cells, this method for treating sickle cell disease and other blood-based disorders utilizes “adult” stem cells from a mother’s umbilical cord upon giving birth to a child who is not affected by the illness but might match the affected sibling. I observed patients and health professionals (including nurses, social workers, outreach workers, MDs, and researchers) in a number of settings including home visits with patients and their families, sickle cell community events, and community-based talks by scientists working on stem cell transplantation.

In telephone interviews with parents who had banked umbilical cord blood from an unaffected sibling at Garvey’s tissue bank for possible future use in a stem cell transfusion, I asked what factors they were considering as they decided whether and when to have their child undergo the transplant (Benjamin 2011, 2013). In examining their attitudes in relation to the broader context of recruitment, I came to understand that I, as well as those engaged in the new science of recruitment, tended to limit our unit of analysis to individual decision-making rather than investigating how institutional norms and discursive practices shape the larger context of meaning-making.

The inclusion of racial-ethnic minorities in research is implicitly framed as a medical “right” – an extension of biological citizenship – which posits the body as a primary locus of political redress (Petryna 2002; Rose and Novas 2005; Roberts 2011). Scholars have detailed how a history of “deliberate neglect and medical abuse” (Nelson 2011, p.15) have led many Black health advocates to demand biomedical access even as they refuse to participate in experimental research. Thus, a “right” to access biomedical goods must be understood within a larger socio-historical context, in which such “rights” entail the potential to be done wrong. The racialized dimension of rights that can do wrong is particularly acute in the context of experimental stem cell treatments, where researchers seek diverse representation in tissue donation upstream and in clinical trials downstream.

The relationship between advances in the life sciences and new rights that lay claim to those advances is what Jasanoff terms bioconstitutionalism (Jasanoff 2011). Through bioconstitutional struggles, legal and social obligations become unsettled as the state’s political prerogatives are reworked in light of new demands such as “diverse stem cell lines.” Most importantly, the issue of what the state owes particular groups is intimately connected to biological definitions of what constitutes a group in the first place. Older forms of groupmaking, such as race, are not simply replaced by, but often resuscitated in service to new biopolitics. As in other social arenas, individuals’ racialized dispositions, and not institutional forms of racism, are typically the locus of concern in popular discourse (Bonilla-Silva 2009) surrounding trust in biomedicine.

The passage of the California Stem Cell Act can be understood as “a rethinking of law at a constitutional level. At these moments, the most basic relations between states and citizens are reframed through changes in the law” (Jasanoff 2011, p. 3). The Act was in essence abioconstitutional moment, where struggles over ‘who we are, what we are owed, and what we are responsible for’, as both objects and subjects of scientific initiatives unfolded (Benjamin 2013). In California and a growing number of jurisdictions, representatives of various constituencies attempted to codify answers to these fundamental questions. In the process, histories of medical neglect and scientific abuse, as well as debates over ongoing racial health disparities were resuscitated and often quickly ‘reburied’ (Ossorio and Duster 2005) lest they slow the urgent race for cures.

Binaries and biopolitics

Stem cells have the potential to regenerate any tissue in the human body, that is, they are ‘pluripotent’. But due to the fact that many researchers utilize cells taken from the inner lining of a 5-day to 8-day old embryo to harness pluripotency, some techniques have proven extremely controversial in the United States. In over a dozen states, initiatives to fund or ban stem cell research have spurred legislative action or public referendum. Voters approved the single largest funder of stem cell research in the world, California’s Proposition 71 on November 2, 2004. Prop 71 authorized the sale of general obligation bonds to raise $3 billion over 10 years to fund stem cell research, including contested methods that utilize human embryos to isolate stem cells. The Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, in turn, amended the state constitution to include a “right to research” (Brown and Guston 2005; Ganchoff 2004).

The following discussion draws upon findings from a 2-year (2005–2007) mixed-method study of the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which is the new state agency established by Proposition 71. Through a formal affiliation with the agency as part of its first cohort of “training fellows,” I observed institute board meetings, scientific retreats, academic courses, legislative and legal hearings, and biotechnology industry conferences. I also conducted content analysis of Prop. 71 campaign finance documents, CIRM press releases, and SCR media documents. Finally, I interviewed a purposive sample of 63 people actively engaged in advocating for, implementing, or critiquing CIRM in the regulatory, biomedical, and civic arenas. This included patients and their families, physicians, and other medical staff who utilized or provided medical services at an urban teaching hospital, the Garvey Research Complex (pseudonym). Garvey houses a cord blood bank and stem cell transplant program and a regional sickle cell clinic, as well as a number of other clinical and research departments.

My fieldwork at Garvey entailed shadowing the head physician in the sickle cell clinic, attending medical rounds, observing patients in clinic visits, and observing discussions between physicians, nurses, and social workers, including discussions on patients’ medical and social histories. I was given access to cord blood program enrollees and observed the process by which parents of children affected by an ailment were instructed to collect and store blood for possible use in a stem cell transplant. Unlike other methods that use embryonic stem cells, this method for treating sickle cell disease and other blood-based disorders utilizes “adult” stem cells from a mother’s umbilical cord upon giving birth to a child who is not affected by the illness but might match the affected sibling. I observed patients and health professionals (including nurses, social workers, outreach workers, MDs, and researchers) in a number of settings including home visits with patients and their families, sickle cell community events, and community-based talks by scientists working on stem cell transplantation.

In telephone interviews with parents who had banked umbilical cord blood from an unaffected sibling at Garvey’s tissue bank for possible future use in a stem cell transfusion, I asked what factors they were considering as they decided whether and when to have their child undergo the transplant (Benjamin 2011, 2013). In examining their attitudes in relation to the broader context of recruitment, I came to understand that I, as well as those engaged in the new science of recruitment, tended to limit our unit of analysis to individual decisionmaking rather than investigating how institutional norms and discursive practices shape the larger context of meaning-making.

“Rights” that do wrong

The inclusion of racial-ethnic minorities in research is implicitly framed as a medical “right” – an extension of biological citizenship – which posits the body as a primary locus of political redress (Petryna 2002; Rose and Novas 2005; Roberts 2011). Scholars have detailed how a history of “deliberate neglect and medical abuse” (Nelson 2011, p.15) have led many Black health advocates to demand biomedical access even as they refuse to participate in experimental research. Thus, a “right” to access biomedical goods must be understood within a larger socio-historical context, in which such “rights” entail the potential to be done wrong. The racialized dimension of rights that can do wrong is particularly acute in the context of experimental stem cell treatments, where researchers seek diverse representation in tissue donation upstream and in clinical trials downstream.

The relationship between advances in the life sciences and new rights that lay claim to those advances is what Jasanoff terms bioconstitutionalism (Jasanoff 2011). Through bioconstitutional struggles, legal and social obligations become unsettled as the state’s political prerogatives are reworked in light of new demands such as “diverse stem cell lines.” Most importantly, the issue of what the state owes particular groups is intimately connected to biological definitions of what constitutes a group in the first place. Older forms of groupmaking, such as race, are not simply replaced by, but often resuscitated in service to new biopolitics. As in other social arenas, individuals’ racialized dispositions, and not institutional forms of racism, are typically the locus of concern in popular discourse (Bonilla-Silva 2009) surrounding trust in biomedicine.

The passage of the California Stem Cell Act can be understood as “a rethinking of law at a constitutional level. At these moments, the most basic relations between states and citizens are reframed through changes in the law” (Jasanoff 2011, p. 3). The Act was in essence abioconstitutional moment, where struggles over ‘who we are, what we are owed, and what we are responsible for’, as both objects and subjects of scientific initiatives unfolded (Benjamin 2013). In California and a growing number of jurisdictions, representatives of various constituencies attempted to codify answers to these fundamental questions. In the process, histories of medical neglect and scientific abuse, as well as debates over ongoing racial health disparities were resuscitated and often quickly ‘reburied’ (Ossorio and Duster 2005) lest they slow the urgent race for cures.

Binaries and biopolitics

Discursive negotiations are fundamental for the mutual construction of reality (Mills 1940; Berger and Luckmann 1967; Goffman 1967, 1981), especially as it relates to racial discourse (Goodman and Burke 2010; Myers 2001, 2015; Pollock 2004; Reisigl and Wodak 2001; Wetherell and Potter 1992), and the construction of whiteness (Foster 2009; Hughey 2011, 2012; Picca and Feagin 2007; Riggs and Augoustinos 2004; Steyn and Foster 2008). The drive to include a diverse population in experimental treatments rests, in part, upon a culturally framed binary – White trust versus non-White distrust in biomedicine.8 This reproduces racial boundaries within a symbolic order in which consent and compliance are implicitly coded “White” while dissent and refusal are coded “non-White.” Thus, biomedicine seeks not only to ameliorate bodily suffering but ‘cure’ cultural attitudes that are rendered pathological. As such, researchers inadvertently extol trust as the desired attitude towards recruitment, even when this conceals the many shortcomings of biomedicine, most notably the vast ethnoracial inequities to which a distrusting attitude may be acutely attuned.

In the next section, the paper identifies three ways in which discourse in the stem cell field constructs racial group boundaries – through diversity outreach, clinical gatekeeping, and charismatic collaborations. In so doing, the paper also explicates counter-narratives – medical racial profiling, subversive whiteness, and biopolitical minstrelsy – as forms of discursive resistance that challenge standard recruitment norms.

Diversity outreach and racial profiling

On October 14, 2006, a group of scientists, clinicians, social justice advocates, health policy analysts, and academics participated in a conference in Oakland, California entitled “Toward Fair Cures: Integrating the Benefits of Diversity in the California Stem Cell Research Act,” sponsored by the UC Berkeley Project on Stem Cells and Society, Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), and the Greenlining Institute (a national policy, grassroots organizing, and leadership training institute working for racial and economic justice). The purpose of the event was to “increase the understanding of the economic and medical potential of stem cell research among historically underserved minority communities and ensure that California’s stem cell research efforts serve our state’s diverse community.”9 A point of debate was the conference’s subtitle: “Addressing the Lack of Diversity in Stem Cell Research.” Organizers were forced to change this to the more upbeat title, “Integrating the Benefits of Diversity in the California Stem Cell Research Act”10 [italics added] when cosponsor Robert Birgeneau, UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, implied it was “too confrontational.” However, key organizers maintained that reframing undermined the autonomy and agency of health policy advocates to address the historic exclusion and exploitation of racial-ethnic minorities in scientific and medical decision-making.

Chancellor Birgeneau’s intervention highlights a larger pattern that sociologists Bell and Hartman (2007) describe as the ubiquity of diversity “happy talk” in US discourse on race and ethnicity – a way of addressing race that is sanitized due to the “cultural blind spots” that reinforce White normativity and fail to consider the effects of the “unseen privileges and normative presumptions” of mainstream American culture (895). Attempting to unsettle this normative center, several conference participants underscored the fact that if tax-spending decisions were made in an inclusive way, and reflected the values, interests, and perspectives of truly diverse groups, stem cell research would not top the list. One conference participant observed that “all technology has power relations embedded in [it], [is] developed to benefit specific populations and [is] made available to specific populations […]. If we were to go to minority communities and women’s communities and ask them how to spend $3 to $6 billion, it’s unlikely that they would say ‘on stem cell research.’”

Similarly, another participant urged attendees to shift the focus away from minority distrust in science to the “trustworthiness of institutions.”12 But while this provocation was not taken up as a major locus of concern for participants, it serves as a window on to the way that discourses around trust in biomedicine typically pivot around the disposition of individuals and groups, rather than located in the norms and practices associated with institutions. From the latter perspective, what is often called outreach relies on group profiling, where the discourse surrounding trust is a major feature of constructing ethnoracial profiles.

Consider, for example, a Diversity Workshop at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science hosted by the state stem cell agency on February 26, 2010. Drew is a historically Black institution founded in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood in response to the 1965 urban rebellion sparked by social and economic inequities that Blacks faced and continue to face. Its mission today is to educate and serve the predominantly Black and Hispanic residents of the area. The goals of the Diversity Workshop were twofold: to “gain a greater understanding of how population diversity affects, benefits and advances CIRM’s mission” and “to use this knowledge to ensure that CIRM’s funding initiatives support diversity in regenerative medicine.” During this workshop, an invited speaker Dr. Maria Pallavicini explained how the University of California Merced had to “educate the population of this historically underserved population in the San Joaquin Valley about the nature and value of research.” This, she said, had been “a challenge in a region with relatively high rates of poverty and low levels of educational achievement.”

Another speaker, Dr. Keith Norris of Drew University, highlighted the importance of research scientists engaging with doctors and clinical researchers, and underscored that the goal of this interaction “should be to relate research to broader community health concerns.”13 Reflecting a deficit framing of patient compliance and participation (i.e., focused upon what people lack), Norris observed that “functional illiteracy” (“48 percent of US adults cannot fill out a job application”) limits people’s ability to participate in research initiatives. He also mentioned other socioeconomic factors, such as “concerns about the time and expenses (travel, child care, and lost income)” that hinder participation in research studies. Accordingly, Norris suggested that “smaller mission-based and/or minority-serving institutions,” like Drew University, could be a potential resource for increasing minority participation in research.

Relatedly, scientists at the CIRM Diversity Workshop emphasized the importance of developing a “diverse stock of cells” to ensure immune tolerability across the diverse population who will seek access to future cell-based therapies. Dr. Louise Laurent of UC San Diego presented “results from genetic analysis indicating there is restricted genetic diversity in established human embryonic stem cell lines.” In other words, due to the fact that many stem cell lines are produced using eggs from fertility clinics whose donors are predominantly non-Hispanic Whites, the stem cell lines were said to disproportionately cater to that demographic. The UC San Diego team stressed it was “developing a genetically diverse collection of human iPS cell lines14…The success of this effort depends, in part, on the ability to recruit a genetically diverse group of donors to participate in the project.” Laurent’s concerns drew on prior “considerations of justice in stem cell research and therapy” (Faden et al., 2003), which warned that a lack of ethnoracial diversity would necessarily result in a lack of genetic diversity and the subsequent exclusion of groups who were not well represented in basic research and tissue biobanks. One influential Hastings Center report had argued that “[u]nless the problem of biological access is carefully addressed, an American stem cell bank may end up benefiting primarily White Americans, to the relative exclusion of the rest of the population” (Faden et al., 2003, p.14).

Conference-goers, in turn, relied on cultural explanations for non-Whites’ lack of participation. One CIRM study presentation entitled “Supporting Diversity in Research Participation: A Framework for Action” attributed nonparticipation to people of color’s lack of understanding about clinical trials and their risks and benefits, literacy deficits, and finally, “a general lack of trust in the health care system and especially in clinical research.”

African-Americans tend to have the lowest level of trust in the health care system because of historical abuses. Chinese-Americans also have trust issues, as well as problems with English and, … older members of the community and recent immigrants [have] a lack of understanding of the underlying concepts of clinical research. Latinos also face language barriers, as well as a fear on the part of immigrants – legal or otherwise – that participation could bring negative consequences for them and their families [i.e., deportation]. Southeast Asians share many of these issues, along with, for many groups, a fear of authority bred by a variety of traumas.

In short, while the White versus non-White boundary is implicitly reinforced by describing these groups as all having “trust issues”, they are given distinct profiles in which history, language, and education among other factors are used to make sense of their ambivalence towards biomedical recruitment. Thus, as in quests for diversity more broadly, inclusion rests upon reified notions of difference that often leave institutional structures unexamined.

Embedded in the “hard-to-reach” framing of minority recruitment was the idea that their relative proximity to biomedicine was a matter of self-selection, rather than systemic dispossession. While references to African-Americans’ “historic distrust” – particularly the oft-mentioned Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932–1972) – suggested external justification for why some people might be “hard-to-reach,” issues of ongoing social marginality were largely absent from conference conversations. In particular, social production of distrust in minority groups’ daily encounters with the US healthcare system, and lack of access were rarely mentioned (Durant et al., 2011; Author Date). But whereas diversity outreach discourse obscures such inequities, the unhappy talk of medical racial profiling alerts us to the normative underpinnings of recruitment efforts.

At Garvey Research Complex,16 a related dynamic ensued as primary care physicians – the “crucial mediators between patients and clinical researchers” (Epstein 2008, p. 816) – formed an intermediary tier of distrust that is all but invisible in the larger discourse of biomedical recruitment. Namely, some White clinicians are at odds with researchers, surgeons, and specialists over the efficacy of new high-tech treatments and expensive drugs. Therefore, they exhibit their own brand of ambivalence and can be described as subversive within the larger context of what sociologist Matthew Hughey terms “hegemonic whiteness” saying, “while there is no question about the political differences and individual heterogeneity of White actors in an array of settings, it is important to recognize that certain forms of whiteness can become dominant and pursued as an ideal” (Hughey 2012, p. 13). In this case, the idealization of trusting patients and compliant research subjects, implicitly coded White, is reinforced when recruitment discourse fails to adequately account for the ways that clinicians may subvert the dominant narrative about medical institutions as altruistic and trustworthy.

Take, for example, Tate Wright, who regularly attributes “patient noncompliance” to the stress of his patients’ daily lives and the ineffectiveness of prescribed treatments. As a member of a predominantly White clinical staff serving a Black patient population, he was acutely aware of racial and power asymmetries and how that could inhibit patient trust and compliance. He disagreed with other hospitals’ “behavior contracts” that are often selectively applied to young Black patients, in particular: the “zero tolerance” policies that maintained “Failure to comply with the following rules will result in your immediate discharge from the hospital and/or the intervention of law enforcement personnel.”

One afternoon in the sickle cell anemia clinic, he shared a story of 15-year-old Tyrone Hemmingway. Tyrone and his family had elected to remove his spleen, because, as is common with sickle cell anemia, it became swollen as the sickled hemoglobin blocked the blood vessels. Wright explained

The doctor who performed the surgery decided to use some high-tech equipment that would allow him to do a laser surgery, which meant that he wouldn’t have to open Tyrone all the way up. But because Tyrone’s spleen was so big and they couldn’t finish the operation in a reasonable amount of time, they left him open, iced his stomach and wrapped him up. They brought him back to complete the surgery the following day, because they didn’t want to keep him under anesthetics so long in his condition. But in the second round they accidentally lacerated his stomach, although they didn’t yet know it. So they sewed him up and when he got back into his room, he was complaining of pain. Staff thought it was just the post-op pain. Then he started peeing black urine and vomiting up blood. So they rushed him back into the operating room and opened him up and found the tear in his stomach. A few days later, Tyrone was still saying he was in a lot of pain, and it turned out that although they sewed the tear, he was digesting his pancreas.

Wright recounted the half dozen surgeries in three weeks that were required to rectify the initial surgical damage. When he visited Tyrone after one of these surgeries, he “honestly didn’t think this kid was going to make it.” Wright further mused, “The family has been so good about it. I mean they are angry, but they’re not enraged like they ought to be. I mean it was an elective surgery, and the poor mom, every time she left the hospital, they called her to say that Tyrone was being rushed into the emergency room.”

In a related fashion, Wright expressed his ambivalence towards the ‘newest technique on the block’ alongside his disdain for his colleagues’ career-advancing motivations. In one instance, in the midst of explaining that a new hemoglobin had been discovered at the Garvey Research Complex, he stated, “[The institution] is a little tacky since you’re supposed to name it after the patient, not the person who discovers it.” When a new medical student asked a round of questions about the discovery process, he said: “a lot of what’s driving the discovery of Hemoglobin types is scientists trying to get their report in Blood [a medical journal], even if it’s just based on one patient and the type is never seen again.” Finally, Wright and others at Garvey avoided referring patients to other specialists whose decisions they questioned and who were supportive of experimental procedures like the stem cell transplant that was then being offered in the research wing of the hospital. In all these ways, Wright exemplified what I am calling ‘subversive whiteness’ in so far as he used his position as clinical gatekeeper to question and circumvent the recruitment norms of biomedicine. As previously mentioned, his subversion can be understood in the context of what Hughey describes as hegemonic whiteness – an ideal which Tate Wright was deliberately subverting.

As Wailoo and Pemberton document in The Troubled Dream of Genetic Medicine (Wailoo and Pemberton 2006), the expectations of those affected by sickle cell disease have repeatedly been raised by pronouncements of ‘breakthrough’ cures such that, unlike other ailments for which stem cell cures are predicted, there exists an extremely ambivalent relationship between those affected by sickle cell and cutting-edge, high-risk medical research. Physicians like Wright are appalled at the “rollercoaster of unfulfilled therapeutic promises” (Wailoo and Pemberton 2006, p. 117).20 Positioning themselves as allies to their patients, doctors like Wright act as “refusers” (Rapp 1999) of the allure of experimental treatments. Still, the cultural conception of distrust, as inherently pathological and pertaining to non-Whites, fails to account for Wright’s disdain for biomedical business-as-usual.

Whiteness – not only in terms of Wright’s ethnoracial identity, but even more so as it is exercised through the authority assigned to the white coat of medicine and science – allows for his distrust to go unmarked, thereby bolstering the binary opposition between nonWhite distrust and White trust. By focusing only on his role as gatekeeper, we may overlook the way in which he and other clinicians exercise forms of subversion that run counter to the recruitment norms of the stem cell field and other experimental life sciences.

Charismatic collaborations and biopolitical minstrelsy

The final vignette of biomedical recruitment examines charismatic research enthusiasts and the way that their advocacy resists the reification of group boundaries while simultaneously obscuring the power relations that characterize the recruitment process. Richard Gaskin, an African-American stem cell activist who was paralyzed from a gunshot wound when he was 20 years old, publicly exudes trust, thus delinking the discursive association of blackness with distrust. Gaskin’s rap moniker, “Professir X,” [sic] draws upon the X-Men comic book series about mutant characters with physical characteristics that can be viewed as liabilities or powers. As with the fictional leader of mutants who trains those with seeming disabilities to transform their frustration into a resource, Gaskin set out to purposefully intervene in the ‘stem cell battles’ as someone who appears to fully support the new field. Since his injury, he has worked with Michael J. Fox, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and the late Dana Reeve (wife of the late Christopher Reeve) to generate awareness and funds for stem cell research.21 In a 2007 interview, Gaskin expressed the belief that his experience was representative of broader Black sentiment:

Before, there was nobody famous who represented me, except maybe Teddy Pendergrass. … here was somebody who was going out there, fighting for a cure, advocating for better quality of life for people with disabilities, something I’d seen no one else do.

Following Christopher Reeve’s death, Gaskin wrote a song entitled “Forever Superman,” about his fellow enthusiast’s search for a cure. His song inspired Dr. Wise Young, founder of the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, to recruit Gaskin to “[bring] a hiphop vibe to the world of [spinal cord injury] education and advocacy.”23Gaskin also traveled to China, as an SCR ambassador, and thereby aided Young and the CIRM establishment in framing participation in terms of access to SCR:

The cost of holding clinical trials – which includes admitting 240 people [the typical size of a phase 1 (clinical) trial] into the hospital, tests and treatments, and months of physical therapy – will be about $32 million. So Young and others came up with the JustaDollarPlease.org campaign, asking families and friends of spinal cord injured [people] to give a dollar a day ($365 a year) and everyone to give whatever they can.

Gaskin, also elaborated the day-to-day struggle of living with a disability in order to stand in for what he considered the community of patients in need.

The practice of speaking for others is not without its hazards because, as the sociologist of science Michel Callon puts it, “to speak for others is to first silence those in whose name we speak” (Callon 2005, p. 14–15). As such, spokesmen like Gaskin do not simply represent, but help to producea normative ideal of trusting patients-in-waiting. Charismatic enthusiasts combine rhetoric and reality, along with the symbolic and the material world, effectively prioritizing the pragmatic requirements of basic research over Black recruitment concerns. For example, sociologist Steven Epstein recounts how one young African-American physician was “invited to be a co-investigator on a study, only to conclude eventually that what the senior investigator really sought was a ‘black face’ to display at community forums for purposes of reassuring potential participants” (Epstein 2008, p. 816). Indeed, Yancey and colleagues point out,

[a] common approach to building trust and alleviating attitudinal barriers was community involvement, particularly in the form of using lay outreach workers from the targeted population. Inclusion of minority (“cultural insider”) investigators was also advanced as a community engagement strategy… [as was the use of] churches [that] provide captive audiences (Yancey et al., 2006, p. 9).

The use of in-group members as fronts and spokespersons for research initiatives emerges as a way to mitigate distrust and appear more ‘culturally competent’. While superficial approaches like this abound, we nevertheless find examples of stem cell recruitment that attempt to transform “the power imbalance between the researcher and the community under study” (Epstein 2008, p. 817) by involving community spokespeople at earlier stages of the research process to provide input in to research questions and protocol. However, in such cases, we are still confronted with difficulties plaguing other efforts at participatory science, many of which are tied to the politics of representation. After all, scientific knowledge “does not simply represent (in the sense of depict) ‘nature,’ but it also represents (in the political sense) the ‘social interests’ of the people and institutions that have become wrapped up in its production” (Hayden 2003, p. 21).

To the extent that charismatic collaborations between researchers and community spokesmen are forged mainly to celebrate and bolster science, without building in critical assessments of the impact and meaning of a given field on those targeted as prospective research subjects or tissue donors, then public displays of Black trust may enact a kind of biopolitical minstrelsy. Historical analyses of minstrelsy emphasize the “contradictory impulses at work”, rather than conceive such performances as “uncomplicated or monolithic”; so, too, does my use of the term signal the unsettled discursive terrain of charismatic collaborations. As Lott describes, “the minstrel show was less the incarnation of an age-old racism than an emergent social semantic figure highly responsive to the emotional demands and troubled fantasies of its audiences…[a] mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation, what Homi Bhabha would call its ‘ambivalence’” (Lott 1993, p. 6). So by ‘biopolitical minstrelsy’ I mean the “borrowing of Black cultural materials” [i.e. hip-hop aesthetics] in the service of powerful scientific and medical institutions, thereby obscuring the power relations between researchers and African-American communities, which make such performances necessary in the first place.

So like Tate Wright, whose own complex role within Garvey elides easy representation in the binary framework of Black distrust and White trust, so too does Professir X’s exuberant commitment to the stem cell cause challenge the epistemological bedrock of biomedical recruitment. These seeming exceptions to the discursive linkage between race and trust, and the fact that they stand out as such, serve to underscore both the power and limits of the assumptions that are often made about group dispositions towards experimental biomedicine.


Throughout this paper, I have argued that the cultural concept of trust is racialized in the context of biomedicine. Here we find a binary opposition between White trust and nonWhite distrust serving as the epistemological scaffold of recruitment discourse. Thus, not only do science and medicine tend to impact racially-defined groups differently, but racial logics help to define the norms and practices of science and medicine – a feedback loop which deserves critical attention. Drawing upon the classic article “Whiteness as Property” (Harris 1993), Reardon and TallBear (2012) explain that

[w]e live in times where for many, the relevant ‘civilizing’ project that shapes their lives is the development of the ‘knowledge society’ in which knowledge is a primary source of wealth. . .” (p. 235)

Ideas about ethnoracial groups that assume they are characterized by inherent biological or cultural differences, even in order to ultimately help underserved communities, is an extension of this civilizing logic. As an idea “that brings good things to all, whiteness itself becomes a thing of value that should be developed and defended” (Reardon and TallBear 2012, p. S234). Resistance to and distrust for biomedical recruitment, in turn, becomes a problematic attitude to be cured in the name of scientific progress.

“Buying in” to the value of research is not only or primarily about a philosophical commitment to defending the civilizing mission of biomedicine, but also a matter of practicality – that is, having the resources to spend on this increasingly costly ‘embrace’ of biomedicine. As Good (2001) declares,

While the world’s dominant economies invest private and public monies in the production of biotechnology and aggressively seek to integrate these advances into clinical practice – thereby reaping financial as well as scientific returns on [often tax-funded] capital investments – all societies are confronted with difficult questions about rationing biomedical interventions assumed central to competent clinical medicine” (p. 407).

Considering the costs associated with quality health care in the United States, an attitude of distrust casts a shadow over the logic of research subject recruitment. Again, whiteness is not simply tied to White bodies or an imagined White culture, but is a larger expression of a calculating modern rationality, which gave rise to homo economicus, that ‘anthropological monster’ (Bourdieu 2005, p. 209) who we might imagine as ‘objectively’ weighing the risks and benefits of a particular recruitment pitch. Yet, when this abstraction is faced with a reality in which research participants may not be able to access the fruits of stem cell research and other novel treatments, the possible ‘wisdom of distrust’ becomes apparent.

“The Archive on Its Own: Black Politics, Independent Publishing, and The Negotiations”

A couple of decades have passed since the heyday of African American literature’s canon formation—that period from the 1970s to the 1990s when primary sources were scoured for material that could be excerpted in anthologies, forgotten texts were given a new lease on life through reprints and scholarly editions, and mislaid or previously unknown works were excavated from dusty archives and made public for the first time. These efforts not only established the fact of a long-standing African American literary tradition but also legitimated the professional study of that tradition. It was a time of literary recovery and constitution, a time when demanding academic recognition was the name of the game.

Today, several years removed from institutionalization, African American literary studies is witnessing a return to the kind of empirical research that made canon-building possible. The field’s “archival turn” reflects broader shifts in the discipline, including a certain exhaustion with rote or careless theoretical criticism, but it also marks a specific crossroads in how scholars engage with the African American canon. On the one hand are those whose field orientation “no longer requires an immediate political concern or social movement to authorize its lines of critical inquiry.” Such scholars feel encouraged to “return to the archive for the sake of returning to the archive” (Wilson 34)—that is, to treat the repository as an object of study unto itself, not the means to an end. On the other hand are those whose archival practice is positioned to legitimate the field’s extant body of knowledge. While undertaking the laudable effort of bringing new literary works to light, these scholars tend to play the hoary game of recognition—that is, to address the significance of whatever they find in the archive to a satellite of predetermined, canon-conserving interests. Doing so yields immediate legitimation for the archival discovery, but it also limits their understanding of what makes that discovery proper to the archive.

Since the archival turn, the field’s most publicized discoveries have been framed in the narrow terms of canonical legitimation. In September 2012, for example, an article in the New York Times announced the discovery of Amiable with Big Teeth (a previously unknown novel by Claude McKay completed in 1941) by Columbia University graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier in collaboration with professor Brent Hayes Edwards. The article takes for granted that Amiable’s specialness lies in what it can tell us about the Harlem Renaissance. The key figure from the recovery era, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—who, not coincidentally, was asked to authenticate the work—is quoted in the piece as saying, “It dramatically expands the canon of novels by Harlem Renaissance writers,” and McKay’s story, which is set in 1936, “shows that the renaissance continued to be vibrant and creative and turned its focus to international issues” at that late date. As if it were a separate issue entirely, the article mentions that the typescript for McKay’s narrative had been languishing in the papers of Samuel Roth, the underground publisher whose trade in literary erotica tested local and federal obscenity statutes for years. No one quoted in the piece is able or willing to shed light on how the typescript ended up in his hands, much less explain why that matters. Instead, Amiable’s importance is framed by all too familiar critical judgments about the past. Edwards declares, “I cannot think of another novel that gives us such a rich and multilayered portrayal of black life,” adding that, in due time, the book would be recognized “as the key political novel of the black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s” (Lee). Edwards strikes a triumphant note, but his assessment of the novel rings true only in an anechoic chamber of canon-conserving legitimation.

Discoveries such as Amiable advance literary history because they fill gaps in knowledge that are recognized as gaps only in retrospect. However, it is a mistake to presume that the value of a recovered work rests primarily on its status as an inherent contribution to the African American literary canon. In the case of McKay’s typescript, for example, Gates and Edwards use legitimating critical designations—the period of the Harlem Renaissance and the genre of the political novel—to describe a text that may exceed those designations. Rather than attend to why Amiable may have been lost (or just went unpublished) in the first place, the typescript’s discovery is reported in terms that make it completely legible to standard periodization and classification. I resist such a practice because, in essence, it substitutes an ideology of textual presence (“Look what I found!”) for an assessment of archival absence (“Why is this here at all?”). The former, I believe, confirms what we already know about the literary field whereas the latter challenges our assumptions about the same by dwelling on the material conditions of a text’s obscurity. This distinction is not only conceptual but also practical, for each mode of argument entails a different relationship (at least as it manifests in the public record) to the archive. Whereas the ideology of textual presence instrumentalizes the archive to arrive at an end, the focus on textual absence treats the archive itself as both site and medium of inquiry.

In order to move beyond the critical blind spots of canon conservation, I suggest that scholars reflect on the lostness, or condition of being lost, that characterizes African American archives in the wake of institutionalization. Framing an archival discovery in familiar terms—that is, through conventional wisdom about authors, genres, periods, and the like—runs the risk of overstating a work’s importance and impact while insisting on its self-sufficiency as an object. As inviting as it seems, this recourse to well-established grounds misrepresents the value not of the literary work as such but of the literary work’s place in history. By contrast, approaching an archival discovery precisely as a lost object demands writing a history of obsolescence wherein past failures yield meaningful insight on their own terms. This history would aim to understand a work’s obscurity through the very materials with which it is housed. It is only the sum of an archive’s parts, I contend, that can point to what is important about a literary work’s lostness.

In this essay, I model a practice of archival discovery that attends to the conditions that would produce textual absence. Specifically, I examine a forgotten African American novel whose afterlife is all but restricted to the archived papers that document the book’s production, distribution, and reception in its time. How would one write a history of this book? What can its contemporary obscurity teach us about the past? Why should we care about something whose relative insignificance is the point to be driven home? I consider these and related questions.

The focus of my inquiry is The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow (1983). In 1983, the independent, Chicago-based Path Press resumed operations after a ten-year hiatus with the publication of this, co-founder Herman Cromwell Gilbert’s second book. The novel’s impetus—exploring what happens when black separatism in the United States becomes a near reality—was nostalgic: it played on readers’ lingering attachments to Black Power and the movement for racial self-determination. At the same time, the narrative’s form—futuristic yet strangely familiar—was speculative: set in 1987, it advanced an optimistic outlook on the future of black electoral politics, one that was based, in fact, on the growing influence of African Americans in local and national politics. The Negotiations held these contradictory impulses in tandem, leaving readers to decide whether and how to reconcile the desire for black separatism with advocacy of racial interests within the system. Thus, navigating between nationalist sentiment, on the one hand, and institutional politics, on the other, the book captured a key moment of ideological transition in black social and political life.

The Negotiations was published in a handsome hardcover edition. Its eyecatching dust jacket illustrated Gilbert’s separatist premise: two figures—one white, one brown—literally go head to head as they negotiate the nation’s future (see color plate 4). While that image might have intrigued the inquisitive, the novel’s literary aspirations could be seen once the jacket came off: with the spine information (title, author, and publisher’s logo) decorated in gilt and the binding colored a deep leathery brown, the book had the appearance of a Bible. Unlike the Bible’s typically flimsy pages, however, the pages in this book were made of heavy stock, the kind that is difficult to bend or tear. Simply put, the book’s packaging gave off the impression of seriousness and taste; The Negotiations was something readers were meant to keep.

To subsidize a book of such design quality, the company needed to sell as many copies of it as possible. Path initially had made arrangements with Chicago Review Press to handle the novel’s marketing. Operating in the same city as Path, Chicago Review had a reputation as a national distributor of independently published books. It seemed to be a perfect match on paper, but the collaboration turned out to be a misfit. Chicago Review’s normal distribution channels regularly overlooked Path’s target audience—middle-class African Americans. Theirs was a distinct reading public that few white-owned publishing houses knew much about. Only a mile and a half separated the firms’ offices in the Loop, yet given the readers they hoped to reach, Path and Chicago Review might as well have been in different cities.

Path Press’s own, ultimately far more effective, distribution plan came in the form of independent agents who sold copies of the book to friends, neighbors, and associates in their communities. These agents carried The Negotiations around with them, integrating it into conversation and thereby facilitating word-of-mouth advertising. At some point, given enough local demand, independent agents or community luminaries would invite Gilbert to visit town. There, in addition to conducting interviews with local media and attending other speaking engagements, Gilbert would have book or autograph parties thrown in his honor. The intimacy of these events made appearances feel less like stops on a book tour and more like organic social gatherings. In the end, this grassroots marketing campaign was a huge success. The novel became the firm’s best-selling title, and the eleven thousand copies sold supported its operations for years (Joyce, Black 182; Anderson).

Seeking to expand The Negotiations’ reception beyond the black community, Path Press spent the next ten years trying to sell the paperback rights to the novel and to adapt it into a movie. These prospects were not mutually exclusive, for, by the 1970s, paperback houses had refined the practice of using the mass-market book as a vehicle for promoting the current or next Hollywood blockbuster.1 In view of these market dynamics, Path tried to develop a viable crossover strategy for Gilbert’s novel, pitching it to New York literary agents and paperback publishers as well as to Hollywood film producers and screenwriters. Over several years, the book failed to attract any interest, and when the solicited parties responded to Path’s correspondence at all, they pointed to the novel’s didactic political message as a major hindrance to crossover success.

The Negotiations felt less relevant as the years went by. Because it was available only in its original hardcover form, it struggled to gain an audience beyond those targeted by Path’s network of agents. Efforts to adapt the narrative into a movie limped along into the 1990s, but the book simply did not seem fit for the times. The Negotiations’ descent into obscurity was so rapid, in fact, that when Gilbert passed in 1997, the firm’s surviving co-founder, Bennett J. Johnson, began donating company records to the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Woodson Regional Library in Chicago. The company was history by then, and its papers eventually became the Path Press Archives. There the story of this curious title has remained.

In remembering The Negotiations in this essay, my intention is not to claim that the text itself holds value for African American literary history. Rather, I argue that the novel’s very lostness—its path toward becoming obscure—is what makes it a revealing and rewarding object of inquiry. Analyzing The Negotiations’ narrative and contextual meaning through the concepts of alignment and prescience, I claim that Gilbert’s novel featured a built-in horizon of reception. By this I mean that the exact textual-contextual conjunctures that made The Negotiations popular for a time also explain why it became obsolete when that period expired. Like a comet that flashes in the night sky, the novel’s reception had to vaporize, to turn into archival dust,2 because it could neither align with readers’ interests nor maintain a prescient stance in the world forever. Before it crossed the horizon, however, for that brief moment of brilliance, the novel did make a profound impression on middle-class African American readers. This was especially so given the book’s narrative and material links to black Chicago, historically a beacon and bellwether of progressive racial politics. Crucially, only the Path Press Archives contain a paper trail that intertwines vaporization and brilliance into a single account of this book’s ephemeral appeal. To retrace the comet’s tail of that account, I recommend we turn to the repository and attend to the specific reasons why the novel simply faded away.


An Alignment of Interests

Born in Mariana, Arkansas, to Van Luther and Cora Gilbert in 1923, Herman Cromwell Gilbert became a major figure in black Chicago media and political circles in the latter half of the twentieth century. Having served in the US Army Air Forces during World War II (1943 to 1946), he came to the city and fell in with student activists at the newly chartered Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) downtown. Founded in 1945 as Thomas Jefferson College and renamed following the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April of that year, the upstart institution boasted a strong progressive streak, attracting youth who were committed to social change. This reputation flowed from the example set by its founder, Edward J. Sparling. Previously the president of the Central YMCA College in Chicago, Sparling had suspected his board of devising a quota system that would limit the enrollment of blacks, Jews, immigrants, and women at the school. In protest, he not only resigned his position but also invited faculty and students who shared his views to join him in founding an alternative institution of higher education (“Our”). This egalitarian mission made Roosevelt a hotbed for progressive interracial alliances, and, as we will see, many of Gilbert’s confidants and collaborators throughout the years had a Roosevelt connection.

From the 1950s on, Gilbert led a kind of double life. On the one hand, he had secure day jobs that paid the bills, while on the other, he remained a committed social and political activist in black Chicago. As to the former, he began as program coordinator for the Chicago branch of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. In 1957, he moved to the Illinois Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Security. He would remain with the Bureau until 1980, serving as manager of its automated systems (that is, computer) section and then as an assistant administrator for the division. Yet during this long period of government employment, Gilbert never gave up on his advocacy. In 1958, he co-founded the Chicago League of Negro Voters, an independent, nonpartisan group that supported black candidates in citywide elections, even when those candidates ran against the city’s notorious political bosses. In the 1960s, Gilbert helped coordinate voter registration drives and protests against poll intimidation. Complementing these efforts were Gilbert’s stints as editor and columnist for a number of Chicago’s African American newspapers. These positions allowed him to record his advocacy in the public sphere, and they gave Gilbert his first real taste of life as a professional writer.

Of course, Gilbert’s most ambitious side project was to start his own publishing company. During his early years at the Illinois Department of Labor, he collaborated with Bennett J. Johnson, an old friend from Roosevelt and another mainstay in black Chicago politics, to establish a house that could publicize their shared political ideals. In 1969, the pair announced the debut of Path Press, a firm committed to bringing out literature that both reflected and advanced the cause of African American civil rights. Their company mission statement read:

We shall concentrate on works by and about Negroes, first, because we ourselves are Negroes, participants in and recorders of the struggles of our people for dignity and equality. Second, because of our intimate knowledge of the epic nature of our existence—from the battles of winning our daily bread to the skirmishes for acceptance in high places—we know that these struggles seldom are presented with honesty and integrity by the major publishing houses, even in books by authors who are perceptive and brave enough to put truth on paper. … It is our aim, through Path Press, to usher in a renaissance in Negro literature. (qtd. in Joyce, Gatekeepers 87-88)

With an initial investment of ten thousand dollars, Path Press began as the complement to Gilbert and Johnson’s on-the-ground political work; according to Johnson, the name they selected for their new venture referred to the idea of “beating a path to the book buyer’s door” (“Book”; Johnson, Personal). As its name suggests, Path wanted to make new titles in African American literature  available to readers in their own communities, even if doing so required bypassing mainstream production and distribution channels.

During its initial run, Path published in 1969 Gilbert’s first novel, The Uncertain Sound, and acclaimed Chicago social realist Frank London Brown’s The Myth Makers. Historical novels about African American life in Illinois under Jim Crow segregation, the two books were somewhat dated for the period, throw- backs to Richard Wright-influenced protest writing of the 1940s. Brown actually had died from leukemia in 1962, so it was no surprise that The Myth Makers—his second novel following the success of Trumbull Park (1959)—had the feel of a posthumous work, a book from and for another time. Gilbert’s writing, meanwhile, could not be mistaken for that of a nationalist or a revolutionary. The Uncertain Sound’s plodding deliberateness was completely out of step with Black Arts’ privileging of improvisation and immediacy. Thus, even with Brown’s name recognition, neither book made much of an impression in the market for African American literature. While Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, coming out of Detroit, and Don L. Lee’s Third World Press, also based in Chicago, enjoyed success as the leading independent, black-owned publishing houses at the turn of the decade, Path Press was forced to close only a few years after its debut, in no small part because its two titles failed to find an audience.

When Path Press relaunched (as a new corporation but bearing the same name) in 1982, Black Arts and Black Power had come and gone, and the time seemed ripe for the co-founders to build on what they had established over ten years earlier. Crucially, from 1981 to 1982, Gilbert had gained valuable insight into national politics in his capacity as administrative assistant and chief of staff to African American US Representative Gus Savage. A well-known former news- paperman in Chicago, Savage was another old friend from the Roosevelt circle; his election to the House in 1980 marked a high point in black electoral participation throughout the city. Although Gilbert worked for Savage for only a brief period, their longstanding friendship inspired the author to renew his commitment to writing. Indeed, as early as 1976, in the wake of an especially acute nationwide recession, Savage encouraged Gilbert to think about the struggle against racial inequality in terms of achieving a genuine “economic democracy.” Consequently, interracial coalition-building around macroeconomic problems relating to poverty and unemployment formed the core of Gilbert’s manuscript in progress (“Should” 4-6). By the time Savage won his seat, The Negotiations’ protagonist bore some resemblance, in demeanor and profession, to the ex-jour- nalist and progressive intellectual. It would not have been lost on the author that Savage’s very success held out the promise of changing the system from within. His manuscript thus courted the idea of partition only to suggest how the poten- tial for, rather than realization of, such a thing would encourage white and black people to set aside their differences and devise progressive alternatives to the sta- tus quo. Forged out of Gilbert’s relationship with Savage, this hybrid investment in nationalist sentiment and institutional politics made The Negotiations a unique product of its time and compositional location.4

The novel’s straightforward plot elapses over the course of three months in 1987. It begins with the 1 September results of a referendum open only to African Americans, who have authorized a body known as the Black American Council “to negotiate with the United States of America for the creation of a sep- arate and independent state, within the continental limits of the United States, for American citizens of African descent” (ix).5 A complex computer program iden- tifies the leader of the Council. He is Preston Simmons, a Chicago newspaperman and public intellectual whose knack for backroom negotiating allows him to mediate between the body’s six other members. Each of these members repre- sents a faction of black politics, from the economically conservative Urban League to the moderate NAACP to the radical arm of black nationalism. Against this backdrop, Gilbert’s title gradually reveals itself to have a double meaning: Simmons must negotiate not only with the federal government (a stand-in for “white America”) but also across the spectrum of black political interests to foster a united front on how to achieve a separate nation within a nation. The novel’s real drama, in fact, could be said to emerge from in-group rivalries, not a clash between whites and blacks. Perhaps it is for this reason that the novel’s underwhelming denouement consists of an embattled Council allying itself with the AFL-CIO so as to create a third way, the Peoples [sic] Party, that would be able to challenge the president in the upcoming election. Thus, despite its radical premise, The Negotiations ultimately is about just that: the occasionally contentious but usually mind-numbing and boring work of negotiating the terrain of competing political interests. The narrative is, in essence, a perfectly Habermasian illustration of the possibility for rational compromise.

From a publishing standpoint, Path Press took a risk by pegging its relaunch on this book, given its length, its relatively obscure author, and its winding descriptions of bureaucratic machinations. Gilbert never quite shook off his pro- test writing inclinations, which is why The Negotiations’ tone is primarily didactic. Long, uninterrupted passages of dialogue are devoted to hashing out compro- mises in the minutest of detail. Preston’s interior monologue, a device often reserved for dramatic insight or contradiction, is here interrupted by cross-referenced tidbits from journal and newspaper articles, as if we were read- ing a roll of microfiche. Even the larger significance of the referendum is uttered in less than elegant fashion. “Maybe separation was not a desirable philosophy, nor a viable strategy,” muses Dr. Benjamin P. Patten, the council member repre- senting the National Baptist Convention and a rather unconvincing stand-in for Dr. King, “but it was a sound tactic. By pushing it, we showed all Americans the level of black discontent and made it possible for progressive white forces to join with blacks to advance democracy” (347). Gilbert may have held dialogue and negotiation as important political strategies, but his writing struggled to convey that point in a manner less than patently obvious.

Despite these shortcomings, Gilbert did try to spice up the narrative by graft- ing an array of generic codes to the trunk of his didactic fiction. Many of these codes are linked to the different political interests represented on the Council. Tellingly, Preston’s rational negotiation of those competing interests is conveyed in bourgeois-realist terms, allowing for maximal readerly identification. Other characters are framed by more sensationalistic literary modes. For example, the Council’s nonseparatist leader, black capitalist James P. Sneed, undertakes sabotage maneuvers that recall the dastardly intentions of an espionage villain. The militant Sam Muhammed, meanwhile, delivers a message from beyond the grave in a twist befitting a murder mystery or political thriller. Finally, Hilda Larsen, the white president of the National Organization of Women, seals her alliance with Preston in a lovemaking scene—“He kissed her harder and harder, consuming her lips” (285)—that is equal parts bodice-ripping romance and male-oriented pornography. Generic variation of this sort meant that The Negotiations could not be read solely as protest or propaganda. However, that fact only raised the question of what kind of book this was or intended to be: serious literature or trashy potboiler, political allegory or mere entertainment. The narrative by itself did not seem to know its audience.

My sense is that, benefiting from a mixture of calculation and sheer good luck, the book’s deficiencies were muted by its uncanny alignment with the political climate of the time. Conditions for the novel’s receptive coherence had been established just one month before its release. In April 1983, US Representative Harold Washington became the first African American mayor of Chicago. This was a practical and symbolic achievement of some consequence. Washington had won the race’s Democratic primary over incumbent Jane Byrne in February, but he faced an even stiffer challenge from Republican Bernard Epton in the general election. Going up against entrenched racism in the city’s political structure—which, despite a clear Democratic tilt, saw whites and prom- inent Democratic aldermen and alderwomen favor Epton—the hard-fought cam- paign to elect Washington succeeded thanks in large part to voter drives among poor and working-class African Americans and Latina/os. Washington was yet another friend from the Roosevelt circle, and his victory (by no means guaranteed when the book was in production) no doubt underscored the view that The Negotiations was a novel utterly of its moment. Just as Preston shuttles between Chicago and Washington, DC, throughout the narrative, drawing political acumen from each location, Washington’s victory threaded local and national political concerns into a narrative of what seemed to be genuine racial progress.

Washington’s overcoming the odds to win the Chicago mayor’s race gave readers sufficient reason to purchase copies of the expensive although oddly spot-on book. In this context, The Negotiations’ protagonist took on added significance as a convincing stand-in for the ideals and progressive alliances Washington himself represented. Reflecting on the rise to prominence of his old friend, Gilbert said:

He typified Blackness beyond his Blackness, if you were defining Blackness from the Black nationalist perspective. Yet, he was not a Black nationalist. Harold was a Democrat who believed in ethnic cooperation. To the day he died, he was willing and trying to meet white people more than half way if they were willing to make any movement toward progress. (qtd. in Travis 283)

Gilbert further observed that Washington, like Preston, was adroit at negotiating between competing interests in order to bring about genuine social change:

[Harold] could sit down and argue with the intellectuals. He could talk to the prag- matists. He could talk to the visionaries and the dreamers, and hold his own in each category. But when he got ready, and the time came to do something, he could. . . . He was one of the few people that I’ve met in my 60-plus years who was a visionary, a theorist, a strategist and an activist, all with about equal ability. (284)

An institutional mover and shaker who was proudly black, a man who was cere- bral yet committed to social justice, Washington, for Gilbert, epitomized the kind of leader who would be able to gather different voices together under the umbrella of a new progressive politics. In this way, Washington’s election fortuitously lent receptive coherence to The Negotiations’ otherwise disparate generic influences.

Because the new mayor had garnered national media attention, Path Press seized the historic occasion to venture a promotion strategy for the book that would appeal to a readership beyond its reliable Chicago base. In Path’s first press release, Johnson framed the 27 May 1983 publication of Gilbert’s novel in this way: “The recent Chicago mayoralty campaign, with its polarization along racial lines, has catapulted the question of black political activity into a national issue. This issue has been further intensified by the call of some black leaders for a black pres- idential candidate in 1984” (Johnson, Press). The exact wording of this release would pay off in a big way. In November, just a few months after the book’s publi- cation, Jesse Jackson, the civil rights icon with strong personal and political ties to Chicago, announced he would seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the right to challenge the incumbent Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1984. This second electoral coincidence not only opened up new doors for Path Press to knock on in terms of media coverage but also aligned, once again, with the nar- rative’s insistence on the value of institutional politics for African American self- determination. The outspoken Jackson, after all, had yet to compete in the Democratic primaries, which stood in the way of his securing the nomination.

Over the next several months, into 1984, the groundswell of support for Jackson’s candidacy lent further receptive coherence to the book. Under the ban- ner of the Rainbow Coalition, which recalled slain Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton’s political alliance of the same name, Jackson’s campaign aimed to bring together previously factionalized groups on a local and national scale. Casting a wide net, the populist Coalition sought to unite blacks, Latina/os, women, sexual minorities, young people, and the poor in an effort to change the political system from within. Jackson’s mobilization of voters historically locked out of the process of institutional brokering “constituted an ‘insider’ inde- pendent strategy to exert progressive political influence within the Democratic party” (Gurin, Hatchett, and Jackson 254). This strategy reflected the fictional Dr. Patten’s account of the value inherent in the referendum: in both cases reach- ing for what seems to be impossible puts pressure on nominal allies to consider progressive alternatives. Jackson’s primary challenge was not successful, ulti- mately, but the Rainbow Coalition did inspire ordinary Americans to take the pro- gressive alternative seriously. Readers of The Negotiations, meanwhile, could take at least imaginative solace in the Council’s alliance with labor and women’s groups at the end of the novel. One of Gilbert’s concluding tableaus shows Preston and Hilda holding hands in front of supporters at a rally.

If, as Fredric Jameson notes, genres “are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts, between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (106), then The Negotiations presents a unique case study in how the reading public itself must be primed somehow to apprehend a work’s generic codes, which is to say its social relevance. Caught between a rigid didacticism and minimal gestures to popular entertainment, the text of Gilbert’s novel, taken alone, loses sight of its readerly function. However, because its publication—by design and by chance—coincided with historic events in the exact cultural field that The Negotiations takes as its narrative impetus, the book actually gained a use-value that made identifying its social relevance much easier. The happy alignment of textual with contextual meaning helped this work become a minor commercial success among black readers in its time.

The Future is Now

If alignment describes The Negotiations’ contextualized relation to the black polit- ical sphere, then another term, prescience, describes the internal logic by which the novel shaped how readers viewed their political situation. The Negotiations’ prescience was a function of a specific generic mode: speculative fiction. Bearing the subtitle A Novel of Tomorrow, the narrative’s premise involved read- ers in a fantasy scenario that tacitly criticized the real-life President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. With the narrative set in the not too distant future, in 1987, Reagan is cast as a one-term president whose conservative social and eco- nomic policies laid the groundwork for the referendum. Early on in the novel, during a typically loquacious press conference, Preston conjectures that, under Reaganomics, “Black unemployment became sky-high and black business failures reached record proportions” (32). Reagan’s domestic policies proved disastrous, gutting the national economy and exacerbating racial and class inequalities in the process. The problem in 1987, then, is that even the new Democratic presi- dent, a man by the name of Dorsey Talbott Davidson, has fallen in line with Reaganomics. A Democrat won the last election, Preston avers, “because a major- ity of the voters in 1984 rejected a continuation of Reagan’s style rather than his philosophy” (32), which remains intact. Because President Davidson funda- mentally subscribes to that “philosophy,” Preston feels secure in saying that the country, as far as blacks are concerned, is “going to hell” (33).

The Negotiations’ setting in the near future allows the narrative to make important claims on the present. By narrativizing a retrospective account of the political climate of 1983, Gilbert strategically combines speculation with pres- ent-day critique, fashioning a notion of what is to come if the crisis of the status quo persists. In this sense, prescience asks the reader to reject the conservative socioeconomic policies that define the here and now. Gilbert could not have known for certain whether Reagan would win reelection. Even so, Gilbert’s sug- gestion is that, regardless of the person in charge, the policies that have defined Reagan’s time in office need to be left behind. This definition of prescience might be conceived as a strategy of prophetic realism whereby the author’s prediction for the future has a direct bearing on the reader’s present-day assessment of his or her circumstances. Put differently, if campaign biographies are timed to cast the most favorable light on candidates running for office, then The Negotiations is sort of an anti-campaign biography, arguing, in fictional terms, against the reelec- tion of someone whose policies have failed minorities and the working class. Fellow black novelist John Oliver Killens affirmed Gilbert’s prophetic realist bent in his admiring blurb for the book, which Path used in its promotional materials: “THE NEGOTIATIONS is indeed a novel of Tomorrow. It is timely, daring and even revolutionary; it is powerfully absorbing and artistic.” Gilbert, he wrote, “has a vision for the country that could be its saving grace, if the country would only pay attention.”

Killens’s endorsement of the novel did not stand alone. In fact most reviewers of The Negotiations explicitly condemned Reagan for his indifference to growing racial and class inequalities in the country. Gwen McKinney, writing for the com- munity newspaper Chicago Good-Times, lauded Gilbert because, in her words, his “perspective is visionary, the thrust revolutionary”—an apt description of the motivation behind prophetic realism. In pointing to his “purposeful arrangement of time and circumstances,” McKinney argued that Gilbert’s narrative encouraged readers to reflect on how “the Reagan administration has imposed a state of conditions that strips all illusions, crudely illustrating the economic and social atrocities plaguing Blacks, the poor and working people in general.” As such, she identified The Negotiations’ futurism not with mere whim or fancy but with a vision of “probable reality.”6 Writing in the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, reviewer Leanita McClain also pointed to Reagan’s presidency as the necessary backdrop to the novel’s meaning. She contended that the administra- tion’s rollback of civil rights initiatives had given rise to the “disenchantment that fuels the plot.” Although McClain was less sure than McKinney that the novel had succeeded on its own terms, claiming it propelled “genuine sentiments to an implausible conclusion,” she noted the reader could not “quarrel . . . with [its] perception of those sentiments.”

Even when reviewers found fault with Gilbert’s narrative or prose style, they were always clear about their support for The Negotiations’ speculative-realist turn. Writing in The Black Collegian, Kuumba Kazi-Ferrouillet justly took Gilbert to task for his clumsy stereotyping of characters: for example, Sam, the nationalist, is “impulsive, loud, prone to violence”; Hilda, the white female liberal, is “big bosomed, sexually insatiable”; and the black feminist on the Council, Rubye Ransome, is “flirtatious, big-hipped, matriarchal.” Yet Kazi-Ferrouillet’s objection to these types as distinct markers of generic variation is tempered by the claim that they “lend to [its] believability and [give] the reader familiar ref- erence points without diluting the strength of the exciting turn of events which propel the action forward.” For Kazi-Ferrouillet, then, The Negotiations’ reliance on ham-fisted character types in subplots about “secret sexual liaisons, political intrigue, [and] murder” actually made it fun to read—“a good story” instead of a boring or simplistic one. Less forgiving was Alice Hornbaker, who reviewed the book in the Cincinnati Enquirer. She took direct issue with Gilbert’s didactic tone. Left exhausted by the novel’s “preachy passages,” Hornbaker likened the stilted dialogue to the experience of listening to “professors of history telling students lessons they must learn—or else.” She continued, “many times the reader feels manipulated into hearing again and again an unending litany of blacks’ grievances.” Despite this criticism, Hornbaker assigned The Negotiations an improb- able four out of five stars. In the reviewer’s estimation, Gilbert’s depiction of post- civil rights grievances hewed to a “logic” that ultimately “intrigues and educates.” For all the book’s textual missteps, then, the review conceded that Gilbert did readers a service by forcing them to ask, “Could it happen?”

Boosted by African Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with Reagan’s policies—the “genuine sentiments” and “grievances” to which McClain and Hornbaker attested—Chicago’s black political class was unequivocal in hailing the prescience of Path Press’s new book. Gilbert and Johnson’s network of con- tacts, fostered over decades of political activism in the city, came in handy as the novel made its debut. In a series of what Path called book or autograph parties, local African American luminaries were invited to publicly celebrate Gilbert’s lit- erary achievement. The first party took place in mid-May at boxer Muhammad Ali’s stately Chicago mansion and was organized by two community leaders from the South Side: Marian Humes, an alderwoman, and Wanda Sharrieff, president of the International Women’s Economic Development Corporation (“Promotion”). The 5 June party at Vinzant’s Restaurant was equally illustrious and festive, hosted as it was by the author’s “close friend, co-freedom fighter and thought tester . . . for 25 years,” Gus Savage. Backed by the politicians in atten- dance, including the state’s comptroller and future US senator Roland Burris, Johnson felt confident enough to tout, “Because of the scope and subject matter of the book, we look upon ‘The Negotiations’ as representing as much a political event as a literary one” (“Savage”).

These site-specific book parties proved to be a model for the kind of face-to- face and dialogue-friendly promotion Path Press wanted to deploy around the novel. Exposed to the book as an “event,” potential buyers could commiserate about real-time social and political issues through the displaced speculative dis- course of The Negotiations’ narrative time. The book party thus became a de facto space of prophetic realism, wherein living, breathing progressives could be drawn together by the novel’s prospective glance at their wished-for success. What is more, because any given party set the stage for an autograph session during which copies of the book could be sold, sales and promotion went hand in hand with genuine political dialogue. Although the company did have an agreement with Chicago Review Press to conduct this side of its business, the latter could not provide what was essential to selling The Negotiations—namely, a means of tapping into discourse about society, culture, and politics that was specific to African American communities and middle-class readers in particular. Aiming to expand their distribution beyond Chicago, Gilbert and Johnson began to stage more events such as these, not only for politicians and civic leaders but also among ordinary readers who thought the novel had something important to say.

In a matter of weeks, Gilbert was traveling around the greater Chicago area to promotional book parties for The Negotiations. By the middle of the fall, he was doing the same across the greater Midwest (with side trips to New York and Washington, DC), from Oklahoma City and St. Louis to Cincinnati and Detroit. Several months after Path began coordinating these community-wide events, Gilbert admitted to an associate, “The mainstay of our promotional thrust . . . has been the holding of autograph parties” (Gilbert to Tobiason). They had been so popular, in fact, that Johnson devised a plan that would incentivize hosting the author’s forays into the community, effectively turning ordinary readers into on-the-ground distributors:

(1)  We contact a friend or an interested party and ask them to host a book party.


(2)  The person provides the mailing list and the refreshment in most cases.


(3)  If the host does the mailing and calling to get people to the book party, we offer them a percentage of the gross sometimes.


(4)  The percentage of the gross sales offered is twenty-five percent if the host
does all of the mailing and handles the refreshments.

(5) If the host underwrites the mailing or the refreshments, the commission is fifteen percent (15%). If the host pays for neither the mailing nor the refreshments, we sometimes offer them ten percent (10%). (Johnson to Roberts)

The firm’s preference, observed Johnson, was always to get “as many people [to] handle these book parties without any compensation” although “in about forty percent of the cases [Path] provided some form of compensation” (Johnson to Roberts). This outline of an organic, party-driven distribution network effectively supplanted the strategy Chicago Review had put together for the book. Now independent agents could beat a direct path to legions of readers’ doors.

The itinerary for Gilbert’s trip to Cleveland, Ohio, reveals how Path Press relied on contacts, social networks, and media outlets in the black community to gen- erate buzz about the book. On the first day of a busy two-day trip, 20-21 November 1983, Gilbert was celebrated at the main event: an autograph party at the Cleveland Heights residence of architect and urban planner Joyce Whitley. A pillar of the black community, Whitley ran a successful architectural firm with her brothers and had served as chief planner for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in the late 1960s (“Whitley”). Owing in part to Whitley’s reputation, the soiree was covered by local news media, with the author giving interviews to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the ABC television affiliate, and the city’s African American newspaper, the Call and Post. Before and after the party, Gilbert was the guest on radio talk shows that addressed issues in the black community. Between them—on WZAK with Gayle Philpott and on WERE with Cheryle Wills—his voice was broadcast across AM and FM frequencies. The next day, he had two speaking engagements: one at Shaker Heights High School and the other at Cuyahoga Community College (Gilbert, Itinerary). Gilbert’s host at the latter was James C. Kilgore, an African American professor and poet who had published in Phylon and Negro Digest (“James”). Gilbert’s lectures in front of students likely echoed what he had told the Call and Post the previous night: “I am not a separatist, but I have sense enough to know if black and white Americans can’t find some basis for parity and equality, it would be better to sep- arate than to live in eternal inequality” (Wood).

At the height of The Negotiations’ media coverage, in the winter of 1983, Gilbert taped an episode of Tony Brown’s Journal, the syndicated television talk show featuring interviews with black newsmakers. This was a special platform: it guaranteed a national audience of prospective readers while remaining grounded in African American social and cultural networks. The episode subse- quently aired in December. In “Should Blacks Separate from the U.S.?” host Tony Brown introduced The Negotiations with a swipe at President Reagan: “[T]he frustrations of a conservative era and the seeming inability to close the economic gap with Whites are real.” Brown then asked his audience, “Can an ultimate break in faith with the American dream for the nation’s thirty million citizens of African descent become a reality[?]” The speculative remark was a fitting distillation of the author’s pitch to prospective readers. Brown was no radical himself, but he was won over by Gilbert’s reasonableness in describing The Negotiations’ rele- vance: “[A]fter the realities of the immediate present [have] altered the present expectations and the present illusions, I believe that Blacks will have to start making extraordinary demands, novel demands…on White America.” The interview went swimmingly, and Brown even made sure to underscore his appre- ciation for the novel’s generic variation—namely, its subplot with Sam the nationalist, its “charming” white female sexpot Hilda, and its command of literary “suspense.” As for Gilbert’s prophetic realism, Brown only had flattering things to say. “I forgot I was reading a novel,” he confessed, gesturing to the idea that the book could be understood as a perfectly aligned roman a` clef. Brown continued: “I would slip and I said, now that certainly sounds like such and such. A certain national leader that we may or may not know today” (“Should”).

Toward the end of the show, Gilbert hinted at the marketing angle that would help The Negotiations reach a wide national readership. Without identifying Chicago Review Press by name, he complained that a “[w]hite distributor” was “not pushing this particular book with the . . . dedication that [he] would want them to push it.” Brown worried that, given what his contacts in the publishing industry had told him, “Black people don’t buy books written by Black people.” Gilbert denied the claim, positing instead, “It’s just a matter of finding who the Black readers are. Because Americans period don’t read books like other people. So it’s a matter of setting up your distribution strategy in a way that you can ferret out, so to speak, those Black readers” (“Should”). After the taping, Brown came around and embraced this vision in his syndicated newspaper column, a follow- up mouthpiece for the show. There he touted the Pathway Plan, a marketing strat- egy that, in his words, “makes use of all of the organizations in the Black community for autograph parties and publicity.” The company may have used “unconventional methods” (Brown) to shrink the distance between producer and consumer, but Brown at least recognized that a serious effort was put forth to engage with the African American reading public on its own terms.

The Horizon of Reception

As successful as The Negotiations’ autograph parties were, Gilbert and Johnson grasped that the work itself had to be packaged differently in order to reach a mass reading public. In particular, it became clear that the book’s hardcover form made it inaccessible to wide swaths of the black community. Priced at $14.95 per copy, The Negotiations had a cost barrier that only certain readers—those in the middle to upper classes—would even try to surmount. The book itself was sturdy and durable, something one might be proud to put on one’s shelf. However, that sense of permanence identified the book as a minor luxury that many people could not afford. Beyond the issue of cost, there were times when The Negotiations physically could not be placed into the hands of nonbourgeois read- ers. For example, in March 1984, the company received a letter from an inmate at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois. Andrew Ingram El talked about seeing Gilbert on Tony Brown’s Journal and submitted a humble request to receive a complimentary copy of his novel. Although quite willing to mail the inmate a free copy of the book, Path discovered that it could not do so, as the facility allowed prisoners to receive only paperback books. Despite the setback, a hopeful Ingram El wrote that getting to read The Negotiations in paperback would be “worth the wait (smile).” Correspondence such as this underlined the fact that its handsome binding was The Negotiations’ own worst obstacle on the path to the reader’s doorstep.

To their credit, Gilbert and Johnson had comprehended this limitation early on. Soon after the book came out, in May 1983, each began to send inquiries to New York-based agents, editors, and publishers who might either represent or pick up the rights to reprint the novel in cheaper and more portable paperback editions. In letters to the paperback houses Pocket and Ballantine, Johnson pushed the novel’s “controversial nature” and stressed “the fast-paced manner in which it is written” (Johnson to Pocket). He hoped either press could turn The Negotiations into mass-market airport reading. Even more, Johnson claimed that the book had “outstanding subsidiary rights potential” (Johnson to Wyatt)— the idea being that paperback publication would lead to a movie or television deal. While neither firm apparently responded to Johnson’s pitch, a comparable house, Bantam, did. In that letter, however, Senior Editor Peter Guzzardi let Johnson down delicately, saying, “My own opinion is [the novel] is less successful as pure entertainment, which is all-important to its mass-market potential.” Far from stating a contrary opinion, Guzzardi seemed to voice the editors’ consensus on the book. In fact, no one at a major agency or company replied favorably to Path’s letter of inquiry. This non-response left The Negotiations in a kind of limbo: unable to cross over into a more accessible medium, the nar- rative as such could not be promoted as something other than a fiction of limited appeal.

Importantly, the very thing African American readers managed to read around, so to speak—that is, the novel’s didactic tone—became the object of agents’, editors’, and publishers’ strong criticism of the work. Vice President of Burrell Advertising Sharon A. Morgan-Miller began her response with “[t]he prologue is enthralling” and proceeded to her qualification: “But . . . the book doesn’t follow all the way through. The writing at times was sophomoric and labo- rious, especially in the description of mundane things. It didn’t move like I thought it would. After the prologue, I was really prepared to be excited to the end. I wasn’t.” Legendary New York literary agent Scott Meredith offered a much harsher valuation of The Negotiations’ literary quality in a comprehensive six- page report. Path had asked Meredith (who was adept at securing movie deals for authors) to consider representing the book’s subsidiary rights, but he rejected the approach with this rather brutal assessment: the book “suffers from so many problems of conceptualization and structure that we [the agency] do not see it as any kind of mass market or media tie-in possibility (and in fact we couldn’t have sold this for you in trade hardcover).” As far as Gilbert’s style was concerned, Meredith found it lacking, to say the least: “The novel is rhetorical and pedantic; the characters posture and speechify rather than genuinely relate to one another[;] and most of these characters (excluding Simmons who is more or less a filter or conveyance) are simply mouthpieces for you [the author] to promote your ideas.” In short, Meredith could not lend his support, and while his words may have stung, his opinion was representative of the broader literary market- place’s assessment of the novel. Within a year of publication, it had become clear The Negotiations would have to be distributed in its extant form by Path alone.

Undaunted by that major setback, Gilbert and Johnson turned their attention to a different medium. They spent the next decade or so trying to adapt The Negotiations into a feature-length film. Steadfast in their belief that the novel had box office potential, they first sent inquiries to notable producers of color—namely, the actor and comedian Richard Pryor (Johnson to Pryor and Brown) and professional football players cum blaxploitation leading men, Fred Williamson (Rouselle) and James Brown (Johnson to Brown).When the initial inquiries did not garner any response, Path reverted to what it knew best: the independent route. Chicago-based Lake Shore Productions and Financial Marketing Communications drew up a budget for the film, which they estimated would top the three million dollar mark if shot on a seventy-day schedule (Johnson to Jones). Path also commissioned a screenplay by local writer Lenwood Robinson, Jr. Unfortunately, without any screenwriting experience, the script he eventually submitted—a bloated, dialogue-heavy 177 pages— shared the novel’s Achilles heel: wordiness (Robinson). The movie project dragged on for months with little to show for all the planning. Finally, in 1986, having sat on the script for a couple of years, Gilbert was desperate enough to kick-start investment in the film by offering both Danny Glover and James Earl Jones—unbeknownst to each other—the lead role of Preston Simmons (Gilbert to Glover; Gilbert to Jones). Neither took the bait.

During this period, Gilbert continued to promote his novel as best he could. The book parties and media spots had dried up, but appearances at libraries, bookstores, and local schools and colleges were not infrequent—after all, he was still a published author. It could not be denied, however, that the times were speedily passing Gilbert and Johnson by. As 1987, the Orwellian year of the novel’s setting, came and went, The Negotiations no longer aligned with real-time politics and, perhaps more important, no longer seemed prophetic in any way. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was in the midst of serving a second term in office following his landslide defeat of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in the 1984 election. The conservative victory that year rebutted Gilbert and Johnson’s ideals insofar as it symbolized, for many, the death knell of progressive coalitional pol- itics that had its roots in the New Deal. White backlash and neoliberal socioeco- nomic policies were the new norm, dashing The Negotiations’ dream of a civil rights and labor alliance. Add to this Jesse Jackson’s anti-Semitic remarks, which torpedoed his presidential run and the Rainbow Coalition, and Harold Washington’s untimely death in November of 1987, and it seemed pretty clear that the entire thrust of the novel was irrelevant. On the cusp of the new decade, the book felt like a relic of a bygone era.

There was one last stand to be made, however. Against the tide of history, in 1991, that ever elusive goal of crossing over, of bringing Gilbert’s message to the masses, seemed to be at hand. That year Greenlight Films, a black-run production company based in New York, optioned to make a screen adaptation of The Negotiations. A contract was drawn up in September, and the author earned five thousand dollars for the option (Jones). Greenlight’s founder, Clarence B. Jones, was a friend of Johnson’s and so had a personal connection to Path. A former speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and previous co-owner of the New York Amsterdam News, Jones was a well-regarded figure in African American media circles. Jones gave Path a real glimmer of hope almost ten years after the original publication of The Negotiations.

Sadly, Greenlight itself turned out to be a short-lived enterprise. Notwith- standing Jones’s admirable intentions to fund African American films, there is little to suggest that anything was accomplished in the two years the company worked on The Negotiations. In fact, none of Greenlight’s projects ever made it to the big screen. It is unclear what might have stymied or prevented Jones’s prog- ress. It is probably safe to assume, however, that in an era when the genre of the so-called “hood” movie became synonymous with racial representation in Holly- wood and in independent cinema,7 Greenlight had little chance of success. The film option was abandoned, and both companies would fold in a matter of years. To the best of my knowledge, any records we have for Greenlight Films share a home with those for Path Press.

The decade long failure to convert The Negotiations into accessible commodity forms follows what Raymond Williams has described as the process by which “manifest commercial modes of control and selection” exert their influence on cultural production. The effect of such commercialism, he writes, can be appre- hended at the moment when small-scale cultural products are either picked up or not picked up by mass media. He elaborates:

This is especially clear in the later stages of the market when the relatively simple relations of speculative production [say, by an independent] have been joined and in many areas replaced by planned marketing operations in which certain types of work are positively promoted, of course with the corollary that other types are left at best to make their own way. This effect has been most noticeable, for obvious rea- sons, in the most highly capitalized forms of production. It is the real history of the modern popular newspaper, of the commercial cinema, of the record industry, of art reproduction, and, increasingly, of the paperback book. (104)

To be sure, Path Press’s gamble on an in-house manuscript paid off thanks in large part to the receptive coherence of the literary text with its immediate social and political context. However, as Williams points out, such “speculative produc- tion” typically cannot operate on a broader, more integrated, “highly capitalized” economy of scale. The Negotiations, it might be said, had relied too much on con- textual meaning for it to be successful beyond the time and place of its initial pro- duction. Without built-in market assurances—which, for paperbacks and movies alike, amount to well-established generic codes—Gilbert’s novel was inadaptable to wide-ranging economies of scale.

Today, The Negotiations is out of print, a forgotten work in the African American literary tradition,8 while Gilbert goes unmentioned in even the most comprehensive surveys of contemporary black writing. Path Press became obso- lete over the same decade in which African American literary studies achieved institutionalization. Despite these circumstances, my point in recovering The Negotiations from obscurity is not to contend that it merits inclusion in our syl- labi, deserves to be the focus of a special issue, or passes muster alongside Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men and John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday, two other books from 1983. It is to point out, rather, that there was a certain inevitability to its trajectory. What the Path Press Archives reveal in exhaustive detail is that The Negotiations’ narrative dependence on a specific time and place made it susceptible to obsolescence once those conditions altered in the slightest degree. The novel, in other words, was successful only to the extent that readers had been primed to see its social and political relevance, which was syn- onymous with its literary art. Gilbert’s book was bound to its horizon of reception, and in many respects, the field within that horizon (not beyond it) is where The Negotiations is best understood.

Some might object to reading the novel only up to its receptive limit. I prefer to see this archival orientation as dwelling on that which made The Negotiations a special marker of black Chicago’s time in the political limelight. Archival records demonstrate that the novel’s positive reception depended on commu- nity-specific responses to Harold Washington’s mayoral election, Jesse Jackson’s run for president, and Ronald Reagan’s bid for reelection. Whatever deficiencies it may have had, the novel spoke to these events in a powerful way. When those textual-contextual conjunctures could not be replicated outside the black community and beyond the campaign cycles of 1983 and 1984, it was an indication that the feelings of possibility generated by and reflected in the novel may have simply run their course. Like the flash of a streaking comet, the book was something luminous, and only so for a blink of the eye. The Negotiations’ horizon of reception—the reason why it is not, and need not be, read today—thus marks not only its failure to cross over but also its brilliant, fleeting achievement: an impassioned response to African American electoral politics in its time.


I have made the case that The Negotiations is critically legible only in light of what the Path Press Archives in the Woodson Regional Library can tell us about its ephemeral appeal in the early 1980s. It is to this repository of knowledge, rather than to something strictly inherent in the book, that I have directed my attention in this essay. By taking this approach, I have obviated the need, which can feel like an overwhelming pressure, to legitimate Gilbert’s obscure, out-of-print novel for the sake of literary significance. What I hope to achieve instead is to generate a concrete account of a transitory yet intensely felt social reading practice. While tracing The Negotiations’ lostness in the archive does not reclaim the text as such for contemporary literary study, it does enlarge and deepen our understanding of African American literary culture. In its failure to cross over, the book’s textual absence reveals much about the people who actually made it work for a time. This is the value of recalling Gilbert’s forgotten novel.

As The Negotiations fades from view in the practice of archival discovery I have modeled in this essay, the scholarly follow-up to Amiable with Big Teeth’s discov- ery has ensured that McKay’s novel will only be valued on canon-conserving terms, at least for the time being. In the 2013 essay “Amiable with Big Teeth: The Case of Claude McKay’s Last Novel,” Jean-Christophe Cloutier promises to deliver “the first sustained literary reading” of the typescript he found in 2009. Unsurprisingly, Cloutier’s analysis has much to say about the archive—except that, for him, the archive means almost anything but the actual repository in which he found the typescript. Hardly pausing to dwell on that archive, Cloutier speaks of Amiable’s “archival sensibility,” one that is supposed to have been “shaped by [McKay’s] ideals of black self-reliance rather than by a strict adherence to historical truth” (558). For Cloutier, “the archive [as ren- dered textually] is not solely a positivist repository of facts that then become history, but rather a source of clues that can position the reader in an empowered relation to past and future, lending itself to aesthetic interpretation.” He thereby concludes that, in the novel’s heroically “counterarchival” stance toward history, we see how “McKay appropriates for himself, and in the service of his commu- nity, the strategies usually reserved for institutional or imperial governance” (572).

As consequential as all of this sounds, with the very fate of “black self-reliance” (558) seeming to hang in the analytical balance, the fact is that Cloutier’s notion of an archival sensibility amounts to nothing more than McKay’s “fabricating the facts” (568) in Amiable’s fictional portrait of Harlem in 1936. Indeed, the entire thrust of Cloutier’s argument pivots on the idea that McKay fudges, alters, or revises “facts” about historical events in order to compose a more freewheeling and radical account of African American life than the truth would allow. As far as I am concerned, however, this practice is simply called writing fiction. Novelists make up things about history all the time—this is arguably their charge—and just because a fictional narrative is set in the (recent) past does not mean it has anything to do with archives. At the level of Cloutier’s dematerialized “sensibility” (558), the concept of the archive is meaningless.

There is in this piece exactly one instance when the actual archive at the center of Cloutier’s research makes a sustained appearance. Tellingly, this instance is relegated to an endnote:

In 2009 I discovered the complete typescript of Amiable with Big Teeth, includ- ing corrections in McKay’s hand, in the Samuel Roth Papers at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The novel has since been suc- cessfully authenticated, and a scholarly edition is forthcoming in 2014. The bound typescript’s unexpected location in the papers of Samuel Roth, the man who was accused of “pirating” Joyce’s Ulysses in the late 1920s in his Two Worlds journal, suggestively links McKay’s fate to that of Joycean modern- ism. (573n6)

Again, for an essay that is ostensibly all about archives, there is a surprising lack of self-awareness in Cloutier’s description of his own archival practice. Beholden to an ideology of textual presence, Cloutier shows very little interest in the actual repository that houses Amiable. When he does mention something specific about Roth (his “pirating” of Joyce), it is only to legitimate the typescript’s inherent lit- erary value (which “links McKay’s fate to that of Joycean modernism”). Roth is thus instrumentalized to bring the lost novel into the orbit of canonical legitima- tion. Even more than McKay’s archival sensibility, it is this claim to legitimacy that Cloutier is anxious to prove throughout the essay, which is why he concludes, “it is truly tragic that Amiable was not published the year it was written—1941, just a year after Richard Wright’s Native Son—as it might have solidified McKay’s status as one of the foremost black prose writers of his day and clarified his ded- ication to his own group” (573). Reflecting Cloutier’s dematerialized archival sen- sibility, this final proposition about Amiable assigns meaning (“truly tragic”) to a dubious counterfactual, a “what if” whose value relies on a narrow comparison to Wright’s best seller.

One wonders: is it really so “unexpected” (573) to have found the typescript in Roth’s papers? Cloutier says nothing else on the matter, which means the question will have to be taken up by another scholar, someone interested in following the traces of Amiable’s lostness in the archive. I hope my own practice of archival discovery models how this and similar kinds of work can be done. Unlike The Negotiations, Amiable with Big Teeth has yet to see the light of day (its expected publication date came and went). Even so, there is a story there about its non- event: how McKay’s typescript made its way to Samuel Roth and why it was never published. That story necessarily will chart new territory in literary history. It will be a story sufficient to itself.


I am grateful to Bennett J. Johnson for meeting with me in Evanston, Illinois, in 2011 and to Martha Biondi for bringing us together. I also thank the MELUS reviewers for their helpful commentary on a draft.

  1. Thomas Whiteside offers an engaging journalistic account of the revolution in media distribution that led to the rise of “blockbuster” book/movie cross- promotion.
  2. My reference to dust and overall commentary on attending to the lostness of/in archives is drawn from Carolyn Steedman. She writes that the historian must respect “what is not actually there, with the dead who are not really present in the whispering galleries, with the past that does not, in fact live in the record office, but is rather, gone (that is its point; that is what the past is for)” (81).
  3. Biographical details presented in these paragraphs are drawn from the online resource “Herman Cromwell Gilbert,” as well as Teresa Puente, Paul Davis, and Bennett J. Johnson (Personal).
  4. The first version of the novel was completed while the author resided in Washington, DC. I base this claim on the address listed on the title page of the typescript of Gilbert’s The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow.
  5. The referendum’s margin of success is fifty-two to forty-eight percent, with eighty-five percent of African Americans participating in the vote. All references to the novel are to the published version unless otherwise indicated.
  6. Although the only surviving version of Gwen McKinney’s review is a typescript, another archival document reveals its likely publication in the local newspaper Good-Times on 29 August 1983. See Gilbert (“Public”).
  7. On the “hood” cycle of the early 1990s, see S. Craig Watkins (169-95). Among the films that defined the genre are John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991), Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City (1991), and Albert and Allen Hughes’s Menace II Society (1993).
  8. The novel’s sole appearance in literary scholarship can be found in Richard R. Guzman (147-54). This source is an anthology of African American writing in Chicago, and, as such, it does not attend to the text’s lostness as a condition of its literary significance.

Works Cited

Anderson, Monroe. “Dream Lives Despite Hard Times.” Chicago Tribune 10 Oct. 1984: LF6. Print.

“Book Publishing Firm Wants to Hasten ‘Black Renaissance.’” Chicago Defender 2 Dec. 1969: 4. Print.

Brown, Tony. “Path Press: Pertinent Options.” Baltimore Afro-American 7 Jan. 1984: 4. Print.

Cloutier, Jean-Christophe. “Amiable with Big Teeth: The Case of Claude McKay’s Last Novel.” Modernism/Modernity 20.3 (2013): 557-76. Print.

Davis, Paul. “Herman Gilbert Remembered as Multi-faceted Writer, Thinker.” Chicago Citizen 13 Mar. 1997: 1. Print.

Gilbert, Herman Cromwell. Itinerary for trip to Cleveland, Ohio. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to Danny Glover. 25 Feb. 1986. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to James Earl Jones. 25 Feb. 1986. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to James Tobiason. 30 Jan. 1984. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow. Chicago: Path, 1983. Print.

—. The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. “Public Appearance Calendar.” N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

Gurin, Patricia, Shirley Hatchett, and S. James Jackson. Hope and Independence:

Blacks’ Response to Electoral and Party Politics. New York: Russell Sage, 1989. Print.

Guzman, Richard R., ed. Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It? Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2006. Print.

Guzzardi, Peter. Letter to Bennett J. Johnson. 15 Apr. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives. “Herman Cromwell Gilbert.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Biography in Context. Gale Group, 2 July 2001. Web. 10 May 2012.

Hornbaker, Alice. “Novel of Racial Unrest at Times Preachy, but Intriguing Overall.” Rev. of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. Cincinnati Enquirer 17 July 1983: F22. Print.

Ingram El, Andrew. Letter to Herman C. Gilbert. 30 Mar. 1984. MS. Path Press Archives.
“James C. Kilgore.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University, 17 July 1997. Web. 10 May 2012.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. Print.

Johnson, Bennett J. Letter to Bob Wyatt. 14 Dec. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives. —. Letter to Clarence B. Jones. 4 June 1984. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to James Brown. 29 Aug. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to Jay Roberts. 5 July 1984. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to Pocket Books. 14 Dec. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.

—. Letter to Richard Pryor and Jimmy Brown. 15 July 1983. TS. Path Press Archives. —. Personal interview. 21 May 2011.

—. Press release upon book publication. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

Jones, Clarence B. Letter to Bennett J. Johnson. 11 Sept. 1991. TS. Path Press Archives.Joyce, Donald Franklin. Black Book Publishers in the United States: A Historical Dictionary of the Presses, 1817-1990. Westport: Greenwood, 1991. Print.

—. Gatekeepers of Black Culture: Black-Owned Book Publishing in the United States, 1817-1981. Westport: Greenwood, 1983. Print.

Kazi-Ferrouillet, Kuumba. Rev. of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. The Black Collegian Jan.-Feb. 1984: 28. Print.

Killens, John Oliver. Letter to Herman C. Gilbert. 28 June 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.

Lee, Felicia R. “New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found.” New York Times 14 Sept. 2012: C1. Print.

McClain, Leanita. “Grains of Truth in Fiction.” Rev. of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. Chicago Tribune 2 Jul. 1983: 11. Print.

McKinney, Gwen. Rev. of The Negotiations, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

Meredith, Scott. Letter to Herman C. Gilbert. 12 Oct. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.

Morgan-Miller, Sharon A. Letter to Bennett J. Johnson. 22 June 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.

“Our History.” Roosevelt University, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.
Path Press Archives. Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American Historyand Literature. Chicago Public Lib., Chicago.

“Promotion Party for Gilbert’s New Novel.” Chicago Metro News 14 May 1983: 1.Print.

Puente, Teresa. “Herman Gilbert, Writer, Political Aide.” Chicago Tribune 9 Mar.1997: 4C. Print.

Robinson, Lenwood, Jr. Screenplay for The Negotiations. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

Rouselle, Jeanette. Letter to Fred Williamson. 6 July 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.

“Savage to Host Book Party.” South End Citizen [Chicago] 2 June 1983: 1. Print.

“Should Blacks Separate from the U.S.?” Transcript of Tony Brown’s Journal, episode#634. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick: RutgersUP, 2002. Print.

Travis, Dempsey J. “Harold,” the People’s Mayor: The Authorized Biography of MayorHarold Washington. Chicago: Urban Research, 1989. Print.

Watkins, S. Craig. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

Whiteside, Thomas. The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981. Print.

“Whitley, R.(Rousara) Joyce.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society, 23 July 1997. Web. 10 May 2012.

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. 1981. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. Print.

Wilson, Ivy G. “The Brief Wondrous Life of the Anglo-African Magazine; or, Antebellum African American Editorial Practice and Its Afterlives.” Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race since 1850. Ed. George Hutchinson and John K. Young. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2013. 18-38. Print.

Wood, William R. “Black Publisher Starts New Company with ‘Negotiations.’” Cleveland Call and Post 26 Jan. 1984: 16A. Print.


A Lab of Their Own: Genomic Sovereignty as Postcolonial Science Policy

Researchers in a growing number of countries outside of North America and Europe are successfully lobbying their governments to exercise a kind of protective ownership over the DNA of their populations. They do so in response to the increasing implications of genetic variation for health outcomes and the growing economic value of genetic information in pharmaceutical development (Whitmarsh, 2008). They lay claim to new bio-political entities, ‘‘Mexican DNA’’ and ‘‘Indian DNA’’ among others, strategically calibrating socio-political categories (i.e. nationality and race-ethnicity) with scientifically produced ones (i.e. genotypes). On the surface, this policy frame asserts a deeply nationalist sentiment of self-determination in a time of increasing globalization. It implicitly ‘brands’ national populations as biologically distinct from other populations, ‘naturalizing’ nation-state boundaries to ensure that less powerful countries receive the economic and medical benefits that may result from population genomics. However, the following analysis reveals the contradictory tendencies of genomic sovereignty policies—unifying and differentiating a diverse body politic, cultivating scientific and commercial autonomy and dependence upon global knowledge networks and foreign capital.

Despite these contradictions, proponents of this field tend to celebrate its emergence as a form of empowerment without careful attention to the ways in which genomic sovereignty inherits the perils produced by the ‘geneticization of life’ more broadly. Of particular concern are the ways in which national and group identities once premised on a ‘‘history of comradeship and mutual alliance’’ are increasingly understood as genetic affiliations that can be made or unmade with blood tests (Johnston, 2003).2 Anthropologist Margaret Lock (1997) refers to the ‘‘category fallacy’’ embedded in the Human Genome Diversity Project, arguing that ‘‘to make a selection of contemporary groups identified on the basis of a shared culture, and then to assume that their genetic make-up is also shared, is to conflate time and space in an entirely inappropriate way’’ (285). Much of this critique rightly warns against the negative implications of research initiatives based in North America and Europe which uses the non-Western world and indigenous peoples as genetic laboratories (Marks, 2005). But developments in postcolonial genomics, wherein nonWestern researchers are building ‘labs of their own’ for liberatory and empowering ends, provides a new scientific context that is less amenable to such broad dismissal (pace Lock), even as it still requires careful analysis of the relationships between political rhetoric, scientific practice, and social effects.

Drawing upon a political sociology of science framework, this paper examines how structures of power and inequality in the global distribution of scientific, technological, and economic resources impact the institutionalization of new genomic knowledge practices and policy framings. It engages work on the methods and rhetoric used to ‘align’ categories of human difference (Epstein, 2007; Foster & Sharpe, 2002; Kahn, 2006) with particular focus on the ‘resuscitation’ of racialized constructions of group identity (Benjamin, 2010; Fullwiley, 2008; Montoya, 2007; Reardon, 2004; Soo-Jin Lee et al., 2001). I identify three strands in the genealogy of this policy arena—the International Haplotype Mapping Project as a model and foil for postcolonial genomics; an emerging public health genomics field which stands in contrast to Western pursuits of ‘personalized medicine’; and North American pharmaceutical companies increased focus on ethnic drug markets.

My central claim is that in the context of national genomics initiatives the work of calibrating scientific and sociopolitical classifications is not haphazard conflation, but a deliberate interpretation of genomic data to match the socio-historical record and a re-imagining of historical and cultural narratives to make sense of genomic findings. This ‘strategic calibration’ is carried out in the service of often laudable public health and social justice aims. However, precisely because of this national empowerment framing, it is tempting for analysts to overlook the ways in which the geneticization of national populations impacts groups differently, enriching some and dispossessing others, solidifying and weakening group ties to the nation-state in unexpected, and potentially detrimental, ways. Thus, in the second part of the paper, I delineate two related challenges that grow out of postcolonial genomics, which I refer to heuristically as dilemmas of mapping and marketing.

To preview, the first set of dilemmas around mapping genetic diversity refers to the challenges involved in defining populations of interest in such a way that they are methodologically useful and politically unproblematic. For researchers, the first phase of mapping involves identifying common genetic patterns in a national population, based on shared haplotypes. A haplotype is the set of alleles found on a single chromosome, and careful identification of a minimum set of haplotypes is thought to ‘capture the signal of untyped markers’ on the genome, most importantly those associated with disease susceptibility (Terwilliger & Hiekkalinna, 2006) and drug metabolism (Nebert & Menon, 2001). Genotyping is the process of determining the allelic variation on a particular person’s DNA. While there is wide consensus following the completion of the Human Genome Mapping Project that human beings share 99.9% of their genes, such that researchers cannot point to clear, qualitative genetic breaks between one population and another, researchers are interested in the variation of shared haplotypes across populations. In the second phase of mapping, called genome-wide association studies, researchers focus on how these haplotype groupings are linked to disease risk. By comparing people who have a particular disease with people who do not, putative risk loci are identified which can be studied in more depth (Manolio, Brooks, & Collins, 2008).

Haplotype mapping becomes politically problematic when, for example, researchers find that a given social group shares more genetic similarity with a rival social group than with their own in-group members, as was the case in the Kashmir region of India (Mudur, 2008). Or, controversy may arise when genome results contradict a widely held origin story of a group or nation, as was the case recently in Mexico when results seemed to indicate that the ‘younger’ Mestizo ethnic group may be ‘older’ than the indigenous groups thought to be its ethnoracial precursor (Schwartz, 2009). It is not that researchers do not expect or enjoy such ‘surprises’. Rather, the central role of national governments as the sponsor of these HapMap projects creates greater public scrutiny and less insulation for scientists to make sense of these developments as purely scientific curiosities. The biopolitical context in which postcolonial genomics occurs, transforms curiosities into controversies that compel proponents to strategically calibrate socio-political and biological taxonomies in ways that can simultaneously advance the science, foster public support, and produce health and economic goods.

The second set of dilemmas around ‘marketing’ relates to the increased focus of North American pharmaceutical companies on ethnic drug markets in non-Western contexts, wherein ethnic groupings act as proxies for population genotypes to which drugs can eventually be tailored. In this part of the discussion, I focus on the ambiguous relationship of diasporic and indigenous populations vis-a`-vis the creation of ethnic drug markets. These groups, in particular, highlight the existing social fault lines that make claims about discrete ‘national genomes’ untenable in the face of transnational migration and difficult to establish as a ‘universal good’ in the face of socio-economic inequities that severely limit access to such goods. A disjunction exists between these groups’ participation in genomics knowledge production as DNA donors and their marginal importance as genomic consumers. Genomic sovereignty claims are complicated by these two biopolitically rogue populations; neither ethnic proxies nor what we might call ethnic precursors—indigenous people who are thought to have contributed to the national genome lineage but are ethno-racially distinct and prior to it—are the target markets of pharmacogenomics. Their upstream inclusion and downstream exclusion requires sustained attention as a matter of science and health policy analysis.

To that end, the remainder of the paper introduces the legal precedent of genomic sovereignty, juxtaposing the formal policy framing with social, economic, and political underpinnings which complicate the empowerment and protectionist rhetoric. Then I elaborate the three institutional strands of this policy arena, namely the International HapMap Project, the field of public health genomics, and ethnic drug marketing. I close with a discussion of two sets of dilemmas confronting this policy arena, which I have previewed above.

1. Background: National Genome, Inc.

In a recent analysis of ‘the global genome’, Thacker (2005) argues that globalization is a ‘biological phenomenon’ to the extent that the biotech industry crosscuts the traditional boundaries of nation-states in its pursuit of biovalue (xvii). As a response to what Thacker has identified, this discussion highlights a counter-emergence to the global genome—the assertion by countries left out of the Euro-American dominated International HapMap project of multiple national genomes. Proponents of genomic sovereignty policies strategically (re)biologize the nation-state by asserting that less powerful nations must protect the cumulative genetic heredity of its population from being pillaged by more powerful nations.

1.1. ‘Lab of Their Own’

In the most prominent assertion of genomic sovereignty to date, the Mexican Senate unanimously approved reforms to the General Health Law in 2008, which makes ‘‘the sampling of genetic material and its transport outside of Mexico without prior approval…illegal’’ (Séguin, Hardy, Singer, & Daar, 2008b: 6). The Genomic Sovereignty amendment states that Mexican-derived human genome data are the property of Mexico’s government, and prohibits and penalizes its collection and utilization in research without prior government approval. It seeks to prevent other nations from analyzing Mexican genetic material, especially when results can be patented, and comes with a formidable bite in the form of prison time and lost wages. In addition to Mexico, countries such as India, Thailand, South Africa, China, and others have issued policy statements or passed legislation that seeks to develop genomics infrastructure explicitly to benefit their national populations (Séguin et al., 2008b). So while the term ‘genomic sovereignty’ is predominantly used only in Mexico, its conceptual underpinnings are emerging in other nations.

Unlike pan-indigenous advocacy groups that have asserted group sovereignty claims to opt-out of genomics research (Marks, 2005), these governmental policies set out proactive research agendas to stimulate health and economic gains. In this way, the biology of the population becomes a ‘natural resource’ and genomics serves as a nation-building project maximizing the potential of this resource. Unlike other nationalisms, the point of postcolonial genomics is not to posit the nation as ‘pure’ (as in the Iceland case, cf. Fortun, 2008), but as a unique genetic mixture (i.e. ‘admixed’) when compared to other nations.

Proponents of genomic sovereignty policies draw upon the empowerment idiom from the classic essay ‘‘A Room of My Own’’ by Virginia Woolf, asserting that if genomics research is a house then developing countries should ‘‘create a room of their own’’ (Séguin, Hardy, Singer, & Daar, 2008a). This discussion complicates the agenda to champion genomic sovereignty by examining the dilemmas that emerge out of this new research and policy domain. The title of this article draws upon one such illustration, wherein the actual labs in Mexico’s genome institute were equipped by U.S. based biotech companies Affymetrix, Applied Biosystems, and Illumina. The labs are named after these commercial benefactors and not, as one might expect of an undertaking framed in terms of national sovereignty, after any of Mexico’s historic scientific figures. The ways in which collaborating with North American commercial entities may shape the scientific agenda and political accountability of the institute are the focus of ongoing research. For the purposes of this discussion, we should note that the material and symbolic infrastructure of postcolonial genomics is comprised of a mixed genealogy that confounds the rhetoric of nationalist empowerment.

1.2. Social cartographies

In addition to its stated aims, genomic initiatives have the potential to naturalize social hierarchies and disparities. Debates surrounding genomics in Euro-American contexts—whether or not it naturalizes social inequalities as ‘racial’ (Duster, 2005; El-Haj, 2007; Fujimura, Duster, & Rajagopalan, 2008; Kahn, 2006; Montoya, 2007; Reardon, 2004; Soo-Jin Lee, Mountain, & Koenig, 2001) or fails to problematize the effects of capitalist accumulation on knowledge production (Etzkowitz, 1998)—still remain relevant to the arena of postcolonial genomics. But as a science policy born of global power inequality, postcolonial genomics can also be understood as having a mixed genealogy and trajectory that is at once innovative and retrograde in its assertions. While diversity maps serve as a ‘naturalizing’ cartography of the nation that aims to account for the accumulated genetic inheritance of a people, they also act as social maps for contemporary anxieties about social fragmentation and future cohesion.

As one example, the first major task of the Mexican HapMap Project was to investigate the common haplotypes distributed across six states. Schwartz (2008) explains that Mexican newspaper reports drawing upon the Mexican Institute for Genomic Medicine’s public communications, stated that ‘‘due to the race, there is a pronounced difference between the populations of various states within the country. In Sonora they have the highest prevalence of European genes, 58%, while in Guerrero, their population presents a major index of African genes, 22%’’. While scientists at the Mexican Institute criticize the newspaper’s use of ‘race’, preferring ‘population’ as a more scientifically valid substitute, the Institute’s public statements and academic publications reveal their own use of race-ethnicity to describe Mexico as a predominantly ‘mestizo’ nation (Silva-Zolezzi et al., 2009; Contreras et al., 2009).

In its second phase of research and amidst controversy over the exclusion of indigenous populations from the first phase, the Mexican Institute broadened its demographic sample to ascertain the genetic relationship between indigenous communities and the dominant Mestizo population (Schwartz, 2008). The ethnoracial and geographic focus of the Mexican HapMap project mirrors ongoing disputes about disparities in the distribution of social and political resources across states and social groups, and in particular, the rights and relative marginality of indigenous communities within the country. Researchers at the Mexican Institute showed initial signs of relief and vindication at the convergence of their HapMap findings with ‘what we already know’ about the existence of ethnic groups in the country.5 One report indicates that ‘‘although there are some regional genetic differences between Mexican subpopulations, they are similar enough to be analyzed as a single group’’ (Jimenez-Sanchez et al., 2008: 1195). However, given that Mexico is comprised of over 65 indigenous ethnic groups in addition to the majority Mestizo population, the Institute is recently faced with the possibility that the tidy symmetry between social and genetic groupings may not entirely hold (Schwartz, 2009).

While in Mexico the indigenous–mestizo relationship anchors genomics research (Vergara-Silva, Lo´pez-Beltra´n, McManus, 2007), in India, caste-linguistic groupings infuse genome mapping (Reich, Thangaraj, Patterson, Price, and Singh, 2009). In all cases, there is a broader politics of difference at work in which genomics is being used to both unify and differentiate the population as part of a larger branding process—the nation as uniquely heterogeneous vis-a`-vis other nations.

1.3. Biological brands

In promising economic stimulus through the development of a genetically-tailored national health sector that will cut costs and generate profitable treatments, postcolonial genomics also serves as a political lightening rod for growing anxieties over national economic development and population health crises. Proponents hail it as a way to carve out a biological and economic niche market from which the nation can profit. The director of the Indian Genomic Variation Consortium notes, for example, that ‘‘We’ve shown that [International] HapMap studies cannot always be applied to the Indian context.’’6 Like genomic sovereignty proponents elsewhere, the implication is that India’s exclusion from the International HapMap may lead to what Stefan Ecks (2005) has called ‘pharmaceutical marginalization’, caused by a lack of access to drug therapies that, in this case, will potentially be tailored to population genomes. Opponents of national genomics argue, in turn, that such investments threaten to gamble national resources on impractical approaches to public health (Ribeiro, 2005).

So lest the focus on genomic sovereignty as a policy ‘discourse’ overshadow its material implications, such assertions aim, in part, to biologically brand the nation in order to develop profitable pharmacogenomic markets. These are increasingly understood as ‘bioethnic’ markets (Montoya, 2007) developed through processes of ‘niche standardization’, whereby human bodies are classified as neither part of a universal or as individuals, but as biologically meaningful social groups (Epstein, 2007: 135). The need to map and protect national genetic diversity and regulate the ownership of genetic ‘biovalue’ (Waldby & Cooper, 2008), is motivated in part by the promise of health interventions that will save the country in healthcare expenditures and generate profits from ‘tailored’ drug development. The following section outlines three institutional strands in this broader political-economic and scientific nexus, followed by a discussion of the dilemmas posed by attempts to map and market national diversity.

2. Genealogies of genomic sovereignty

2.1. The International Haplotype Mapping Project

The first strand in the genealogy of genomic sovereignty policy is the International Haplotype Mapping project (hereafter ‘‘International HapMap’’) and, in particular, the sense of exclusion expressed by researchers in countries that were not included in this initiative. During the first phase (2002–2005) of the International HapMap, DNA samples were collected from participants in Tokyo (Japan), Ibadan (Nigeria), and Beijing (China). These were added to an existing database of samples from U.S. residents of northern and western European ancestry. During the second phase (2005–2007), samples were collected from seven additional groups, among which were several diasporic populations including Mexicans in Los Angeles, California and Guajarati Indians in Houston, Texas.7 Interestingly, both Mexico and India are at the forefront of postcolonial genomics, in part, because researchers in these regions do not consider the International HapMap’s diasporic samples to be a satisfactory snapshot of the genetic diversity of their national populations. But from the point of view of the International HapMap Consortium, ‘‘As most common patterns of variation can be found in any population, no one population is essential for inclusion in the HapMap’’ (2003:791). So, technically, there is no need for a ‘representative sampling’ of the entire human population, because no one population is so genetically distinct as to justify representing a particular human ‘kind’. Even so, the Consortium’s original sample comprised of distinctly ethnoracial populations (i.e. Yoruba, Chinese, Japanese, and a White U.S. sample from Utah), fueling vigorous debate about whether and to what extent genetic ancestry and race-ethnicity correlate (Duster 2005; Burchard et al., 2003; Fujimura et al., 2008; Hamilton, 2008).

To understand genomics’ researchers explicit rejection and implicit acceptance of racial-ethnic classifications, social scientists have begun focusing on the bioinformatic programmes used in genome-wide association studies (Fujimura, 1999; Suarez-Diaz & Anaya-Mun˜oz, 2008). In particular, the need for researchers to input a designated number of clusters by which to stratify the population, means that they tend to have some idea of how many genetically discernible groups they think exist in the broader population, if not also, what groups. A fundamental critique of genomics is that it employs under-analyzed starting assumptions about the association between ancestry, geography, ‘folk’ ethnoracial categories, and disease risk (Barnholtz-Sloan, McEvoy, Shriver, & Rebbeck, 2008; Bliss, 2009; Fujimura et al., 2008; Terwilliger & Hiekkalinna, 2006). In reference to the complex methods of producing genomics knowledge, anthropologist Kaushik Sundar Rajan (2006) explains, ‘‘the more things get reduced to their molecular components…the more one needs to rely on statistical, population-based data to ‘individualize’ therapy. This means that one can individualize therapy only on the basis of population classifications’’ (163). So paradoxically, while the International HapMap serves as a foil for many national genome projects because they do not consider their populations to have been fully represented, the former also provides a problematic methodological template according to which national initiatives are modeled.

2.2. Public health genomics

The field’s most influential proponent, the University of Toronto’s McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, is comprised of a multidisciplinary research team of over 35 members who have been instrumental in institutionalizing public health genomics as a field. The Centre embarked on a set of high profile research and policy initiatives that is primarily focused on bringing public health genomics to developing countries (Se´guin et al., 2008b). Through tremendous visibility and strategic collaboration, this relatively small group of health policy entrepreneurs is playing a principal role in the growing political will among governments to sponsor genomic initiatives and implement genomic sovereignty legislation. The Toronto group was instrumental in Mexico, for example, testifying before the Mexican legislature on behalf of the Mexican Institute for Genomic Medicine. Lamenting the possibility of a global ‘genomics divide’ between poorer and richer countries, Toronto Centre co-directors Singer and Daar (2001) warn of a future when ‘‘the unfolding [scientific] revolution resulted in designer pharmacogenomics in rich countries and lost opportunities for advancing the health of those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America’’ (87).8 The second strand in the genealogy of genomic sovereignty policy is the field of ‘public health genomics’, which health policy entrepreneurs frame in direct contrast to genomics practiced in wealthier Western countries. For example, Wilmot James, dubbed ‘father of African genomics’, contends that,

It may be, in the North, that one result will be the emergence of personalized medicine, of having drugs and interventions designed specifically for the unique modality of one person’s disease profile…We in the [Global] South, as elsewhere, need to work hard at figuring out how to make genomics relevant to clinical practice in private and public medicine, so that it does not remain with the privileged elite few.

Within the field of public health genomics, ‘withholding’ genomic information from and failing to develop pharmacogenomic interventions for individuals and communities in poorer countries is conceived of as a ‘‘new form of discrimination’’ (Brand, Brand, & Schulte in den Ba¨umen, 2007: 11). Researchers in the vanguard of public health genomics report, for example, that ‘‘Only 16 of the 1,393 new drugs that were marketed between 1975 and 1999 were registered for diseases that predominantly effect people in developing countries…In the future, pharmaceutical companies in the developed world will have to pay more attention to developing countries’’ (Daar & Singer, 2005: 245). They argue that rather than focusing solely on the development of ‘personalized medicine’, genomics researchers should seek to ‘carefully define’ population differences with the stated goal of being able to tailor drugs to specific ethnoracial groups in developing countries who are most in need of efficient treatment options (241).

Proponents of public health genomics draw, in part, upon international policy statements, most notably the World Health Organization’s Genomics and World Health (2002), a report that grew out of world-wide consultations with physicians, scientists, and health policy makers working in poorer countries. While attentive to both the possibilities and perils that characterize this new biomedical terrain, the report is decidedly optimistic that genomics can be ‘harnessed to advance human development’ and address local and regional health needs. Even while emphasizing that infectious disease comprises the majority of the current disease burden of developing nations, the report suggests that in some countries there is a shift underway towards more chronic diseases, for which genomics therapies may prove beneficial. One of the refrains characteristic of this new field, then, is translating genomic findings ‘‘from lab to village’’ so that knowledge production has a real impact on public health.

In response to the danger of an increasing scientific and health divide, the Toronto group advocates for global South–South collaborations among developing nations where feasible, and have facilitated such exchanges. They arranged for representatives of Pakistan’s Health ministry, for example, to visit an Indian-based genomics company, Shantha Biotech, to observe the latter’s vaccine research programme. Given the tensions between the nations, it was one of the first times that any cross-national collaboration had occurred in recent memory, leading the company’s founder Khalil Ahmed to comment ‘‘If biotech can help to unite people, then why not? Given the political situation, the scientific community can and should open the doors of friendship and cooperation.’’ This example illustrates that the strategic politicization of science and medicine is being effectively marshaled by proponents of public health genomics, as they seek to intervene in larger structures of global inequality by targeting the specific needs of poorer countries (e.g. collective not individual health interventions) and highlighting the unique contributions these countries can make to genomics more broadly (e.g. as a source of diverse genotypes). In addition to the South–South solidarity and empowerment that drives public health genomics, this is very much a market-oriented campaign in which the role of private biotech companies is central (Rajan, 2006). The Toronto group, for example, has organized international conferences and smaller meetings to facilitate collaborations between researchers and companies in order to advance this arena (Frew et al., 2006).

A fundamental critique of public health genomics, especially as it targets complex diseases, is that candidate genes are only expected to account for a small fraction in the ‘‘multifactorial web of [disease] causation’’ (Fujimura et al., 2008: 648). Thus, the concern goes, governments should be cautious to invest in an area that is unlikely to yield much fruit, especially while traditional public health interventions and socio-economic development strategies remain grossly under-funded (Ribeiro, 2005). A common counter-claim to this is that pharmacogenomics ‘‘can be used to increase efficiency, cut costs, reduce adverse effects and increase the efficacy of drug-development pipelines’’ (Daar and Singer 2005:241). An influential population geneticist, in turn, suggests that:

‘‘while [genomics] may discover risk loci that explain only a small fraction of the observed cases, the details of what loci are discovered and how they function to create the disease might give us insights into the etiology of the disease in question, and this knowledge might lead to a larger public health impact down the road. In the best cases we are learning genes we never suspected to be involved with a disease are involved, and this is revealing of novel biology and suggestive of novel interventions. Whether these ‘hints’ are worth the cost is another question!’’11. In sum, public health genomics is posed as an alternative to European and North American research agendas and the pursuit of ‘boutique medicine’ (Brand et al., 2007; Se´guin et al., 2008a, 2008b). Paradoxically, like their counterparts in the Global North, proponents of public health genomics seek to develop the commercial platform of pharmaceutical development in their pursuit of public health advances, which may ultimately limit the affordability of future health goods.

The third strand in the genealogy of genomic sovereignty is the pharmaceutical industry’s increased focus on ethnic drug markets. That is, ‘‘companies are hoping to tailor therapies ever more closely to the genetic profile of individuals or groups of consumers, [such that] identifying racial/ethnic correlations with disease is becoming big business’’ (Kahn, 2004). As I will explain further in the section on ‘marketing’ dilemmas, the link between drug response and ethnicity is not simple biological reductionism, but in some cases takes in to account the ways in which social processes (e.g. immigration) and environmental exposures (e.g. poor living conditions) may create differential health effects across ethnic groups. What is important to note at this point is that many pharmaceutical companies view increasing investment in ‘niche ethnic markets’ as a matter of economic survival. Companies of all sizes in both poorer and richer countries are starting to collaborate in an effort to cultivate these ‘segmented’ markets in which drugs can be tailored to specific genotypes. This involves not only North American drug companies working in isolation, but partnerships with nonWestern researchers and governments that seek to biologically brand their own populations.12 Sovereignty policies, in turn, attempt to preemptively empower non-Western scientific and political elites within such collaborations.

The increasing importance of ethnic drug markets for the survival of the pharmacogenomics industry, in turn, is part of a larger shift in the life sciences wherein human tissue, and specifically genetic information, is patentable and potentially profitable (Etzkowitz, 1998).13 The DNA of populations is increasingly expected to be a resource (Cooper, 2008; Franklin, 2006; Rajan, 2006; Rose, 2007; Waldby, 2002; Waldby & Cooper, 2008) for preventative healthcare and targeted medicine. This increase in ‘biovalue’ is tied to the growing industry excitement around ‘emerging economies’ whose chronic disease load is rapidly multiplying. Countries such as Mexico and India among several others have been tagged by corporate insiders as ‘‘Pharma’s Promised Land’’ because they are expected to account for one fifth of global drug sales by 2020.14 Proponents of public health genomics view this industry trend as an opportunity for ‘emerging economies’ (Hardy, Seguin, & Darr, 2008). That is, if pharmaceutical companies fail to demonstrate safety and efficacy of a particular drug based on a clinical trial conducted in North America, they may be able to demonstrate the drug works in another population, such as India or China (Daar & Singer, 2005). They see this as serving the dual function of recouping the companies’ investment in drug R&D, while also addressing the health needs of ‘pharmaceutically marginal’ populations (Ecks, 2005).

Producing drug treatments requires that targeted populations first supply DNA to be studied by genomic researchers and drug developers. Genomic sovereignty claims seek to regulate both ends of this process—tissue supply and drug distribution—to minimize harm and maximize benefit to the national population. Daar and Singer (2005) explain it thus: ‘‘…Developing countries are not only potentially huge markets for drug therapeutics but are also depositories of important human genetic diversity. Understanding this diversity is valuable because it better defines those population subgroups that will benefit more from a particular drug than others, and allows the detection of side-effects that might not be seen in populations that are mainly Caucasian’’ (Daar & Singer, 2005: 245). But some analysts warn against a ‘pharmaceuticalization of philanthropy’ (Biehl, 2007) and the related ‘pharmaceutical citizenship’ in which corporations stand to be the primary ‘winners’ in initiatives to redress socio-political marginality with medicine (Ecks, 2008). Montoya (2007), in turn, critically analyzes the increasing popularity of ‘bioethnic conscription’ in the context of Mexican Americans enrollment in diabetes research and drug marketing, explaining that ‘‘The ‘emerging market’ trope is a commonly accepted demographic truism. That is, to succeed, businesses must now appeal to the ethnic market…’’ (114). Daar and Singer’s implicit contrast between Caucasians and non-Caucasians above—despite numerous and repeated attempts by analysts to debunk and substitute other modes of classification (e.g. geographic ancestry, cf. Foster & Sharpe, 2002) for this crude racial concept—is not simply a sign of carelessness but a reflection of how national genomics initiatives are being strategically crafted as niche ethnic markets.

As I explore in greater depth elsewhere (Benjamin, 2010), the creation of segmented markets not only ‘resuscitates’ drugs that have undergone unsuccessful clinical trials in North America, as proponents of public health genomics advocate. Marketing to specific ethnic populations also resuscitates ethnoracial taxonomies that serve as proxies for biologically meaningful genetic variation. Among the many lessons from the BiDil case involving the first ‘‘ethnic drug’’ marketed for African American hypertension, there is a recursive relationship between population labels at the time of sampling and research and the ways in which groups will be marketed to downstream (Kahn, 2004). In the context of postcolonial genomics, there is a commercial drive to ensure that the genetic classifications produced through national ‘diversity mapping’ can be calibrated with salient social groups to which drugs can be marketed. Advertising a diabetes drug to carriers of some particular haplotype is, arguably, much less effective than a ‘public health campaign’ directed to an ethnic subpopulation. However, as with Bidil, the ways in which different biopolitical constituencies are affected by the strategic calibration of biological and ethnic groupings in drug marketing is highly unpredictable and often contentious.

To focus only or even mainly on the beneficent potential of this global shift to ethnic drug marketing is to close one eye to the lessons learned in the U.S. context. ‘‘Recontextualizing the race debate’’ by urging scholars ‘‘not [to] criticize industry on the basis of profit motive’’ (Se´guin, 2008c: 172) disregards the continued salience of race even when members of medically-neglected populations are the ‘beneficiaries’ of pharmaceutical interventions, as in the BiDil case and ethnic niche marketing more broadly. Racialization is not simply a short-term methodological problem to be overcome with the development of more precise bioinformatic techniques nor is it usually deployed in explicitly nefarious ways. Rather, the logic of embodied ethnoracial difference is playing a defining role in segmenting pharmaceutical markets and resuscitating an ailing industry, often with the stated aim of producing biomedical goods for ethnoracial populations that are under-served. Thus, the ‘value’ of race is central to the development of public health genomics and requires sustained analysis.

3. Dilemmas for genomic sovereignty

The previous sections have outlined three strands in a mixed genealogy of genomic sovereignty polices, outlining some of the concerns about how such trends take shape within existing structures of power and inequality. This section goes in greater depth in to two broad dilemmas that tie some of these issues together within specific national and institutional contexts. It draws upon case material from Mexico and to a lesser extent India, to illustrate key points.

3.1. Mapping human taxonomies

The first dilemma that genomic sovereignty policies face is the way in which different methods of classifying human beings—as biological, social, or political—compete, clash, and complement one another in unpredictable ways. In the course of everyday life, individuals draw on different understandings of human difference to suit specific needs with minimal consequence if they lack coherence. However, when institutions and governments employ such classifications, their rational may come under greater scrutiny. Societies employ numerous types of classificatory schemes to sort and hierarchize populations, so that analyses about the ways in which race, nation, genomics, and identity are co-constituted in the Euro-American context (Fortun, 2008; Fullwiley, 2008; Rabinow, 1999; Reardon, 2004; Tallbear, 2005; Soo-Jin Lee et al., 2001; Montoya, 2007) are not readily transplantable to societies with very different histories of social group-making.

The two most salient categories that structure social life in Mexico, for example, are ‘mestizo’ (ethnoracially mixed citizen-subject) and ‘indigenous’ (comprised of approximately 65 ethnic groups). Within these, geography and language are strong determinants of self-identity, socio-economic status, and life chances. It is in no way surprising, then, to find that the work of the Mexican Institute for Genomic Medicine is heavily couched in the discourse of ‘mestizaje’, seeking to discern the genomic underpinnings of this unique Mexican cultural–biological hybridity. Mestizaje is an already circulating discourse which proponents of Mexican genomics have used to cultivate public support for the initiative. It serves as a biological brand for the nation-state to attract foreign financial investment and scientific interest, and to neutralize antagonism from critics from among the country’s Catholic Church, public health and academic communities.

In earlier stages of Mexican nation-building, ‘mestizaje’ was utilized by the national intelligentsia as ‘‘a potential route to national consolidation and as a positive mark of national identity’’ contra notions of ‘hybridity as degenerate’ (Lund, 2006: 86). The recent popularity of calculating levels of ethnoracial mixture in genomics (rather than determining pure types), gives added value to the Mexican genome brand within the global scientific community. Complicating genomic nation-building, however, is the salience of the ‘indigenous question’ for Mexico’s national identity and collective biology: In the same way that mestizaje serves as a resource for Mexican genomic advocates, critics of the Initiative have a ready counter-narrative in the long struggle over indigenous rights: ‘‘the Indian as necessary participant in and erasure from the national project; an included exclusion that forms the very logic of mestizaje. Indigeneity, then, is a feature of genomic national building whereby the dual process of inclusion and exclusion persists. The Indian participants in the building of a new race and a new spirit, yet is excluded from the modern’’ (Lund, 2006: 83).

Soon after its founding in June 2005, for example, the Mexican Institute initiated an ambitious programme to collect DNA samples from more than 2000 individuals, an initiative dubbed the National Crusade Genomic Map of Mexico. Representatives of the agency and a battalion of health workers visited states in which governors and local leaders had agreed, through prior consultation and negotiation, to allow the agency to recruit DNA donors. As an official Institute document reports, the Crusades were ‘‘intended primarily to collect blood samples of 100 men and 100 women originally from each of the participating states… They turned into academic events of three days during which were given public presentations and discussion tables in universities, high schools and public forums, both for the student community, as for the general public’’.15 Some agency officials and observers expressed heightened anxieties during the sampling process about, ‘human subjects protection’ for indigenous communities, such that local elders and community representatives (often anthropologists with connections to the group) were recruited as intermediaries and consent documents were translated from Spanish in to the local languages. In addition, the informed consent process placed emphasis on explaining to the communities that their donations would be used to map the genetic diversity of the country and for research as yet unknown, but that they should expect no direct medical benefit from their participation (Schwartz, 2008).

Even more fundamental than issues of consent and future access to therapies, the collection of indigenous samples also illustrates the potential for ontological conflict between what donors think their DNA represents and what their tissue is made to represent in the framework of national genomics. Over the course of the Mexican Institute’s outreach and sampling, ethnographer Ernesto Schwartz reports a situation in which a Tepehuanes (indigenous) elder who was serving as community spokesman at one of the blood sampling sites in the state of Durango asserted, ‘‘We are not Mexicans. We are Tepehuanes, and you are looking for the genome of the Tepehuanes!’’16 The elder’s statement contrasts that of the project director who, when asked whether indigenous research subjects require special defense against harm or discrimination, replied ‘‘the protection is the same, finally they are Mexicans, the same as us’’.17 This relatively benign mismatch in which a community gatekeeper and genomics director disagree over the relationship of an indigenous group to the Mexican body politic, is an instance of taxonomic mismatch. In this case, the different points of view between researchers and Tepehuanes participants, did not thwart collection of indigenous blood samples. In part, this reveals how the very elaborate community engagement and informed consent protocol of the HapMap process is not designed to identify much less address fundamental conflicts in classification.

To turn to the Indian Genome Variation Consortium, as a brief point of comparison, one of the project’s first findings suggest that two warring groups, Hindus and Muslims from the Kashmir region, share more genetic similarity with one another than with their in-group cousins in other parts of the country. One of the researchers, Partha Mazumder, admitted that ‘‘The social hierarchy of caste groups is not fully reflected in their genetic profile’’.18 The report further explains that scientists consider some of the findings about genetic proximity and disease risk data ‘‘so sensitive that they have decided not to make the identities of the communities public for now’’. One project coordinator, Mitali Mukerjee, explains that researchers ‘‘had intense debates on whether to reveal the names of communities…I don’t think scientists are prepared yet to understand the full social ramifications if such information is made public.’’

Despite the ambivalence expressed about the findings, and as evidence of a particular history of nationalist rhetoric in India that champions internal diversity, the genome project director Samir Brahmachari commented that, ‘‘In fact the term ‘Indian’ is a misnomer in population genetic studies, as it indicates the population to be homogenous. This is evidently now untrue’’.20 Unlike the insistence by the head of the Mexico’s Institute that the countries indigenous populations are ‘‘Mexican’’, Brahmachari is eager to denaturalize the nation-state and admit the ways in which social groupings do not calibrate with scientifically-produced groupings.

Even so, the Indian Genome director’s rhetoric should not be viewed as a straightforward exercise in denaturalizing national identity with genomics. Rather, it draws upon and strategically deploys historical tensions implicit to Indian nationalism. This is a nationalism that one prominent commentator refers to as a ‘‘rare animal…the nationalism of an idea—rooted in the spirit of diversity’’.21 This contrasts Mexican nationalism which is rooted in hybridity (not diversity) and celebrates the merging together of European, Amerindian, and African lineages, embodied in the ‘Mestizo’. But as Mexican scholars and activists critical of the genome project assert, ‘‘A project attempting to prove that there is a ‘mestizo genome’ will fail if it pretends to correlate race and disease. Mestizo is a label, not a race’’.22 Albeit through different conceptions of heterogeneity, both national genomic initiatives marshal already existing national discourses about biological and cultural affinity in their quest to genetically map variation and link these differences to disease risk. In so doing, they must contend with the ways in which linking genetic and social groupings become politically controversial.

3.2. Drug marketing and genetic proxies

The second dilemma that genomic sovereignty policies face is the way in which ethnic diasporas and indigenous nationals potentially undercut the biological brand of national HapMaps, with both economic and political ramifications. As mentioned previously, during the second phase (2005–2007) of the U.S. led International HapMap project, samples were collected from seven populations, among which were several diasporic populations including ‘‘Mexican Americans in Los Angeles’’ and ‘‘Guajarati Indians in Houston.’’As anthropologists working with the Guajarati population in Houston explain, part of the appeal in targeting them was their relative compliance to the sampling protocol (Reddy, 2007). They and other diasporic populations serve as a convenient way to sidestep national sovereignty restrictions at both sampling and drug testing stages of genomic research. Ignoring or downplaying the existence of the International HapMap database, both Indian and Mexican genome institute spokesmen frame their own initiatives as providing a unique genomic map of its national population.

Genomic sovereignty policies are intended to protect against foreign companies producing therapeutics targeting their population without their involvement. To the extent that such policies only have national reach, however, they are unable to assert sovereignty claims over the millions of Indians and Mexicans who were either born or live outside of their ancestral country and are free to donate their DNA to foreign researchers or, in the future, participate in genome-based clinical trials. To begin to understand the economic implications, consider that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates that ‘‘the number of diabetes suffers in India is projected to reach 73.5 million in 2025, with the direct cost of treating each individual at about $420 per person per year.’’ PwC predicts that ‘‘if these costs remain the same, India’s total bill for diabetes alone would be about $30 billion by 2025.’’23 In this context, diasporic populations provide genome researchers and drug developers in the U.S. a way around difficult regulatory conditions by serving as genetic proxies for ‘emerging markets’.

Given what is a potential challenge to the authority and self-determination of postcolonial genomics, proponents of the latter have directly and indirectly attempted to address this dilemma posed by diasporic populations: Some suggest that studying ethnic groups living in the United States may contain some valuable information in terms of genetic susceptibilities and drug responses needed for the development of targeting medicine in other countries, but that they are not ‘‘adequate to satisfy the needs for harnessing global genetic diversity’’ (Daar & Singer, 2005: 243). More specifically, Mexican officials describe their work as ‘‘the first genome-wide genotyping effort of a recently admixed Latin American population in the public domain’’ (Jimenez-Sanchez et al., 2008: 1195). The implication is that there is a genetically meaningful distinction between Mexicans and Mexican Americans, such that the International HapMap sample collected in Los Angeles cannot stand in for the Mexican database.

At the same time that it naturalizes the nation-state, the Mexican Institute routinely reminds the public that their work has important implications beyond Mexico, serving as a portal to mestizo populations throughout Latin America. In terms of market share, this is a tremendously powerful position, one worth defending against diasporic proxies that are more accessible to genomic researchers in North America.

A second, related way in which genomic sovereignty proponents challenge the use of diasporic proxies is by claiming that samples obtained in their national initiatives are unique and more representative. But not simply because they happen to be taken from the right side of the border, but because of substantial differences in the environments experienced by diasporic (Montoya, 2007) versus national populations. These environmental exposures are thought to impact gene expression leading to different disease susceptibilities and drug responses, so that a database created using Mexican American and Indian American samples cannot be used to develop pharmacogenomic therapies for Mexicans or Indians in the home country.

It is important to note that in these responses to the dilemma posed by ethnic diasporas, genomic sovereignty proponents engage in what sociologist Charis Thompson refers to as ‘strategic naturalization’ (2001). This explains how people up- or downplay biological explanations when it suits them. In the context of genomic sovereignty claims, Mexican genome spokesmen make an implicit distinction between ‘national’ versus ‘diasporic’ samples and at the same time claim to be a portal to Latin America’s entire mestizo population, first naturalizing and then denaturalizing the nation-state border. Similarly in the second response, the diasporic population is not considered unrepresentative of the nation because of the different environments and their possible effects on gene expression. This suggests that Mexicans north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border may not be genetically commensurable, but that their biological distinction is in response to different environmental exposures, and is thus mutable. This line of argument is neither genetic- nor environmental-determinism, but a strategic deployment of both biological and social idioms to maximize Mexico’s gatekeeping authority over a potentially valuable ‘mestizo genome’.

Groups that lay claim to an indigenous status within a territory are another set of biopolitically rogue populations that challenge the legitimacy of genomic sovereignty claims. They do so, not by opposing scientific research as a whole, but by asserting that the fruits of genomics will not be distributed evenly or in accordance with the levels of investment that indigenous communities are being asked to participate. The dominant framing of ‘indigenous interests’ vis-a`-vis genomics has typically opposes Western science as a whole, and is exemplified by the Indigenous People’s Council on Biocolonialism.24 Unlike the sovereignty claims of the Council that seek to protect against sampling indigenous blood, the genomic sovereignty initiatives implemented by postcolonial governments, utilize indigenous populations for the development of national health and economic development. But, in part, because of the widespread circulation of the ‘biocolonial’ framing of genomics, genomic sovereignty advocates must often make a great effort to recruit antagonistic or indifferent indigenous communities.

In Mexico, for example, town hall-style meetings were held throughout the country several weeks prior to any blood collections, during which researchers from the Genome Institute made presentations and engaged in Q&A with those gathered. This model of ‘community engagement’ is a source of pride on the part of the Institute, but was not allowed it to fully avoid critique by advocates of indigenous groups. For example, spokesperson for the Mexican chapter of the NGO Erosion, Technology and Concentration, Silvia Ribeiro, expresses the following suspicion:

I do not know what they mean with genomic sovereignty, but evidently what there is, is an interest by great corporations that have made consortiums with public research institutes around the world. But the results are privatized…My argument is for them to demonstrate that this has a public benefit. If what they call public benefit is for people to go and pay for a new medication that is not democratic […] The genes are indigenous and the results are all transnational! (Schwartz, 2008)

So paradoxically, while the Western/non-Western dichotomy cannot be easily marshaled to criticize postcolonial genomics, proponents of the latter are still faced with the issue of ongoing national stratification in which indigenous populations and other ethnic minorities are asked to enroll as DNA donors but have limited access to biomedical interventions due to socio-economic barriers. Thus, critics of national genomic projects may utilize the everyday subordination of indigenous groups to voice suspicion towards the goals and implications of these initiatives. In Mexico, for example, the contradiction between the nation’s sacralization of its indigenous roots and everyday denigration of indigenous communities (Lund, 2006: 67)—is reinforced and complicated through the biopolitics of national genomics. More broadly, neocolonial relations of domination within countries undercut the rhetoric of national scientific empowerment that will uplift the entire population.

4. Conclusion

In closing, the dilemmas of mapping and marketing national diversity reveal the difficulties in trying to calibrate different modes of human classification within a single biopolitical project. I demonstrate that an assertion, not defiance, of nation-state borders is the scaffold upon which knowledge and wealth is being pursued in the arena of postcolonial genomics. Furthermore, national diversity is not simply mapped by genomics, but recalibrated vis-a`-vis genomic findings in attempts to genetically brand the nation as a niche ethnic market with minimal political fallout. What may, on the surface, appear to be a (re)biologization of the nation-state in the branding of ‘‘Mexican DNA’’ and ‘‘Indian DNA’’ among others, is better understood as a strategic calibration of different modes of classifying populations—as socio-political or biological entities—whose value is constantly mediated in the context of specific scientific, political, and economic institutions.


This research was supported by grant number 1R56AI072549 from the National Institutes of Health. I am grateful to UCLA’s Center for Society & Genetics for supporting this work, and to the comments of two anonymous reviewers, Catherine Bliss, Soraya de Chaderevian, Troy Duster, Amy Hinterberger, Michael Mintrom, Aaron Panofsky, Tom Pessah, Anne Pollock, Charles Taylor, Stefan Timmermans, and Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico colleagues Carlos Lopez-Beltran, Edna Suarez-Diaz, Francisco Vergara-Silva, and Ernesto Schwartz.