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Leith Mullings, 1945-2020: Anthropologist behind the Sojourner Syndrome

Originally published: Social Science Space by Kenalyn Ang (December 14, 2020 )  | - Posted Jan 25, 2021

Leith Mullings, an anthropologist whose work on what she dubbed the Sojourner Syndrome created a baseline understanding of the “weathering” that the amplified stresses of race, class, and inequality have on African Americans, and in particular African American women, died of cancer on December 12. The former president of the American Anthropological Association and founding member of the Association of Black Anthropologists was 75.

Much of her early work centered on studies in the former colonial states of Africa, and resulted in her first book, 1984’s Therapy, Ideology and Social Change: Mental Healing in Urban Ghana. But her studies morphed over time to see how much of the resulting African diaspora in the colonizing and slaveholding nations, in particular the United States, fared.

In a 2002 article for Voices, a publication of the Association of Feminist Anthropology, Mullings described how she and a group working on an initiative for the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Reproductive Health were studying how African American women fared worse in birth outcomes than White women regardless of their comparative economic status or education level. “For the CDC,” she wrote,

this was a departure from traditional ways of thinking about racial disparities in heath and illness: the fact that African American women and men die younger, and have higher rates of morbidity and mortality for most diseases, than whites.

Trying to create a framework that would both resonate with a medical audience and represent the intersectional morass that would illustrate “the multiplicative effects of race, class and gender on the health of African American women, the researchers drew on the life of 19th century abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

“In many ways, Sojourner Truth personifies the resistance to the interlocking oppressions of race, class and gender that has defined black women’s existence for generations. Sojourner Truth, like many of the women we encountered in the study, assumed extraordinary responsibilities.” Mullings then quoted Truth’s speech at the 1851 Akron Women’s Convention, a speech which “embodied the findings of the research: the assumption of economic, household and community responsibilities that express themselves in family headship, working outside the home and the constant need to address community empowerment and in intersecting and overlapping gendered role responsibilities carried out in circumstances characterized by class exploitation, race discrimination and gender subordination.”

At the convention, Truth said:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place, and ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have ploughed, and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as hard as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Leith Patricia Mullings was one of triplets, born April 8, 1945, in Mandeville, Jamaica. In 1961, started studying nursing at New York’s Queens College before finishing the five-year program with a bachelor of science in nursing from Cornell University. In 1970, Mullings earned a Master of Arts and in 1975 a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

After receiving her Ph.D., Mullings lectured in anthropology at Yale University. In 1974, she began lecturing at Columbia University and was named an assistant professor the next year and associate professor in 1981. That same year she began teaching at City University of New York, leaving Columbia two years later to work full time at CUNY, where she taught as a distinguished professor of anthropology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

As a researcher, she began work in Africa with the study of religion, plural medical and the construction of personhood in postcolonial Ghana. Her work has since centered on inequality, its consequences and resistance to it in the U.S. and other regions across the globe. Through the lens of feminist and critical race theory, Mullings also employed community participation to study structures of inequality and resistance to those structures.

Examining race, racism and resistance in a global context, her 2005 article for Annual Reviews, “Interrogating Racisms: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology,” offers an extensive review of scholarship on racism and offers a framework for thinking about changing structures of racism in a global context. Mullings has written about the intersections of race, class and gender, as detailed in

In many of her books–On Our Own Terms: Race, Class and Gender in the Lives of African American Women; Gender, Race, Class and Health: Intersectional Approaches (co-edited with Amy Schultz); and Stress and Resilience: The Social Context of Reproduction in Central Harlem (co-authored with Alaka Wali)–she used intersectionality to explain how power differentials produce and reproduce health disparities.

Mullings also had a longstanding interest in social movements. In October 1973, for example, she chaired the Continuation Committee at the 10th World Youth Festival and named sponsor of the National Anti-Imperialist Conference in Solidarity with African Liberation in Chicago. With her husband Manning Marable (who died in 2011), she compiled Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, a widely used text in African American studies as well as Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle. Her edited volume, New Social Movements in the African Diaspora: Challenging Global Apartheid was the foundation for her current projects.

Mullings’ research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Kellogg Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. She received the Society for the Anthropology of North America Prize for Distinguished Achievement in the Critical Study of North America and the French-American Foundation Prize: Chair in American Civilization from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

She served on the editorial boards of numerous academic journals and on the executive boards of the American Ethnological Society and the American Anthropological Association and as president of the American Anthropological Association from 2011 to 2013. In 2015, Mullings was among the 32 scholars named as Andrew Carnegie Fellows in the program’s first year.

At the time of her death, she was working on two projects: an ethnohistory of the African Burial Ground in New York City and a hemispheric initiative on racism, displacement and antiracist strategies among Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples.

Kenalyn Ang is the social science communications intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior, identity-making and representation through the written word, and creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

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