My dissertation is the first gendered study of the effects of restrictive covenants - deed contracts prohibiting the purchasing or occupation of a home based on race. I examine Black women writers’ framing of restrictive covenants as environmentally hazardous agents in the lives of urban Black residents. I triangulate literary analysis, archival data from the radical Black Press, and trial arguments from restrictive covenant court cases in order to examine how the invention of restrictive covenants permanently transformed Black politics and Black visual culture. Newly migrated Black residents in urban enclaves found themselves living on the front lines of an ecological crisis as they were increasingly exposed to diseases, pests, lead, and other health hazards as a result of living in overcrowded, deteriorated housing conditions.
Black women were at an increased risk since prolonged exposure to toxins made them susceptible to illnesses that affected their reproductive health, denying them bodily autonomy. Given that the U.S. Supreme Court heard no cases on restrictive covenants between 1926 and 1940, and didn’t invalidate them until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, I argue that Black women writers and journalists intervened during this period of legal neglect, using the public spheres of literature and the radical Black press to equip their readers with what I call an “urban ecological consciousness,” thereby bringing about a sustained attention to Black healthcare needs through grassroots activism. This work illuminates Black writers role in what Alondra Nelson calls “the long medical civil rights movement
I argue that writers and journalists like Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, and Toni Cade Bambara, used their texts to present their own judicial cases against restrictive covenants as lethal agents and state-sanctioned forms of biopolitical violence. In doing so, they formed an indictment against both restrictive covenants and the state in ways the Supreme Court failed to do. Ultimately, my project illuminates Black women writers’ participation in developing movement-building counter narratives that challenged the prevailing racialized scientific ideologies that upheld restrictive covenants at the court level, and which continue to underlie urban development practices today. Further, by investigating the “health politics” of Black women writers, I situate them as some of the first to articulate intersectional understandings of environmental justice and biopolitics.