At the beginning of his talk, guest speaker Eli Clare remarked that he would be speaking about a grim piece of history. Eli’s lecture, titled “Yearning Towards Carrie Buck,” was the story of Carrie Buck, a poor white woman who was sentenced to forced sterilization in 1927 on the count of being “feeble-minded”.
The infamous court case, “Buck v. Bell”, made involuntary sterilization laws constitutional. This lecture, sponsored by the Feminist Studies department, was held on Nov. 15.
“I thought it was a very heavy topic,” junior Kristi Lenderman said. “I think it really connected with disability and ability problems, and the intersection of class, race and how those issues from the 1920s are here today.”
Clare explained how the court case came about, under the guise of the “science” of eugenics, which declared that poverty, crime, immigration and other issues were all moral issues. More importantly, these moral issues came down to heredity. Carrie’s story wasn’t told like a court case or science briefing, however, but melded poetry, history, and images to create a living and breathing story of Carrie’s life.
“As a poet, Eli is especially attentive to words — the way they sound, the way they move around in our mouths, the way they make us think. As a writer and performer, he asks us to slow down and think about the words we are using and why,” feminist studies professor Dr. Alison Kafer said.
The term eugenics was coined in 1895 in England, and migrated to the United States where the process was expanded and developed. Essentially, eugenics desires to improve the genetic condition of a population, usually in reference to human populations. Eventually the concept of eugenics went to post-war Germany and inspired the Nazi Party, who took the ideas to cruel action.
Senior Eli Sreniawski commented that she had learned about Carrie Buck in her Gender and Science class, about Eli Clare in Feminist Disability Studies, and about eugenics in several of her classes.
“It’s cool to pull together topics outside of class,” Sreniawski said. “That’s what a liberal arts education is all about.”
Most people have never heard Carrie’s story, and how the concept of eugenics relates to the modern day. At the time, eugenics was seen as a science that melded with social policy, and certainly was not considered “fringe” at many times in history. It’s a subject and a history that comes up in many classes at Southwestern.
“One of the things I most appreciate about Eli’s work is his insistence on cross-movement analysis. He makes clear that conversations about disability are also always conversations about class, about race, about sexuality, about gender, about environmentalism,” Dr. Kafer said. “As a result, his book “Exile and Pride” works as well in my Ecofeminists and Queer Greens class as it does in my Feminist Disability Studies and Intro to Feminist Studies classes.”
Clare also mentioned the surprising statistic that in the United States, 90% of fetuses thought to have Down syndrome are aborted. Regardless of one’s opinion on abortion, Eli emphasized how the art of storytelling helps us remember great and terrible things and how issues from decades past come up event today.
“Knowing and learning history is an important part of learning now,” Clare said.