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«A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Joint Doctor of Philosophy with the University of California, ...»

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Translating Sweetness: Type 2 Diabetes, Race, Research, and Outreach


James Battle

A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the

requirements for the degree of

Joint Doctor of Philosophy

with the University of California, San Francisco


Medical Anthropology

in the

Graduate Division

of the

University of California, Berkeley

Committee in charge:

Professor Cori Hayden, Chair

Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Professor Charles Briggs

Professor Sharon Kaufman Professor Michel Laguerre Spring 2012 Translating Sweetness: Type 2 Diabetes, Race, Research, and Outreach ©James Battle Abstract Translating Sweetness: Type 2 Diabetes, Race, Research, and Outreach By James Battle Joint Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Anthropology with the University of California, San Francisco University of California, Berkeley Professor Cori Hayden, Chair Through the lens of Type 2 diabetes this dissertation considers race and problems of difference and risk with developments in treatment, genomic science, and the conduct of research and research priorities. Based primarily on fieldwork in New York and California, I interrogate public health notions of outreach with biotechnology and clinical research concepts of biomedical translation as synonymous practices. Institutional relationships and marketing drivers, I argue, reflect relatedness back onto the Type 2 diabetes patient through causal narratives of risk and inevitability. In effect, kinship—genetic, familial, racial, ethnic, and environmental—becomes the driver of both risk and emergent forms of bioliterary discipline. I present a narrative of how diabetic risk became racialized over time and how African Americans became seen as a desirable research population. Arguing against biological race, I present an ethnographic example of how one such African American population, or community, emerged from particular social and political histories. Fieldwork uncovered lingering memories of the Tuskegee Experiment combined with cultural incompetency in both public health and biotechnology sectors. Further, I consider the bioethical challenges of African (American) participation in new genomicresearch aimed toward reducing health disparities. However, as a racial category, genetics researchers debate the precise genetic location and definition of “Africa” in the human genome. I suggest that the search for a pathological Africa in the human genome may deepen racial stigmatization as well as author new narratives of difference. I submit that social disparity, not biological disparity, presents the ultimate challenge to successful effective clinical translation and public health outreach.

i Translating Sweetness: Type 2 Diabetes, Race, Research and Outreach

–  –  –

Preface Chapter One—Introduction Chapter Two —Framing Diabetes Chapter Three — Inside the Technology of Appearances Chapter Four —Venues: Churches, Prisons, Bodies Chapter Five — Health Disparities, Race, and Ancestry Chapter Six — Translation and Outreach

–  –  –

This dissertation bears my name and indeed I have put an extraordinary amount of time and energy into the effort. However, it is also a product of countless hours of collaborative engagement both outside and inside the academy walls. I would like to thank my dissertation chair, Cori Hayden, for her patient guidance throughout the graduate school journey and her incisive commentary on my work. The readers on my committee – Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Michel Laguerre, Charles Briggs, and Sharon Kaufman – each brought diverse knowledge bases to my research and writing. I thank my entire committee for being models of scholarship and professionalism that I determine to emulate.

I would like to pass on my appreciation to the faculty-led dissertation writing groups conducted by Stanley Brandes at UC Berkeley and Sharon Kaufman at UC San Francisco. Stanley, Sharon and my colleagues greatly helped shape my early writing of this dissertation. Brad Erickson provided valuable editorial and organizational advice. I also extend my thanks to Cori Hayden’s writing group in Fall 2009. Thank you Cori for bringing all of your graduate students together in one space of shared writing and critique.

Outside of the academy, I thank my contacts at the Alameda County Department of Public Health and the Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco. In New York, I extend my gratitude to the American Diabetes Association, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, and the Clinical Research Center. I would especially like to thank the entire Rochester community for their interest in my work and efforts to reduce health disparities in the area.

My inner strength to persevere through seven years of graduate school and the writing of this dissertation originates from the bottomless well of love that my family has provided during these travails: To my mother, Clara Doucet, my children Tashann and Leona, and countless aunts, uncles, and cousins, thank you. Suzanne, thank you for believing that I could become the next Ph.D. in the family. Heartfelt thanks to Regina Thompson for her love and support through my darkest hours and brightest days. And thank God for Facebook, which barely existed when I began graduate school, for helping me keep sane and expanding my own social network.

–  –  –

Preface “The track sugar has left in modern history is one involving masses of people and resources, thrown into productive combination by social, economic, and political forces that were actively remaking the world” (Mintz 1985: 211).

My first encounter with diabetes or “sugar” was with my maternal grandmother, Bébé, a diabetic for the last thirty years of her life and the first twenty-five of mine. I lived with her and my grandfather in New York for most of the first twenty-one years of my life. I reveled in their stories of life in the South and the ways in which a life just recently lived but was no longer so, was narratively made close enough to feel, taste, and touch.

This sugar narrative begins with a Louisiana Afro-French Creole family from the Bayou Têche, deep in the Atchafalaya Basin of southwestern Louisiana. It was never profitable to the French, eventually becoming a frontier outpost (Fort Attakapas) occupied by hardy colonists and later refugees from Nova Scotia. Therefore in this area, slavery was originally a domestic form of the institution, with the average household having one or two slaves (Brasseaux 1994). The majority of these early Africans were brought from Senegambia under “favorable” conditions by decree of the French Crown, because of their expertise in growing rice, which the French hoped to feed their slaves in the more profitably extractive colonies of Saint Domingue (Haiti) and Martinique (Midlo Hall 1992).

After the Haitian Revolution, St. Martinville, Louisiana followed only New Orleans in the number of Haitian refugees who settled in the area. It was a refugee population consisting of planters, their slaves, as well as free people of color (gens du couleur libre). Shortly thereafter, several varieties of Haitian sugarcane were successfully bred which could withstand the infrequent but potentially devastating cold snaps that periodically descended upon subtropical southern Louisiana. Later, Norbert Rillieux, an Afro-Creole inventor educated in France, revolutionized the technology of sugar cane juice evaporation.1 It was now a grand time in diasporic, transnational St. Martinville—a vibrant French language press; a French Opera House;

the education of some children in France; and Les Bals—grand dances in the best of French costuming and masquerade.

However, it was also the site of numerous epidemics, endemic disease, and death. Yellow fever epidemics ravaged the area repeatedly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. To illustrate the collective memory of those uncertain times of bio-insecurity—and present an example more deserving of historical attention and research—is a plaque in le carré, or square, outside the New Iberia Public Library.

It pays homage to Félicité, A black woman, native of Haiti. During the yellow fever epidemic here in 1839, she nursed the sick, administered to the dying, closed the eyes of the dead, and wept over their graves. Loved and honored by townspeople for the remainder of her life, she died in January 1852. The day of her burial, every business in New Iberia closed its doors, and every man, woman, and child in town Norbert Rillieux. US Patent 3237. Improvement in Sugar Works, US Patent Office, New Orleans, LA, August 26, 1843.

iv followed her to her last resting place in St. Peter’s Cemetery. She was an angel of mercy in a time of pestilence. Her name shall not be allowed to drop into oblivion.

Not your typical antebellum Southern narrative, the plaque gives an idea of the social nature of the area. It was an area slower than most in the adoption of Anglo-American racial discourses, categories, and exclusionary practices. In practice, its racial categories and social performances more closely resembled Cuba or Trinidad than say, South Carolina. Family, the Catholic religion, and (Creole and Cajun) French language and mores were as sharp as race in demarcating social difference.

Emerging within this milieu, my maternal family consisted of sugar cane farmers, ésclaves, workers, and plantation owners. Sugar production became an organizational axis around which kinship, labor, consumption, language, religion, race, and economic domains were reinforced and reconfigured through this particular form of engagement with praxis2, history and the material, rationalized by capital. As a child born and raised in New York, my initial experiences with this familial past were sometimes hauntingly disconcerting when taking family

trips to the bayou. The following illustrates one of these episodes:

When I was a young boy, we traveled by car to New Iberia, where we stayed with my Tantie (Aunt) Delores, a very large woman with two very large daughters, my favorite cousines, Josephine and Rena. One hot day, I opened the refrigerator, where before me sat an ominous looking pitcher of liquid, a cloudy solution made all the more mysterious by the refrigerator light shining through. I asked my mother, “What is this?” “It’s sugar water,” she replied. Disturbed, I asked her whether someone was going to eventually squeeze in some lemon or lime juice (to make it drinkable). She said, “No, people here drink that for energy.” My tender age notwithstanding, the only word which came to mind was, “slavery.” This empty calorie drink, I imagined, was probably older than lemonade itself, a physiological necessity brought on by times I shuddered to imagine, much less accept. I was relieved to know that sugar water consumption was discontinued when our wing of the family moved north.

Nevertheless, as both object and artifact, its historical, symbolic and interpretive power has since indelibly persisted in my psyche—all the more so since becoming aware of the practice throughout sugarcane growing regions of the Creole Atlantic world.

However, while newly cognizant of this particular historical form of sugar consumption, I was totally oblivious to the then contemporary forms of empty calorie consumption. We ate homemade German chocolate cake, made with hand-shredded fresh coconut and plus-plus portions of delectable local pecans. With this we downed entire cans of Hawaiian Punch. When one cake was finished, another was baked. This was breakfast—every day for a week. I was in bayou Louisiana, the land of sugar, a child’s garden, where it seemed as if nothing sweet could ever possibly be considered culturally wrong — despite the fact that Rena, age 14, and Josephine, age 16, weighed approximately two hundred and twenty and two hundred and thirty pounds, respectively.

How do I know? Because we discussed weight openly—it never occurred to us that being large, alone, would make one less desirable or less self-confident. Largeness was not seen as a By “praxis” I refer to Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of a strategic mimesis embedded in reciprocal relationships structurally framed by spatial and temporal specificities through which power is refracted through subjects and objects.

v barrier to life, marriage/partnership, children, family, to happiness.3 “Sugar,” the term used for diabetes was, like hypertension, something one acquired along the way, sur la piste de la vie.4 My diversion into personal family history both prefaces and foregrounds this dissertation within a chronology of my intellectual interest in Type 2 diabetes. Of course it also never occurred to us, as with most folks, that we were subjects and citizens produced by histories, economies, and environments shaped by power. However, labor, production, consumption, as well as an embodied state labeled and experienced around “sugar,” was intimately known and perhaps fatalistically, accepted. The connections made by Mintz (1985) between sugar production, labor, globalization, capital accumulation, and nutritional inputs and outcomes across divergent geographies—and the ways in which societies and cultures are made and remade— echo strongly with my experiences as a member of a family embedded within these Creole histories, practices, and relationships.

Creole sociogenesis, “a theory of culture in relation to labor and capital, not a theory of bounded racial essentialisms,” as Mintz and Price (1992) stated, undergirds my argument in this dissertation about “sugar” or Type 2 diabetes. Framings of Type 2 diabetes risk as racially (biologically, genetically) determined miss the conceptual mark: one of Type 2 diabetes as cultural affect in relation to consumption and capital, reflective of new forms of behavior, or labor. I suggest that the obesity and Type 2 diabetes pandemics arguably make moot any temptation to equate culture with race, biology with culture, or biology with race. I consider how race, culture, and biology mightily inform new genetic and genomic languages of human difference.

See Nichter (2001:160) Adele Clarke (private communication) profitably suggests a line from the classic Martha Reeves and Vandellas’ song “Heatwave” as an epistemological heuristic: “Either my high blood pressure’s got a hold on me or is this the way it’s supposed to be?” Illness as component of habitus.

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