Sensibilities of the flesh

— Nicole Charles —

In an interview with a well-known Barbadian pediatrician about parents’ hesitancy toward the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Dr. Jones (a pseudonym) said to me: ‘I think after a while, people will come to their senses, do what’s best and protect [their children].’ But for Bernadette (also a pseudonym), a 39-year-old Afro-Barbadian mother of two, coming to her senses meant reasoning with her deepest feelings of doubt to refuse the HPV vaccine for her 12-year-old daughter:

It’s very difficult when you have a child and you’re trying to see what’s the best thing for their health, protection, for their lives, you know? It’s really daunting, but I felt, I feel really convicted in what my deep instincts were.

While Dr. Jones invokes a sensibility whereby one acts according to biomedical knowledge and instruction to protect the body from disease, Bernadette articulates an instinctual sense of suspicion to similarly protect her daughter. Like Bernadette, many Barbadian parents with whom I spoke had a suspicion that engendered both skepticism and an impulse to protect. For these parents, suspicion is a form of protection – a visceral response through which HPV vaccination is seen as antithetical to protection.

What does it mean to ‘come to one’s senses and protect’, if we consider not only the multiple meanings of the word ‘sense’, but the material and psychic histories that, like palimpsests, inform Barbadian parents’ hesitancy toward the HPV vaccine?

A sense is simultaneously a capacity through which the body recognizes a stimulus, and a feeling or intuitive awareness to the presence of something. Sense refers to the way an event can be interpreted, and sense, as in good or bad sense, describes a discernment. Meanwhile, to sense or to perceive by sense is to attune to the reality of something without a clear articulation of how one comes to that knowledge or realization. Bringing along a further claim of rationality, the phrase ‘to come to one’s senses’ refers to restoring one’s consciousness after a period of irrationality. Likewise, to be sensible, to have, or to be in one’s senses, is to be sane and in full control of one’s thoughts, words and actions. But sensibility might also be thought of, in the words of self-defined black lesbian feminist mother poet warrior Audre Lorde (2007: 37), as ‘a disciplined attention to the true meaning of “it feels right to me”’, that is, an instinctual feeling in and through the body – a form of mindedness through which reason and protection are achieved.

Beyond conceiving of sensibility as rationality, this more capacious consideration recognizes sensing as the body’s ability to detect or feel stimuli, from pain and temperature, to visceral, internal senses like memory. Through this conception, I suggest, we might better appreciate the affective intensities involved in many Barbadian parents’ suspicion of the HPV vaccine and the sensibilities of protection this suspicion engenders. Barbadian parents’ sense of suspicion toward the HPV vaccine ought to be understood as informed not only by the state’s contemporary immersion in increasingly technological global (bio)political assemblages, but by a shifting and cumulative historical set of practices of medical surveillance, experimentation, policing and control of black women’s sexuality, their health and reproduction in the name of capital accumulation from the period of slavery (Charles, 2018).  These practices, histories and memories are deeply enfleshed – felt, experienced, remembered, recalled, by and through the flesh. What happens if we consider the flesh as not only sensitive but sensible?

In the words of Hortense Spillers (1987: 68), flesh ‘offers a praxis and a theory, a text for living and for dying, and a method for reading both through their diverse mediations’. Spillers and other women of colour feminist theorists of the flesh (e.g. Hartman, 2016; Moraga and Anzaldúa, 2015; Morgan, 2004) appreciate the mediation required for theorizing embodiment and reproduction in the wake of colonialism, slavery and racism. Reading parents’ claims of skepticism about the vaccine, its untraditional promotion and the perceived threat it posed to their children through these theories, makes clear how both suspicion and protection are enfleshed. They connect concerns about the vaccine and its effects on reproductive futurity to anxieties around the state’s increasing apathy and continued involvement in global pharmaceutical assemblages at the expense of the public. Parents traced a narrative that connects the long history of racialized exploitation and injurious biopolitical projects involving black women’s bodies in the Caribbean with contemporary state, medical and pharmaceutical attempts to protect girls’ reproduction, via vaccination, through the flesh.

Puncturing the flesh, vaccines enter our bodies with the forceful jab of a needle. There is pain, there is swelling, there is redness. Many of us know someone who fears or avoids needles for this very reason. Abstractly referencing this, parents further invoked the language of force to refer not to the penetration of flesh, but to the unwelcome biomedical imposition of the vaccine. As they perceived it, the Ministry of Health and its doctors and nurses ‘forcefully pushed’ the vaccine, ‘shoved it down their throats’ through the media, parent-teacher meetings and intensive promotional efforts. Honoring the flesh, its sensibilities, memories, sensitivities and capacities to feel, parents such as Bernadette who refused the vaccine committed to their deeply felt instincts and suspicions in hopes of protecting their children from painful colonial pasts, force, authority and unknown futures. What can we learn from these parents’ visceral articulations of suspicion and protection, from the sensibilities of their flesh?

References

Charles N (2018) Unsettling HPV vaccination and affective suspicions in Barbados. Feminist Formations, forthcoming.

Moraga C and Anzaldúa G (2015) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.

Hartman S (2016) The belly of the World: A note on Black women’s labors. Souls 18(1): 166–173.

Lorde A (2007). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press.

Morgan JL (2004). Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Spillers H (1987) Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book. Diacritics 17: 65–81.