Faculty Q&A: Samuel K. Roberts

Interview by Melanie A. Farmer

It was, ironically enough, a bad high school history teacher who got Samuel Roberts hooked on history. As a teenager growing up in the 1980s in Richmond, Va., where he attended a magnet public school, Roberts and his classmates found the instructor so terrible that they researched history facts on their own and showed off their newfound knowledge in class.
 
At the same time, the budding historian began thinking seriously about history.
 
Samuel K. Roberts
Samuel K. Roberts
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University
“There was a moment there for black youth where it was sort of like Black Nationalism-Black Power 1.5, not quite 2.0,” said Roberts. “Many of us had read the books that we found on our parents’ bookshelves. And then there was popular culture. We were listening to Public Enemy, KRS-1 and Poor Righteous Teachers…when hip hop music was more blatantly a revolutionary endeavor. African American history had always been a part of that.”
 
Of course, not many teenagers were reading what Roberts raided from his parents’ bookshelves. “I made off with books by Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Walter Rodney, Eugene Genovese, John Hope Franklin, C. L. R. James and a bunch of others,” he said.
 
Now, as an associate professor of history here, Roberts is teaching the very subject that fascinated him as a teenager. After studying history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, he completed his doctorate at Princeton University. His dissertation has turned into a book, Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease and the Health Effects of Segregation, due out in May from University of North Carolina Press.
 
In it, Roberts traces the politics of tuberculosis and examines the issues relating to public health and social politics. While the disease is the book’s principal focus, it is also a means for him to scrutinize the still problematic relationship between race, class and health care in America. Tuberculosis was among the top killers of urban African Americans between the 1880s and the first half of the 20th century.
 
Roberts is fascinated with the connections between race and science, and his research focuses on the historical perspectives in African American health history, urban history and the history of social movements. (He is also an assistant professor at Mailman School of Public Health, currently on leave.) He has recently established the Harlem Health History Project, a teaching and research project designed for historical study of such urban health issues as obesity, environmental justice, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and community mental health. And he is working with Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning to make the findings available to a wide audience via an interactive website. Roberts’ next book project, for which he was recently awarded a $10,000 seed grant from Columbia’s Institute of Social and Economic Research and Policy, will be on the politics of race and addiction policy, research and on treatment in New York City between 1950 and the early 1980s, focusing on African American communities in Brooklyn and Harlem.
 
Q. Tell us more about the book and why you decided to focus on tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis was a very mysterious disease. During the period covered in the book, we just barely knew what caused it and we had no cure until the 1940s. And tuberculosis was attended by a lot of social stigma against lower classes, against non-whites, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, African Americans, the Chinese, the whole gamut. Of course, these were groups who had high levels of poverty and hence lived in the kind of poor housing which promotes the spread of tuberculosis. The book examines the politics of tuberculosis very much on the ground level, looking at public health politics, social politics and the politics of housing. Tuberculosis is a disease of space, really. One of the things people knew very early on was that individuals who lived in cramped quarters, in conditions of poverty, were more susceptible to the disease. However, the official public health responses to this—when it came to African Americans and to an extent, Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans and the Irish—was to put a racial slant to it, to say that many of these groups developed tuberculosis because they were racially predisposed to the disease.

Q. What was the rationale behind that?

African Americans were thought to be more at risk because they were considered “tropical,” unsuited for urban living, so as you might imagine, this is an argument that implicitly and sometimes explicitly was an argument for keeping blacks literally “on the farm.” You would have narratives that would say African Americans developed tuberculosis because they left the healthful effects of slavery, and later, share cropping, and decided to take their own fortunes in their hands and move to the city. Keep in mind, this was in the early 20th century, during a time when there was intense consternation among whites and many middleclass blacks about the tens of thousands of black people moving into cities.
 
Q. What was treatment like then?
 
Nobody received treatment the way we would have it today because there was no chemical cure before the 1940s. However, one observation I make is that the institutional treatment available to blacks was not at all comparable to those available to whites. But also institutional treatment wasn’t always that great a proposition anyway. In fact, even amongst whites this was something that was bifurcated based on class. If you were well-to-do, then you could afford a lengthy stay in a sanatorium in a very nice part of the country. If you were poor and white, chances are your access to institutional care was pretty limited.
 
Q. In terms of the disease’s spread, did it have more to do with class than race?
 
That’s another argument of the book. Efforts to disaggregate class and race or vice versa are really laden more with artifice than they are with any sort of constructive promise. In real life, people don’t live a class position entirely, any more than they live a race or sexual position entirely. It’s always a mixed bag. For example, with tuberculosis—a disease that everyone knew was largely about poverty—as soon as many physicians, researchers and statisticians started to look at race and tuberculosis in black populations, the whole class analysis gets dropped out and it’s about black people; as in, Why do black people suffer this disease more than whites? Many black physicians would have said, ‘Well it’s because more of us are poor. Why are more of us poor? Well, largely because we’re locked out of these jobs.’ So it’s both; it’s the intersection of race and class.
 
Q. Did you come across any surprises while researching the book?
 
I was surprised by how pervasive this disease was in everyday life 80 years ago and before. By my estimate, amongst African Americans, anybody alive in or before 1940 either knew somebody or was related to somebody who died of the disease or had the disease. The contribution I’m making is that it’s not just a story about a disease—one of many stories in African American history or in the history of public health and medicine—but really there is an integrated approach there that literally gives us a lens through which to think of racial science and literally the space of public health politics.
 
Q. Your scholarship is a blend of history, race and public health. What excites you most about studying this area?
 
Particularly today we’re just at a point where some of the old ideas are about to fall by the wayside. We are entering a period of real inventiveness, and the good side of that is that this is something we’ll see on many levels, in our politics, economy, also in just how our communities maintain themselves. The downside is, this is because of the necessity produced of an economic downturn and eight years of global and domestic belligerence which has just reached a point of instability. One thing I’m very heartened by in our politics over the past few years is that over the past eight years we’ve seen sustained political agitation from public health practitioners and advocates, not an easy proposition given the political climate.
 
Q. As a scholar of African American history, what does it mean to you that we have our first black president?
 
How can I not be excited about this? However, what I always try to remind people is that we also have a president who has a very open but directed way of thinking about a new brand of politics, at a period where that’s exactly what we need. But the jury is always out. He is, after all, still a politician. Politicians are there for us to criticize them and to keep pressing them in the direction in which we want them to go. I’m heartened by the contrast between President Obama and the gentleman who maintained that office prior to him. Obama seems to be open to new ideas, and indeed to the idea that there will be other new ideas. It’s up to us to continue the demands—for equity, for health security, for peace, for opportunity and economic security—which made his presidency possible in the first place. After all, Franklin Roosevelt’s historical legacy hasn’t suffered from the observation that many of his New Deal policies were responses to the emergence of political rivals, popular demands or criticism. We recognize his brilliance as having stemmed from an astute reading of the situation. I’m very interested to see how this new president reads the current situation.
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