‘Black Feminism Now’: Morris on biological racism

Photo by Meryl Phair ’21   Speaker Courtney Desiree Morris gave a talk on the racist history of toxic chemical exposure in Louisiana.

Photo by Meryl Phair ’21

Speaker Courtney Desiree Morris gave a talk on the racist history of toxic chemical exposure in Louisiana.

BY MERYL PHAIR ‘21

“This series is meant to signal not just the immediacy of the now, but the permutations of past and future, negotiated by boundaries and borders that are never fixed,” said Kimberly Juanita Brown, Chair of Gender Studies and Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Mount Holyoke College as she introduced a new speaker series hosted by the gender studies department on Thursday, Jan. 24. Brown went on to introduce Courtney Desiree Morris, the first in the six-part ‘Black Feminism Now’ speaker series to the audience gathered in Cleveland L1.

Morris’ talk, “My Mother’s Body, or Mapping the Biological Life of Jim Crow” discussed her research into the petrochemical industry, or the refining and processing of petroleum or natural gas, in southwest Louisiana and its social and ecological effects within the region.

Her photography portfolio based on her research documents the ruined landscape of Mossville, Louisiana, where Morris’ maternal family has lived for over 150 years. The photography portfolio is titled Solastalgia, a term coined by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, to describe the psychic grief that accompanies the loss of one’s home environment due to forces beyond one’s control.

She began her talk by speaking about her mother, who lived in Mossville until she was 19, but left in 1979 to join the military. After completing basic training, she was posted in Stuttgart, Germany where she met Morris’ father in a nightclub.

Morris and her brother Christopher were living with their parents in Texas when her mother, 27 at the time, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was sent to the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, a U.S. Air Force medical treatment facility in San Antonio, for extensive chemotherapy.

“For months we waited on edge, unsure if she would make it out alive,” said Morris. “Then suddenly she was home with a scar.” Morris said she had a hard time wrapping her head around how such a healthy and vibrant person like her mother could get so sick. It wasn’t until years later that she considered the most obvious possibility.

“My mother left Mossville when she was 19 years old. She never lived in Mossville again but Mossville lived in her body and the body has a powerful memory,” said Morris.

Mossville is located northwest of Lake Charles, the eleventh largest industrial port in the United States. Since the 1930s, Mossville has been home to 14 different petrochemical plants that have manufactured some of the most toxic products known to science. Collectively, these industries emit 14,000 pounds of toxic chemicals each year. The petrochemical industry produces 68 billion dollars that goes towards Louisiana’s economy and provides 23,000 direct jobs and 126 jobs in related industries. “This comes at a high environmental and embodied cost,” said Morris.

Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death.” Morris uses this definition as a framework for mapping the biological life of Jim Crow, in her work to develop a critical theory for biological racism.

Morris’ concept, which she calls the ‘raw materiality of race’, is defined as “how common sense narratives of the social relationships between racial difference and material value inform the implicit logic that structures the normative and financial practices of the global petrochemical industry and the corporate actors that comprise its core constituent global factors.” In other words, the global petrochemical industry — and others like it — can and do structure their operations so that the environmental damage they cause primarily affects communities that society has deemed “less” valuable — those inhabited by people of color.

Morris said, “This shift in scientific research on toxic exposure and epigenetics suggests that there is much we can learn about how racism operates across time, space and bodies.” She added that critical race theorists have so far stopped short when exploring the relationship between the social and the biological.

“In the 1930s [Mossville] became a key site in the early development of the United States petrochemical economy,” said Morris. “From the beginning, African American communities were the preferred sites for petrochemical facilities. While many companies did eventually establish operations in neighboring white communities, they were largely spared from the dense concentrations of petrochemical plants that African Americans in Mossville experienced,” said Morris.

The first chemical plant in Mossville started to operate in 1935, followed by the city services plant and a petroleum refinery in 1942. Morris’s grandmother, Barbara Jean Freeman, had her first job at the age of sixteen, cleaning the barracks for city service workers, along with her older sisters. She recalled witnessing the rapid growth of the plants as a child and has spoken to Morris about it.

“And some years later when a lot of us had moved away ’cause we knew the plants was making us sick, you had a lot of people die and they couldn’t understand why they had the disease they had,” Freeman told Morris. “They had what was known as cancer. Young, old, it didn’t matter. But God blessed me because I had cancer and I survived it. A lot of people, young and old, weren’t so lucky and they still dying. They still dying.”

The petrochemical landscape of southwest Louisiana was not developed as a business strategy by economic and political leaders. Instead, Morris argued that local patterns of plant development and location of facilities were mapped onto an already existing geography of Jim Crow segregation that left the population disproportionately vulnerable to capital exploitation and state neglect.

With their water contaminated and their air polluted, communities became increasingly unlivable because of their proximity to the plants’ frequent explosions and chemical leaks. In 1998, 206 homeowners in Mossville filed a lawsuit against Condea Vista, a chemical plant in the neighboring town of Westlake, claiming that they had let the carcinogen ethylene dichloride seep into a local estuary following a chemical spill from a thirty year old pipeline that had never been fixed.

Condea Vista settled the lawsuit for $47 million and bought out houses in direct proximity to the spill. Morris said that this was a turning point for the community. It raised awareness of the chemical plants’ negligent disposal practices, confirmed what they had suspected about the industry’s latent racism and amplified fears among residents about the health risks they might face in the future.

Sasol, a South African chemical company, purchased Condea Vista in 2001. In 2011, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal announced at a press conference in Lake Charles that Sasol was going to expand to become, “the first facility in the United States that converts natural gas from shale rock via fracking into diesel fuel and other oils.” Jindal promised that the new facility would provide 1,200 permanent jobs and 7,000 temporary construction jobs as well as $46.2 billion in annual revenue; after announcing the news, Sasol soon began a voluntary buyout system to purchase homes of Mossville residents. Morris said that Mossville representatives were largely excluded from any kind of input about the impending changes to their community.

The ecological impact of this new facility is significant. The Louisiana department of environmental equality estimates that the facilities will produce 10 million cubic tons of greenhouse gases per year.

“In conversation with family members, local activists and former Mossville residents they spoke about the damage and bodily trauma that they have endured as a result of the industry’s negligence and the state’s indifference to this violence,” said Morris.

Morris said that long-term exposure to toxic chemicals has produced a significant increase in cancers, neurological disorders, reproductive disorders, respiratory illness and skin ailments among the residents of Mossville.

Some of the most dangerous chemicals that residents have been exposed to are dioxins, a highly toxic compound produced as a byproduct of chlorine combustion. Dioxins latch on to fatty tissues in the body and can stay there for years at a time; they can also potentially be passed on through fetal development in the womb. They can also alter, disrupt or accelerate the cellular functions that regulate the operations of the body.

Studies from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry found that the dioxin levels in Mossville residence is three times the national average. The high levels of dioxin compounds in Mossville residences are considered a unique group that differs significantly from that of the national comparison. Morris says that the longterm and transgenerational effects of this type of exposure is not yet known. “We need to recalibrate our political demands in a way that addresses the irreparable harm of toxic exposure over time,” said Morris.

“My mother does not smoke, she works out three days a week, she’s careful about what she eats,” said Morris. “She left Mossville, married my father and lives on 10 acres of land in central Texas. She’s done everything right and yet there’s little she can do to undo the damage that 19 years of toxic exposure inflicted on her body. The biological inheritance of Jim Crow racism simply cannot be unmade through individual choice.”

“Our history lives in our bodies, and I’m proposing we take this argument seriously by considering how antiblack racism is enacted through biological processes that mark our bodies as viable and disposable,” Morris concluded.

The next speaker of the series will be Bettina Judd on Tuesday Feb. 5, in 305 Kendade Hall at 4:30 p.m. Her talk is titled “Messages from the Ones: Lucille Clifton’s Automatic Writing as Technologies of Becoming.”