But my soul is a witness

IMG_0748_Public Health Approach to Violence
A Public Health Approach to Violence, CDC Museum. Photo by author.

I did not start out thinking that these cases shared any close connection, or demonstrated any meaningful pattern. Even as they were housed in the same building. Even as these connections were loosely stitched together for me in my first conversation with the curator. But a few things happened that made it difficult for me to avoid analyzing them together. First, while researching the commemoration of crises, I came across a beautiful quote by James Baldwin: “My memory stammers, but my soul is a witness.” I searched for the source. I found it in an essay commissioned by Playboy magazine about the Atlanta murders. Baldwin, a reluctant commentator on these events, would later publish a book extending the insights of this essay to discuss the racial and class politics of the murders, their criminal investigation, and the criminal case brought against Wayne Williams for the murder of two young adults.

Second, I delivered multiple, reshuffled versions of a scholarly talk about Ebola exhibits at the CDC and Imperial War Museums. These were disjointed, unwieldy sessions where I showed dozens of images and shared a handful of interesting, but undertheorized, stories to scholars across the US and Europe. (The pitfall of sharing yet-to-be-digested anthropological research). While the story of the curator’s interest in the murders was never a part of those presentations, it would inevitably come up during the question and answer session that tended to follow these engagements. After a while, I began to think that maybe the story was more relevant to my CDC research than I initially believed.

I made plans to visit the museum a third time, during a trip to Atlanta for a conference, a few months after the Ebola exhibit had been taken down. I went looking for more clues about the organizing logic of the museum in the story being told in the permanent exhibit; to my mind, the spatial, textual and visual arrangements of the museum stand as a proxy for the story the agency wants to tell — or is at least, willing to tell — the world about itself. During that visit, I encountered “A Public Health Approach to Violence.” During that visit, I lingered there, snapping photos from every angle in hopes that I would return to the story, maybe not in this book, maybe not in my discussion of the CDC’s role in the Ebola outbreak, but at some other time.

The third triggering event, then, might not register as an event at all but as a call-and-response relationship with audiences who listened to me work through these findings, and with whom I’ve been teasing out CDC’s explicit relationship to violence and the agency’s under-examined martial politics. The explicit relationship resides in the Story of CDC itself. The display describes how the CDC became involved in studying violence as a public health problem. A timeline on the second panel of the Violence diptych offers a chronology of violence’s institutionalization within the agency’s mandate to promote the nation’s health, and of the professionalization of an ‘epidemiology of violence.’ (We learn, for example, that as a result of their collaboration with law enforcement to investigate the disappearances and murders, the Violence Epidemiology Branch was established in 1983; the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control was formed in 1992, with a Division of Violence Prevention opened in 1993). In centering the case of the “missing and murdered” children of Atlanta as a ‘catalyst’ for organizational expansion, the agency inadvertently shows how anti-black violence–structural, spatial, epistemic, interpersonal — subtended these professional and institutional processes.

The martial politics require more careful dissection.

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