Island University English Professor Pens COVID-19 Essay for Prestigious Journal

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – While in some cases, it seems as though the world has stopped due to COVID-19, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s faculty has remained engaged in digital instruction, scholarly research, and creative activity related to the pandemic.

One such faculty member is Dr. Kelly Bezio, newly promoted Associate Professor of English, who has contributed an essay as part of a special forum on American literary, historical, and cultural perspectives on COVID-19 in the journal American Literature. In mid-March, Bezio was invited by guest editor Dr. Sari Altschuler of Northwestern University and general editor and author Dr. Priscilla Wald of Duke University to contribute a 3,500-word essay entitled “How Quarantine Attempts to Universalize the Black Condition,” which was accepted after a review process in April. The COVID-19 special forum issue of American Literature is due out later this year.  

“I am a literary critic and I have been working on representations of epidemic disease for over 10 years – primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries – with a lot of connections to our present moment,” Bezio said.

In her essay, Bezio draws a parallel between the restricted movement of enslaved individuals under chattel slavery and social distancing measures employed during the COVID-19 pandemic. She draws on “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” a slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs published in 1861, to illustrate the connections between present-day labor conditions amid the pandemic and the institution of American slavery.

“There’s a fact we all know about the history of slavery in the United States: Enslaved individuals did not enjoy the civil liberty of being able to choose how their bodies moved through the world. They were told when and where to work, for how long, and they could be sold and moved without warning or regard to family ties throughout their entire lives,” Bezio said.

Bezio said the lack of choice about moving one’s own body is just one dimension of what Cameroonian philosopher-scholar Achille Mbembe calls “the Black Condition.” The term refers to a series of practices, laws, and social norms that were developed during race-based chattel slavery in the West.

“While quarantine or self-isolation measures are absolutely essential for public health, they also have the effect of normalizing certain present-day workers’ inability to choose how their bodies are moving through the world, often at great risk to their health. In my essay, I talk about how the pandemic, in addition to being a public health crisis, is a strategy to disenfranchise certain classes of workers in ways developed during our nation’s slaveholding history,” she said. 

Bezio said the kind of story told about a new infection can help dictate what unfolds economically, as well as with public health, to name a few. Emplotment – the assembly of events into a narrative with a plot, which conveys a larger human value – is used as a point of reference for helping people understand an event like a pandemic. In the early 20th century, the one most often utilized in novels and films is the “outbreak narrative,” a concept which Wald explored at length in her book “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and The Outbreak Narrative,” Bezio said.

“In her book, Wald argues that how we narrate outbreaks has consequences,” Bezio said. “Knowing the consequences of the outbreak narrative, I would say that, when we are faced with a pandemic or an epidemic, we should draw on a constellation of narratives – outbreak and non-outbreak – to ensure equitable and healthful outcomes.”

Bezio said she was pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to American Literature, a journal that she relies on in her scholarship and teaching.

“I enjoy belonging to a cohort of top-notch, nationally renowned scholars, researchers, and artists at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi whose work regularly appears in prestigious journals and venues,” Bezio said. “With its long tradition of hiring talented, innovative faculty, this university is proving to be an intellectual hub in the region and beyond.”