“I began this project as a racial and sexual history of the U.S. military abroad,” says the professor in a Q&A for Black Agenda Report. “It soon became a study in which race and sexuality became the optics through which Black people, conscripted into imperial service, wrestled with notions of death and honor.”
Polk’s book, Contagions of Empire: Scientific Racism, Sexuality, and Black Military Workers Abroad, 1898–1948, was published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2020.
“The historical parallels between the moment of black sacrifice I study and today are pretty shocking,” says Polk, an associate professor of Black studies and sexuality, women's and gender studies at Amherst. “In 1898, Black men and women signed up to serve as ‘immune’ soldiers and nurses in the U.S. military due to a belief that Black people were immune to tropical diseases. Like essential workers today, these military workers were seen as indispensable for their grunt and care labor during the yellow fever epidemic in Cuba, but their lives and sacrifices were ultimately expendable to the larger project of American imperialism.”