Dirty History and America's White Trash: American Eugenics and the Problem of Purity

Sue Currell


Sue Currell’s paper discussed the idea of purity on several levels of discourse: firstly, as a historical trope by which both “welfare” and eugenics were promoted as progress, seen in the metaphorical ideas of welfare as “social house cleaning” or the pure and thereby efficient body during the 1930s. Secondly, how “pure” records such as well-intentioned documentary photographs aiming to uplift the rural poor were “infected” with the “fictions” of eugenic discourse around gene impurity. Finally, how researching the history of eugenics raises further trouble by hanging out the “dirty laundry” of the process of history making itself, in raising the problematic of historical knowledge and pure truths/transparent meanings, arguing that the methodological issues raised by researching eugenics highlight mostly an “impure”, tainted, or incomplete historical record that needs acknowledgment.

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