Reflecting on Boundaries, Protection, and Inspiration
Written by: Guest Contributor
By: Gina Athena Ulysse
Before reading Zoe Todd’s “Should I stay or Should I go?,” I had been pondering writing a post about why and how, I, a Black Haitian woman, claim anthropology. Since I usually begin with titles, I contemplated a few including, “One Foot in and One Foot Out: Post-Zora in da House,” “I Can’t Believe I Lasted this Long,” and my favorite, “Evolve or Be Extinct”— a nod to the King of Grime, English rapper Wiley.
While I perused Todd’s reflection as documentation of samo, or plus ca change, I mentally created an additional list of experiences specific to my embodiment, position, and institution, I relived many a moments of frustrations, deliberation, and comprehension during the course of my career. Since it is no secret I have had an ambivalent relationship with anthropology and academia, friends brought her piece to my attention. Resisting an exercise in spiralism, my list quickly evaporated as I admitted I have nothing new to add to what has been written in copious anthologies by minoritized individuals in historically white disciplines and institutions. And yet, I do feel compelled to say what follows.
Recently, in a conversation with a grad school friend, I was reminded I have been in this profession for nearly three decades. While the vocation did not come with an expiration date (perhaps it should), I honestly cannot believe I lasted this long. Yikes is too mild a word. Besides determination to individuate, I refuse to become a casualty of systemic racism, or of the misogynoir that is rampant in institutions. Black women have a habit to surviving as Kesho Scott has documented. In these times, to do more than survive, I operate from a simple premise, to put it bluntly, it was white when I arrived, and it will likely be whiter when I leave. So I do what my ancestors have historically done. I adapt, marronage and all. Fugitivity is a Haitian staple. It took a while, I finally understand the personal is structural, and no matter what is said, it is and has always been about labor, values, and power. What accounts for my longevity and successes are excellent mentoring from elders who went through worse, and painful processes of learning to define, enact, and insist on boundaries, protection, and inspiration.
Black feminist Ann Ducille’s work remains a most relevant cautionary tale. In the essay “The Occult of True Black Womanhood” from her book Skin Trade, she wrote about “the crisis of black female intellectuals: the hyper-visibility, super-isolation, emotional quarantine, and psychic violence of our precarious positions in academia.” Over these past years, I have experienced the nuanced ways that divisions of labor epistemic, affective, and otherwise are affected by race, class, gender, and nationality because the conditions for my “belonging” are inextricably tied to an ontological status ascribed to me from which we (and I am being kind) have not yet evolved. The pedagogical impulse is toward mammification, as Faye V. Harrison has dubbed it, that I continue to resist, which has always been central to the functioning of systems. Moreover, since the “savage slot” category, as the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, was the raison d’être of this discipline, in its most traditional form, I was an anthropological subject. I can either choose to be in perpetual quest to measure up to those for whom, as a so-called native, I am socially restricted to Informant. Certainly Not Full Interlocutor. Worker. Or, I can try to imitate Zora knowing how it feels to be colored me, and learn how to sharpen an oyster knife!.
We live in and with hierarchy, which have been as integral to anthropology as they are to academic institutions. The fact is most of us have no clue who are we in this world without relations of domination. Given I still have a choice, I take my lessons from Toni Morrison who in a 1975 discussion at the Portland State Black Studies Center stated,
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
In the meantime, while waiting for someone to “build me an equitable human assertion… and I provide the stock, the beasts and myths,” as the late poet Amiri Baraka so beautifully put it in his poem “Leadbelly Gives an Autograph,” I will keep being me. Do let me know when you catch up.
Once thing is certain, as QueenBey channeled Malcom X to recently remind us, given the perilous status of black women in America, there will be always be one more thing I am expected to prove… So most of my career, I have responded to the verve. For as cultural critic, the late Godfather of Soul, James Brown sang, what it is Is what is! I tolerate and made peace with anthropology’s deficiencies and contradictions precisely because I have no investment and intention in recreating them. Point final. And that is the crux of the matter. My hope is in what Trouillot calls anthropology’s moral optimism, a possibility beyond rhetoric that makes me seriously wish more young minoritized folks would choose the discipline despite the conundrum that plagues its rather long sordid history and contemporary restrictions. Decolonization has been in effect for quite some time.
When the tweet above graced my timeline, I thought of Alice Walker’s essay on the importance of models in an artist’s life. Indeed, I had to discover my intellectual lineage in reverse. Intellectual silences and disavowals are pertinent to racial dominance. So I contacted Acquanda Stanford, a Ph.D. student at University of Washington who made the pins shown above. She reminded me of Lynn Bolles’s quote from her essay “Seeking the Ancestors” in the Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics and Praxis anthology, “For almost as long as there have been graduates of anthropology departments, there have been black women who studied this field of inquiry.”
I claim anthropology because I came to the discipline out of curiosity, it blew my mind, gave me mad skills to explore the world, and express what I have learned using multiple modes, aiming for broader publics. This, in turn, has made me curiouser. We have more in common than we know. Therein lies the inspiration.