I had one really rough class this week. At the break in my three hour seminar, one of my classmates approached me and asked me why I had been quieter than usual so far. I told her that I didn’t have much to say considering that one of the pieces we had read for the week involved a grotesque amount of explicitly described violence against enslaved people, particularly assault against enslaved women. Another African American student from the class described the experience of reading such things traumatic. I was angry because it taught me less about a history of racial formation than it did about a history of the horrific things white slaveholders could do to enslaved people.
I am an incredibly sensitive person, despite whatever impression one may have of me. I found myself unable to watch movies about slavery until I was in college because I would have a panic attack. Even then, I still haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave because I know how much violence is in it. It is a psychic assault in some ways to be forced to read about the traumas suffered by your ancestors as written by a man whose ancestors would have been enslavers.
So I did the one thing that I have a hard time doing: I spoke up.
I expressed my concerns about the gratuitous violence and fought back against the students that tried to assert that violence is an effective learning tool. I countered by saying, “The first time you think to yourself, ‘oh, Black lives do matter’ should not be when you see a dead body on the 5 o’clock news.” We shouldn’t need violence to prove that the institution of slavery was horrifying and we shouldn’t use violence as a tool because it becomes a spectacle. This is one of the main arguments of another text that we read for this week: Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. I appreciated the ways in which she acknowledged violence without letting it become the focal point of her work and therefore a spectacle.
Black pain has been a spectacle in this country for as long as Black and white people have coexisted in America. (To put ‘being forcibly removed from one’s own continent and forced to do hard labor’ gently.)
Because Black pain has moved into different arenas, including the classroom, we need new tactics to deal with it. For the purpose of thinking productively, I want to include a list of things that you can do, and that I have done, to protect yourself in moments of psychic violence in the classroom:
Take a break. When I find myself overwhelmed by a classroom discussion that just isn’t going my way, I excuse myself and take a walk around the hallways.
Write down your ‘would be’ responses. One thing I started doing last semester in a similar class was to write down my responses to the problematic statements happening in the event that I didn’t get a chance to get a word in edgewise.
Speak up. This is hard to do and requires a lot of bravery that I do not have, often preferring to internalize the hardness of the conversation and reflect on it in writing later on.
Speak to your professor privately. I have always found talking to my professors about concerns I have in their classes to be productive. This is something that I haven’t done yet, but I think I might do in the future.
Tag team. My friend pointed out that when there are moments of violence that you are trying to address but that might be difficult or traumatizing for you to do, tag in a friend to help you fight.
Self-care. Sometimes the best option is to opt out and preserve yourself to fight another fight, which is usually my option. It’s a cop out option to be sure, but I admit that I simply am not a fighter in the conventional sense.
These moments happen. They happen more often than one would care to admit. They’re troubling, difficult, disappointing and sometimes can drive you to want to leave this whole world of the Academy behind. This moment happened on the tail end of a week where I have very seriously considered taking my Master’s degree and calling it quits. One of the things that gets me through is the hope of creating my own classroom where I can minimize the degree of pain. I don’t want to be the type of professor that turns away from conversations regarding my students’ pain because it is uncomfortable. I want my students to be able to come to me with that and I want us to be able to work through it together. I’m in this race because I simply don’t want other students of color to have these isolating and traumatic experiences. I’m in this for them.
Meeting Dr. Johnnetta Cole was the highlight of what might have otherwise been a very sad week. I ended up walking twenty minutes to class on Tuesday morning in torrential rainfall, and the feeling of being wet and angry did not dissipate until Thursday, when I remembered that class had been cancelled for that afternoon.
Just the day before, at a meeting I attended with primarily anthropology graduate students, the group’s advisor mentioned that Johnetta Cole would be hanging out with him in the afternoon before her Martin Luther King, Jr. keynote address later Thursday night and that we were welcome to drop in and say hello. As the group and I had read Dr. Cole’s work the previous semester, watched a documentary on Herskovits which featured her, and talked about her work as an activist scholar, I knew immediately how I wanted to spend my Thursday afternoon off from class.
Meeting her in an intimate setting was a lovely experience. She simply had to know everything about you and made it her mission to listen to our stories. However, she also had a way of getting to your core; the first thing she asked me, after my name and what sort of work I did, was where I saw myself in ten years.
Of the four of us, she turned to me first, and “Tenure-track in English or American Studies” sprung from my lips before I even realized I had said it. I qualified it, saying that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing and the Academy offered an unprecedented amount of creative freedom (comparative to many other jobs), but I also mentioned that it was my ambition to start a magazine someday. She smiled at me gently, approvingly and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Indeed, I had. I have host of things I want to get done in this lifetime, so I’ve got to plan accordingly.
Before long, our audience with Dr. Cole was over, and my colleagues and I left the room, feeling inspired, and in my case, heard. For all her many achievements, being a professor, a president of college, a director of a museum, she was grounded and it was so easy to talk to her. Despite only knowing her for a few moments, she felt like a favorite teacher who had known me my whole life.
Dr. Cole’s evening talk was riveting; she has such a striking stage presence. Before she even got into her address, she made a point to thank everyone who had been a part of helping her to come to William & Mary, and talked about the wonderful day she’d had. The highlight of said day, she told the crowd, was getting to spend time with her “star student,” our advisor, and his four students. I swelled with pride from my corner of the auditorium: I was one of those four students. She called us her “grand-students,” and the same warmth I had felt from her in the classroom spread into the massive auditorium. Then, she began her address, thinking about how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would feel about today’s issues. She drew not only from Dr. King but from his wife Coretta as well because Coretta had her own vision of peace and justice. She called on the crowd to affect change using a three word approach: educate, legislate and agitate. Dr. Cole reminded us that our responsibility was to speak the truth as we see it, for it matters not where we stand in moments of comfort, but rather where we “stand in moments of challenge and controversy” (Dr. King). Honoring the legacy of the freedom fighters before us means that we need to refuse to be satisfied, Dr. Cole told us. We need to fight the way of the current syllabus which is too often only “Western, white, and womanless.” Most importantly, she called on us to do the work necessary.
Meeting Dr. Cole and hearing her words made me think about my place in all of this: Am I doing the work? Am I refusing the be satisfied? Am I speaking truth as I see it? I think, perhaps, I’m trying to; I’m making a solid attempt, but I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done so far. It’s not enough. In terms of affecting change, I’ve chosen my approach, to educate, but I do little with legislating and agitating. Is it enough to chose one path, or do you need to do all three? I think a good change-maker does a little of everything. Meeting Dr. Cole has made me ask myself: what can I do to affect change?
I may not know yet, but I do thank Dr. Cole for sparking the thought.
On Thursday, November 30, 2017 I attended my first ever American Anthropological Association (AAAs) Conference. I’ve been regularly attending professional conferences for over seven years, but the AAAs were both overwhelming, exciting, and unlike any other conference I have been to before. The sheer size alone was almost jaw dropping. There were approximately 6,000 people in attendance (!!), meaning that there were over 40 sessions at any given time between 8am and 8pm – totaling 750 sessions across five days. In fact, the conference was so large that it was held in two adjacent hotels in Washington, DC. Session topics ranged from roundtables on feminist ethnographies to oral presentations on manhoods and masculinities, from presentations on the global refugee and migrant crisis to the rise of 21st century nationalism in Europe and the US. The AAAs are an international conference and presentations focused on diverse cultural issues from an array of locations across the globe.
This year’s theme was “Anthropology Matters” and numerous sessions focused on diversity, social justice, and the role of anthropology in a politically and socially turbulent world. One of the most intriguing sessions I attended was “Between Visibilities and Invisibilities: Forms of Racism and Anti-Racism in the Twenty-first Century”, organized and co-chaired by Faye Harrison (University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign), Yasuko Takezawa (Kyoto University), and Akio Tanabe (The University of Tokyo). This panel examined race, racism, and racialization in the contemporary globalized world, juxtaposing transpacific and transatlantic experiences and perspectives. Ultimately, this session aimed to “provide a common platform for interrogating the various forms and mechanisms of racisms where visible and invisible modalities operate in diverse yet connected ways.” Oral presentations included the racialization of social movements in Ferguson, Flint, and Standing Rock (presented by Harrison), a comparison of the transracial and transsexual movements (presented by John Russell – Gifu University), an examination of the “othering” of Eastern Europeans in Iceland (presented by Kristin Loftsdottir – University of Iceland), racial discrimination in Japan against invisible groups like the Burakumin (an outcaste group that generally lives in small rural communes in Japan; presented by Takezawa), and an exploration of how marginalized social groups have been racialized in Odisha, India during the age of globalization (presented by Tanabe). I especially enjoyed Harrisons presentation, “From Ferguson and Flint to Standing Rock: Resisting Racializing Assaults on Community Sustainability and Human Life.” Harrison illustrated how racial subjection and violence have undermined the well-being and human dignity of racially subjugated communities (namely, Black and Indigenous groups) in the Americas. Additionally, she outlined how groups like Black Lives Matter and the Water Protectors are banning together for their rights to ancestral territories, clean water, and other basic human rights.
The range of diversity at the conference was so refreshing. Over the years, I have become used to being one of the only (or one of a handful of) black scholars at many of the conferences I attend. The disproportionate population of Euro-Americans scholars to Black and Indigenous scholars is well known within the archaeological community and has led to calls of a more inclusive archaeology over the years. But I have noticed that ethnic diversity is still severely lacking at the two to three archaeological conferences I attend or present at each year. Although, Euro-Americans and Europeans are still generally overrepresented in anthropology, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx scholars were well represented throughout the AAAs. This allowed for a variety of sessions and individual papers to focus on topics that commonly effect marginalized groups like decolonizing institutions (including anthropology and archaeology), health and sustainability for marginalized groups, activist scholarship, and race and racism. Although these topics are not new to anthropology, minority scholars allow for emic perspectives of the issues and fresh ideas for possible solutions to these challenges.
The first session I attended and perhaps, the one I took the most away from was the “Enhancing the Presence of African Americans in Anthropology: Discussion of the Problem” roundtable organized by Tony Whitehead (University of Maryland). When I walked into the room it was jammed packed with mostly African American graduate students and professors (including Michael Blakey, Faye Harrison, Rachel Watkins, Kalfani Ture, and Anna Agbe-Davies). The roundtable style allowed for an open, honest, and critical discussion of the issues that face Black anthropologists throughout our careers. How can Black anthropologists successfully navigate the persistence of anthropology as White space? Will it ever be possible to establish (or in some cases, reestablish) Anthropology Departments at HBCUs? What is the role of Black anthropologists in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock? As we worked through these questions, a point that was stressed time and time again was the importance of being connected to uplifting communities, mentors, and groups (like the Association of Black Anthropologists). Graduate school can be very isolating and self-doubt plagues many, but having a community to reach out to will help you navigate through the often turbulent waters of academia and remind you that you’re not alone.
Finally, the dual African Burial Ground sessions, “Beyond the African Burial Ground: Anthropological and Trans-Disciplinary Innovations in Theory, Methods, and Technologies” and “Anthropology Beyond the African Burial Ground Project: Epistemologies, Ethics, and Interpreting the African Diasporic and Native American Pasts”, were thought provoking and inspiring. Presentations included with the African American descendant community members at James Madison’s Montpelier (Matthew Reeves – the Montpelier Foundation), the intersection of science and social justice in community-based anthropological investigations (Joseph Jones – William and Mary), the value of Black feminist anthropology (Rachel Watkins), the use of paleogenomics in African Diaspora archaeology (Hannes Schroeder – University of Copenhagen), lessons learned through the Werowocomoco archaeological project (Danielle Moretti-Langholtz), Indigenous archaeology and anthropology for and by Indigenous people (Ashley Atkins Spivey – Pamunkey Indian Tribe), and much more. These oral presentations highlighted the importance of ethical public engagement in anthropology and key takeaways from activist anthropological projects.
Although, I was thoroughly exhausted by the end of the conference on Sunday, December 5th, I really enjoyed my first AAAs and learned a lot. I saw old friends and made new contacts at the nightly mixers. I met a few of my favorite anthropological scholars which allowed me the chance to ask them questions about their research and get advice on my own research interests. It was an invaluable and encouraging experience as a whole.
The next AAAs will be held in San Jose, California from November 14-18, 2018.
About the Author:
Chardé Reid is a first year M.A./ Ph.D. historical archaeology student in the Department of Anthropology at William and Mary. She received her B.A. in Archaeology in 2009 from the George Washington University. She has a wide range of archaeological field work experience, having worked on archaeological sites in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, and Athens, Greece. Chardé served as the co-field director of the Shotgun House Public Archaeology Project, Yarrow Mamout Archaeological Project (recipient of a SHA Gender and Minority Affairs Committee’s inaugural Mark E. Mack Community Engagement Award and a 2017 DC Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation), and the Stanton Road Archaeological Project, all in Washington, DC. She is interested in the relationship between landscape and memory in historically Black spaces. Chardé’s graduate research will focus on the intersection between race, identity, cultural landscapes, and materiality through community-based archaeology.