Dreaming about my future “rap CD”

The American university is just like many other parts of the American fabric. “We who are dark”, in a lot of cases, to use the title of Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby’s book, must learn to discern the stigma of our color and heritage even as we are expected to create knowledge in our fields of expertise. Race was a reason why Cornell West left his position at Harvard University. In 2002, former Harvard President Larry Summers argued, among other things, that West was not productive in his academic career because he spent too much time recording rap CDs (link to article).

Non-White scholars in the United States maintain the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois discussed years ago in The Souls of Black Folk. However, our academic consciousness is framed in particular ways because of mandates to express the legitimacy of one’s scholarship in certain ways in the American university. Historically, non-White scholars have had to consider the implications of the fight to gain status or “tenure” in the university side-by-side with their recognition that many universities are filled with practices of discrimination, indifference, and racial hegemony.

This video was posted on Facebook by my friend (who is Black, a graduate of MIT, and an MD/PhD):

Black Professor depicted as sodomized gorilla at UCLA Medical School 

Asked if he has felt these same tensions, my friend confirmed that he absolutely did.

So what does diversity mean in the university? In an article from a few years back, Wende Marshall, an anthropologist, states that diversity “is more than just black bodies” in the university (link to Marshall: University of Virginia tenure case). She states that diversity is also about different approaches in academics. If I could add to her words, it’s about non-White people being fully human. We are not animals. We are not caricatures. We are complex humans. We are scholars of the highest order.

Following Marshall, what does the non-White scholar become in the academy? What protections do we not have that White scholars have? It’s frightening sometimes…seriously frightening. I am reminded of the hunger strike that a biology professor at MIT put himself through during my time there.

Here is a link: http://tech.mit.edu/V127/N1/1sherley.html

Brilliance, in this case, was dismissed.

I am aware that there are always arguments that the academy has made significant strides in terms of inclusion. Academic departments, across the board, have definitely come a long way relative to the outright segregation that existed just a few decades ago. There are quite a few black and brown bodies in the university. It is kind of exciting. However, what do the people who occupy those bodies endure? How are they twisted and turned in the tenure process? Once they gain tenure, who understands them? How do they express themselves? What happens when they become the subjects of racist stereotypes? These stereotypes may be explicit (e.g. pictures of a gorilla with a Black professor’s face) or more implicit (e.g. Summer’s heavy handed use of the “rap CD” to define West’s career).

Wende Marshall, according to people I have spoken with, spent a lot of time in advocacy roles on UVA’s campus and beyond. In addition to her great “academic” work, her advocacy might have been her “rap CD”, if I can turn Cornell West’s experiences into a metaphor. It is my hope, as I dream of my future in the university, that I won’t endure racist prejudices as an administration attempts to describe me and my presence in the university. I might have my own version of the “rap CD”. In those moments where my work is evaluated, I trust that my “rap CD” won’t be used as a reason for disgust. Rather, I hope it will be considered a statement of my value to the university.

Some thoughts on the North Carolina Marriage Ammendment



On Tuesday May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters were asked to vote in the state’s primary elections. Large numbers of people turned out for the main issue of the day, the N.C. Marriage Amendment. On the voter’s ballot, there was a simple proposition: Are you for or against the N.C. Marriage Amendment. The amendment, effectively, denies any future changes in state law that would condone and support gay or lesbian marriages (or, maybe more specifically, marriages not between a man and woman).

With the N.C. Marriage Amendment vote one week in the past, I decided to look at some of the statistics from this important political event. My recent dissertation research took place in Robeson County, North Carolina. Robeson County dons a population that is comprised of Native Americans (primarily Lumbee Indians), Black Americans, and White Americans in relatively equal proportions.  There are also small numbers of people from other ethnicities and nationalities. The county has the highest concentration of Native Americans in North Carolina and in any county/region in the U.S. South. About 46,000 of 126,000 total Robeson County residents are Native American.

Robeson County had the second highest percentage of voters in favor of the N.C. marriage amendment, coming in at 86% in favor. The highest percentage of voters for the amendment came from Graham County at 89%. Graham County is a much smaller county in the Appalachian Mountains.

I have been considering what the vortex of Native American community and the relatively high voter turnout for the marriage amendment means. Other counties, made up primarily of White and Black citizens, had much lower numbers of votes for the amendment. As you can see on the map, the state’s average was well below 86%, and most counties fell in the range from 70-80 percent of voters for the amendment.

So, how do we explain what is arguably the most socially conservative county in North Carolina in terms of its core Native American community? We are taught to think that conservatism is a White, Southern element of U.S. society. Well, you can’t deny the Southern element in this case. Lumbee people will tell you that they are absolutely Southern. However, there is something much more than Southern conservatism here.  Lumbee people and other peoples in Robeson County share the same Christian denominations as other people in North Carolina ( for example: Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Church of God, and many other denominations). Since they share the same denominations, church affiliation becomes a non-factor (relatively speaking).

We are then left with the notion that what we would otherwise consider Southern conservatism lies squarely within (yes within) Native American community. It is not something that can be excused as oppressive to the Native community. Rather, Native American people, in this case, possess within their community something that is illustrated by a high percentage of votes for a marriage amendment that states opposition to gay or lesbian marriage in North Carolina.

That’s why I was slightly concerned when political voices against and for the amendment did not consider the Native American vote in North Carolina. In fact, the Native American vote was quite substantial in at least 8 counties in North Carolina. The head of the NAACP of North Carolina, William Barber, in his plead for Black voters to vote against the amendment, did not reference the substantial numbers of Native American people who had stakes in the marriage amendment.

See video here: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=3GrnJQ83zIo

In Barber’s words, a vote for the amendment is a stance that works against the fight for Civil Rights in the United States. While he speaks particular truths in this statement, he (like many other voices, including former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama) did not consider the ways that strong, dichotomous issues, such as the N.C. marriage amendment, actually reflect how Native American society breathes and lives (quite substantially) through popular American politics.

But how are we to know this if we consistently hear important voices, such as the one that belongs to Rev. Barber, dismiss Native America in their appeals during these political debates?

Colombia connection

This should be of grave concern as we consider the manipulation of images of Indigenous communities in the United States at the hands of various forces. While Native people in the US don’t have the same relationship with US weapons aid, there is also rampant war, death, and destruction within Indigenous communities here in the US.



What is anthropology? How do you do it?

For those who don’t know what anthropology is, watch the video below as a very, very brief introduction. Notice that the ways these anthropologists describe their craft has little if anything to do with numbers or statistics. There is a show on ESPN titled “Numbers never Lie”. An anthropologist, if asked to answer that proposition, might say that numbers easily lie. For that reason, anthropologists consistently rely on the power of observation, and the reaction to that observation through their writing, to convey knowledge of humanity in the present. Humans are much more than demographic data. Their lives are full of content and meaning that are excluded when we are asked to consolidate lives into numerical figures.

Some important quotes

Important Words:

“Anthropology is, with music and mathematics, one of the few true vocations; and the anthropologist may become aware of it within himself before ever he has been taught it.” – Claude Levi-Strauss

“An anthropology of one’s own people is the most arduous, but also the most valuable achievement of a fieldworker.”  –Bronislaw Malinowski

“I’m from New Orleans. I’m related to the people that live [in New Orleans]. So I have to help them. I’m not helping the world. You are helping the world get over something that didn’t even happen to them. Because you all ain’t help nobody in New Orleans if you think you did.” – music artist Lil Wayne on charities/intervention post-Hurricane Katrina

What silence means

Silence does not mean that someone or some people cannot speak. It means that recognition has not taken place on some level. Here is a dictionary derived definition of the term “silent” (From http://www.merriam-webster.com):

silent (adj): 1. not exhibiting the usual signs or symptoms of presence; 2. yielding no detectable response to stimulation; 3. having no detectable function or effect

These definitions all describe anthropology in one way or another. On one hand, there are many people who would say that anthropology has no use or function within larger conversations about human experiences and practices. These people often do not see how anthropology sits directly under the proverbial skin of human sociality. Anthropology attempts to define what hasn’t been defined before. Thus, anthropology is often unrecognizable for its use value. Additionally, as a particular type of marginalized person within anthropology, I feel that I don’t exhibit the signs of presence that make sense within larger anthropological conversations. For example, I am a social-cultural anthropologist who is from the U.S. South and from Native America (and who has worked in American healthcare). I also study the U.S. South and Native America (and American healthcare). The precedent within anthropology is to study “others”. Thus, my anthropology is quite unique because I am of the opinion that anthropological knowledge can come from studying those things closest to us. In articulating our knowledge of them we find that the most intimate is often the most foreign.

My anthropological inquiry is also based on identifying why certain elements of human experience are considered out of place. I am interested in how life becomes ordered. This has lead to my fascination with human intervention. I believe that humans want to intervene in the world to correct their visions of chaos.  In ordering the world, humans often recognize and fight against the disordering that certain people live under. Most people consider Christian conversion to be the epitome of this ordering. However, all humans, even those who attempt to transform the world in non-religous ways, attempt to order the world as they see it. In that respect, why we intervene is an important area of concern and tends to fuel private and public debate.

So, the value of silence is up for debate. It is no longer something that pervades our human experiences. Rather, we often create silence, either through commission or omission. Yes, even my esteemed colleagues in anthropology. They have blind spots and biases which are quite frightening. But this is every tribe and community. We preserve ourselves as social beings by utilizing silence. I began to toy with this concept in a small article that I wrote a few years back: link North American Dialogue (my article begins on pg. 30)