2015 Award Acceptance remarks
April 1, 2016 – Society for Applied Anthropology, Vancouver, BC
First, thank you, Kendall, for such a moving introduction. I would like to thank both organizations, their staff, volunteers, board, and members for this honor. And since we’re here, I’d especially like to thank the SfAA for providing a space for intellectual growth, mentoring, and engagement, for me and other grad students. In many real ways I grew up here. Well, maybe I’m still a rebellious teen at times. And I would especially like to thank the Margaret Mead Award committee. I can only imagine how difficult this choice was, which bodes well for the future of Mead’s legacy. Thank you to those who submitted letters to the committee for consideration. And I’m honored and humbled to be Paul Farmer’s warm up act.
When Kathleen Musante called me, I thought it was a very nice gesture, to thank people who have contributed to the endowment. I thought, that’s a good personal touch, and since the end of the year was coming, I thought of nice ways to say, no thank you. I don’t have any additional money to give. Sorry, that’s just being honest.
Then when she told me that I was to receive the Margaret Mead award, my first thought was: oh fuck! How on earth would I ever be worthy of an award named after Margaret Mead? Not to mention past recipients.
I was actually in a slump. Last semester was especially difficult. Our governor and state legislature couldn’t get it together to pass a budget. They had to be taken to court to keep the state functioning. They still got paid. But some funds were not deemed “necessary.” A quarter of our students, some 5700 people, didn’t have a state assistance grant that made it possible for them to go to college. This aid was directed toward economically disadvantaged people. Most of these students are first generation college students, and disproportionately Black or Latino. On top of that we faculty who haven’t seen raises in the past ten years saw the university administration balloon, and Kendall, just here on stage, found out that individuals’ salaries had inflated twenty to thirty percent since the new administration took over. Several of my senior colleagues were forced into retirement or face cuts of $1000 per month in their pension. Civil servants for thirty years. On top of this we were being told that our jobs weren’t secure because of a process called “prioritization.”
Things were stressful, to say the least. And I wasn’t sure when I was going to submit my next article. I had three Huffington Post blogs planned, an arc that took me from Haiti to the U.S. as an engaged citizen. After all, I was now tenured, and didn’t have to worry about being fired for what I write, like a colleague at our state’s flagship institution not a year prior, Steven Salaita.
As it turned out, the crisis that I have been a dutiful – if not voyeuristic – witness to in Haiti for the past several years beat me to it. So I found myself slumped on the couch after surviving days of teaching. Ever since returning to Santa Barbara for my dissertation research in 2005, literally in tears in the Cost-co parking lot in a reverse culture shock, I have referred to the U.S. as “the Matrix,” virtual reality. Most U.S. Americans don’t know where our electricity or food comes from, or our water, nor where it goes. We can get caught up in the latest reality show or newest version of the iPhone when friends in Haiti are praying for rain to end their ten month drought. For at least the last twenty-seven years when my colleagues have been documenting it, average rainfall has been going down every year. Climate change is yet another example of the injustice befalling the people of Haiti, descendants of among the first movements to affirm that Black Lives Matter in a decisive Revolution that was to alter the course of Atlantic history, paving the way for so-called “Manifest Destiny” through the Louisiana Purchase. Our largest classroom building is named after the founder of Chicago, whom I had to be a grad student to learn was Haitian. In Haiti, you don’t have to wonder where your trash goes. You don’t have to see how the “other half” lives. The naked realities of global capitalism are all too real, and all too visible. To go to a grocery store, to have an ATM, requires armed guards. At first I tried to buy local and skip the air conditioning as a good Marxist, a good anthropologist, should. It was all too easy to blame what some called Haiti’s “morally repugnant elite” for excluding Haiti’s poor majority while letting people like myself in. As Gina Athena Ulysse (2008:122) powerfully argued, quoting Edwidge Danticat, my white skin – and U.S. passport – was my three-piece-suit, invisible to me.
In 2016 it is becoming increasingly apparent that those guns have always been trained on the poor majority. It’s just that I couldn’t see them. I literally fly over them. The Caribbean Sea – just like the Aegean today – is the final resting place of hundreds if not thousands of people seeking a better life. People who dare to believe that they were included in this nation which my ancestors stole from Native Americans, a “land of opportunity” – a “nation of immigrants” – “yearning to be free.” The leading candidate for one of our major political parties has called for a giant wall, to be paid for by the “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.”
To return to the Wachowski brothers’ – now brother-and-sister – dystopia, indeed the “real world” is infiltrating its way into the Matrix… police officers continue to kill Black youth and get away with it: to martyrs like Trayvon Martin was added Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and NIU student Quintonio LeGrier. And countless others we don’t ever hear about. African Americans were disproportionately poisoned by lead in Flint, Michigan.
Then came the call: Margaret Mead Award. My second thought was: ok. What now?
I begin every one of my anthropology classes with a simple statement: “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world… indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
Some anthropologists have been hand-wringing over our perceived irrelevance for quite some time. Terms like “public” and “engaged” have been proposed to attempt to reclaim Mead’s place in U.S. society. At last year’s AAA meetings in Denver, large dioramas announced yet another blog that promised to end anthropologists’ irrelevance forever. Often overlooked in the narrative of “cool kids club” might be called “applied anthropology” (see, for example, Hale 2006; Lamphere 2004; Rylko-Bauer, et al. 2006; Sanday 2003).
Like its namesake, the Margaret Mead Award bridges the AAAs and the SfAAs, theoretical and applied anthropology. I am especially proud of this, as I am a proud member of both. Both have their roles, and both have their holes as well. While AAA issues fearless condemnations, SfAA has maintained dialogue. This meeting, the SfAA has made great strides in welcoming indigenous/ First Nations peoples, and the Pelto award is a promising way of bringing people from the Global South. The AAAs tends to include greater numbers of Black, Latina, and queer anthropologists, but this diversity comes at a price: the membership and registration cost four times as much as the SfAA, for example.
My very first SfAA meeting was right here in Vancouver, in 2006. That year there wasn’t a Mead winner. But every other year since, winners come here to receive this touching, beautifully carved award from Will Sibley – thank you so very much – and most don’t come back. Some even make disparaging comments about applied anthropology.
Riffing on Mead’s Coming of Age (Mead 2001 (1928)), anthropologists like Marcus and Fisher (1986) discussed “cultural critique,” picked up later by Gonzalez (2004), Besteman and Gusterson (2005) and Low and Merry (2010). This is one aspect of what could be called the anthropological imagination. Mead used Samoa as a mirror to the U.S. It might be that we in the “west” (what used to be called “civilization”) might indeed learn something from our peers in the “rest” (alternatively “savages” and “barbarians,” not coincidentally assigned to regions based on darker racial categories).
Looking at the U.S. with what one of my committee members Kati Maternowska (2006) called “Haiti eyes,” going back into the Matrix as it were, we might just learn from struggles for dignity, self-determination. Why learn about “peoples and cultures of the Caribbean” or Latin America or the Middle East or Asia or Africa? In the 1960s, following a collaboration of mainstream anthropologists like Mead herself in the war effort, and even counter-insurgency efforts or conducting impact assessments for large-scale big-D development efforts triggering massive displacement – Empire’s shock troops – arguably anthropology’s main contribution was “cultural relativism.” In other words, making the world safe for diversity, or as Moore (1994) put it, “a passion for difference.” This seemed perfectly suited as the message to the 1960s cultural revolution. Vine Deloria (1988) and Edward Said (1979) called us to task for this romanticism, this perhaps unintended racialism, well before Clifford and Marcus’ 1986 text (Clifford and Marcus 1986) claimed by some as the starting point of our “self-critique.” Behar and Gordon (1995) in turn called them to task for their silence on gender, and Trouillot (2003) and Harrison (2008) on race, gender, and globalization.
The 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, exposed the many strides still left to go in equality. It also exposed the connection to Israeli military contractors, who sieged Gaza that same summer. 2015 came and went, and the Millennium Development Goals were mostly forgotten, many unmet. In 2016 the so-called Global War on Terror scatters into ever increasingly localized and complex battlegrounds like the red stain in the Cat in the Hat. The enemy-du-jour is called ISIS, ISIL, or the Islamic State, born out of U.S. policy of regime change in Iraq in 2003. Following this is a refugee crisis unparalleled since the Jewish Holocaust, itself the greatest forced migration since the transatlantic slave trade. And this past year it’s turning ugly. Bombings in Paris shut down demonstrations during the Climate Summit last December, to be repeated just last week in the capital of Europe. Receiving far less attention while killing more are attacks in Pakistan and Iraq. Meanwhile on this side of the ocean, open expressions of racism turn violent during political rallies, and our climate continues to burn. While Keystone XL was successfully stopped, other oil pipelines are secretly being erected on reservation lands in the Dakotas. While some may be waiting for it, there is no Cat Z whose magical zoom will wipe these stains clean. While these struggles are definitely fought locally they are also connected to one another as specific manifestations of a system of global capitalism born five hundred years ago in the plantations in the Caribbean irrigated by the blood of 15 million slaves brought from Africa to the so-called “New World,” long before fossil fuels.
If there was ever a time when anthropology was needed, now is it.
The specific struggles in the past few years demand more than relativism as a moral/ political imperative – even as recent political discourse forces us to return to the so-called “culture wars.” Each are about humanity, the Anthropos. What does it mean to be human? Whose lives matter? And as humans, will we survive our own shortsightedness?
This semester I’m teaching a class on “Anthropology and Contemporary World Problems” and the question posed is frighteningly clear: as a species, are we careening toward our own extinction? The Anthropocene and the Gaia Hypothesis offer sobering wake-up calls that demand a fully anthropological imagination. However, as abstractions, they lack just the sort specificity justice demands.
Let’s be honest: the four fields haven’t worked together as Boas envisioned. In recent years anthropology departments are fissioning over the wide gulfs that separate us. My PhD institution did so, as did several others. I want to give a specific shout out to Kendall and my NIU colleagues, a few of whom are here, for somehow making this work. We do “mash ups” bridging the four fields. I’m honored to be part of such a collegial department. But we are still envisioning four isolated silos whose theories and methodologies are still very far apart.
“Because Papa Franz said so” was never a good enough answer for me as a grad student, and a robust anthropological imagination required to face the challenges posed by Black Lives Matter, the DREAM Act, environmental racism in Flint and others, the war on terror, not to mention climate change, must do more. Indeed the four fields were envisioned specifically as an activist project: to confront head on racism and xenophobia. Barbara Rose Johnston, who gave the Michael Kearney lecture yesterday, offers one powerful example.
Today’s anthropological imagination should be no different, articulating with greater specificity the local, lived experience the still-unfinished question of what does it mean to be human? How specifically places like Shishmaref Alaska or Tuvalu or Camp-Perrin Haiti are impacted by climate change? Our real, human, partners, interlocutors, collaborators, colleagues, comrades, to whom we owe our careers, challenge us to articulate the specificities of how these global, species-level phenomena are lived and confronted by people and communities.
Like Mead turning the gaze back to our own society, we are called to be inspired and to define solidarity, offering a shared humanity, and anthropology’s radical empathy. If an anthropological imagination can be encapsulated quickly, it might be “another world is possible” from the World Social Forum. This simple statement animates and is defined by solidarity.
For this world to be imagined into being, we must also remember the U.S. Social Forum: “another U.S. is necessary.”
This requires us to act. As many of you in this room have articulated before, this knowledge needs to come with real engagement. Charles Hale has written extensively about, and provided a platform for, activist anthropology. The ultimate test of anthropological theory is its practice, its praxis, its application. That’s why we’re here. Feminist scholars offered standpoint theory: as a recent volume by Craven and Davis (2013) demonstrates, an activist feminist anthropology by necessity challenges the status quo. As Faye Harrison (within the volume) intones, to remain neutral is to be complicit.
Anthropology has a special responsibility to subaltern peoples and communities and their struggles – be they indigenous people displaced by the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala; women risking their lives crossing the Sonoran desert to reunite with their families; Dominicans with French surnames and black skin fleeing the country to languish on the border with no humanitarian assistance and only a bordello for housing, cut off from mainland Haiti with no water, food, or means of scraping a living; families in Flint or the Tennessee Valley or West Virginia drinking and bathing in contaminated water; doctors, nurses, and patients, including women giving birth, killed in Gaza by Israeli rockets; or hotel workers seeking a fair contract in Baltimore – putting into practice an anthropological imagination also necessitates action, not just cultural critique.
The word “public” rings hollow when it is just this, the public, which is being systematically challenged, undermined, underfunded, militarized, and privatized. Increasingly our profession is under attack, and not just our field by the governor of Florida. In addition to what I described earlier, just this week the governor in Wisconsin formally proposed doing away with tenure. Not just for our peers in Haiti, in Gaza, or in Honduras, but for our students at home, we must stand up and directly engage the political, to defend the public. To defend public higher education. Historically Black college, Chicago State University may be forced to close its doors this year after almost 150 years. I would like to give a shout out to any Cal State faculty in the room, the largest public system. Thank you for standing up. Good luck. [And good job! Shortly after this speech, Cal State faculty gained a tentative step in their fight, with a faculty-wide raise.]
Or defend education full stop. Ignorance is far more costly than education. That said, to peer down from our ivory tower, or even safe spaces in $700 conferences in corporate hotels, and throw up our hands as the Ku Klux Klan finally ripped off the hood of neoliberal economic policies in this presidential election, tapping into a wellspring of an emasculated white supremacy, is to abdicate our responsibility to engage this culture war set forth by our predecessors like Mead. And like Eric Wolf, who found himself censured by this award’s namesake, we need the courage to speak truth to power. In addition we must also act. And our actions must in the words of the Midwest Academy (Bobo, et al. 2010) give people a sense of their own power and alter the relations of power, what might be called anthropolitics.
So I hope someday to have earned this Margaret Mead Award. Receiving it I vow to try harder. In many real ways, I owe my career to the next speaker. Paul Farmer has created space for a generation of activists in social justice, and particularly for me, in Haiti. No matter how manic my work schedule is, I will always have your impossibly high standard to keep me working harder. Mèsi anpil.
My journey as anthropologist began as an undergrad at University of Minnesota, Morris. I followed the activists to anthropology. Thank you to my first TA Angela Mahlberg, and professors Dennis Templeman, Mark Pedelty, and Donna Chollett. I used my anthropological imagination as a community organizer in the Twin Cities until laid off. My first day as a graduate student, I helped a new professor move into the office once held by none other than Napoleon Chagnon. When explaining my plans for PhD research, this individual called it a “waste of time.” Susan Stonich, my advisor, said otherwise. I accept this award in her honor, as it proves her right. I also owe this to fellow “salt of the earth” Bill Ashton who saved me from quitting the program not once but twice my first year as my funding was tight and following Darkness in El Dorado fiasco. That first AAA meeting, in addition to stalking Paul Farmer, I met Barbara Rose Johnston. Thank you for your mentorship and your fearlessness. Linda Whiteford invited me to the Human Rights and Social Justice Committee. In addition to blazing a path for justice, Faye Harrison offered specific support and needed criticism. Keeping me on my toes, Gina Athena Ulysse has created new spaces for speaking truth to power, and I thank her for my column on Huffington Post after the earthquake. Keeping me sane through it all is my partner, Karl Bryant, here tonight a week after celebrating our fifteen years together. Queergrad and the Voices for Global Justice radio show collective sustained me during graduate school. Thank you to Tiffany, Beth, Corina, Jeanne, Dave, Liz, and countless others. I would be nowhere without my intellectual community of colleagues: not only from UCSB, York College, and Northern Illinois, but people here from the Human Rights and Social Justice Committee and the Gender Based Violence, and the Risk and Disaster TIGs. The National Science Foundation supported me several crucial times during my career. It goes without saying that these comments are mine and no way reflect their views. Last and certainly far from least are colleagues in Haiti, the Poto Mitan collective, social movement activists, university colleagues. I would like to dedicate this award to the dozens of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues who perished in the earthquake on January 12, 2010, and especially my would-be collaborator Janil Lwijis murdered minutes before.
This group of thoughtful, committed citizens is not actually so small anymore. I am honored and proud to be part of it. Thank you.
Now, while we still can, let’s change the world.
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