Reflecting on Boundaries, Protection, and Inspiration

Reflecting on Boundaries, Protection, and Inspiration

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.


Gina Athena Ulysse is professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University. She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, a Haitian Anthropologist, and Self-Making in Jamaica (2007, University of Chicago Press), Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (2015, Wesleyan University Press), and When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, Me, and the World (2017, Wesleyan University Press). In March 2018, she performed “Remixed ode to rebel’s spirit: Lyrical meditations on Haiti and Toussaint Louverture” at the British Museum.

11 Replies to “Reflecting on Boundaries, Protection, and Inspiration”

  1. I am posting this question and comment via an e-mail from “Discuss White Privilege”:

    All the Black female anthropologists Ulysse names were studying Black people. How dependent is acceptance as a Black (woman) anthropologist on studying Black people, because the ‘white public space’ of anthropology finds this less threatening than a Black anthropologist studying Whiteness and the white supremacy which produces anthropologists, especially in the US? Has there ever been a Black female anthropologist who studied US Whiteness and White supremacy, from dissertation work on, and (especially) ended up tenured?

    (For more on “Discuss White Privilege” see Starbucks Enlightenment

    1. Well the problem with studying whiteness is that you actually have to look at the cultural roots of the whites, and not only the whites who “matter”, like English, French, Dutch, German, etc. – the big nations. I don’t know any anthropologist of color seriously interested in the East Europeans, for example, as if those do not shape the discourse of the whites (uhm, Russians?) – and I do not think it is because of being a black threatening person idea, I think it is more because … well nobody can be arsed? Colonial age just did not happen in EE, at all, so from that point of view, colonialism discussion is pointless, and without it, US people find it is difficult to relate… As well as they find it difficult to relate to the WWII aftermath in those parts, they simply were not there, they did not experience anything like that.

      On the other hand, maybe that’s how it is supposed to be, we all stick to “our” people, at least to a certain extend, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. I think at the certain level of perception you have to “be” that “other” you study, to really understand where certain things are coming from – here I think again about EE experience, the million of the tiny things in the background, the silent default…

  2. Why, I wonder, is the question posed this way, as if the only possible alternatives were studying Black people or studying Whiteness and white supremacy? Why is it impossible to imagine a Black woman studying Chinese men, Mayan hieroglyphics, South Asian folklore or Southeast Asian dance, or the permutations of Gangnam style in Korea, Japan and Taiwan?

    1. Hi John, without presuming to speak for “Discuss White Privilege,” I believe her question is about who gets to study whom in anthropology. What she is pointing out is that a Black woman might be provisionally welcomed in anthropology as long as her subject of study is Black people or “acceptable others.” As acceptable others, I would include all the people you have listed. However, if a Black woman attempts to use anthropology to study Whiteness and white supremacy… well… Or as “Discuss White Privilege” put it in a follow-up e-mail: “I came to anthropology for the same reasons Ulysse ends her post on. And it resulted in racial terrorism when I tried to use that curiosity to study US Whites/Whiteness. So I am really troubled by her post and its underlying dishonesty in not addressing the true constraints on what and who can be studied by Black anthropologists, who one is expected to study and how.”

  3. Jason, us agree that who gets to study whom in anthropology is an important question. Let us agree, too, that being black and female has been a severe disadvantage in pursuing an academic career as an anthropologist. Still, I can’t help wondering if a white male anthropologist wanted to study Whiteness and white supremacy, what the response of his advisor, his committee, and ultimately potential employers would be? Is the problem the gender and race of the anthropologist or resistance to the topic itself?

    I ask because, from my current vantage point teaching as a visiting professor at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, I have been reminded that when local anthropologists went off to the States or to Europe to get their Ph.D.’s, they were usually expected to return home to do fieldwork. That they might stay in the countries where their graduate programs were located and do fieldwork there was rarely seen as a realistic option. The possibility of going to a third place, not in Asia and not Chinese, was, if anything, even more rarely explored. Subalterns encountering resistance to moving from informant to colleague is not a problem restricted to to one race or gender. To acknowledge this fact is not to deny or denigrate the frustration and anger felt by Black women anthropologists for entirely justifiable reasons. It could be of more than theoretical interest if the acknowledgment led to expanding support for resistance and reform. Just a thought.

    1. Hi John, thank you for the thoughts. I agree that the topic of Whiteness and white supremacy has mostly been absent from anthropological study. In general Laura Nader’s 1972 injunction to “study up” hasn’t really happened. And as you point out, one reason for this lack is that in the international training of anthropologists (again in general) anthropologists from the non-West were trained and then expected to report in and from their own places of origin, usually “studying down” within their own societies.

      Hopefully we can encourage some other people to join the comments! Thanks!

    2. Here’s a reply from Twitter, posted with permission: “The comments show how difficult it is for people to center black women’s experiences without immediately jumping to ‘broader’ discussion of the marginalization of studying whiteness for everyone in the discipline.”

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us Gina. It has me thinking a lot about who makes it through academia, and who does not. Some Black women are able to ‘survive’ as you put it, but of course others do not. Somewhere along the way, the drop out, or are pushed out, or walk away. In academia we talk a lot about recruitment and diversity, but we’re not always talking about the specific factors that keep young scholars going–what helps them survive the system. There has to be something more than just recruitment. You write: “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.” Mentorship is crucial here, as is actual support through the whole process. I think this is where many programs fail. They bring in a lot of students in the name various initiatives, but abandon them along the way as they face the kinds of challenges that you highlight. If we’re going to fix these kinds of issues we need to pay attention to those stories and experiences as well. Thanks again for sharing your post with us here.

  5. I agree with Ryan on the importance of mentorship. These pieces by Zoe and Gina brought back the memory of myself leaving anthropology in 2012 and publishing that whole experience on Savage Minds in 2015 in the midst of my 5-year dark hiatus from academic anthropology. I’m privileged to have an amazing mentor now, who took me back in despite my project (critique of whiteness in US graduate training) being not so amiable to academic anthropology. While I’m realizing that in reality “my longevity and successes” in graduate training can be reliant on the quality of “actual support” not only from my mentor but also from other faculty members and graduate students in the program, I’m also heartbroken that there are so many other BIPOC out there who didn’t get the 2nd chance that they so deserve. I hope that these pieces by Zoe and Gina, as well as the powerful critiques of anthropology that DWP (Discuss White Privilege) has laid out here for so many times, will be an awakening moment for those who looked away from injustice that these BIPOC people went through.

    1. Takami writes, “I’m also heartbroken that there are so many other BIPOC out there who didn’t get the 2nd chance that they so deserve.” Ya, that’s a very important point, and something we should not dismiss. Sometimes these stories get lost, but we have to remember this is part of the equation. Thanks Takami.

  6. Such a beautiful piece! This sentiment of sticking with it through thick and whiteness and all, and wishing more minoritised anthropologists do the same, as the decolonisation process continues at an impossibly slow pace, is something many of us, minority grads, try to balance while walking the tight rope of institutionalised exclusion. I remember when our department invited Dr. Ulysse to offer a colloquium, how excited the grad student community was, and how visibly indifferent the faculty. Perhaps not as indifferent, as it was disoriented. So much gatekeeping, so much lack of self-reflexivity in the upper echelons of ‘western’ academia. I don’t know enough about the past, but in the last 6 years at least, there hasn’t been one black student admitted in our department. Or, let’s say, maybe they were admitted, it’s quite possible, but they did not accept the offer–the difference, doesn’t matter anyways. Having served on the admission committee once, I have a speculation to why this keeps happening, though. The jargon of whiteness prevails still in what gatekeepers expect of new anthropologists; in whom anthropologists of the old guard (predominantly white-American) desire to see themselves replicated into; who they see as moldable/clonable or, at least, as susceptible enough to sure self-colonisation, and who they don’t. It is actually quite remarkable how well-oiled this subtle machine of marginalisation (that is defined along national, racial, class, and gender lines to the very least) operates in order to create the veneer of fair selection and organic self-propagation, while all along dictating who gets to make knowledge and how and for whom and, especially, in conversation with which “others.” The veneer is kevlar-hard, almost impossible to penetrate, especially if one comes “from the margins” of intellectual genealogies, anthropological methodologies, etc. It is a shield meant to defend, reproduce, and propagate, ad infinitum, a very specific kind of anthropology, one in which minority anthropologists must necessarily speak the colonial/imperialist jargon, or at least learn how to effectively code-switch in order to “survive” and jump through institutional hoops effectively enough to make it to a point (post-tenure?) where they can finally “breath.” No wonder so few black and indigenous scholars and those from the global south too, come to anthropology; even less wonder that not many manage to stay and thrive in a manner that honors not just their backgrounds but also the desires they have for the future of this fraught yet wonderful discipline. It’s all too complicated and sad and maybe, by the sight of recent cohorts of anthropology grads, maybe it’s hopeful too. For these reasons and many more, honest writing like this and anthropologists like Dr. Ulysse are absolutely necessary.