“Homework”: The highs and lows of anthropology at home

“Homework”: The highs and lows of anthropology at home

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Chelsey Carter (Twitter @chelsitabonita7). She is an MPH/PhD candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis (USA) with a graduate certificate in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. Her forthcoming dissertation project examines how knowledge is produced about ALS and how Black people with neuromuscular diseases (like ALS) navigate healthcare spaces and experience care by healthcare institutions in St. Louis.

“Homework”: The highs and lows of anthropology at home

by Chelsey Carter

John and Janice’s Devotion

In fall of 2018, I went to visit John and Janice (1) at their home in East St. Louis. When I walked in, I was immediately greeted by Janice, a tall, Black, stately, and curvy woman with big warm brown eyes. I had no idea that this first ethnographic encounter would not only change the entire trajectory of my 16 months of homework (2) (i.e. “fieldwork” aka “research” aka data collection), but also change my life.

I first met John and Janice at an ALS clinic for veterans while conducting my dissertation research. I will never forget Janice’s first words to me about her husband’s condition: “We know it doesn’t get any better, but we just want him to live the best life he can… while he’s here.”

ALS is a devastating disease that affects different patients in very different ways. It’s a constant assault of unknowns as the disease progresses towards permanent disability, paralysis, and death, usually within 2 to 5 years. For some patients the early symptoms are a foot drop or a loss of speech, but for John it was the loss of his ability to use his legs.  As his body continues to decline, he won’t be able to say a word or move his body to communicate all that’s going on in his head. When I arrived at his home, the physical decline of his disease had advanced since I had last seen him at clinic.

Janice left John and me alone and I leaned over, and asked John quietly, “What’s been the hardest thing for you?” He explained that he was falling more frequently and proceeded to show me pictures of his black eye and busted lip after he attempted to climb the stairs prior to getting his power wheelchair.

“I’m gonna tell you the truth… I had a feeling something was gonna happen to me… And I said, I don’t want Janice to have to depend on nobody.”

He told me that once he found out there was no cure for ALS, he didn’t want Janice running from place to place after he passed. Without Janice knowing, he had researched properties and found their current home for well over his budget. After months of prayer and conversation he was able to talk the owner down to a price that he could afford. He told me the house is now half paid for and that he hopes to have it paid off before he dies. With tears running down his face he said “Chelsey, she’ll always have some place to stay… I know that Janice can live here.” I was moved. This house was a way for John to show his empathy, care, and unconditional love for Janice, even when he was facing an impossible future.

Mom’s Hospitalization

A few days after I spoke to John, I got a phone call from my mom that she wasn’t feeling well. She described feeling lightheaded, cold, and shaky. By the end of the day she called me from a local hospital where she had been admitted. She was septic and had a bacterial infection, cellulitis.

My mom was in the hospital for a week and I vividly remember one day when she was in so much pain. The doctors had already given her Naproxen and Morphine, but nothing relieved the pain.

I stepped out to call my partner Aiden and begged them to come to the hospital but all I received was coldness, distance, and blame for how much I was asking for. They wouldn’t come. I hung up. I had no idea this coldness was the beginning of Aiden’s infidelity just when I needed them most.

When I came back to my mother’s room, I found her on the verge of tears as a flustered White nurse attempted to draw blood for the 9th time. Her entire body was bruised from multiple failed attempts over the hospital stay. Because she was morbidly obese coupled with the fact that she has rolling veins, finding a good vein every 3 hours to monitor her for sepsis was a monumental endeavor.

At this point my mom had asked for the head floor nurse or IV specialist but the White nurse ignored these requests. This was just one of many times my mother or I had made a request that went unheard by the hospital staff over the four days we had been there at this point.

Words weren’t working but action was necessary… my mother was suffering more than she should. I explained to the nurse that I was a phlebotomist and asked to draw my mother’s blood. She asked where I had gone to school, and I explained I had a degree in public health and was a PhD Candidate studying people with ALS.  She stared blankly and said I couldn’t and that I had to wait for the IV specialist. “When did you call them?”  I asked. She rudely replied, “Before you got here.” “Ma’am I work with people with ALS. I draw blood on people with atrophied muscles, paralysis and who sometimes weigh less 100lbs. I go to a top 10 university and went to John Burroughs, I can draw my mom’s blood… since you can’t.” “You went to Burroughs?” she inquired with surprise.  I never responded. Her surprise at my attendance to the number one high school in St. Louis suddenly granted me legitimacy into this space and the authority to complete the draw. I quickly grabbed the blood draw supplies, tied two tourniquets to the top and middle of my mom’s forearm, felt for a vein, and one stick later filled the 4 vials required for the blood test.

White Supremacy in Action

This entire encounter at the hospital with my mom reminded me of an experience with a White participant a few months back. He was enrolling in a genetics study that the ALS lab was recruiting patients for. I walked in the room and was mesmerized by the patient’s sleeve of colorful tattoos. Aiden had recently gotten a similar sleeve and I was in a habit of fawning over the color and details of each tattoo.

The room was cold, and he and his wife were tense. So, as I felt the gentlemen’s veins, I complemented his tattoos trying to engage him in a lighthearted conversation before drawing 13 tubes of blood. The room instantly got even colder. I looked up and he said to me “I’m not proud of all them. Some were some mistakes I made when I was younger.” As he finished his sentence, I found a bouncy vein in the middle of his right arm. I stepped back to grab the alcohol wipe and then realized the reason for their coldness. The vein I was about to puncture was right at the center of a swastika. I hesitated and silently continued drawing his blood, never saying another word. I felt like I was in the episode of “Greys Anatomy” with Dr. Miranda Bailey operating on the racist with the swastika.

The Painful Nature of Homework

As a queer Black feminist anthropologist studying my home, I find my personal experiences intertwined with my ethnographic fieldwork in ways that cannot be untangled. John’s love for Janice showed me the unconditional realities of love. John, a husband, father, deacon, and veteran, has every reason to be entitled, to be selfish, to be cared for as he enters the last years of his life. Yet, his gaze wasn’t inward but on Janice. Once I saw this unconditional love, and realized I had nothing to prove to be loved, I knew I had to end my relationship with my abusive partner.

In the last year, I’ve lost myself and found myself and realized that suffering, pain, and heartache have the ability to generate a reawakening both in my personal life and as a native ethnographer. The story that I thought was a love story for John and Janice, also turned out to be a much-needed lesson for me to learn my own self-worth and self-love both in my relationships but also in my relationship to this discipline and how I deploy and engage with my homework.

As we work to decolonize our sensibilities around the discipline and fieldwork, and as funding structures, political climates, and institutional shifts occur, making “traditional” international (read: colonial) fieldwork less accessible, more anthropologists are turning their lenses inward toward fieldwork at “home.” Although I am an advocate for the validity and legitimacy  of anthropological inquiry done by “native” anthropologists in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston and other Black feminist anthropologists; it is also important to recognize that the labors of this homework in the United States can be filled with trauma and pain. Anthropologist Kwame Otu said during a keynote presentation a year ago “I find home to be an inherently violent place.” Often, I experience the very racist encounters, stereotypes, and microaggressions that I study while getting to know people with a fatal diagnosis and living in St. Louis. And the objective and subjective lenses of trauma are both critical here.

Subjectivity as a methodological approach potentially provides an opportunity for greater accuracy in the ways we make meaning of culture. My positionality and life history as a “native” or ethnic ethnographer–within and outside of St. Louis, within and outside of the hospitals where I work, within and outside the role of caregiver for an ill person–creates shifting “double-visions” that inform my ability to approach the project from a number of different lenses and conceptions that are fruitful but also violent and traumatic. I believe the  strategies below support resiliency for marginalized scholars conducting homework “at home.”

Strategies for Resiliency

  1. Affirm yourself daily. Remind yourself of your potential and strength. I got this tattoo recently.

  1. I recognize the privileges that exist on whether or not you can or cannot access professional counseling. However, even with the small stipend support we receive, I strongly encourage the investment during homework and even writing it into your grant proposals.
  2. Build community outside of your department. You are not alone. Find like-minded people that exist outside of your physical and virtual academic spaces. There are brilliant people that do not exist solely in elite academic spaces.
  3. Love yourself. I don’t mean this in the cliché self-love way that is currently the buzz word for healthy self-discovery; but really love on yourself. Eat food that makes you feel good. Do activities that make you feel good. Talk to people that make you feel good. Actively practice treating yourself the way you would treat your best friend.
  4. Take care of yourself first. Remember the greater purpose. The discipline needs y(our) work. Your interlocutors need to be heard. But, it’s never worth your health and well-being. A friend and colleague once told me “The work can wait, your health and well-being can’t.”



  1. All names used in this post are pseudonyms.
  2. In addition to Kamala Visweswaran’s book Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, Brackette F. William’s article “The Public I/Eye: Conducting Fieldwork to Do Homework on Homelessness and Begging in Two U.S. Cities” is useful for thinking through the concept of homework and fieldwork.