Mo’ money, fewer problems? Today, Brendane & Alyssa take on the question of getting that government guap – reparations, baby! Our new sound is finally here – shout out to our music producer Segnon Tiewul for di big tuuuune! Let us know what you think on Twitter and Instagram. Additionally, the Graduate Workers at Columbia University are currently on strike to push agreement on a fair labor contract with the university, who has threated to dock pay. Donate to the solidarity fund here. *Note* The conference panel Alyssa talks about moderating was postponed due to the strike.
An opinion poll released last summer found that 80% of Black Americans believed the federal government should compensate the descendants of enslaved people, compared with 21% of white Americans. In our segment What’s the Word? we discuss reparations – what it has meant and what it could mean. In What We’re Reading, we talk about Deborah A. Thomas’s introduction and coda to her monograph Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (2011) to understand what it means to use reparations as a framework for thinking. In our last segment, What in the World?! we have Dr. Thomas on to discuss how her thinking has evolved from reparations to repair, embodiment to affect, and citizenship to sovereignty in her follow up book, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair (2019). We also talk about the questions that animate her research, the announcement of reparations for (some) Black residents in Evanston, Illinois, the ‘conjuncture’ that’s got everyone talking about reparations, and why we should mobilize for reparations and repair on multiple scales.
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Episode Fifteen
Co-hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa A.L. James
Guest: Deborah A. Thomas, Ph.D.
Title: B**** Better Have My Money
Total Length: 01:33:07
[00:00:12] Alyssa A.L. James: Hey everybody. Welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we discuss popular culture with a Black feminist anthropological lens. I’m Alyssa and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
Brendane Tynes: Hey, y’all. I’m Brendane and I use she/her/hers pronouns as well. Today, you know, Alyssa is done with exams. Everybody clap it up.
Alyssa: Ayyye, ayyye. I’m milly rocking, but—
Brendane: She will be defending—milly rock with it—I can’t really milly rock on nobody’s block, so how sad. She will definitely be defending soon. Very, very soon. So please continue to send that good energy her way. And we’d like to send some good energy and a special thank you out to Leniqueca, Bethany, my Aunt LaShelle—heeey—Stephanie [laughs], Mayyadda, and Olivia for donating to the podcast. We really appreciate all the love on Twitter and Instagram. Y’all’s support really keeps us going. And so today we’re going to be talking about the transnational movement for reparations, or getting back what the devil stole from us, as they say in the church—my church people, if you hear me—and repair. We’ll be joined by Dr. Deborah Thomas, whose work has changed the game on how we discuss reparations, repair, and the afterlives of slavery and colonialism. We are very excited.
Alyssa: Yes, it is going to be great. But also, did y’all catch the new sound? Did you catch the new sound? We said it in the trailer, it’s finally here. And it’s perfect because it really blends our vibes, you know, that Southern trap bass, a little bit of some Caribbean flavor. And today we have a Caribbeanist anthropologist on the show today. Like, the timing. The timing.
[00:02:17] Brendane: Some would say it was divine, you know, you know.
Alyssa: Not Derrick Jaxn though [laughs].
Brendane: [Makes sound] I don’t know if we even have time to talk about that today [laughs].
Alyssa: Not today [laughs].
Brendane: Bookmark bookmark. We’re going to come back to forgiveness. Let us know what you all think about the new sound on social media. Like, do you like it or do you love it? And if you have any type of hateration, please leave that hateration out of this dancery, like, we not dealing with that [laughs].
Alyssa: We’re not here for it. But before we jump into our first segment, we would like to acknowledge that the Graduate Workers of Columbia University are on strike, having withdrawn their labor. The union and the university began negotiating the first labor contract in 2019 and ongoing disagreements around health benefits, childcare, and more have prevented resolution. Columbia University has also announced that they will be docking pay for workers who are on strike, including stipends that are paid at the beginning of the semester for study, not for work. So the union has set up a GoFundMe to raise funds, and we will link to that in the episode description. And so we believe that labor unions and fair contracts for workers are integral to social justice—
[00:03:35] Alyssa: —and we are in solidarity with the graduate student strike and all labor movements furthering the interests of workers against exploitative employers.
Brendane: Absolutely. We are recording this episode on March 25, which is the UN’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This year’s theme is “Ending Slavery’s Legacy of Racism: A Global Imperative for Justice,” and there have been online and in-person events and talks going on throughout the month of March. We just posted on Instagram posts citing Saidiya Hartman, where she said that we are living in the time of slavery. What does that mean? As she explains in her book, Lose Your Mother, “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”
Brendane: Period, like, I mean, what else can you add to the Saidiya Hartman’s words? [Laughter]
Alyssa: I know. And yet, here we are [laughs]. And yet, here we are. But how can this violence be redressed, particularly when it is ongoing? And not just in the United States, but in the world as a whole? And so we’ll talk about that today. So let’s get into it. Brendane, what’s the word today?
[00:05:15] Brendane: The word for today is “reparations.” And y’all, we actually chose this topic about a month ago and reparations has just kind of been popping up everywhere this week. You could say we manifested it, you know, more or less, right? There were talks, there’s a new podcast that talks about reparations that we’ll get into a little later. Alyssa is also moderating a panel called Ecologies of Repair at the Heyman Center Conference, entitled “On the Possibility and Impossibility of Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism,” which is today—if you’re listening to this on the day the episode is out—at 1 pm, New York Time. So this conversation around reparations has never actually really gone away, but it’s definitely found a renewed energy as of late.
Alyssa: Yeah, I’ve noticed that. I think, you know, we have a professor who would ask what is the conjuncture that we’re in that’s led to this resurgence in reparations talk? So, conjuncture, it’s like, what is the social problem or question that reparations is responding to right now? Because if you think about it, Ta-Nehisi Coates he wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. He argued that reparations, you know, they’re not just for 250 years of slavery, but also the 90 years of Jim Crow, the 60 years of “separate but equal,” the 35 years of racist housing policies, the racial wealth gap—all of which he categorizes under “plunder.” That rhymes [laughs].
Brendane: Yep, under plundeeeer! [Laughs]
Alyssa: Under plunder. [Laughs] This plunder isn’t solely an economic debt, right? It’s also a moral one. And so that essay was published seven years ago and I’d say that, you know, this reparations talk has really picked up steam in maybe the last year and a half. And so—well, at least in like a practical, material way. And so maybe it’s just that it’s the UN’s International Decade for the People of African Descent, which I don’t know if y’all knew about that but people—
Brendane: I didn’t know about that!
Alyssa: Maybe it’s the uprisings last year that primed people for these conversation. But I think it is important to think about that seriously, right? Like, why now? Why now? But I don’t think we can really answer that today, so before we get carried away on some other [laughs] tangent, let’s talk about how we define reparations.
[00:07:39] Brendane: Yeah. So reparations is often thought of as a financial restitution. So making amends for a wrong by paying back money or otherwise helping those who were wronged and their descendants. But really, right, can we put a price on the plunder? Can we put a price on this plunder? What amount can really be paid to right these wrongs? And, yes, there is a significant economic debt. When we think about as far as the International Bank and the way that that works with countries, right, there’s a significant economic debt. But how do we resolve the moral, emotional aspect of that, right? And we’ll get into this later on, because that’s when this idea of repair comes in.
Alyssa: Right. So in Deborah Thomas’s book, Exceptional Violence, which is actually what we’re reading today, she shares a paragraph that was deleted from the final version of the G21’s declaration prepared for the World Conference against racism in 2001. And the G21, if you think about—y’all might know the G8, the G7, they’re always changing—but the G21 is the group of 21 countries. So this deleted paragraph it said, “Reparations to victims of slavery, the slave trade, and colonialism and their descendants should be in the form of enhanced policies, programmes and measures at the national and international level to be contributed to by States, companies and individuals who benefited materially from these practices, in order to compensate, and repair, the economic, cultural, and political damage which has been inflicted on the affected communities and people, through inter alia, the creation of a special development fund, the improvement of access to international markets of products from developing countries affected by these practices, the cancellation or substantial reduction of their foreign debt and a programme to return art objects, historical goods and documents to the countries of origin.” So there’s just so much here to unpack. I mean, companies, individuals. There are some individuals out there that we know—I mean, maybe not personally [laughs].
Brendane: I was like, “If we knew them personally, we probably wouldn’t be doing a podcast.” [Laughter]
Alyssa: But I think there’s so much there. Again, in my prep, I learned that the way modern insurance works—it was actually based on some sailors at what was called Lloyd’s Coffeehouse in the 17th century in London. They were betting on ships that would make it to port. Lloyd’s Coffeehouse is now called Lloyds of London, which is one of the largest insurance companies in the world. The Barclays brothers who started Barclays Bank—they made their money in the slave trade. So y’all, like, slavery is with us very deep in these institutions that we take for granted. What would you take away from this deleted paragraph?
Brendane: Well, besides the fact that it was deleted, which would, I think, speaks in and of itself, right, the world commitment to reparations or repair. I’m actually really glad that you brought up insurance because what you’re saying is, like, very true and not just thinking about what’s happening in Europe or England, right, at the time, but actually how insurance finds its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. So slave capturers would insure their “cargo,” right? So they would write down logs—and Christina Sharpe talks about this in In the Wake, right—they write down logs of who enters the ship as cargo. And then if too many of the captive people were sick, or otherwise found to be, like, they couldn’t profit off of them, they would actually throw them overboard. And so there’s a very famous case of this that became the base of—what’s her name?
Brendane: Zong!? Yes, that’s why I was like—yes.
Alyssa: M. NourbeSe Philip.
Brendane: Yes. That—so that was escaping my memory. So there—yes, like, that is the basis of that particular book right there where she—
[00:12:00] Alyssa: Also on my exam, so don’t worry, it’s just fresh in the mind. [Laughs]
Brendane: You know, I [laughs] I love it. We think about slavery as something—as an event that happened in the past that we are recovering from, but it stays with us today, right? Slavery—well, let me back up and say, like, because they were throwing millions of captured Africans off those ships, right, sharks actually changed their migration patterns so they can consume those who are disposed of. So slavery literally changed the way the oceans moved, right? The literal changing the way of the food chains, of the things that we depend on that keep us alive, right, today. So the water, the plankton, the phytoplankton that produce—I used to be a science teacher, y’all, so this is—here I am—the phytoplankton that produces the majority of the oxygen that we breathe comes from the ocean, right? We don’t have enough trees on this earth, because of what settler colonialism and capitalism have decimated the earth. We don’t have enough trees on this earth to provide oxygen for us. So we are indebted to the ocean and to our ancestors for allowing us to continue to breathe. And so reparations are about this idea of plunder, I think for sure. But we want to be clear here that we’re not just talking about stolen goods and stolen bodies, right? We’re talking about actual factual violence, right? And we’re talking about our ancestors’ power of self-determination, their power to live as they were, was taken from them. And so I think money can’t compensate for the ways that white supremacist settler colonialism has changed the ways that we ourselves, as people today, as descendants, right, relate to our minds and our bodies and our spirits. And I think you’re right, that we do need to talk about repair as opposed to reconciliation, which I think is an entire different conversation. And I want to put the question out there, right, like, how are y’all going to repair the psychological, spiritual, and transgenerational harm that y’all ancestors have caused and that you still benefit from? Because they try to erase that part, right? Like, they erase that part when they talk about, you know, slavery was bad, whatever, whatever. But then when it comes down to “Well, what y’all gon actually do to restitute the harm that you still benefit from?” then all of a sudden everybody on hush mouth. Like, what you mean? [Laughs] What you mean?
Brendane: Or were you silenced? [Laughter] Silenced. [Laughter]
Alyssa: But I think—I actually think that absence and acknowledgement is the way power works, right? It’s to simply erase history. And ignorance is power’s greatest offense. If something remains unknown and unacknowledged, then there’s no need to address or redress it. You know, when people think about New York City, they associate it with multiculturalism, because of Ellis Island, and liberty because of, you know, this little statue that no one’s ever heard of, The Statue of Liberty [laughter]. And, of course, part of this liberty is its connection with the free market and the American dream, you know, which is achieved economically. And so New York City is the center of commerce and exchange. But what few people know because they’re just like this was the, you know, this is the city that is that’s representative of the land of the free, is that some of the goods that were exchanged were people. On Wall Street, between Pearl and Water, there was a market that auctioned enslaved Black and Indigenous people. It was established in 1711, in use until 1762. And so when Black Americans say this city, this state, this country was literally built on the backs of their ancestors, it’s, like I said, literal, right? Wall Street was a market for the sale of Africans and for hiring out enslaved laborers who were typically Native American and also Black. And on top of that enslaved Africans were the ones who cleared the forest to make way for the construction of Broadway. Yes, that Broadway. They built the wall that Wall Street is named for. And all of this is memorialized by a plaque. A plaque in front of a Verizon store, while some white dude has a huge statue around the corner. I mean, the—okay, the white dude is George Washington, but still. Like, you can walk around Wall Street, and in New York generally, and never be confronted with the violence that built the place.
[00:16:39] Brendane: Which is violent, right? Like, the erasure of history is violence. The erasure of harm is violence. And Columbia University, which we mentioned earlier, also benefited from our ancestors’ labor, right? Their hands went into building parts of the university. But I’m going to let that one go today, because I don’t have time. And I want to point out, though, that, like, this plaque that you’re talking about is actually not too far away from the African Burial Ground, right?
Alyssa: Exactly. So for folks who aren’t familiar, the African Burial Ground is a site where historians estimate 15,000 African Americans were buried up until the late 18th century, when it was basically excavated and paved over to build a department store. And so—[laughs].
Brendane: This not funny, I’m sorry. I’m not—I’m just—just the literal absurdity of it all. It’s just…
Alyssa: Like, even in death, we can’t have any dignity.
Alyssa: So in 1991, remains were found during an archeological survey, because they were trying to construct a new building. So nobody even was aware of this history at the time. And so the discovery of these remains led to protests for the protection and study of them. So it’s now a national monument. There were about—just under 500 remains were excavated and studied. And then, of course, they were put back and this was, you know, all done by African American archaeologists through Howard University I believe.
Brendane: Yeah. And Leith Mullings also was doing work on this project before she passed. I want to say that I hoped that—I hope. Not hoped. I hope that they haunted every single person who made the decision to defile their resting place. Like, they whole bloodlines, just sprinkle a little haunting on them. And I wanted to just also earmark, right, that this national monument does show the power of protest. So I know there are lots of questions about what does protest do. But in this case, people coming together to say, “Actually stop touching our ancestors bones”—right—”Let’s honor them,” resulted in just that. And what I also think this shows us is that slavery and its afterlives are actually systemic rather than this kind of single episode in history that we tend to talk about and learn about. So we talked about in the episode where we discuss In the Wake, right, slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, being a singularity, which is a point through which an infinite number of possibilities can originate. We think about this now, right? We can’t quantify what the transatlantic slave trade has done to the world. We can only live in it, right? And in our national memory, though, in our history, right, it seems that it’s—we’re much more often remembering these kind of episodic tragedies, which are tragedies that are kind of isolated to moments, right? And they seem to be much more accessible to us and seem to be much more evil than the 400 plus years of slavery and oppression. And one example that often comes up with comparison is the Holocaust. And so I want to pause here and be very clear that I’m not saying that victims of the Holocaust and their descendants do not deserve reparations, right? I just want to highlight that as a society, the Holocaust is marked as that never again moment in western history, right? It’s the great shame of Germany, it’s a great shame of Europe and beyond. Like, there’s an entire museum dedicated to Holocaust victims in DC. And we don’t hear about slavery and the mass genocide of Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Africa talked about in that way. And there are many reasons for that but the two that I’m going to talk about right now, right, is that one, because it’s still ongoing. Like, how can you commemorate shit that you still doing? I don’t know. And two, that violence didn’t and doesn’t happen to white people.
Alyssa: Yes. So—here I go with my exam stuff again but—in Discourse on Colonialism—I highly recommend it—by Aimé Césaire, he was like the great evil, the great tragedy of the Holocaust was that the techniques that they used in the colonies and on Black people were turned on to white people.
[00:21:27] Brendane: Mm hm. Hitler and them looked at the eugenics stuff that was happening in the US and being used on poor people, Black people here and saying, “Actually, we could one-up y’all on this. Like, we can one-up y’all on this one. We can do a mass extinction event,” right? But all of those techniques and technologies were perfected through German colonization in Africa. I think that we might have, like, a handful of museums and monuments that commemorate slavery and Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, but it’s a very small number in comparison to the museums and monuments around the world that are dedicated to the Holocaust. And if we think about the fact that the remains of thousands of Black people are still showcased in museum exhibits, in the US and around the world—and we can thank OG anthropologists and archaeologists for that one, like—it’s our fault, anthropology, that this is a thing and we gotta own that. And we’ll link an article in the description for you all to read more about this, because we actually know people who are doing work on African remains here in the US. But I want to also segue and think about, like, everyone’s talking about reparations for Black folks in the in the US in particular, and that’s what—we’re kind of—we’re going to try to broaden that conversation today. But just to let you all know, in January of this year, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, reintroduced the bill, HR 40—forty is for the 40 acres and a mule that were promised to freed Blacks, you know, that—some people say it was rumor, but I don’t know, I believe it. Too many people were citing it—to Congress. The bill proposes creating a reparations commission to examine the impact of slavery and the possibility of compensation for the descendants of enslaved Africans. So the conversations are happening, and once again, Black women are leading the charge. Whoopty whoop. Who’s surprised? Who’s suprised? Not I.
Alyssa: Nor I. [Laughter] So I—you know, you mentioned reconciliation earlier and I was just like—okay, I alluded to it earlier, but, like, we just have to say this. Like reparations is not about forgiveness.
Alyssa: Now I am TIYAD [tired] of seeing Black people talking about they’re forgiving the murderers of their family members and all of this. Like, I’m still thinking about that family who, like, hugged this police officer who shot their brother and son—
Brendane: I mean, how could you see that—
Alyssa: —in his own home!
Brendane: —and not think slavery? I think—that to me is like…
Alyssa: [Sighs] And they hugged her at her—was it—her sentencing hearing.
Brendane: Oh, yeah, when they were trying to—because she started crying. Oh, yeah.
Alyssa: And they were like, “We forgive you. It’s part of our faith,” etc., and I’m like, “Okay, if forgiveness helps you, great.” But so many times, it’s when repair has—like, there’s been no attempts at repair. And so if we think about, like, Jacques Derrida said—he’s a French philosopher—he’s argued that forgiveness invokes a sovereign power. So the goal is to think about forgiveness outside of power, either wielding it or being subject to it. And we’re trying to get out of this—
Alyssa: —hegemony, oppression, and y’all want to keep forgiving people. But like, to—okay. Nevermind.
Brendane: For what? So [sighs] as a—I’m a former church lady myself, having gone to seminary school, all those things, and learned about forgiveness is something that you should give freely to folks because God says so. I have much to say about how violent, right, forgiveness is. I think of it as—it can actually be a fairly violent process if you’re forgiving someone who’s not yourself. But I think I’m gonna let what you just said be our little segue into what we’re reading today. So Alyssa, what are we reading today?
[00:25:45] Alyssa: We already said it. Today we are reading the introduction to Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica by Deborah A. Thomas. Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology and the director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a research associate with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg. Her recent book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair was awarded the Senior Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society in 2020, and was also the runner-up for the Gregory Bateson Prize in the same year. She is also the author of Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica, published in 2011, and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, which was published in 2004, and is the co-editor of the volume Globalization and Race, which was published in 2006. Thomas co-directed and co-produced the documentary films Bad Friday and Four Days in May, and she is the co-curator of a multimedia installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston, which opened at the Penn Museum in November 2017. From 2016 to 2020, Thomas was the editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. Prior to Thomas’s life as an academic, she was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Woman.
Brendane: Wow. And that’s just the bio, that ain’t even the CV. [Laughter]
Alyssa: This was the short one. The doc that she sent it in said, “Very, very short bio.” So there—she has so many more—
Brendane: —accomplishments. Yes.
Alyssa: Can’t wait to speak to her later.
Brendane: Honestly, I’m really excited to dive into this one. And so we want to frame the book first by talking about the overarching theme of Exceptional Violence, which examines the idea of reparation. So reparation is not just a “quantification of redress for past wrongs,” but also “a framework for thinking about contemporary problems.” So Thomas wants to move away from thinking about reparations as money given to a group of people or groups of people from a nation-state, but to think about reparations as a framework that defines how “black populations stand in relation to states.” So if we use reparations as a framework for thinking, we pay critical attention to the histories that make the world the way it is, the way it’s always been—wink—and we rethink the creative ways that the oppressed move in the world. So I think what’s most generative about a reparations framework, for me, is a suggestion that the present is not just something that arrives but has a direct connection to the violences of the past, which I know that’s your—that’s your jam! So [laughs]—
Alyssa: That’s my bag right there! It was actually one of the overlaps I had to talk about—y’all exams are still just in my mind, okay—it’s one of the overlaps I had to talk about in my exams. And so in Black and Caribbean studies, the way that we see the past is always a reflection of what we’re experiencing in the present. And so in that way, it’s always repeating itself. And so she thinks through the cyclical nature of history and the way that it incorporates and accommodates the new, while always giving us the sense that we’ve somehow seen this before. And so if that makes you think of chaos theory, or if it makes you think of Avery Gordon’s hauntings, that’s kind of on purpose. And you’ll kind of—you’ll find this theme of repetition in the work of Kamau Brathwaite, Edouard Glissant, and of course, Antonio Benitez-Rojo, who wrote The Repeating Island.
Brendane: I think it’s really interesting how you’re coming to this through Martinique. And it’s really interesting to see, like, Thomas focus specifically on Jamaica as a particular society to talk through these things, and particularly through, like, citizenship, and I know citizenship is also something that you’re thinking within your work as well. And in this book, she focuses on the notion of citizenship being transformed by neoliberalism, the state formation, diaspora transnationalism, social change the vision for justice, and “the ways violence not only destroys but generates…new senses of dimension, new ideas about community and citizenship, and new notions of participation and organization.” So in order for us to really think about all of these things together, right, she has to mobilize this concept of reparations as a framework for thinking and this concept of reparations, which is usually understood in relation to kind of these claims for money from the state or redress from the state. We now think about reparations as a way to call history into the present. And this is essentially reparations as we talked about them in What’s the Word?, right: a process of acknowledgement, legitimation, and redress. But Thomas is also thinking about reparations in the terms of knowledge production, and how using that framework would push us to see and to think about reparations as kind of this global—or transnational, I think the kids say these days—project. [Laughs] We have to acknowledge, right? And I think Thomas just does a great job of bringing us to the realization, right, that the Caribbean is central to these processes that have shaped the modern world. Even if we think numbers wise, right, 90%—or the estimate is 90%—of those who were captured and brought to the Americas came to the Caribbean and South America, right? Only about 10% came to the US. So when we think about reparations as a framework and we focus on the US only, we’re leaving out, like 90% of the people affected, essentially, right? So using reparations as a framework helps us to clarify connections between the past and present. But it also means that we’re privileging accountability, right? So it’s not just about saying, and imma be real, because I might—maybe I heard a white person say this before. You know, it’s like, “Damn, yo, my ancestors really fucked your ancestors over. I’m sorry. Can we be friends now?”
[00:32:21] Alyssa: Oh, Lord. Okay.
Brendane: I’m not, you know, I’m [crosstalk]—
Alyssa: —You’re not saying it didn’t happen.
Brendane: I’m not saying it didn’t happen and I’m not saying—they didn’t say those exact words, but this is a summation of it all through the tears and the crying, right? And reparation’s not just saying that, right? We’re not here for apologies and handholding, right? It’s about taking these histories into account and redressing actually how they impact the present, and letting go of the privileges you’ve been afforded through violence. So some of those privileges, right, that you have, that you’re not “responsible for,” have been the direct result of the hoarding of wealth.
Alyssa: Mm hm. Big facts. Facts are large [laughs].
Brendane: Large and in charge.
Alyssa: So her entry point into this project of thinking reparations as a framework for knowledge production is Jamaican society. So violence, the performance of citizenship, and transnationalism. And I actually found her opening line—the opening line of the whole book—to be really striking. She said, “I have tried not to write about violence,” because it’s just such a trope of anthropological studies. If you want to study this, you know, you go to Africa, if you want to study this, you go here. If you want to study violence, you go to, you know, in the Caribbean, you go to Jamaica, but what she does is instead of, like, doing the same thing that everyone else does, and she put that thang down, flipped it, and reversed it.
Brendane: [Laughs] Missy Elliott!
Alyssa: Ayyye! So rather than looking at violence in an essentialized way that is a reflection of something we call “culture”—the scare quotes culture—she aims to demonstrate that violence is an effect of the racialized and gendered processes of class formation. So in short, violence is structural, not cultural. And unfortunately, that’s been one of the legacies of Franz Boas’s intervention in anthropology: culture being “the thing” we study. It makes it seem as though culture is the reason for everything. And then that kind of thinking precludes racial and structural analyses. So in any case, while Thomas discusses these gangs and murder and, you know, all of these things that are violent, she makes clear that the book is about the particular forms of violence that are foundational to the development and deployment of ideologies regarding citizenship. So violence is a way to rethink the post-colony from the moment of New World expansion that led to the establishment of the Caribbean. One of the things I want to make clear, which is something I’ve often had to do, because maybe this is also something that has or has not been said to me [laughs]. But people are like, “Oh, Jamaica, murder capital of the world.” I’m like, okay, yes, that’s not representative of Jamaican culture as a whole, one. And two, violence in Jamaica is a result of economic failures and politics.
Alyssa: There are these gangs and these garrison communities. It’s because politicians in the mid-twentieth century backed them to win elections. So if your party won, your community would reap the benefits. And so this led to, like, terror campaigns and gangs who would basically, like, go up against each other in order to secure access to resources. That’s a gloss but it’s important to address.
Brendane: So it’s like almost like if you just gave people what they needed, you wouldn’t have to worry about it.
[00:36:01] Alyssa: All right, and the podcast is over. [Laughter] I think we’ve solved it.
Brendane: Maybe if you give people what they needed—anyway. Yeah, that’s really interesting. And as someone who’s currently living in Baltimore and studying Baltimore, that character of murder—the murder capital of the US, or one of the murder capitals of the US—and becomes an essential form of culture as well. But back to Thomas here. For Thomas, right, reparations is not just about quantifying a redress for past wrongs, right? So not just tallying up all the ways that you and your ancestors got us fucked up. It is about providing an alternative to this kind of liberal human rights framework that’s become so dominant in the way that we think about global equality. So when we talk about human rights in this liberal framework, right, it’s connected to citizenship. And we’ve referenced this before in previous podcast episodes, where we talked about how citizenship/the citizen—which sometimes people confuse with the human as a category, right—and rights all stem from the Enlightenment period, and how they were able to justify enslavement and mass genocide, right? And so Thomas holds that history in one hand—if you want to use that image, right—but also thinks about citizenship and aims to redefine it through how Black people in particular in Jamaica might mobilize citizenship as a set of performances or practices that are directed at various institutions and networks. So citizenship can be something that can be performed, right? It’s not just “Oh, I have a birth certificate from X country, so that makes me a citizen in that country,” right? There are certain ways that you might have to act or comport yourself, or certain things you might have to subscribe to, to be recognized as a citizen, depending on where you are. So she’s also critiquing these strongly held notions about what makes capital M Man, which we talked about—Sylvia Wynter—right? So these different things around labor, around thought, etc. And she’s also thinking about, right, reparations as a different form of political transformation in the Caribbean. So what I thought was especially powerful about using reparations as a framework for knowledge production is that it moves us to think through the centrality of slavery to the contemporary Americas, right, making connections between phenomena that are not often linked. And she does that, right, by thinking about, like, modern iterations that have their roots in slavery. And this is sounding a lot like our last episode—y’all, we know. But I think another distinction that I want to make here that’s important is thinking about [a] reparations framework that considers the acts of reparation and repair possible in the world post-slavery. And that may not be the case for scholars and other folks who engage Afropessimist theory, right? Some might consider the actual idea, concept, what—practice, etc., of reconciliation, repair, and/or reparations to be impossible.
Alyssa: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s impossible as telos but not necessarily as a process. Like in the same way that slavery was systematic and not episodic, repair and reparations cannot be episodic. It also—
Alyssa: —has to be very systematic or a process. But we’ll see. Oh, and telos, for folks who are like, “What did she just say?” [laughs] basically means, like, an endpoint. So you might hear people say, like, teleological [laughs]. Just, like, it basically means something that is working towards a particular end—end goal.
Brendane: That makes sense. I always thought it meant timeline, so that actually makes more sense. Like teleologically. I’m like, “Oh, we’re doing a timeline.” But clearly, it’s connected.
Alyssa: Well the timeline is—yeah.
Brendane: Yeah, it’s like linear ways of thinking about time. Yeah. Okay.
Alyssa: So in the coda, Thomas attunes us to an interesting development. While Jamaica seeks reparations from its former colonizers, certain sectors of Jamaican society seek reparations from the Jamaican state, specifically Rastafari, for the violence of the Coral Gardens incident. All right, explanatory side note: what is the Coral Gardens incident? So while people love representing the trope of the wise weed-smoking Rasta swaying to Bob Marley, Rastafari were actually viewed as, like, the lowest of the low in Jamaica, okay. And so the Coral Gardens incident, which is also called the Coral Gardens Massacre and Bad Friday, it refers to the events from April 11 to 13, 1963, when Jamaican police and military forces detained Rastafarians throughout Jamaica, killing and torturing many of them. So there are no exact numbers on how many were detained, but in April 2017, following illegal investigation, the government of Jamaica issued an official apology condemning the government’s actions and established a trust fund for survivors as reparations. So Exceptional Violence was published in 2011, and so it describes the fight for reparations. And so her film, and her new book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation, picks up right there pretty much. It’s like the lasting effects of the massacre and the meaning of these reparations. She argues that there is a need to reckon with all violence, which is why she advocates for thinking about repair on a global level and on multiple scales. So one might need reparations from the state, and then people will be looking for them more locally, and I think we’ll kind of talk about that with the new developments in Evanston, Illinois. Folks are getting local reparations, and people are seeing that as a model for national reparations. And so she concludes that Rastas have engaged global social movements to organize on many different levels at once, rethinking citizenship in new ways for the new millennium.
[00:42:28] Brendane: And with that said, we’re going to speak to Dr. Thomas and hear more about how her thinking on these topics has evolved from 2011 to today.
[00:42:38] Alyssa: All right, we are here with Dr. Deborah A. Thomas. We are actually thrilled to have you on. We actually had reparations as a topic and the little brain dump that we did when we were first building the podcast. And what we wrote under that heading was—and excuse the informality—but we were like, “Can we get Deb Thomas to join us?” And here you are. [Laughter]
Brendane: We—and I was, like, especially excited about having you on. I reached out to you when I was applying to grad program—
Dr. Deborah Thomas: I remember.
Brendane: —in, like, 2017, and it’s a while ago, and the reparations framework that you developed and your work, Exceptional Violence, has been very useful in my own anthropological project. So just wanted to say thank you for joining us, like, we were like, “We manifested having you on.” [Laughter]
Deborah: Well, thank you for having me. It’s great to be in this conversation.
Alyssa: Thanks. All right, so this is actually the first time that we’ve had the person whose work we discussed in our previous segment, What We’re Reading, on the episode. And so we talked about your book, Exceptional Violence, but personally, we’ve also read your latest, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation. And so one of the things I noticed was, of course, the parallel themes in both. So you go from recreations as an analytic to writing about repair as quotidian actions, from citizenship as embodied and performed to talking about sovereignty and its affective dimensions. From witnessing in Exceptional Violence to what you call Witnessing 2.0 in Political Life. And so one of the things I don’t think we get to talk about enough is this thinking as process and particularly that you’re allowed to change your mind or grow your stance and your approach to the subjects that you study. So we’d love to hear you talk about how your thinking has developed over the years and what’s influenced it. You know what, it was almost as though you’re reading your past material with fresh eyes and new information, of course, because the 2017 apology and reparations for survivors of the Coral Gardens Incident hadn’t happened as yet. Or, you know, even we could talk about—as you know, David Scott might ask, who I bring up because he’s our professor and he’s also an interlocutor of yours, you know—what is the problem space that you are responding to, you know, that brought you to sovereignty over citizenship, repair over reparations, and affect over embodiment?
[00:45:16] Deborah: That is a good question. And I would track it back even further, actually, to my first book, Modern Blackness because, you know, the thing that so many of us were thinking through and struggling with in the early 90s—throughout the 1990s, I started grad school in 92 so—was nationalism, you know, and the problem of the nation-state and the project of making sort of new arenas for the development of an anti-colonial or post-colonial national culture. And, you know, what that means to do that kind of work and whether it actually makes any kind of difference to anybody who’s not involved, right? So, you know, as, you know, someone who was myself a former dancer involved in community-based work and sort of consciousness-raising through dance and music, you know, I thought, you know, the work that we were doing when I was dancing with Urban Bush Woman was very local, right? And very much at the scale of the grassroots. And I wondered, you know, what does this look like? What kinds of impact can artists have in a more general sort of public sphere in terms of influencing national culture or some kind of expression of national culture. And so I thought, “Okay, I’ll scale up.” And, you know, dancers were so involved in the anti-colonial movement in Jamaica and established all of the national institutional frameworks that we now recognize as sort of our national institutions, whether it’s the school of music, dance, drama, and art, which is now a tertiary institution, the festival commission, and the National Festival Competition every year—all of these kinds of things were established sort of mid-twentieth century by people who had been conscientiousized—is that the word?—through the arts, you know, through their own participation in the arts and sort of really trying to value what had been denigrated under British colonial rule. So the problem space at that point is, you know, what is the kind of legible space of the nation-state and how do people engage that space, you know? And as an artist who had been involved in those processes, of course, I had a certain kind of stake in that question, you know? I cared about it, I took it for granted that that kind of work was important, you know, and I wanted to see the ways it changed over time, you know, as new generations of people came into that process—new dance companies, new theater groups, new ways of working new kinds of music. But at base, I believe that that was an important endeavor. I still believe it’s an important endeavor. But, you know, through the process of that research, of course, one also finds out very loudly that, you know, really, there are a whole ton load of people who don’t care about that at all, or if they care about it, they care about it only in very particular moments. Like, they care about it when their kid is in the festival competition and they go and participate in that, but don’t have necessarily an ideological framework about it. And some of the practices that are hailed as part of our national culture, in fact, are, you know, scary to them, or, you know, they know the person down the road who does kumina and they’re afraid of them. Or, you know, it hasn’t become, for them, something separate enough from them that it can be emblematic of a national cultural sphere without also then feeling like it makes you less than—less smarter and less, you know. And, of course, you know, in the 90s, what was really more indicative of national culture to most people was dancehall, you know, and the kind of popular music and popular dances and that’s what everybody did, that’s what everybody practiced regularly as their culture, you know? And so [crosstalk]—
[00:49:29] Alyssa: I do, I know very well [laughs].
Deborah: So, you know, I had to think about that, you know, like, all right, there are these competing frameworks and to some degree, that competition, you know, is generational. To some degree, it’s class-based, and also, therefore, kind of racialized in complex ways. And, you know, it’s important to think about why that shift happens, you know? So that was sort of the thing that was preoccupying me at that time—what do people feel represents the nation-state, you know? How do people feel connected to the nation-state? You know, but the nation-state also, we know, is a site of violence. So you know—hence the development of the second book. So I think, you know, what often happens—and, you know, I think of my former colleague at Duke, Dan Nelson, in this regard, too—is you’re trying to answer one question and you end up writing a book. You’re not satisfied with the answers that you came—I mean, they’re okay for that moment and that time and that question—but there are still doubts, there are still niggling things, you know, there are still irritations that sort of develop into some next project, some next idea. So in some way I feel like you’re always trying to answer the same question because you’re somewhat dissatisfied with your attempt to answer it the first time. And then again the second time. And, you know, maybe I would write another book about these kinds of issues. I don’t know, I mean, it’s sort of moving in different directions now, but it’s still always about, on some level, what do people do to feel free, you know? And what is the relationship of that feeling of freedom to a state structure, you know? And must we always link that feeling of sovereignty, or that notion—the things that people bundle under the term sovereignty, which could be stuff like, you know, being able to support myself and my family or being able to practice the things that I think are my culture or being safe from the security forces or, you know, being able to move across national boundaries to see family or friends or to try and make my life better, or what—you know, that bundle of things that people call sovereignty is not always hinged to the state, you know? And in many ways, those things can’t be fulfilled by hinging them to the state within the context of a liberal democratic state system internationally that we have. So, you know, I think that those questions keep coming back. And, you know, they come back because things happen in the world, you know, like the Coral Gardens event happens or the Tivoli Incursion happens, or—you know, these things keep circling back around that make you have to investigate it again, you know, and try to really—you know, get more deeply into the various entanglements that create the conditions that we’re living in now, and that people are all from different positions struggling against, you know?
Alyssa: Yeah, I think what you’ve articulated there at the end is really the repetition—the repetition of history, of the past and the present, which, you know, of course, is a theme in both books. And, you know, I said earlier that this is something that we see through Antonio Benitez-Rojo and Kamau Brathwaite and Edouard Glissant like, this is—the Caribbean is just this site of repetition. But then there’s this other thing you were talking about, which is, you know, the questions that we continue to ask. And I think—you know, we always—that we tend to think a lot about this research question, because, you know, we have to write grant proposals and all these things and so we—you know, we think a lot about our research question, but I think that what animates a lot of academics, a lot of thinkers is a particular scholarly question. It’s like, “I just have this question, a fundamental question, in my mind that is the question I’m trying to answer with these other questions.” And I think that it’s helpful to try to articulate that, and I’m saying that for, you know, graduate students and things like that. It’s important to kind of think about, like, what’s really motivating these questions that I’m asking here in this particular space?
Deborah: Yeah, that’s—Michel-Rolph Trouillot used to call that the difference between the object of observation and the object of analysis, right? That your question, your broader question, your “What is sovereignty?” or something like that, you know, what is really the nature of our relationships to states? What does that do for us? What does that shut down? You know, that’s different from where you might look at that question. But then there’s another level of difference, I think, that also has to do with where you stand? You know, what your position is, what your experiences are, and, you know, standing in the legacy of Zora—so to allude to your podcast title—you know, these aren’t abstract questions either. You know, they’re questions that I deeply care about, personally, right, and have personal experience with them. And I think more and more, not only do we see a more—how should I say? You know, there was a period really through when I was in grad school where one would have been discouraged from conducting research “in one’s home,” whatever that was conceptualized to be, for many reasons, including an idea of, you know, not being able to have “objectivity” in your home space. But, you know, I think we’ve probably deconstructed the notion of “objectivity” enough for that not to be as strong a reason. But there have been other reasons Trouillot used to suggest that his students not study in their location so that they’re not saddled with a particular identity politics, you know, in their scholarly communities, that they can demonstrate their expertise outside of their identity first. But I do think there’s more kind of “legitimate space” for people studying the scenarios in which they find themselves. And by that I don’t mean only Jamaicans studying Jamaica or Grenadians studying Grenada or New Yorkers studying New York, but I also mean, you know, students who enmesh themselves in the communities in which they are living in grad school or prior to grad school, and then continuing to think about those issues as their research. You know, and I think that—more and more I think that kind of anthropological scholarship is gaining legitimacy.
[00:56:40] Alyssa: Yeah. For folks who don’t know Trouillot—he’s known for his work on Haiti and Silencing the Past, but his first work was actually in Dominica. So he was one of the people that—
Deborah: And your professor’s first work was in Sri Lanka—
Deborah: —right? And [unclear] first work was in Ghana. And, you know, yeah.
Alyssa: But I’m glad that you brought up abstraction because I think—I sometimes have this worry, this concern that people often ignore the part where scholars say, “This is an analysis that I’m thinking through at the level of—at a level of abstraction.” And so then they start worrying about these, like, very material effects of saying these things. And so you’ve written that, you know, reparations are incapable of redressing the harms and violence of slavery and its afterlives, it is effectively an irreparable evil. And I think people hear that and they’re like, “That’s dangerous. Don’t say that. Like people in power [unclear] will use that so they don’t give us our money. Like we still—even if it’s irreparable, we want that money.” So for our audience, could you tell us how you define repair and what does it do to think about repair versus reparations? And also how—you know, what does it do to acknowledge that these harms are irreparable?
Deborah: Yeah. Well, we could take that backwards, right. So I think acknowledging that these harms are irreparable is refusing to disavow the ways slavery impacts the present. You know, all of us who speak about afterlives in one way or another—whether it’s the afterlives of slavery, the afterlives of imperialism, the afterlives and current lives of settler colonialism, you know, all of those scholars—we are trying to problematize the post, you know, and to show that, in fact, all of the institutions in our societies are based in these processes of empire and transatlantic slavery, at least in the western hemisphere, you know? So, in fact, there is no way, really, to petition the state to rectify those harms, because it would mean constantly undoing the institutions that support that state in the first place. Okay. Now, that said, you know, one always has to work, I think, on two levels. There’s a pragmatic level and then there’s the level of theoretical abstraction, as you’re putting it—or, I might say, more the speculative level or the imaginative level, in which we could be—in that second level, we could be committed to an understanding that we want to live the future that we imagine now. And in doing that, we are also always recognizing the impact of the past, right? But we’re not necessarily going to wait on the state to allow us to live in that scenario, right? And so that would be perhaps a—you know, a practice of refusal, as Audra Simpson has put it vis-à-vis Indigenous communities and Tina Campt has put it vis-à-vis Black communities across the diaspora and—in Africa and across the diaspora. But, you know, it is important always that people are also pressuring the states for whatever politics of recognition are possible. It is important that we were able to support a reparations process for those who experienced the Coral Gardens events. It is important that African Americans and Black people throughout the diaspora petition governments for reparations, just to continually have it on the radar that these are processes that do not end, you know? That, in fact, slavery shapes all of our institutional forms and therefore still has impact today in terms of structural inequalities. So I do think that that’s really important work. The difficult aspects of that are not the accounting, really, it’s the logistics, you know? And it’s sort of thinking through how do we collect on those claims, right? And that’s, I think, where one sees a lot of frictions, mostly because the ways communities want to organize are not compatible with the juridical lines of giving reparations, right? So, you know—and in a kind of normative reparations claim, the juridical logic is that once the state has been made accountable and has made good on its promise, then, like, that’s the end of that story, you know, which I think is similarly dangerous, because that means one cannot then have additional claim to the continuation of harm, which is tough. So, you know, I think there—I think one has to always operate in two spheres, you know? I, personally, because—maybe because I’m a scholar or maybe because I want to live in a different kind of imaginative location—I find repair to be a framework that’s more capacious in thinking through the ways the past lives in the present, in thinking through the forms of relationality I want to develop with others and that I want to be a part of, and also the forms of care through which we might build other ways of living. So that’s why I use repair, not to disavow the importance of reparations, but to signal that that’s not enough.
[1:02:31] Brendane: Yeah, I think there’s so many different threads, I think, I want to pick up from what you just said. I think “care” is, like, a big word now, especially in anthropology, but also thinking across disciplines in Black studies, affect studies. Now people are trying to figure out “care.” So I’m gonna bookmark that, I’m gonna come back to it. [Laughter] But I—one of—I think the first thing I want to talk about is just, like, you talking about reparations and how the logistics of it is the part that people are like, “Okay, like, how the hell do we actually get what’s owed to us?” And on Tuesday, like, the city of Evanston, Illinois, announced that they would be making “reparations,” and I’m using—if you can’t see me, I’m using air quotes, because I want to throw up—put the question in: is this actually a reparations, right, available to Black residents for discriminatory housing, politics, practices, and inaction. So essentially redlining, right, on the part of the city. And for folks who aren’t aware, it will grant qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments or for home repairs and using a fund that was generated from revenue from the city’s tax on the sale of recreational marijuana. So that also calls in histories around mass incarceration, right? So the aim to kind of solve these two problems, which is Black residents being disproportionately arrested for these infractions involving marijuana possession, as well as being priced out of the homes that they were in. And so, of course, people are seeing this as a potential model for reparations at the national level. I don’t know how I feel about that—well I do know how I feel about that, I tend to disagree. But I [laughs]—we were also wanting to be, like, curious about your reaction to this and what you think about this and the frameworks and thinking about, like, this logistical problem of reparations?
Deborah: Well, I think, in that case, the acknowledgement of redlining is important, right? Since that has been one of the many long-term effects of structural inequality that has been disavowed. So I think acknowledging that is absolutely important. But again, the question, I think, that will come up is who is eligible for that? You know, will that, in fact, spur gentrification? You know, how do we see that unfolding? Is that about descendants of people who were dispossessed from their homes, you know—like, what are going to be the logics around the implementation of such a policy? And I think that’s—again, that’s where reparations claims can be so tricky. I mean, if I think about the Coral Gardens scenario, which was still being adjudicated last year this time—I’m not sure what has happened since then because—
Brendane: —the world, we’re in a new world, you know, we’re in a new world now.
Deborah: —I’ve been sitting in this chair for a year. [Laughter] But, you know, there are so many complications. And when the individual who has suffered the harm, or when the individual who has been designated as having legitimately suffered the harm at the hands of the state, dies, typically, whatever form of reparation would go to their estate, right? So in the case of some of these elders, they had been shunned by their families when they sided Rasta. And in one case, you know, basically disowned to the extent that between the time we recorded a narrative with one of the brethren that we spoke with to make the film Bad Friday, and when we came to give him his copy of his interview and of the film itself, he had passed. But he had passed from dehydration. And his daughter lived, you know, a stone’s throw up the road. So there are many complicated things that might have been going on there. I don’t know the details. But if he were designated as a recipient of reparations and it was then to go to his descendants, what would that mean, you know, for many of these men whose families shunned them and disowned them, you know? So I think there are all kinds of issues, you know? Many times one imagines one could use money to build community spaces or to build structures that would enable after school programs for children, all these kinds of things, but reparations don’t go to collectivities or to community groups—they’re transferred to individuals. So I think those are—in that case, those are some of the questions that come up and, you know, you can imagine in Evanston similar—you know, similar, complex questions would arise, you know, and people will be fighting over that money.
[01:07:34] Brendane: Yeah and I think that you highlighting that very important distinction, right, of people can imagine reparations happening on a community level—so this imaginative level. But then what happens in reality and, like, practically, right, is that they can’t write a check to “Black residents in Evanston, Illinois,” right? The check has to be to—to me, imma just say send the check to me. So [laughter] thinking about, right, like—I think I’m gonna come back to the care thing because care is something that I think a lot about. I think in repair, you said, it kind of invokes a sense of care and this kind of affective—I want to say “responsibility.” I’m not sure if that’s the word I want to put there. But, like, this kind of responsibility to repair, to move forward, to think about what would life look like in the wake of all of these violences. And we talked earlier in the episode about how there is this renewed interest in reparations in the United States, and in other places around the world, and publicly. And so last year, July, there was an essay that was published in Anthropology News that proclaimed that it was time to study reparations as—and it was acting as if this person was making the announcement that they were the person—the one that came up with this. And that Black women anthropologists, like yourself and like others, right, have not been studying reparations and talking about this framework for years. And there’s actually a podcast now that’s called, like, Payback’s a Bitch, that’s out [laughter]. And Erika Alexander, who was Maxine Shaw on Living Single, is one of the hosts along with this white man named Whitney Dow. And they talked about the podcast on Code Switch. And what was really interesting in listening to them talk was kind of this affective register. So Whitney Dow was like—they took a tour of New York and they were on Wall Street and talking about kind of the exchange, the slave market that was there. And Maxine Alexander was—or I don’t know, I just crossed two of her names—Erika Alexander was crying at the monument, and he was like, you know, “It’s so easy for me to gloss over these histories but seeing you here, invoking this emotion really makes me have to pause and think.” And so much of what I see happening in conversations about reconciliation—which I think are completely different from reparations and repair, of course—but, like, this kind of—there’s an affect of economy there that kind of expects for Black people and other oppressed people—people who are asking for reparations—to demonstrate this—the need, as you were talking about, right? This quantification of harm. But it’s not just like, “Can you renumerate it?” It’s also like, “Can you show me that you are suffering in a particular kind of way?”—which, for me, was just like-it was hard listening to her cry and then hearing this white man be like, “It wasn’t until you cried that I really could think about this as something that hurts you,” more or less. Yeah, I think I just wanted to, like, have a conversation with you about this kind of, like, affective register that comes into thinking about repair, and I think, particularly, like, people who work from a Black feminist framework have always kind of thought about emotions and affect, this register. But just—like yeah, I wanted to talk to you and hear more about where your thinking is around that, because you bring up affective in your newer writings about repair—you talk a lot about the affective dimension of that.
Deborah: Yeah, and really about the affective dimensions of sovereignty, right? And the ways that we experience sovereignty, both the violence of sovereignty, but also the liberation of sovereignty in our bodies, and in our bodies in relation to each other. Yeah, I mean, I actually like that you used the word “responsibility.” And that always makes me think of Avery Gordon, right? And her response-ability, right? The response-hyphen-ability, you know? When she writes, like, once something has been brought to your attention, like, once you’re made to know, then you have to be responsive to it, you know, and you have a response—you have to cultivate a sense of response-ability, you know, because things can’t then go back to the way they were, right? You have to exhibit some form of change that mirrors the change in your knowledge. And I find that to be a really useful way to think about that. You know, I think, in many ways, we have moved from—and this may be a generational thing and I’m not saying it’s good or bad—we’ve moved from a kind of diagnosis of inequality, like, in the language of oppression, to a diagnosis of inequality in the language of trauma. And I think making that shift means many things, including how politics is expressed now, how those kinds of interactions signal things to other people in different ways now than perhaps they would have in an earlier moment. And, you know, can we say, “Oh, he shouldn’t have been moved by her tears?” No. Okay, so he was brought to know in a different kind of way what he already knew, but had been glossing over. All right, so that’s significant in some way, that’s important. The question is what is he then going to do with that knowledge? You know, we can be annoyed that it took the Black woman crying for him to figure it out. But that’s not really the important part. That’s just us being annoyed and talking together about being annoyed, right? The important part then is, well, what’s he going to do about it? You know, what are we all going to do about it? And I think that’s the harder step. And not everybody is going to do things about it in the same way, you know? People come to experiences and problems with different skills and different strengths and different abilities. So they have to use those different skills and strengths and abilities to respond to what they now know.
Brendane: Yeah, I agree. I think the annoyance is important for me because it marks, like, okay, yeah, this is—like, this—I recognize it as, like, “Okay, there’s a power thing that’s happening here.” You know, “This is calling—this feels a little too close to, you know, slavery in some ways, but then also just like—like, you’re right, like, it’s about what are you going to do with it? And I think repair, reparations, all of that is thinking about sacrifice. And one of the things that Whitney Dow was talking about was just, like, he does not—like, he felt moved to do something, but he didn’t feel moved to, like, give his money away, or he doesn’t feel moved to, like, you know, actually do things that shift power—dynamics of power. But I do—I think it’s really interesting what you said about trauma—kind of the shift from oppression to trauma and then how trauma opens up the door because we’re also hearing a lot of people talk about the kind of the “trauma”—I’m not—okay, air quotes around that just because of how I feel about it—but the “trauma” of white supremacy for white people themselves. And so, the ways in which they’re not able to—that’s the thing that’s coming! It’s a thing that’s coming!
Deborah: That sounds—okay.
Alyssa: Goodness gracious [laughs].
Deborah: And what is that trauma?
Brendane: The trauma being that they’re not able to connect to their own feelings and emotions and that they have to kind of outsource that through violence—placing violence onto other people’s bodies? Or embodying—
Deborah: Is that…traumatic? Okay.
Brendane: It’s a—you know, it’s the new wave. I’m not saying I’m on it, I’m just saying that’s the new wave.
Alyssa: It makes me think of that book The Resonance of Unseen Things [laughs]. There’s some of that in there. But what this, like, move to trauma has also got me thinking about is the Empire of Trauma by Didier Fassin and Rechtman and, you know, the way that migrants and refugees, they have to perform or demonstrate this kind of, like, physical trauma, but now here we are having to show an affective—an emotional trauma in order to get people to recognize suffering. Because they know that the physical isn’t there. I mean—
Deborah: Well, isn’t it?
Alyssa: —it is in some ways in terms of our health and things like that [laughs].
Deborah: And police killings and incarceration.
[01:16:33] Brendane: It’s like, “Yo, the evidence is here,” like you said, what we’ve always known to be true. And it’s highlighted in a different way but I think another framework that kind of addresses this is emotional justice, which is something that’s, like, emerging in that framework, that talks about racial healing is only possible through emotional justice and attacking the different ways that anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and all these other forms of oppression are things that cause trauma and produce harm in our emotional space that point to this kind of “invisible” or immaterial affective relation of sovereignty. But I really liked how you—the frame that you’re thinking about when you talked about kind of the overarching question of your work being, “How do we get free or think about freedom?” So how do we relate to sovereignty that might not need to be a connection to the state? And so I wanted to kind of think about that as like—here, we talk a lot about Black feminist anthropology, Black feminism in general, and thinking about that as a form that allows us to imagine a world outside of where we’re being. And you yourself in your work rely on, like, a transnational Black feminist theory, so I wanted to ask—I understand what that means, but for our listeners, Iike, how would you distinguish between a Black feminist lens and a transnational Black feminist lens? And then how does this lens allow you to, like, think [capaciously?] about your work, especially repair and witnessing?
Deborah: Yeah, I don’t know that I’d put a too, too fine a point on the distinction except to maybe say, to some degree, it might be disciplinary. So there’s a lot of really good Black feminist sociology, for example. But it’s often dealing materially with structures in the US, right? And I think that there are US-based Black women scholars who are feminists who are also thinking beyond the borders of the US or very particular situations and scenarios related to a kind of nation-state framework here. But I think it’s mostly because, you know, I’m in this working group with all these folk, and like, we think together and read together and read each other, and it’s such a—for me, such a generative space. You know, as in many of my interdisciplinary settings, I’m usually the only anthropologist, which is, you know, always the thing. I’m not sure if you’ve experienced that yet—or not, I say “yet” because if you haven’t, you will.
Alyssa: It’s coming. It’s coming.
Brendane: It’s coming.
Deborah: It’s coming. Interestingly, this year, I’ve taught both the undergrad intro and the grad core for cultural anthropology, and the undergrad course we’ve retooled because I decided I should just call it what I teach it, and then just, you know, be upfront and stuff, calling it “Intro to Cultural Anthropology.” So it’s now called “Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World,” and that’s sort of then all this work about the construction of modernity and raciality and sort of Indigenous studies and Black studies and what that gives anthropology, and then the history of museums, you know, and collecting. And we usually do—it’s project-based, so last year they made the website for this conference we’re having in October, and I think next fall we’ll probably do some kind of exhibit on casting and sort of centering around some of the people at the Penn Museum and Department of Anthropology who were big in that kind of physical-anthro stuff, like Carlton Kuhn, for example, who commissioned his artist brother to make a number of casts of different stages and races of mankind, etc., that now populate one of the classrooms I teach in with some regularity. Anyway, so that’s the undergrad class. The grad class—I’ve sort of organized it in theme areas and one week we read some articles and then the second week we read an ethnography. And I’ve wanted it to—if we think about the problems of American anthropology—the animating problems of American anthropology as being “the problem of the Indian” and “the problem of the Black,” right—and I’m putting those terms in quotes, right, as sort of problem subjects, problem spaces—then what would it mean to bring Black studies and Indigenous studies to bear on the anthropological questions and work that we have. So they’re reading, you know, Wynter alongside, you know, other sort of older anthropological texts. So they’re reading Hortense Spillers alongside work on kinship or they’re reading Saidiya Hartman alongside work on method and—you know what I mean? So it’s like if we really want to decolonize our field, then we have to take those originary problem spaces and have them help us undo our approaches to these anthropological constellations, you know, and really highlight that kind of work. And so, I mean, I guess where I see, for me, anyway, the most exciting reorienting theoretical news coming from, you know, feminist, critical Indigenous scholars and sort of what I guess I would call transnational Black feminists, which then also include the work of people whose problem spaces are very similar, like South African anthropologists and feminists who have those same two originary issues, right, in their anthropological toolkit.
[01:22:37] Alyssa: All right. One, can we take this class? [Laughter]
Deborah: If you want to start over!
Brendane: Oh no.
Alyssa: Yeah, we’ll just jump in.
Brendane: Look, I don’t think I could start over. I think that is an impossibility.
Alyssa: I mean, we talked about—and we talked about in a previous episode, the one that we did with Dr. Barnes, and you were like, “I almost failed my intro class.” And if your intro class was like that, Brendane, you probably [laughs] wouldn’t’ve gotten that grade.
Brendane: Yeah, I definitely had a C- in intro in anthropology in undergrad. [Laughter] You know, and here I am, you know, getting my PhD in it.
Deborah: Did you fail to understand the Nuer? Is that what was the problem?
Brendane: No, it’s not that I didn’t understand it. I just couldn’t understand why we were teaching it as truth. That was, for me, was so—my essays were like, “Nuer says this, but I disagree because example, example, example.” And so, apparently, you’re just supposed to pare it back what you’re taught. And no shade to Duke’s culture anthropology department but—and the person who taught it at the time—but yeah, here—I mean, here I am. It didn’t stop me from going to grad school so [laughter].
Alyssa: Yeah, if there are any undergrads listening—if there are any undergrads listening, just know that I, too, have had some Cs and Ds in my time [laughs].
Brendane: It’ll be okay.
Alyssa: But I wanted to kind of close out with this thread of the global. And so, you know, towards the end of the book, you talk about the way Rastafari in Jamaica organized, right, so it was on multiple scales at once. And so, you know, right now, there are a lot of conversations about who’s Black enough for reparations, you know, podcast episodes, Derek Hamilton’s work. Of course, advocates of ADOS, the American Descendants of Slaves. We talk about—we’ve kind of mentioned on the podcast these diaspora wars [laughs]. We really want to talk about it, because, you know, my family’s Jamaican, Brendane is from the US. And so we want to come talk about that, but, you know, what are the benefits of leaving these diaspora wars alone and understanding reparations in global terms, you know? How would we need to reorient our thinking and our action?
[01:24:53] Deborah: Yeah. No, I think that’s so important. You know, I mean, the institutions that should have accountability for the transatlantic slave trade were themselves global institutions, whether they were merchant banks or empires, you know. And it’s not as though slavery only deleteriously affected people living in the United States or people who were brought to the United States. Just because one lives in a Black country doesn’t mean that Black people fully enjoy sovereign power in those Black countries, you know? And the same kinds of global inequalities that were inaugurated through the development of imperialism, and therefore nation-states within Europe, you know, create the, you know, conditions of inequality that have Caribbean people, for example, or Latin American people, unable to, you know, meet their goals or live their lives productively in their country of origin, and make it necessary to migrate in order to move forward in some of the ways that they deem important for themselves. So to imagine that we are not all connected, in my opinion, is a fallacy. That said, I do understand why people, in the pragmatic sense, must mobilize, you know, for reparations to a state because of course, that is the only way you can mobilize for reparations. I mean, I think the CARICOM example there is very interesting and important—the committee that’s been chaired by Hilary Beckles and—oh Lord have mercy, her name has just gone out of my brain, but her book cover is seared in my eyeballs—Verene! Verene Shepherd, Verene Shepherd. [Laughter] But, you know, that kind of regional mobilization, cross-state mobilization, even though it’s still through an inter-state structure, could provide some kinds of models, because they are explicitly formulating it as a hemispheric issue, you know, and therefore, a global problem.
[01:27:22] Alyssa: Well, that is all we have for today. [Laughter] Thank you so much for being here with us, Dr. Thomas. This has truly been a great conversation. It’s been a pleasure talking with you both. So could you please let people know what you have coming up and where they can find you if they are so willing?
Deborah: Well, literally I guess, shortly, I will be at CUNY on a panel about sovereignty in Caribbean and Latin America. But no, I don’t know, I mean, I’ve been doing some work, a couple new projects—well I had been doing a couple new projects, which I will hopefully get back to this summer at some point. One of which is thinking through—I guess, continuing with that same question about the nation-state and the afterlives of imperialism, thinking about the effects of intensifying Chinese investment in Jamaica particular, but this is also a global issue throughout Africa—
Alyssa: Same. Same. [Laughs]
Deborah: —Latin America, and the Caribbean. Yeah.
Brendane: And then Ghana—
Deborah: —and the other thing—and, yeah, absolutely. In The Gambia, in Ethiopia, yeah. Differently in different places, you know. And I think that the Caribbean vantage point is an interesting one and the Jamaican vantage point in particular, partly because I think we have understood ourselves as so central to empire—you know, to the British Empire—in terms of being the kind of guinea pig for many of the different imperial policies and projects that were implemented and developed. And to the American Empire, you know, to the extent of being the constant thorn in the side with the lefty politics and the [unclear?] movement, but also, you know, clearly central to the migration streams that come here. But you know, for the Chinese, we’re sort of one of many possible places to build a deep water shipping port and logistics hub, a good place since we’re the first landmass coming out of the northern end of the Panama Canal, but not the only place. So I think it actually changes things, you know, in terms of where certain places sit in a new vision of global interaction and empire. But anyway, the second project is another film project and we’ve been working—me and my longtime collaborator, Junior Wedderburn—have been working on a film about the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which was a spiritual community in Jamaica that then was visited, and to a degree kind of taken over, by a group of white Americans [in] the late 60s and early 70s. And they were running, you know, really, the largest trafficking organization, completely vertically integrated, really, before or since. And one of the brethren who had been involved with this community via one of the Americans saw Bad Friday and called me some years ago and said, “You know, I have, like, 600 hours of archival footage of our group. Do you think you’d be interested in doing something with it?” I was like, “Oh, wow.” So we’ve sort of been delving into that and he sadly passed over the past summer. But we’re moving forward with some of the other members of that community, both here and in Jamaica. So we’ll see how it turns out.
Alyssa: Okay. Eventually, the projects just come to you [laughs]!
Brendane: You know. [Laughter]
Alyssa: You no longer have to go to them! [Laughter]
Brendane: One day, one day.
Deborah: Well, a little bit of serendipity in that case but—no, you just keep noticing things right? And things keep changing, and you’re like, “Wait, what’s happening? What’s going to be the effect of this? Why is this happening?” You know, so.
[01:31:16] Brendane: Well, we want to thank you all so much for listening. This episode was produced by ya girls Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes. Our intern is Menkhu-ta Whaley and the podcast is distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by the Racial Justice Mini-Grant Program at Columbia University, which is funded through a partnership with the Office of University Life, the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, and the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. Further funding has been provided by grants from the Office for Academic Diversity and Inclusion and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Council and donations from listeners just like you.
Alyssa: Thank you all so much for your support. We could not be doing this without you. You know what else we would appreciate? Ratings and reviews on your chosen podcast platform.
Alyssa: [Laughs] It helps them know that our podcast is the hot fiyah [fire] so they recommend us to more people. You can also head to zorasdaughters.com to find transcripts for the episodes, our bios, contact info, and ways to support the podcast. Follow us on Instagram @zorasdaughters and on Twitter @zoras_daughters.
Brendane: And until next time, remember, we must take care of ourselves and each other. Bye!
[1:33:00] Deborah: Bye!
[END OF RECORDING]