Welcome to our ICONversations, a series where you will hear iconic Black feminist anthropologists answer five questions about their intellectual projects and growth, what their work has meant to them, and the imprints they want to leave on the world.

In this first episode, Alyssa and Brendane sit down with Dr. Irma McClaurin, an anthropologist who defies definition. In her words: “I don’t do academic windows.” Dr. McClaurin is a bio-cultural anthropologist, author, leader, and entrepreneur. She has, and continues to walk in alignment with her life’s purpose: creating space for Black women to thrive, to be celebrated and remembered.

 Find Dr. McClaurin on Twitter and Instagram

S3, Episode 10: ICONversations, Pt.1: Dr. Irma McClaurin

S3 Episode 10 ICONversations, Pt.1: Dr. Irma McClaurin

Co-Hosts: Alyssa James (AJ) and Brendane Tynes (BT)

Guest Dr. Ima McClaurin (IM)

[0:00:00] Dr. McClaurin: What drew me to her, and I say this, Is that she walks with me.

[0:00:06] Music Begins

[0:00:40] Music Ends

[0:00:41] Brendane (BT): Hey y’all, welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we share Black feminist perspectives and close-read pop culture and other social topics that affect Black folks. I’m Brendane, and I use she/her/hers pronouns.

[0:00:52] Alyssa AJ: Hey, everyone, this is Alyssa, and I use she/ her/hers pronouns. In today’s episode, we are introducing our ICONversations –series, which is going to run for all of Black History Month. Where we ask Black feminist anthropologists, five questions about their lives and careers. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Irma McClaurin today.

Dr. Irma McClaurin is a woman of many talents who believes that you must change minds, change hearts, and change behavior to achieve transformation. She is an activist biocultural anthropologist who studies the social construction of inequality. Dr. McClaurin earned her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1993 and went on to become a faculty member at the University of Florida. She is the author and editor of several books on topics including the culture of Belize, Black feminism, African American history, and her own poetry. Dr. McClaurin went on to serve as editor of the journal Transforming Anthropology, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, and the first female president of Shaw University. She is also founder and senior consultant of Irma McClaurin solutions. In 1975 Dr. McClaurin won the Gwendolyn Brooks literary award for poetry, and in 2015 the Black Press of America named her essay a Black Mother Weeps for America, a Stop Killing our Black Sons, as the best in the country for that year. In 2016 Dr. McClaurin founded the Irma McClaurin Black feminist archive. Her vision for the archive is that it will be a game changer by preserving and showcasing the intellectual and activist contributions of Black feminists for all eternity.

[0:02:24] BT: Just, Wow! So, it was truly an honor speaking with Dr. Irma McClaurin; her edited volume Black Feminist Anthropology changed the game for me as a young Black feminist anthropologist. — How many years ago did I read that, like ten? — Her work has paved the way for all of us to use the tools of anthropology to do the work that we want to do. So, speaking with her was incredibly inspirational. I left the conversation speechless, and y’all know that’s hard for a Gemini like me. We also learned that Dr. Irma is an Aries. Her confidence and self-assuredness really proved that Aries—have no fear. None. Something to aspire to. Over the span of her lifetime, she has accomplished so much, and she continues to walk in alignment with her purpose and her calling. I think that was truly the gift that we were shown and given in this interview that we got to have with her. Thank you, Dr. Irma, for being an example to all of us Black feminist anthros and listeners, y’all are truly in for a treat.

[0:03:50] AJ: There were so many gems in our conversation that I just kept stopping and taking notes. I was thrilled to hear that she is what she calls a blank slate anthropologist ‘cause I was like girl me too. You know, I started my master’s with not one single course in anthropology, but I just felt like it was the right place for me, and I hold a little insecurity about that. You know, I constantly worry that I haven’t read enough, or I don’t know enough, but she certainly did not let that hold her back, and she definitely showed me that I don’t need to let it hold me back, either.

One of the things that got my ears perked up, and you all listen out for this part of the conversation. She was hanging out with James Baldwin, Tony Cade Bambara, and Chinua Achebe. It seemed like even then, she knew she was a part of this cohort of excellence, and even though she talked about different things being the highlight of her careers plural. Her legacy really seems to be creating space and opportunities for the people coming up behind her. And that’s what truly was inspirational to me. So, thank you, Dr. McClaurin, for speaking with us, and you all just sit down and listen.

[0:05:05] BT: Yeah, get ready to take some notes, honey. Pull your Zora’s Daughters notebook out and your pen. Listen to our Iconversation with Dr. Irma McClaurin.

[0:05:19] AJ: Here It goes.


[0:05:22] BT: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. McClaurin, we are so excited to have this conversation, and honestly, you are one of the Black feminist anthropologists that I hold close to my heart. This is doing a lot for me today. So we are going to start off by talking about the new and exciting film that is out American Experience that is on Zora Neale Hurston, and you are in the film.

[0:05:50] IM: I am.

[0:05:51] BT: So, we would just love to hear about your role in the film and how you felt about it. Could you tell us a little bit more about your role, what you are talking about, and why you were excited to talk about Zora?

[0:06:05] IM: Well, I think there’s always a backstory when you’re doing anthropology. The backstory is I was contacted by the filmmakers Tracey and Randall. What they basically said is, we’ve read everything that you’ve written about Zora Neale Hurston, and I think I’m one of the few people who has done more than just write one essay about her as an anthropologist. I’ve been situating her as an anthropologist for now almost three decades. I started doing this research in the 1990s when I moved to the University of Florida.

I was tenured there, and I was the director of what we call the Zora Neale Hurston Diaspora study group, and it wasn’t really a center, but it was sort of a collection, and I taught a course on women and the African Diaspora, and so one of the requirements was that students participate in this monthly conversation in which people would bring their research about the diaspora, about gender and really sort of their ethnographic practices and get feedback from the intellectual community on campus. We had anthropologists, we had historians, we had people from the Center for Latin American Studies, and that was beginning to really, I would say ground Zora in practice. Not just in sort of theory and writing but also in practice.

But my love for Zora actually predates me becoming an anthropologist. My first degree is in creative writing. I have an MFA a terminal degree in English, and so I was teaching Zora Neale Hurston from the point of view of literature well before I thought about of her deeply as an anthropologist. I knew that was a part of her biography, but I don’t know that I thought about her practice as an anthropologist very serious until I became one and so my love for Zora actually pre dates me becoming an anthropologist.

I started teaching her as literature, and when I became an anthropologist, I was very much drawn to the work she had done in Mules and Men. She really situates herself in what we now call native anthropology. And so, my first theoretical paper is on being “a native” in anthropology and really sort of examining critically what does it mean when you study people who look like you or who are a part of your own community. I did research in Belize. I started my master’s doing research on a Black woman journalist who had committed suicide. Then I moved the question about identity formation to the African Diaspora, looking at Belize, Central America, and looking at the Black women who were there. And there were two — Creole women as well as Garifuna. You also had diversity within the Blackness, and one of the things that has really drawn me to Zora’s anthropology is that I think she understood the concept of the diaspora as a kind of area to study.

I started out doing the area study, the Caribbean, and then I realized that the kinds of questions that I wanted to pose about Black women were relevant to Black women in the United States, in the Caribbean, in Africa and So, I really sort of situate my work now in the African Diaspora. And I believe that Zora really understood that she had understood the connection between the South as well as the Caribbean and the Honduras and she was making those connections. She didn’t call it diaspora studies, but she was actually doing diaspora studies before we had invented the term. So that has been part of my journey, is looking at how did literature, her background in literature inform the way that she wrote her anthropology and how did her ethnographic practice actually going in and learning about different cultures and languages, just the folkways of the rural South, How did that inform the literature that she wrote as she became a practicing anthropologist? And I began to see the overlap.

One of the things that happened for me is that she served as an inspiration that I did not have to write in a very traditional academic way. And I think that the most powerful lesson that I take from her is the way in which I can use what I bought with me in terms of a creative stylistic approach to writing and use that to talk about to present the data that I’ve actually collected on the ground. So the two to me complement each other very much and Zora is a great example of that.

[0:11:04] BT: Yes, and I think one thing that we have in common is being inspired by Zora’s work in particularly, I remember reading Mules and Men and being like, oh, there’s space for me to write like the poet or the creative writer—

[0:11:19] IM: Yes.

[0:11:19] BT:  that I am, in anthropology. And we also see that reflected in your volume Black Feminist Anthropology that diasporic approach, as well as these kinds of creative approaches to writing about Black women– to see that influence and to know that we share that connection through Zora, is part of her legacy is really amazing to hear.

[0:11:46] IM: And I think her contribution to what we now call orthography, where she is taking ethnography, but she is introducing the self into the landscape, is really the driving force behind what makes Black feminist anthropology so powerful. Is that the question I pose to all the contributors is very simple. How has your life, your experience growing up as a Black woman in the United States informed the kind or shaped the kind of anthropology that you decided to do? That was the simple question that was posed, and everyone came at it from lots of different approaches, and I encouraged them to be inventive in the way that wrote about it. That this was not going to be sort of your traditional theoretical essay with footnotes and all of that, they could be creative. It gave some people an opportunity to explore forms of writing about the material and theorizing about their own work in ways that I think– They certainly drew upon the kinds of contributions Zora Neale Hurston had made.

[0:12:59] AJ: As you were speaking, I’m hearing—first of all, I know you published countless books, articles, poetry as well I saw. You’ve had decades in the discipline, you’ve spent 30 years just studying Zora, studying her work, and you mentioned the questions that you wanted to ask of Black women when you were getting started with your research in Belize. So, looking back on the body of your work, what was your central preoccupation or the overarching question that you were trying to answer with your research?

[0:13:35] IM: If I were to put itin folk parlance, it would go something like I am interested in understanding why some folk got, and some folk don’t got. Now in more traditional standard social science language or vernacular, I do research on the construction of social inequality. I am interested in the systems; I am interested in behavior; I am interested in the sort of cultural values and beliefs that inform that. But I’m also interested in people’s behavior. That is, when confronted with inequality or oppression, how do people navigate that? What are the tools and the resources that they have available to them. How do they navigate it? How do they sometimes participate in sort of reenforcing it, reinforming it, and how do they challenge it? So that sort of constitutes the totality of what I do when I’m looking at the construction of social inequality. And it picks up on anthropology’s primary question. The central question that undergirds all of anthropology from all four fields is what makes us human? That’s the underlying question whether it’s from an archaeological perspective, biological, linguistic, or cultural. That’s the question we are trying to answer. What makes us human that was really the underlying question that Zora wanted to present to the world.

What is the humanity of Black people in the South? And she –choose to show us that through the language that they used, through the stories they tell, through the way in which they interact, the social interactions. She is looking at it from lots of different points of view. We get a richness there that we don’t often see when we read the traditional ethnographic accounts. There is a kind of distancing. And she is also in it. That’s the other piece is that one of the things in interpretive anthropology and reflexive anthropology that we have come to understand is that our presence in the fields changes something we are not like an omission narrator. You read the novel, and there is the omniscient narrator who is sort of standing on high, and they kind of see everything, but you don’t know who they are. They’re not in it. They’re above it. I think what Zora demonstrated to us is that you really have to be in it. You have to account for yourself. You know, in the fieldwork that you are doing because it does change the dynamic. Your presence is not an absent presence, its very much influencing the dynamics of what is taking place every day. And the longer you stay, perhaps the less conscious people are about your presence, but certainly, your being there is variable, a factor that needs to be accounted for.

[0:16:46] BT: Yes, and even in listening to you talk about Zora’s contributions as Southern African American ethnographer, filmmaker, creative writing artist. It made me think about the time in which her work emerged. When we have a lot of Black men who are writing about life in the North or life in Chicago, life in New York. And so to really bring that Southern, that rural South, ethnography forward is something that was really new to the field of anthropology, but also to the field writing about Black folks in general. Because at that time, there was a lot about the culture of poverty or the culture of Blackness was something that how do I say this is a way that wasn’t how W.E.B. DuBois said it which you know in the culture of Blackness that was negative or something that we needed to make up for the fact we weren’t meeting in certain white standards.

That is something that I really see in your work as well when you describe Black feminist anthropology, its methods, and its theoretical contributions as one that is not trying to explain Black life and compare it necessary to white life or white feminist life. It’s about how do we stand as you say; how do we talk about how we’re in it, write about It and really bring that to other folks in the discipline in a way that doesn’t try to apologize for Black life.

And so, as Alyssa mentioned as you mentioned right you have decades of work for folks to look through. One thing that really happens over time as scholars develop their theoretical tools and their frameworks is change and growth. And so we, as graduate students we, think all the time the things we publish are going to define us. And we know that may not be the case when we reach faculty status. So, one question that we have for you was if you could revise any of your published pieces which one would you change and how?

[0:19:07] IM: Nada.

[0:19:07] BT and AJ: Nada, Okay

[0:19:08] IM:  None of them, and the reason I say that is the advantage I had in becoming an anthropologist first, I never took any anthro courses as an undergraduate. So I was literally a blank slate walking into the social sciences and into anthropology. And so, I learned it from the ground up and rooted it. But I’m also drawing upon my literary background. As someone who is a practicing published poet, I’ve been in over 16 magazines and anthologies. And if you go back to the classics Black Sister, –Double Stich, these are classic anthologies of Black women that were coming out in the 80s and the 90s.  I had poems published in Essence magazine Black World which no longer exists. I was the Gwendolyn Brooks winner in poetry in 1975 and so one of the things you learn in workshopping your poetry, or your creative work, is that it’s a process but at some point, you have to let it go. And I also used to teach creative writing.

One of the distinctions I would make, I used to teach creative writing for women and the women’s study program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and I would say to the participants there are people who write and there are writers. Now, what is the difference? It is not about the quality of the work because you can have exceptional people who write, but a writer understands that there is an audience out there. And once they publish it, it is no longer there’s. We don’t get to dictate the interpretation and meaning, people can take what we write, and they can take it lots of different places. And so, for me, when I write anthropology, and I do a lot of drafts, I have varied iterations, but once I get to that final piece, it’s done.

One of the things that I have done is in my book contracts; I do not do revisions or updates. I just cross that out. What I did was relevant at that moment in time. I want to maintain the integrity of that, and I was asked, for example, to revise Black Feminist Anthropology, and I had to sort of think about it and I thought huh okay maybe they wanted me to add some younger folks to it and I thought there is an integrity to why I did that book the way I did. First of all, its only people whose ancestry is rooted in being native-born Black Americans. So it’s not a diaspora book because other people have done that. It’s very much saying how does the racial history of being born and having your ancestors be enslaved or possibly freed but rooted in the United States, not the Caribbean, not Latin America, but in the United States. How does growing up in segregated or post-segregated America influence the kind of anthropology you did?

So there is an intentionality about that, and I would say that in terms of revisions the question is we can learn from the history what I wrote about Women of Belize and did the research in 91. Finished my dissertation in ’93, and it got published in 1996. It gives people a point of reference. It gives them—to go back and try to look at it again well some of the people might not be around, the conditions have changed. That’s the work for the next person. You know there is another scholar who then can take up the mantle where I left off. And I think I would like to sort of invoke Toni Morrison, who really says I write for Black women. You know she is very clear on who her audience is.

And I am writing for community people, giving voice or what I call invoicement, not empowerment but invoicement to the women of Belize that I studied. These are ethnic women, they are of African descent and they are of Garifuna descent, mainly those were the two groups some South East Asia descent and I didn’t do Maya women because many of them did not have the fluency and language, and so while I did some observation and I described what I observed I didn’t interview any because I didn’t feel that I could get the in depthless in terms of the language difference in that sense.

I don’t go for revisions because I think we have to protect the integrity of what was happening at that moment in time. And so, if I wanted to do something, I would now go back and do a different book that says Women of Belize Now or something like that. And there have been other people who have come since I did that book who say we use that book as a basis, particularly young Belizean scholar women who are now writing about the conditions of women at that moment in time that is now past when I did it. But now they have my work as a point of reference. So I’ve chosen not to do revisions; I don’t revise poems once they’re published, they’re done, and I don’t go back and look at essays and say hmm, I wish I could have done it differently. I’ll revise it. I just say time for a new essay, time for a new approach.

[0:25:02] AJ: I’m really inspired by that. I think that there are a lot of scholars out there who want to have the final word and to be – the major voice. I’m the one who said this, and this is the definitive work on whatever their subject is. I’m really inspired by you really enacting what is Black feminism and opening spaces for other people to build on the work you’ve done.

[0:25:34] IM: And that’s what I felt very seriously when my publishers approached me, and I thought about it. And I thought, first of all, I’m no longer in the academy, so my relationship to sort of expand this book, the question is for who? You know it’s served its purpose. When people come up to me at conferences like the National Women Studies Association, and they walk up to me and they say Black Feminist Anthropology saved my life—what more do you need. You can’t get any better than that. The book also won an outstanding academic title award from Choice Magazine, and it was an edited book which is not; they don’t often give that award to edited books. Well, they’re not going to look at the revised edition again for the award. There is only one award.

Then I thought, well, you’re competing with yourself, you know. Which version of the book are people going to buy?– There is also a kind of economic dimension to it is that you get royalties from books. I do get royalties from some of my books and if there is a new version out there. Then people are going to buying that version rather than the original version. I rather people use the original version as a point of reference than go off and write their own book.

There is nothing new under the sun. None of us can claim that we have the last word on anything because there is always going to be a new perspective right. So, this is what I wrote, and as you see, Whitney Battle-Baptiste came in and did a book called Black Feminist Archaeology; who would of thought right. She’s now taken it into a subfield in a whole different direction, and so there are lots of voices. There’s a multiplicity of voices out there on what constitutes Black feminism, and mine just establishes the benchmark that I wanted to do at that moment in time. It has longevity, Women of Belize has now been in print for almost 20 years. It will be let’s see Black Feminist Anthropology hit the 20-year mark in 2021.– It will have more benchmarks, I just hope it continues to inspire people, but I don’t think it needs to be revised.

[0:28:04] AJ: Speaking of benchmarks and, of course, your book award, the outstanding book award, of course we love having our work recognized–

[0:28:11] IM: Yes.

[0:28:12] AJ: and celebrated. You have several notable accomplishments, but of course, those external awards and accolades aren’t always what we ourselves are most proud of. What is for you the highlight of your career?

[0:28:27] IM: Wow! That is a hard one for me because I’ve had multiple careers. I started out as a poet, so I won awards for my poetry. I then became an administrator in higher education, and I’ve done some amazing things. I was president at Shaw University. That’s certainly an accomplishment. I was an associate vice president at the University of Minnesota, where I established a university research center in the Black community, that 21,000 square foot shopping center was transformed into a university research center is now 13 years old. I was honored last year with that and to walk into that space and see the transformation. It has an art gallery; we had a multi-racial group of students doing hip-hop performances, — we had a saxophone player. There were art exhibits that were up. They had food served, and people from the community were there. I left at about seven, and people were still hanging out. To have something that have that kind of community spirit 13 years after the fact, to me is one of my great achievements and accomplishments.

And then, I worked at the Ford Foundation. I was a program officer—best job of my life. I had a portfolio of 10.8 million dollars, and I tell people  I got to give away money to things that were near and dear to my heart. I supported women’s studies, Black studies, research on race, class and gender, and also the Ford fellowship. Its come full circle because at my alma mater, the current vice president for academic affairs is a former Ford fellow. And so, people say, do you, Dr. McClaurin, and she says, of course, I did. I was a Ford fellow. When you see those kinds of achievements where you can see the legs of what you’ve done, it has tentacles, and its reached out, and I can still see those tentacles, or you might think about it as a ripple. The effects of that funding rippling out, and I can still see its impact even today. That’s powerful. Those are just a few.

I was named outstanding—I was named best in the nation columnist by the Black Press of America for one of my columns. — I’m a cultural and educational editor for Insight News. I worked for the federal government at the federal executive institute, teaching leadership education to senior federal executives. I’ve trained hundreds of federal executives who are from agencies like the CIA, NASA, the Department of Education, the Department of Defense, and TSA. I’ve had all these different aspects, and all of them have had some highlights that I can look back on and say I’m proud.

But I would say at this moment in time, my greatest achievement is founding the Irma McClaurin Black feminist archive at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst. In founding that, it was not only to find a space and what I’m calling an archival home for my own work, but it also was to let Black women know that our work as activists, artists, scholars, just ordinary women need to be preserved. And so, I’m creating that archive. I’ve raised about $40,000 so it’s endowed, and we’re in the process of writing grants to make sure that it has that longevity.

[0:32:12] BT: I saw that you all recently awarded a Wenner-Gren grant, too, for the Black Feminist Archive.

[0:32:20] IM: Yes, actually, two.

[0:32:23] BT: Two. Period.

[0:32:23] IM: The first was Wenner-Gren gave me a historical archive grant, HAG grant, and that is for me to work on processing my papers. Pulling them together, writing descriptions, and then shipping them. I have shipped to the University of Massachusetts 107 boxes that have been in a storage unit in Gainesville, FL, for over 18 years. So that was one, –the stuff is there now, and then I just have to do the stuff that’s with me—but the stuff I collected when I left the University of Florida in 2005, what I collected up to that time and put into storage those papers, I found papers from high school, materials and things, correspondence,

[0:33:10] BT: Wow

[0:33:11] IM: Drafts of papers, unpublished things, grant proposals, all of that stuff are now at the university. They’ve also digitalized 397 of my black-and-white photos. I used to – I took a non-fiction course one of the requirements was that you learn to use a 35mm camera and, so I have photographs of over 50 photos of James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, in fact, Essence is using one of my photos of Toni Cade Bambara in an essay on her. Sonia Sanchez, who was one of my teachers, Chinua Achebe, these were some of the people that I was in the mix with when I was there between 1974 and 1991 when I left.

[0:34:04] BT: What.

[0:34:04} AJ: We want to hear about all these people.

[0:34:07] BT: Sonia Sanchez, I will never forget when she came to Duke when I was an undergraduate, and she got on — her podium. She started reading, and it was like a moment of coming to myself. I’m just in awe.

[0:34:27] IM: When you see some of my photos of a very young Sonia Sanchez. She taught at Amherst College, and I did an independent study and was in her classroom, and her son recently contacted me and said my mom is writing a memoir, and I was on a birthday party zoom for her celebrating one of her birthdays. I mentioned I had these photographs these black and white photos that I’d taken of her in class. And they were like can we get copies of them? So we were able to scan and send her copies of those that show the students sitting on the floor and her at the classroom. She’s very animated, and then she came in the 1980s she had left Amherst. She was at Temple and came back and gave a talk. I shot an entire roll of film of her. You know, I just shot an entire roll. So, I had her at different moments in time. Those photographs are being digitalized. It’s putting together people like Andrew Salkey, who was a Caribbean poet from the UK who taught at Hampshire. Roberto Márquez, who used to translate the poetry of Nicolás Guillén Cuban poet, and Sid Kaplan, who was a Jewish American studies scholar who did research on Blacks and Revolutionary War that became a Smithsonian traveling exhibit. Well, I have a photograph of the three of them together.

What is precious about my photos is that they capture private moments. The photos of James Baldwin are not photos that you are going to see because the lens he is being captured with is a Black lens. As opposed to what you see often in reports or in articles about him, or people quoting him is often the photographer was a white photographer. And you can just see a tenseness about him. In my photos, he’s smiling, relaxed, and having fun. He is in a very social setting within Black community. So, that’s what makes them very special for me.

[0:36:37] AJ: Okay, I just have to ask as a side note.

[0:36:39] IM: Yes.

[0:36:39] AJ: What were they like? What was James Baldwin like at this age? What was Toni Cade Bambara like?

[0:36:47] IM: Well, the one of love of Toni, which they are not using, so Penguin is going to use one of my photos as the author’s photo on the back when they are releasing the Salt Eaters, and then Essence is doing an article, so they are using one when she has her hand like this. But there’s a great one she’s at a kitchen table of a Black professor at Amhurst College. She is just stretched out on the table with her arms like this. She would then just talk about I’m going to school to study white people–. She just had this great sense of humor.

James Baldwin, I had the pleasure of cooking for him in my home. I remember that we finished dinner, and we went to sit in my living room. And my daughter, she must have been about three and she is on the floor, and I don’t know what she was doing. But he sits and looks at her and says Sarah Bernhardt move over and get that girl a stage. Well, my daughter is a performer; she plays the kora, and she performs. She is also a painter a visual artist. He saw something in this three-year-old child, and then as we sat and talked after dinner, we had put on Hubert Laws song Amazing Grace playing the flute. You have to sit and listen to that. If you can vision the sun is setting Hubert Laws is floating in the air and James Baldwin just begins to talk. And what comes out of his mouth is just poetry in many respects. He’s just listening to the music, and it’s moving him. He just speaks. I had those great moments.

I was Chinua Achebe’s research assistant, when he founded his magazine of Okike, so that’s where I learned the skills when I became editor of Tansforming Anthropology decades later. I was able to build upon what I had experienced with him so I have great photographs of him as well. But they were real people, and I think that the private moments is what makes my photographs special because you’re seeing them without the lens being that of the white gaze.

[0:39:09] BT: That is just.

[0:39:11] AJ: Iconic

[0:39:12] IM: Yes, yes, Iconic (laughter), yes, yes.

[0:39:16] BT: I need actually a timeline. Okay, this is birth–.

[0:39:22] IM: If you go to credo at the University of Massachusetts spelled credo, that is the photographs. You also see photographs of my children. Everything is going into the archive. Digital Commonwealth also puts it together. I have photographs of Flora Purim and return to forever. They used to have a jazz festival I would just shoot because part of it we were encouraged as we’re doing this non-fiction writing is that we also take our own photographs. I have continued that practice when I interview people when I go places, I’m usually taking my own photographs.

So I wrote a piece about the tragedy, the murder of the people, and the church in Charleston, the Charleston Nine. And it became I was working at Teach for America, and I was visiting the South Carolina region. I was staying at a hotel that was literally two blocks from the church. I just got up early in the morning and just started taking photographs of the church. What people had done was actually create a memorial. So there were flowers, people had left ribbons, all kinds of things, posters. I just started shooting photographs I had this vast array of photographs. It became less words, more a photo essay. Sometimes words can’t describe what is going on. Photographs pick up where the words end, photographs begin, or they amplify. I’ve made that a practice. I have about 40,000 photos on my iPhone.

[0:41:09] AJ: Where do you get the space?

[0:41:14] IM: I do gigabytes, and then I have an automatic upload to Dropbox, and I have terabytes two terabytes. When it gets too full, I move the stuff to Dropbox permanently and delete it off my phone. I have the largest amount of memory that I could.

[0:41:30] AJ: You have to

[0:41:31] IM: And back it up too. So backing it up as well.

[0:41:34] BT:  One thing that I am curious about, I know we have to return to the questions but and we can also talk about this another time, but as someone who is no longer in the academy, how you made that transition is something I’m interested in learning more about. You said you worked for Ford and it is the best job of your life.

[0:41:58] IM: When you give away money, yeah.

[0:42:01] BT: I’m like, let me see what the possibility– but you’ve done so much in your career there’s just so many things to ask, but yes, I’m going to move to the next question before I get us too far off track.

[0:42:15] IM: Let me just briefly try and answer that is I get bored easily. I’m an Aries, and I have a lot of energy.

[0:42:22] BT: I was going to ask you (laughter) what’s your sign.

[0:42:25] IM: I got that Aries energy and I have what they call in Myers Biggs an EMFP.

[0:42:28] BT: I’m an EMFP too.

[0:42:30] IM: I’m an extrovert, so I need that energy of interacting. I worked in admissions; I started in transfer admissions. I’ve virtually worked in every aspect of higher education, from getting students in the door. Then I became an assistant dean getting students, advising them, and doing academic discipline. Then I became a deputy provost at Fisk University, working around faculty development, setting up systems and then I became university president. So I’ve seen it from all aspects, from top to bottom, and I liked doing that; I liked doing systems and building and designing things.

I made a decision to leave the classroom because I’ve been teaching since 1973. I had a fellowship, and the first year was just doing my writing. The second year I was the teaching assistant, so, I actually started teaching in 1974. For me, I loved the classroom, but I also felt I – wanted to see institutional change, and I felt that I couldn’t do that from the classroom. So I made a decision instead of writing a book on my sabbatical, I decided to become a AAAS fellow the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They have what is called the science technology policy fellowship. What it did was let me go to Washington DC and spend a year there. The fellowship takes you around and introduces you to senators and congressmen. You sort of understand how policy gets made. I happened to work at USAID; I worked in the policy bureau. I got to travel to Kenya, South Africa. I got to work on collaboration between humanitarian assistance and the department of defense. I learned to write policy papers. For me, it was –expanding what it is I was doing. It was taking that writing skill of poetry, academic scholarship and now translating it into policy work.  

Now I’m probably more comfortable writing essays, editorials, and op-eds. I’m a mentor in the op-ed project, which encourages women and people of color to become editorial writers. I am a Ms magazine author. I write blogs for them. Ms magazine was one of my grantees. I funded them to integrate feminist research into their magazine. That was done—they got the grant in 2005, and now Jenell Hobson, who just did that wonderful interview with me in Ms magazine on the Zora film called Why we Still Love Zora Irma McClaurin on PBS documentary. That appeared on the day before the documentary did. It was an interview. She also did another interview with me called Curating History about the Black feminist archive. I am finding different platforms and venues because everybody is not going to read a book. Everybody is not going to read an academic article. The essay form has sort of become my latest thing; however, sometimes, depending on what the topic is or what moves me, what inspires me, it comes out in a poem. When I heard that bell hooks died, my response was really a poem. It got picked up by Zora on medium. I published it on medium, and they contacted me and said we like to feature it. It’s one of the features in their Zora magazine.

[0:46:21] BT: The legacy is amazing. That’s the words I have. And so, thinking about our audience, we have a large part of our audience is undergraduates. We have a lot of graduate students who are listening to us. They’re taking anthropology training into the workforce. It’s the academy. As you said, you can speak to every single aspect of it. What we learned just in our interactions with our listeners is that so many of them want to understand how they can make a change. In the world to make a change in the field, and as you said, not everyone is going to read an academic essay. Not everyone is going to read an article or a book. What would be your piece of advice for those listeners who really want to thrive and make change in the world, and you just have a wealth of experience–.

[0:47:15] IM: I think you have to do it as I look back, because my 50th reunion is coming up from my alma mater at Grinnell College and so I’m very mindful. We’ve been having conversations; I’ve been writing stuff. There’s a group of Black women that’s called the Grinnell sister circle, and they’ve been sharing their experiences, but it will be 50 years, and as I reflect back on the experiences, I would say one travel. I think it’s really important, particularly for bipoc folks, to travel outside of our own comfort zone and our own culture because it gives you perspective. One, we feel that sometimes we’re not being included in this culture, but when you step outside the United States, you become aware of how much an American you really are. How much of the Kool-Aid we’ve actually drunk the social and culture Kool-Aid right and I think that’s important because it gives you a different point of reference. It also gives you skills and how flexible and adaptable you are. And those are things that when you go to look for a job. I went to India when I was a sophomore. I also –I wrote for the student newspaper I wrote for the underground newspaper called Pterodactyl as opposed to the S&B.

But I would say when I got to graduate school, I would do reviews for the Daily Collegian I’ve been doing public writing since the 1970’s. I would write about Cuban Troubadours coming. I would do profiles of Black professors and I would send it to the local newspaper. They were publishing it. I had a track record of having published in newspapers that begins in the 1970s when I was a graduate student. What I say to one, is that I was fortunate in that the program that I went into when I went into anthropology, and I was an older student, but it was a program that believed that teaching graduate students is an oxymoron. You teach undergraduates, you train junior colleagues, and if your advisor and faculty don’t treat you like a junior colleague in the making that it’s a student thing, you got a problem. Because you are sort of at a moment in time when you actually have developed a level of expertise you have to believe that so that they can believe that. I encourage people to see themselves as junior colleagues in the making, including graduate students, and everything you produce in graduate school should have a purpose.

My first publication in anthropology was my master’s paper. It is a chapter in a book. Actually, there was a professor on campus who also submitted; mine got published, and I hadn’t even taken my master’s exam at that point. So the writing, it’s like I used to say to students in my class, they come up with some excuse about I say I have mine. I get paid whether you write the paper or don’t; whether it’s late or not, I still get paid. I already have my degree. So the purpose of this is not for you to finish it for me but for you to find a way to use this assignment to amplify and to expand your writing capabilities. Could this be a presentation? Could this be the beginning of a journal article? Could this be a conference presentation? You know to begin to think about it as output because that’s what graduate school is aiming towards is that you have to have some sort of output. Is this the beginning of a grant proposal? Those are things I think people need to think about, is how do you see yourself? Are you a graduate student, are you a junior colleague in the making? Are you taking the assignments to see them as simply completing something for the professor? Are you using it as an opportunity for you to expand and utilize something that’s going to be helpful to you then and down the road? Does that help?

[0:51:28] BT: It speaks to me.

[0:51:33] AJ: I absolutely agree. Travel, I think, really changed my perspective and opened my eyes. It’s one of the things that encouraged me to write more and to become an anthropologist in the end. Reflecting on my experiences while living aboard has changed how I see the world. Led me to anthropology.

[0:51:58] IM: You know everything I do has a purpose. So when I give a conference presentation, I look in how I can turn that into a column. You know, people have asked me to do conference presentations, and I say okay let me turn this into a column. You know, because I had in some ways taken the traditional classroom and transformed my editorials, my columns into a classroom. So I see myself as teaching in the same way. As providing knowledge, educating, providing information through the columns that I write, and so wherever it is, whether it is a talk that someone asked me to give like this documentary. I’m working on a piece about why I love Zora that I will submit to Insight News.

I take those things, my niece gave birth to twins. She used to play for the lady Gophers; I wrote a story about her right. Just taking even those personal moments and turning them into something. I’ve written what I call obituaries, but they’re written in such a way their sort of creative. I have one on Toni Morrison, I have one on Chinua Achebe, I’ve written one on Donna Summer, and Whitney Houston, I have this sort of category because when I write them, I don’t want to write them in a traditional way. I mean, everyone is going to say, born here, died here, their name was this. So, I’m always thinking about how I can talk about it in a way that is unique, so the one for Toni Morrison begins with an innovation to the Orishas in which I ask them to sort of look out for her. So, I’m thinking about how can I make this more interesting and how can I invite people in. I’m very aware that there is an audience out there and I want to reach them and how do I do that? Same thing when you’re writing a paper for your professor. How do you invite them into what your thinking is so that they’re interested in what you presented for that assignment whatever it happens to be. Does that make sense?

[0:54:16] AJ: Right

[0:54:16] BT: Yeah

[0:54:18] AJ: Building on the way that we write about people—One of the things that we hear about Zora Neale Hurston, the words that I think recur all the time that we hear about with her avant-garde, iconoclast, genius. And I often wonder if she would recognize herself or identify with those descriptions, and so the question that we have for you to close things out is what three words would you use to describe your career as a poet,  anthropologist, mentor, professor, and Black feminist?

[0:54:56] IM: That one, I was trying to come up with three words (laughter)

[0:55:02] BT: I know, just even hearing just the glimpse that you’ve given us this evening is like, yep, what three words could possibly capture?

[0:55:12] IM: Lee Baker once referred to me as Irma, you’re just an academic entrepreneur. So I’ve kind of claimed that.

[0:55:18] BT: Yep, he would (laughter)

[0:55:22] IM: And so I do see myself as having been in some ways an entrepreneur in my career both as a scholar and as an administrator. Academic entrepreneur, I would say instead of a mentor, I would say leadership guru right because I see myself as supporting and providing inspiration and knowledge to folks about based on what I’ve done; here’s some things that you might learn. It’s more like a guru as opposed to a mentor. I like that and I’m a coach as well. What would be the third word? Innovator, I think that I’m constantly trying to find new ways to think about and present things. So for me, when I thought about what will I do, like I have this video that says what are you going to do with your stuff and I’m going to ask you all the same question what are you going to do with the archives of this podcast? Where is it going to be archived and I want you to start thinking about that because you don’t have to wait till you get my age. You can start, say, we actually like to put it in the Black feminist archive, and there will be collection so all those would be stored where people can access them, and if you have photographs or materials and stuff, you can start that now. So academic entrepreneur, leadership guru, and then I would say, innovator. I’m always trying to innovate in that way. But that’s hard.

[0:57:02] BT: Yes, and I feel that’s the mark of Aries. Aries life is innovation, so that is to know that you are an Aries now is like, yes, okay makes so much sense.

[0:57:16] IM: Well, I tell people Aries jump in where fools and angels even fear to thread. People say well, how did you do that. Well, why not? What do I have to lose, and what is the possibility of what I might gain even if it does not work out; there is a lesson in that. And the thing about Aries is that we bounce back, so resilient I would say is another word that I think about myself. People say well, when that doesn’t work out what do you do? I figured out some other thing that is going to allow me to speak and have my own voice and do the things I want to be able to do. To give grounding, so I’ve worked with getting a Black cemetery in Raleigh designated as a historic cemetery. I’ve tons of photographs that I took for that. Now it’s a descendant-led group. They now have a 501c3, I started working with them in 2011 and to see how their work has grown is just so empowering. We also have to know when to step away. – One of the things about Aries is that we step in, but sometimes we also know we’re in it but not of it, and so you know when it’s time to go, when its time to move on to the next thing as well, and that’s okay. I think the greatest thing is that you have to have a belief in self. I believe in myself, and I believe in the power in what I know I can do. I know what my limitations are but I also know what I’m very good at. I take pride in that, and I don’t let anyone tell me that I can’t.

[0:59:05] BT: Wow. Boom! (laugh) Yes.

[0:59:11] AJ: Well, on that note, that is the perfect place to wrap things up. Thank you so much for sitting with us. For answering our questions, even if they were tough. We are truly blessed and honored that you were able to join us today and be on the podcast finally.

[0:59:32] BT: Yes

[0:59:32] IM: Yes, and I appreciate being invited and its great to have the work that you’re doing acknowledge and shared with others, so that’s been exciting to me as well. Thank you. And I want to talk to you about what you are going to do with your stuff.

[0:59:52] BT: (laughter) Yes

[0:59:55] AJ: Thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts & Science Graduate Council, the Heyman Center Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship, and donations from listeners just like you.

[01:00:15] BT: Thank you all for your support. If you like this episode please share it via social media whatsapp, that telephone Nokia phone that is never going away. We would love to hear what you have to say about this episode be sure to follow us  on Instagram at Zorasdaughters and Twitter at Zoras_Daughters. For transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or become a Patron to access exclusive content, visit our website zorasdaughters.com.

[01:00:47] AJ: Last but not least, remember to be kind to yourselves. Bye

[01:00:51] BT: Bye!

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