Category Archives: Citizenship

A Strange Past Returns Strangely

The last time I heard anyone utter the name, Przemysl, I must have been ten or eleven years old. In his thickly Yiddishized English, my maternal grandfather must have been telling me something about his early life. And I must have been listening more intently than I realized.

I don’t recall exactly what he was recounting. Maybe it was something about his parents requiring him to drop out of school after third grade so he could spend his days on the streets with a pushcart, selling stuff and more stuff to contribute to his family’s meager household income. Maybe it was something about his decision in 1911 to leave that unpromising life of poverty and anti-Semitism and somehow, at age 19 or 20, make his way to Hamburg and, thence, board a ship (as a stowaway, as I found out decades later — maybe, like many other young Jewish men around him, creatively escaping conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army?) that was bound for New York.

What I did recall was that strange-sounding name. Przemysl. Only decades later would I find out how to spell it.

I had to hire a professional genealogist friend to find out where my grandfather was born. (Thank you, Joy Kestenbaum!) It turns out, it wasn’t in Przemysl but a town some 50 miles to the east, with another odd-sounding name I’d also heard during my childhood. I remembered it as Zeluzutz; my brilliant genealogist friend identified it as Zaliztsi.

There had also been talk of another town that I remembered sounding something like Tarnopol. My memory wasn’t too far off on that one. Joy identified it as Ternopil.

And another city that I remembered as sounding like Lavuv — in, I now know, its Russian pronunciation. That turned out to be Lviv — as the Ukrainians call it.

Throughout my childhood, all these hard-to-pronounce toponyms belonged to another era. I wasn’t sure how they fit together, or to which countries they belonged — sometimes my grandfather said Poland, sometimes Austria (by which, I later figured out, he meant the Austro-Hungarian empire)— or which one my grandfather had called home. But I knew he had some relationship to all these distance spaces.

A week or two into my senior year in high school, I mentioned to my grandfather that I’d just started taking a beginning course in the Russian language. Immediately, my grandfather switched to speaking in Russian. Where did that come from? I wondered. All he said, in a faraway voice, was that he’d picked up some Russian along the way.

“But I thought you were from Poland,” I vaguely protested.

“The border was always changing,” he mumbled. “Sometimes Poland. Sometimes Russia. Sometimes Austria.” Then he must have changed the subject. Or gone silent. All I remember is no explanation.

It would be some years before I read enough history to understand the painful complexities of that perplexing statement.

Along the way, I discovered more languages that my grandfather could at least get by in. There was Yiddish, of course — his first language. And Hebrew, from all his time in the synagogue. (As an adult, there was one across the street from his apartment building in the Bronx.) Was Polish his third language, and Russian, his fourth? Or was it the other way around? He knew some German, too, I discovered later. Either way, he would have picked up English as his sixth language, from his long-ago, emergency needs as a new immigrant. Unless he spoke some Ukrainian, as well. (Did he? Now, I imagine it quite likely.) In that case, English would have been #7.

All those early tongues must have forged plenty of neuronal pathways that demanded more traffic. During the 50 years that he worked as a waiter in various Jewish delis in New York’s Lower East Side, my grandfather spent his lunch breaks scouring the trash cans along the Bowery, looking for books. The French and Spanish grammar texts he found lodged between discarded newspapers and half-eaten sandwiches served as sources for his independent study of yet two more languages. Later, my husband-to-be borrowed that beat-up Spanish primer as he crammed for the foreign language exam he would soon take, to complete his graduate program in creative writing.

My grandfather was that strange mix of working-class cosmopolitan with untapped skills. An elementary school dropout who could have excelled in a university. A polyglot who could have become a linguist. A tinkerer who could have become an engineer. A mandolin player who could have become a musician. A refugee who could have become embittered. He became none of those things.

Instead, my ever-calm grandfather (I never once heard him raise his voice or even scowl) enjoyed his one cigar a day. Beyond that indulgence, he led a frugal but fulfilled life. He and my grandmother raised my mother and my aunt in a one-bedroom, rent-controlled, third-floor-walk-up apartment that they rented for 50 years. Their frugality helped fund my expensive college education.

It was to these thoughts that I turned when I heard Przemysl featuring in a news broadcast this week. Of the 700,000-and-counting Ukrainians fleeing a land suddenly turned treacherous, most, the journalist claimed, were crossing the border into Poland. Indeed, most were massing at Lviv, the western-most city on the Ukraine-Polish border, waiting to cross — from towns such as Ternopil — into Przemysl, the Polish city on the other side of that border.

Przemysl? Really?

Przemysl, Poland. 27th Feb, 2022. After crossing the border from Shehyni in Ukraine to Medyka in Poland, refugees seek clothing and blankets provided by Polish volunteers from police officers.
Many Ukrainians leave the country after military actions by Russia on Ukrainian territory.
Credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa/Alamy Live News

Was it from there that my grandfather continued trekking for another 221 hours (with stops along the way) the 1,085 additional kilometers to Hamburg, maybe hitching a ride or two from a farmer with an oxcart before he reached Berlin? And, lacking both a GPS and money, how did he find his way from there to Hamburg?

These trajectories of early 20th century challenges seemed to belong to an alien era until last week, when Vladimir Putin decided brutally to revive them.

New histories of suffering are now being forged, creating new generations of refugees, Jewish and otherwise. A world away from my comfortable American life, those emergency refugees feel like unexpectedly kindred spirits as I imagine my grandfather in the spaces that fleeing Ukrainians are now negotiating with increasing desperation.

Yes, if we are lucky, we make our lives anew. That, after all, has been the promise of America for thousands of immigrants to these shores. But even as we claim to forge selves from our own goals and grit, the ghosts of our ancestors hover around us, remind us of their histories, and both haunt and heal us, one traumatic story at a time.

Ten Treasures (and a Bonus): A Selection of Anthropological Gems You Might Have Missed from the Past Few Years

I began interviewing authors of fabulous new anthropology books for this space back in 2016. While completing 11 interviews, I also amassed a backlog of more terrific books whose authors I planned to interview. One thing led to another, and my embarrassingly accumulating backlog fell hostage to a pandemic. I’ve finally harnessed my guilt and bundled these beauties into a group. No author interviews this time (who has time for that in a pandemic?), but below, you’ll find capsule descriptions of why I love every entry in this archive.

To be sure, my selection is idiosyncratic. I don’t claim that these books are the only works in anthropology worth reading that were published in the past few years. Yet, individually, each of these books grabbed my attention because of its brilliant analysis of some topic(s) I judge to have critical importance to the world. Plus, the writing in all these books is oh-so-readable. Collectively, they remind us: Anthropology is not only alive and well, the discipline continues to offers unique insights into vexing issues in ways that only long-term immersion can produce.

Acknowledgments: In curating this collection, I’m inspired by Philip Graham‘s “Some Books You May Have Missed” posts for the literary/arts magazine, Ninth Letter, for which he serves as Editor-at-Large. (You can read his latest literary rundown of great new fiction and creative non-fiction here.)

So, here goes.

*

C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (University of Nebraska Press)

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, one of the many critical lessons that at least some of white America has learned is this: Representation matters. In that sense, Richard King‘s brilliant book provided an overdue argument that at least one sports team has finally heard. In 2020, the Washington Redskins at last acknowledged the racist foundation to their team’s name, which they changed (temporarily) to the Washington Football Team (with a new name soon to be announced here). The placeholder name may be boring— but boring is better than offensive. For its part, King’s scholarly exercise in a theoretically and historically informed argument can now be considered a paragon of engaged, critical anthropology. A review in the Chicago Tribune called this a “must-read book.”

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Amy Starecheski, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City (University of Chicago Press)

Over the past two pandemic years, real estate stories have dominated the news, from personal tragedies (eviction stories following job loss) to personal triumphs (the privileged few scooping up “deals” outside major metropolitan areas). Lurking behind those individual tales chronicling the human joys and costs of gentrification lies a broader story of economic trends (falling prices in some markets, skyrocketing prices in others). In that sense, this book by anthropologist/oral historian Amy Starecheski remains more timely than ever. A beautifully crafted narrative balances individual tales of urban squatters’ experiences across three decades of New York City’s increasingly unaffordable housing market with “big-picture” trends of macroeconomic, political, and legal developments in New York and beyond. This book contains so many lessons about where and how to make a livable space for “home.” A “recommended” book by Choice.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Rosa De Jorio, Cultural Heritage in Mali in the Neoliberal Era (University of Illinois Press)

Rosa De Jorio‘s early research in West Africa concerned women’s political participation in Mali.  In this book, De Jorio focuses on the same country but has switched gears to focus on cultural heritage.  Political scientists rarely pay attention to artistic and cultural performances, while art historians rarely focus on political structures.  In a broad sense, this book might be characterized as an engagement of political perspectives with humanistic spaces.  As such, I take this work—based on careful field research in urban Mali over the course of 16 years—as a model for how scholars working elsewhere might unpack the questions De Jorio asks here surrounding the politics of culture and the culture of politics. Jean-Loup Amselle calls this book “in the tradition of Michel Foucault’s work.” The title appeared in the Interpretations of Culture in the New Millenium series (now closed), edited by Norman E. Whitten, Jr.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*


Jane C. Desmond, Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press)

Some years ago, I made a case for an anthropology of infancy.  In this book, Jane Desmond makes something of a similar case for an anthropology of animals.  In both arenas, subjects communicate with us in ways that we adults/humans understand only partially, and with difficulty—as if through a scrim.  Of course, the same can be said for all communication among human adults . . . but the barriers appear more extreme and daunting with both human infants and non-human animals.  In a provocative set of thematically linked essays (think: pet cemeteries, taxidermy, roadkill), Desmond makes a persuasive case for developing a robust ethnography of non-human animals and, perhaps more broadly for an inter-species ethnography.  An NPR review called it “an important and moving book.” The title appears in the terrific new Animal Lives series at Chicago edited by Desmond.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes (eds.), Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration (University of Chicago Press)

If the predominant narrative of Covid-19 emphasized immobility, that memo didn’t reach African migrants. Over the past two years, refugees fleeing Africa’s multiple postcolonial catastrophes have continued to seek more hospitable living spaces. This rich collection co-edited by Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes thus speaks to continuing hemispheric challenges, even as it centers personal experience. Moving discussions humanize the dehumanizing images, statistics, and political directives that dominate so much discussion of African migrants in Europe. Eleven case studies range from intimate topics such as child fostering, bi-national marriages, and coming-of-age rituals to explorations of the ways that government actors, laws, and policies shape migrants’ lives.  As such, this volume serves as a welcome, “bottom-up” corrective to the “top-down” trope of “migrant crisis” that too often frames both government policies and journalists’ stories coming out of the EU. The book won the Most Notable Recent Collection Award from the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Andrew Bank, Pioneers of the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists (Cambridge University Press)

The notion of a “scholarly canon” is a bit of an oxymoron. Do what passed as the great works in any given field in the past still deserve pride of place today? By contrast, in re-reading “the classics” year after year, what hidden treasures might we have overlooked because of unconscious biases surrounding what “counts” as quality scholarship . . . and who “counts” as serious scholars? The brilliant scholars who have become so demonized by the U.S. right of late in promoting critical race theory prompt us to recognize the importance of regularly revisiting “the canon,” to rethink our understanding of history with new eyes and new questions. In Pioneers of the Field, historian of science Andrew Bank has done our discipline a great favor by reminding us of six brilliant women scholars of the early/mid-20th century whose work had a major impact both within and beyond South Africa. If you’re an Africanist up on your early British social anthropology, you might at least have heard of Audrey Richards, Monica Wilson, and Hilda Kuper, but if Winifred Hoernlé, Ellen Hellman, and Eileen Krige weren’t even on your radar, they will be now. Elizabeth Colson called this volume a “major contribution to intellectual history.” No History of Anthropology course should neglect this correct-the-record book.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, Thunder Shaman: Making History with Mapuche Spirits in Chile and Patagonia (University of Texas Press)

There’s a good reason this marvelous book received Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award for Anthropology offered by the Association of American Publishers. Ana Mariella Bacigalupo challenges stereotypical images of shamans as either extinct or anachronistic religious practitioners long left behind by history. Based on extraordinary research that Bacigalupo conducted from 1991 to 2015, the book serves, at once, as a biography of a single Mapuche shaman who accepted the author into her life in a deep, cross-cultural friendship; and an argument for a reëxamination of how we define what counts as “religion” in the modern world.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Naomi Leite, Unorthodox Kin: Portuguese Marranos and the Global Search for Belonging (University of California Press)

When I lived in Lisbon in 2006-07, I found myself shocked and appalled at the extent to which the nation’s long, rich, and traumatic Jewish history had been rendered virtually invisible. In this riveting book, anthropologist Naomi Leite profiles a small group of Portuguese who are actively reclaiming their ancestral Jewish ancestry hidden from them, and from the nation, for centuries. With its beautiful narrative writing allied with a thoughtful analytic engagement linking hyper-local spaces in Lisbon with hyper-global spaces of international Jewish tourists, it’s easy to see why the book won two awards and was a finalist/honorable mention for two more:

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Timothy R. Landry, Vodún: Secrecy and the Search for Divine Power (University of Pennsylvania Press)

This intriguing work offers another fascinating look at international religious tourism. In this case, Western tourists travel from the U.S. and Europe to Bénin, homeland of the famed religion of Vodún (a.k.a. “voodoo”), in search of a West African spirituality. Becoming apprenticed to a Vodún priest, Timothy Landry offers, at once, an outsider’s and insider’s look at Vodún practice from the intertwined perspectives of practitioner, acolyte, seeker, and casual tourist. Along the way, he engages with issues ranging from the challenges inherent in representation of a stigmatized religious tradition to the ethical quandaries inevitably brought on by participant-observation. The book won the Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. It appears in the Contemporary Ethnography series that I edit for Penn Press.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Michelle Johnson, Remaking Islam in African Portugal: Lisbon—Mecca—Bissau (Indiana University Press)

Grounded in rich fieldwork in both Guinea-Bissau and Portugal conducted across 20 years, this book is an ethnographer’s dream. Oozing with gorgeous ethnographic details, the book at the same time tackles all the issues one could hope to think about concerning West African Muslims’ lives in Europe. Challenges of racism. Challenges of Islamophobia. Challenges by mainstream Muslims of heterodox practices. All these big-picture issues frame the stories Michelle Johnson exquisitely tells. Those stories center stunning discussions of life-cycle and other rituals—including a never-before-described practice of “writing on the hand” to initiate young students into learning the Qu’ran. Along the way, Johnson explores how immigrant African women and men rethink and adapt rural practices of female genital cutting, pilgrimages to Mecca, and funerals to urban neighborhoods in a European capital. Paul Stoller predicts: “Given the depth of its analytical insights and the grace of its presentation, this is a work that will be read, savored, and debated for many years to come.” This fabulous book appears in Indiana’s Framing the Global series.

Publisher’s webpage here.

*

Cati Coe, Changes in Care: Aging, Migration, and Social Class in West Africa (Rutgers University Press)

Hot off the press, this new ethnography, like Johnson’s, sings with all that contemporary anthropology can offer. Over the course of 20+ years, Cati Coe has lived and conducted research for long periods both in Ghana, and in the U.S. with Ghanaian migrants. The result is just the sort of rich ethnography that centers global flows, while also remaining deeply grounded in knowledge of intimate practices of the local. A short film accompanies the book, available online here. The book appears in Rutgers’ wonderful Global Perspectives on Aging series, edited by Sarah Lamb.

Publisher’s webpage here.

Two Lessons I Learned about the Transfer of Power while Living in Africa

1. The moment that any transfer of power occurs from one individual or regime to another is fraughtritually, sociologically, emotionally.

Why? This is a liminal period–“betwixt and between,” as the great anthropologist Victor Turner described it–neither fully in one political space, nor in another. Liminal moments offer options for creativity, inviting artistic license. They also represent spaces of danger.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the liminal times of interregnum–those intervals between political regimes–from West Africa.

For the better part of two years, I lived in small, rain-forest villages hosted by the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire. Their practices for seating a new king are a study in (ritual) risk management.

The late King Bonde Chomo of Bengland, Côte d’Ivoire
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Beng people rank a king’s inauguration as an extended moment of extreme spiritual danger. During the days and, especially, hours before the installation concludes, witches reportedly roam freely during the daylight hours, taking advantage of the temporary power vacuum. As the time approaches for the king to be ritually seated, the witches’ work increases to a fever pitch, culminating in maximal damage during the moments right before the climactic ritual. It is said that more people die during the interregnum period than at any other time. Babies and children never attend a king’s investiture: parents fear that their weakness and youthfulness would render them especially vulnerable to the power of witches. Likewise, a pregnant woman assiduously avoids the event, protecting her fragile fetus.

Some in the modern world might dismiss such accounts as anachronistic relics of an ancient era. I suggest otherwise.

At the broadest level, let’s take “witchcraft” as a metaphor for the unleashing of any illegitimate and mystical power aimed at causing harm in the lives of ordinary humans. (That’s how the Beng perceive witches.) It becomes clear how the ritual drama of Beng kingship illuminates the events of last week in the American capital. The insurgents attacking the U.S. Capitol building played the role of witches, spreading spiritual chaos.

The much-photographed costume of the fiercest-looking insurgent was worn by one Jacob Anthony Chansley–an Arizonan man who forsook his prosaic name in favor of “Jake Angeli,” with its obvious religious reference to “angel.” But his attempt to wield spiritual power was not only through reference to Christianity. In a second perverse act of cultural appropriation, the terrorist also drew on indigenous religious traditions, calling himself a “QAnon Shaman.”

Voice actor/conspiracy group QAnon follower appropriating stereotypical image of a shaman to visually persuade others of his power (spiritual and otherwise)
(Getty Images–source here)

That is not just a meaningless moniker. The now-notorious Arizonan claims spiritual powers equivalent to those of the classic shamans of the Mongolian steppes. Chansley has categorized himself as a “multi-dimensional or hyper dimensional being” and claims he can “see into these other higher dimensions that these entities – these pedophiles, these rapists, these really high up people … that they can almost hide in the shadows in.” 

Beyond Chansley, QAnon–the amorphous collection of groups with which Chansley associates himself–itself displays many qualities of a religious cult. For one thing, its strangely spelt name hints at a secret identity: Anon[ymous]. The secrecy encoded in its very name implies mystical foundations.

Then, too, the conspiracy-oriented group promotes hyperbolic but vague claims drenched in sensationalist innuendo: Satanic kidnapping, pedophilia, child trafficking.

Moreover, according to NY Times reporter Kevin Roose, QAnon followers have also been “flooding social media with false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election.” Some have, additionally, embraced anti-vaccine and anti-child-trafficking movements; others make further “claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the existence of U.F.O.s, and the 9/11 ‘truther’ movement.”

What’s more, its messages are sometimes penned in cryptic language.

All these features smack of religious cults.

Dare I point out that this shambolic collection of creative but unrealistic fears constitutes a veritable witches’ brew?

Chansley is now in custody. I’m guessing that the higher powers with which he claims to be in touch may not prove persuasive in a court of law.

*

But Chansley is just the side show. The main act, of course, is Donald Trump. These past four years. Trump has turned into a religious cult leader par excellence.

Trump may not drape himself flamboyantly in bearskins or sport buffalo horns, but his toxic narcissism produces just the sort of charismatic charlatanism in which certain types of religious cult leaders have long specialized. Allying himself with flashier devotees merely highlights the religious fervor he ignites on his own.

As I watch reruns of the mob scene that Trump incited, I imagine that the great French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, would have recognized the energy as effervescent, when large gatherings of people create great emotional intensity dedicated to serving ancestral spirits. Tragically, the religious fervor we witnessed in the U.S. capital produced tragedy rather than spiritual enlightenment.

*

Last week in Washington, D.C., the bureaucrats in charge of security failed our nation miserably. Eventually, a systematic inquiry will determine whether this failure originated in inattentive incompetence or coordinated sedition. (All signs are currently pointing toward the latter.)

For now, I humbly point out what those in charge might have learned from Beng villagers (assuming they actually wanted to protect the nation): moments of political transition represent the most dangerous times of civic life.

During periods of political interregnum, society cannot be too cautious. Leaders must take all conceivable steps to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the polity, lest the forces of chaos–modern-day witches–avail themselves of the power vacuum and take charge.

2. The institution of democratic rule is strong, sturdy, and stable–until it’s not.

In the village, my Beng friend Yacouba once told me, “When the walls have holes, the cockroaches get in.”

Yacouba had in mind the ravages of his two co-wives. In his view, their endless bitter arguments were causing all their children to constantly fall sick; one had even died.

Yacouba’s cockroach lesson might be applied to the broader house of civil society. Once foes scratch cracks into the walls of an institution, elements of destruction expand those chips and find their way in.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the initial challenge to the modern nation’s first democratic elections occurred in 1994. The past 26 years have seen more failed coup attempts than I have counted, punctuated frequently by violent civil unrest and two periods of out-and-out civil war. Today, the nation remains as unstable as it was at the beginning of those early political challenges. Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history should serve America as a warning.

During the past week, we have heard many journalists and political experts write that America is on a precipice. But, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that, from the nation’s earliest days, America began in violent efforts to either subjugate or annihilate people of color–first, native peoples; then, Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores while enslaved. To claim that we are on a precipice now implies that this is the first time we face stark choices concerning racism. In truth, we have been balancing uneasily on that precipice since the founding of the republic.

Nevertheless, each time we venture farther out on that cliff, we come closer to toppling over its edge.

The lessons of Côte d’Ivoire’s difficult modern history are still something from which it’s not too late to learn. There’s still time to conduct thorough inquiries into who organized last week’s insurrection and then prosecute them. All of them. Even if he neither resigns nor is removed from office via the 25th amendment nor is impeached, Donald Trump can, and should, ultimately be judged–ideally in court, but certainly by history.

Meanwhile, we have an interregnum to plow through.

Do All African Immigrants Arrive Sick, Desperate, and Empty-Handed on the Shores of Europe? Ask Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg!

The lives, status, and image of immigrants may constitute the single-most urgent human issue of our time.  In an arresting and captivating new study of Cameroonian mothers now living in Berlin, Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg challenges just about everything we thought we knew about immigrants.  Living as migrants in a nation infamous for its twentieth-century genocides against “others,” these educated, often middle-class women demonstrate over and over again the common impulses that define our shared humanity.

Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2016).

Mothers on the Move-Front Cover

 

Daniel J. Smith calls it

“a wonderful book full of rich and compelling ethnographic cases.”

And Cati Coe calls it

“[a] sensitive, well-grounded, and beautifully written study of the
dilemmas immigrant mothers face when they migrate.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

Read a free preview from the Introduction here.

The publisher offers complementary desk copies and exam copies to instructors here.

From the website of Carleton College (where she is the Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology, and Director of Africana Studies), you can find Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg’s institutional home page here.

I recently interviewed Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg online about her new book.  Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PFS = Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg):

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Cameroon Cloth Dress, 12-6-14 cropped 2

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

Interview with Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

AG: Your early research focused on the lives of women in Cameroon.  This book focuses on women who’ve left Cameroon to re-start their lives in Berlin.  What inspired you–both to switch fieldsites to a new continent, and to write a book on a new subject?

PFS: Each research project has opened up new questions and curiosities. Following these leads has led me to new fieldsites within Cameroon, and then within Europe. Along the way, I am not only following up on questions raised by prior research projects, but I’m also following people from the same ethnic group and region—sometimes even the same people, or their friends and children—from the countryside to the city, and on to Berlin or Paris.

And I’ve always been interested in women’s lives, in reproduction and family-making, and in tensions between belonging and marginalization. Thus, even though I’ve switched fieldsites, there’s a lot of continuity in my work.  The transnational migration aspect is new, but otherwise this book is not about an entirely new subject.

Even my next planned research project—about ways in which the contexts of reception matter for Cameroonians’ changing notions of transnational family obligations—continues along these lines, while bringing me to new sites (Paris, Cape Town).

 

AG: That should be a wonderful new project.

Meanwhile, Western media images of migrants and refugees tend to focus on the poorest of the poor—those in desperate conditions, in need of serious outlays of both aid and

African Refugee in Over-crowded Boat in Mediterranean

sympathy.  The West African migrants you profile are mostly highly educated, and at least middle-class.  Did you choose to focus on this group of semi-invisible migrants to challenge stereotypes?  What lessons can they teach Western readers?

PFS: Yes, I do aim to challenge stereotypes. I tell one among many possible stories about African migration and family-making in Europe. Other important stories have been told about migration and the search for well-being. I fear that some of these narratives end up reinforcing stereotypes of “the African migrant” as illegal(ized), impoverished, and in need of help.

In dialogue with my Cameroonian interlocutors and colleagues, I became aware of the pain caused by the repetition of a one-sided story of abjection. Stereotypes hurt.  However well-meaning, fundraising campaigns portraying poor, helpless African women and children belie the energy, intelligence, and educational resources of Cameroonian immigrant women. Without sugarcoating the hardships of migration, it’s important to let readers know that the story of abjection does not fit the data for Cameroonian immigrants to Berlin.

There are enormous distinctions in women’s lives depending not only on class background and class attainment, but also immigration status upon entering the new country, as well as the ability (or lack thereof) to maintain or obtain regularized immigration status. These critical distinctions often lead to vastly differing reproductive strategies, which in turn are linked to different ways that women seek a sense of belonging in multiple communities.

As anthropologists we look for both patterns and particularities. The former are important for telling a coherent, social-scientific story; the multiple stories of particular individuals’ lives are important to work against typification, which is by definition reductionist.

 

AG: Your book details examples of daily racism that Cameroonian immigrants experience in Berlin . . . yet, new Cameroonian migrants continue arriving.  In the wake of Germany’s role in WWII aiming to annihilate Jews, Roma, gays, and other groups of people that white Germans dubbed “Others,” how do you explain the decisions of these African elites to emigrate, of all places, to Germany?

PFS: There are many reasons that Cameroonian migrants—and as we know from the news, many, many others—choose to emigrate to Germany.  Economics is primary—because of the country’s strong economy and job opportunities.  Especially important to upwardly-mobile Cameroonians is Germany’s almost-free university education. And, interestingly, many Cameroonians appreciate the fact that it is not France. Cameroonian migrants in both Germany and France—and, as I learned this summer, those who remain home in Cameroon—perceive that immigration bureaucracy works more reliably and predictably in Germany than it does in France. Even if the UN, in its Decade for People of African Descent, finds significant structural racism in Germany, native-born Germans hold a variety of political and ideological positions. Thus, despite the catastrophic history of racism in their country, some Germans are more aware of inherent racism, and eager to discuss it, than are their counterparts in countries with less tainted histories. And, for all its faults (past and present), Germany is certainly more welcoming to refugees than is the U.S. in the current Trump era.

Still, the common question posed often by Germans to immigrants in daily life, “Where do you come from?” haunts Cameroonian parents and their children in Germany, as does the general image of “Africa” that is portrayed in mass media. One Cameroonian mother told me a poignant story about her seven-year-old son’s visit to Cameroon.  “This isn’t Africa, mom,” he exclaimed. There were no lions or giraffes, not even a little monkey in the big port city of Douala. Instead, while visiting his urban cousins, he experienced air-conditioned office buildings with elevators, manicured gardens, and schoolchildren in neatly pressed uniforms. None of this fit with the image of game parks and starving, half-naked children that the boy had learned about from television.

 

AG: Wow, what a moving (and disturbing) story.  It reminds me of all the mini-stories you write about the women whose lives you’ve followed in Berlin.  These women will feel very much like real people to a reader–individuals with their own idiosyncratic biographies and challenges, rather than what Renato Rosaldo might call the dreaded Group Noun (which, in this case, would be a single kind of person we could categorize as “Cameroonian women migrants”).  Why did you decide to feature a number of individual women, and how did you decide on these particular women to feature?

PFS: In this book I aim to portray the voices of individual women, each with her own concerns, challenges, resources, and desires. I mentioned earlier that I want to work against stereotypes and typification. This doesn’t mean that I don’t look for patterns in Cameroonian migrant women’s lives. Of course I do! Migrant women share predicaments of belonging, reproduction, and connection that are created and/or exacerbated by migration. But, shaped by their diverse biographies and circumstances, each woman manages these predicaments in her own way. I decided to feature particular women because they illustrated the diversity of women’s experiences and strategies.

When women told me about their lives, I was just fascinated by how their individual characters came through. I think of Maria telling me her love story—starting with her surprise meeting with a childhood sweetheart in Berlin—while showing me her family photo album. Or of Mrs. Black’s anguish that her white German husband just couldn’t or wouldn’t understand how important it was to her to help her extended family with gifts of cash.

I’d like to add something else about stories. Cameroonian migrant mothers share stories, or anecdotes from their lives, with one another. This is just a normal part of socializing. My book shows how, through stories, individual experiences are communicated and become crystallized into collectively held orientations toward the world, toward a new context.

 

AG: One of the key concepts you deploy in the book is the notion of “affective circuits.”  Can you speak about how you seized on that metaphor from electrical engineering to speak to the issues concerning migration that you are tackling?

PFS: I didn’t invent the term. I got the idea from our fellow anthropologists, Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes, who had invited me to contribute to an edited volume on affective circuits. I loved the layers of metaphors—gesturing simultaneously toward research on migration circuits and toward electrical engineering—so I took the idea and ran with it, developing the notion further. So often in studies of social capital, researchers write as if economic and informational flows along network ties are constant. But the network ties of the women I studied were neither constant nor additive. Women dropped some relationships, gained others, and then renewed old ties, depending upon how their circumstances and their feelings changed. Neither words (whether loving or nagging) nor money nor presents flowed continuously along women’s social connections; the flows stop and start and must be managed. And this careful management that women do is all bound up in the feelings they have toward their families, their fellow migrants, and the German bureaucrats they meet.

 

AG: Indeed.  Moreover, in Berlin, the children of the migrants you’ve followed are growing up in very different circumstances from the childhoods of their parents.  You’ve highlighted the term “Belonging” in your subtitle.  Can you talk about the different issues that the two generations experience as black migrants in a predominantly white nation?

PFS:  What an interesting question, with many layers! Some aspects of belonging are not questioned in Cameroon, but are brought to consciousness in Germany. One difference is that parents, growing up in Cameroon, largely didn’t have to worry about being black. They didn’t grow up as a “minority”—but their children do. On the other hand, the children of migrants grow up fluent in German, and they get early practice in code-switching between forms of behavior deemed appropriate in “German” vs. “Cameroonian” settings. Language learning and cultural adaptation are more challenging and self-conscious for their parents.

Another difference is that migrants who arrived in Germany as adults had earlier experienced challenges of belonging in Cameroon. It may seem surprising that individuals have a hard time belonging in their country of origin, but the legacies of Cameroon’s complex colonial history (which included three different colonial powers—Germany, France, and England) mean that people of certain ethnic groups and regions are disadvantaged on the national scene. These groups—for example, the Bamiléké and English-speaking Cameroonians—make up a large proportion of the Cameroonian diaspora. Their children, by contrast, grow up in Germany with a different view of their homeland—a place of origin, a place to visit, a place where Grandma and Grandpa live.

Still another difference in migrants’ experiences concerns recent historical change in Germany.  Earlier migrants faced many more challenges than do more recent migrants, because there are now settled migrants and migrant organizations that can ease newcomers’ transition to life in Germany.

 

AG: In the US, we now have a president who campaigned on a platform of drastically restricting immigration, and many of his supporters easily denounce whole groups of immigrants.  Alongside health care reform, restricting immigration (including refugee applications) has been one of Trump’s major agendas.  What do the experiences of Cameroonian immigrant women in Germany have to teach us in the US?

PFS: Immigrants can bring a lot to our country. Overall, immigrants are more law-abiding than native-born Americans, and in terms of college and post-graduate degrees, they are better educated. Immigrants tend to be ambitious, making many personal sacrifices for the well-being of their children and families. We have a lot to learn from them when we consider “family values,” and perhaps even reconsider what family can mean. Providing chances and being welcoming allows these immigrants to contribute to society.

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 1: Finding Communitas, Feminist Style

Mass of Demonstrators in Front of Capitol 1, cropped
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction.  On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another.  Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water.  In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.”  Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals.  But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves.  Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last.  On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
Indeed, after it was over, yesterday’s march in the nation’s capital felt, if anything, infinitely grander and more important when we learned of the 600 or so sister marches around the world attracting some 2 million protestors, begun on Facebook and coordinated by the miracle of social media.
*
I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.  But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
A, H, Mina, Charlotte on Subway
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped more
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges.  One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing.  And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy.  Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue.  And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march!  Start the march!” some began chanting.  And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers.  Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose.  Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land.  And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory.  Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
Latina Girls with Posters
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Muslim Woman Holding Poster (LS Photo) cropped
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Poster-We Are All Immigrants (LS Photo)
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
*
I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day.  The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power.  Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.

An Open Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear Dean and Mona,
 
At four years old and ten months old, you are both too young to understand why the grown-ups around you keep talking about confusing words like “deeply flawed candidates” and “misguided pollsters.” But sooner than I’d like, the realities of yesterday’s vote will begin affecting you.
 
If you see more boys bullying girls on the playground, and they say, “Our president says it’s okay to grab any part of girls we want,” remember what Mommy and Daddy have taught you: It’s NOT okay to hurt other people on purpose. Even if you didn’t realize at first that you were hurting them, if they tell you to stop, you must stop. As Molly of “The Big Comfy Couch” used to sing, “No means no.” Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
 
If you see some kids bullying other kids on the playground because they say that our president says those kids shouldn’t even be in this country, you can set those bullies straight. Tell them that any kid in your school has a right to be in your school. Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
 
If you see some kids bullying the disabled kids in your classroom because they say that our president just did that to a kid in a wheelchair, tell them that they shouldn’t be copying the behavior of a mean person. Even if that mean person is our president.
 
If the bullies are bigger than you and threaten to hurt you if you keep defending your classmates, tell your teacher. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the teacher doesn’t set those bullies straight, tell the principal. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the principal doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write a letter to the chair of the school board. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the chair of the school board doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write an open letter to your local newspaper. Maybe your neighbors or your local congressperson will set those bullies straight.
 
If no one sets those bullies straight, keep studying hard at school. Study your hearts out, go to the best college you can find, and maybe one of you will become a better president than the guy we’ve just sic’ed on the world.
 
If we haven’t yet had a woman as a president by the time you’re figuring out your life path, Mona, don’t let that discourage you. We came really close this year, and someone’s time will come soon. Maybe it’ll be yours.
 
I love you.
 
Grandma

An Open Letter to My Children

Dear Nathaniel and Hannah,

I am sorry that my generation has failed you.

We have bequeathed you a world that has too many problems, too much fear, and too much hate.

Dad and I tried to raise you to see the good in people, to understand others’ perspectives, to argue for fairness in the face of injustice, to respect the earth, to treat others with respect no matter the god(s) they worship or the size of their bank account or the shape of their bodies or the origin of their passport, and to feel hopeful about the future. Our nation has just elected a man who embodies the opposite of all these principles. He will set the tone from above–but in the end, he’s just one person.

As Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”

Our nation is, like all others, a work in progress. Right now, it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all. With Trump’s election, we’ve set back the clock on women’s rights, minorities’ rights, environmental protection, civility, predictability, respect for science, and the acknowledgment that (like it or not) we all inhabit a globalized world.

But it’s not the end of the story. There’s always a next chapter to be written, and your generation will write a very different chapter.

Your generation understands the urgency of combating climate change. Your generation embraces difference of all sorts–sexual, religious, racial, you name it–because your online engagements show you every hour how diverse, and how interconnected, the world is. Your generation absorbs knowledge because you know how easy it is to find your way to facts, and, with a little research, to separate facts from fiction.

Dad and I so wished that today could have been a day to celebrate. Instead, it’s a day to reflect on the work to be done. It’s a day to dig deep and strategize about how to create the world we want to inhabit. With a president who revels in abusing his power, mocking his opponents, and ridiculing the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the poor, the rest of us will have to work harder than ever to protect the vulnerable and oppose the bullies.

If Dad and I raised you to be optimistic, we also raised you to be resilient in the face of setbacks. I apologize that those skills in resilience will be called for more than ever in the next four years. But we are confident that you have what it takes.

I love you.

Mom

Why Not “Je Suis Lassana”?

Much of the Western world has expressed solidarity with the right to publish offensive cartoons by identifying with the cartoonists at the iconoclastic weekly, Charlie Hebdo, who were killed by Islamicist fundamentalists.

To date, the Je Suis Charlie Facebook page has garnered some 315,000 “Likes.”

Multilingual “I am Charlie” mottos abound.

I am Charlie-Multilingual

“I am Charlie” bumper stickers and buttons flood the global online market.

I am Charlie Bumper Stickers

I am Charlie Buttons

Meanwhile, another living Parisian hero has received far less attention.

Two days after the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo journalists, a young immigrant named Lassana Bathily saved the lives of fifteen people trapped inside a Kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, after another armed Islamicist militant, Amedy Coulibaly, invaded the shop in which Lassana worked.

A practicing Muslim from an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, a teenage Lassana had left Mali in 2006 to join his father in Paris. Completing high school and qualifying as a trained tile worker, Lassina had overstayed his tourist visa to live as a working but undocumented immigrant until 2011, when he finally received working papers, but not citizenship.

Lassana Bathily

After gunfire rang out while he was working in the supermarket, Lassana immediately led five adults and a three-year-old down to a walk-in freezer in the basement. Lassana turned off the lights and raised the temperature. Cold and scared, the group nevertheless remained safe from the gunman (who had already killed four other customers).

Then, while the supermarket’s attacker remained at large inside the store, Lassana fearlessly used his knowledge of the building to exit (at high risk) through an elevator shaft and a fire escape, the goal being to help police free those still captive inside.

As soon as Lassana emerged onto the street, police immediately held, handcuffed, and questioned him for an hour-and-a-half under the mistaken impression that he was another attacker. (Dare we allege unconscious racism?)

Finally convincing them that he was, instead, a supermarket employee trying to help save the lives of his customers, Lassana effectively sketched the layout of the supermarket and gave the police a door key.

With the building design and key supplied by Lassana, the police were able to surreptitiously enter the supermarket (rather than storming the edifice, which would have alerted the attacker to their presence and further endangered the lives of the hostages). This quiet entry allowed the police to kill the gunman and free every one of the 15 live customers who had remained as terrified hostages.

Supermarket Hostages Released

In a television interview, Lassana later explained, “Yes, I helped Jews get out. We’re brothers. It’s not a question of being Jews or Christians or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat. You have to help each other to get through this crisis.”

In his home country of Mali, Lassana was recently welcomed by the nation’s president, foreign minister, and population at large as a national hero.

Lassana Bathily Arives in Mali
And in France, after having had several previous petitions for citizenship rejected (most recently in 2011), Lassana has finally received French citizenship.

Lassana Bathily with French Passport

Two lessons to take away from Lassana Bathily’s acts of courage:

1. Labeling someone a “Muslim” says nothing about the likelihood that s/he will kill–or save–a non-Muslim.

2. In an “othering”-crazy world enamored by the tendency to bifurcate everything and everyone into simple good/evil dualities, it’s still possible to raise human beings to transcend stereotypes and see the common humanity in species-mates.

And two questions:

1. Currently, immigrants in France wait an average of 14 years to be naturalized. Will all future undocumented migrants living peacefully in France, and contributing productively to the nation’s economy, have to undertake similar life-and-death acts of heroism to attain French citizenship in under 14 years?

2. As a small group of scholars who specialize in the study of Mali and surrounding populations have recently suggested in an online conversation, instead of “Je Suis Charlie,” why hasn’t the global meme been “Je Suis Lassana”?

 

P.S.  On March 24, 2015, Lassana Bathily was awarded a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an “international Jewish human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism worldwide.”   If only this micro Jewish-Muslim collaboration could serve as a model for the Mid-East . . .