Category Archives: Racism

Why “The Great Replacement Theory” is not a Theory, and why that Matters

The notion of a “theory” comes from science. As such, the term conveys all the legitimacy upon which the scientific method relies. It should not be tossed around casually like a frisbee in the park.

The so-called “Great Replacement Theory” we are now reading about in mainstream publications is not a theory. Therefore, it should not be called a theory. And it should not be graced with capital letters. Both these practices suggest unearned legitimacy. And, unearned legitimacy carries great risk.

We now know that repeatedly making false claims will train people to slowly accept those false claims. Recent research by a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists warns us that we humans tend to increase our belief in any claims—true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, likely or unlikely—the more often we hear or read about them. So, as we repeatedly encounter something being called a “theory,” we become more easily inclined to agree that it IS a theory. Once that happens, it moves into the realm of science. As such, we begin to attribute it truth status.

What does it mean that a “theory” is grounded in the scientific method? Here’s one statement from Scientific American:

scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing.

The American Museum of Natural History expands on this basic principle:

A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true. Scientific theories are testable. New evidence should be compatible with a theory. If it isn’t, the theory is refined or rejected. The longer the central elements of a theory hold—the more observations it predicts, the more tests it passes, the more facts it explains—the stronger the theory.

What is now being called the “great replacement theory” has nothing of the attributes of a theory. It has not been “substantiated through repeated experiments.” It has not been “substantiated through testing.” It does not “explain known facts.” It is not “compatible with new evidence.”

Jews are not “replacing” Christians. (As one Jewish studies scholar notes, “America’s Jewish birthrate has fallen, and Jews are barely replacing themselves, let alone the white population as a whole“). Nor are people of color “replacing” white people. True, the demographic profile of the U.S. is changing. But that is nothing new. In fact, it has always been the case. Since the founding of the Republic, new groups of refugees (starting with the Pilgrims), followed by newer groups of immigrants, have continually brought new languages, new musics, new cultural practices, new cuisines, and new religious traditions to these shores. Given this history that undergirds all American history, it should not surprise us that, as one recent study notes, most Americans do not care about the “changing” demographic profile of the American population. “Change” is the one constant of U.S. demographic history.

But some white Christians are afraid of such scenarios. Their fears are stoked by right-wing talk-show hosts promoting outlandish fantasies of racist and anti-Semitic “what-if” schemes. As they have been at other times in the past, these schemes are now being interbraided, with the fate of Western history’s two great “othered” groups—Jews and Blacks—being once again bound by linked stereotypes.

With fear a powerful motivator, these invented “replacement” plots slip easily into the vaunted category of “fact,” once they are covered with the veneer of science . . . simply by being called a “theory.”

Or, should I write, “Theory”?

Adding a capital letter to a word claiming to be something it is not makes matters worse. As one professional author/editor explains it, some people erroneously think that “sticking a capital letter at the front of a word would make it seem more grand, more important, more worthy of respect.” But, as another professional editor notes, this practice is nothing more than “rogue capitalization.” 

YOUR Words Matter

All of which is to urge:

Journalists and politicians: please stop mindlessly repeating the offensive, misleading, and dangerous phrase, “Great Replacement Theory”!

When referring to this notion—which has inspired all too many recent massacres, from El Paso to Buffalo—don’t be afraid to use more words, if more words are required for accuracy. Call it out for what it is. How about . . .

the dangerous claim known as “great replacement theory” that is rooted in racist and anti-Semitic paranoia.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

It’s Not “Just” a Symbol

“Tails” side of the new U.S.
quarter
featuring Maya Angelou

The new Maya Angelou quarter is a symbol, yes.

But not “just” a symbol.

Because, symbols matter.

If they didn’t, they would just be like other, ordinary stuff.

If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t fight over them. As in, people burning or otherwise desecrating flags when they’re mad at their government, and other people fuming at the sight or even thought of such actions.

If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t protest when the wrong symbol appears in the wrong place for the wrong reason—say, a statue of a Confederate leader in a public square, visually celebrating the institution of slavery. As in: Why is there STILL a statue of Jefferson Davis in the “Statuary Hall” section of the U.S. Capitol?

A statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, left, in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington.
(Credit:Doug Mills/The New York
Times; original here)

If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t proclaim the need for the right symbol that never appears when it should—say, an image of a Black woman on a piece of currency.

As in: The new quarter featuring legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou on the back of the quarter that bears George Washington’s image on the front.

There are two notable components of this new quarter.

First, on the “heads” side, we see George Washington. Founders of nations are a big deal. No matter who they are, they carry their own symbolic weight. Anything occurring with them borrows some of their power. The semiotician would point out: It’s a metonymic transfer, its own type of magic. Sound too theoretical? Here’s a more down-to-earth way of making the same point. Anything, or anyone, appearing on the flip side of George Washington announces: I am worthy of sharing space with this venerable ancestor . . . and becomes even more important, the minute the space is shared.

There’s also the irony that the nation’s founder was, himself, a slave owner. In the double image on the new quarter, the author of I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings could also be said to be rebuking our collective father for his moral failures.

Second, Maya Angelou isn’t just appearing on a coffee cup, a shoelace, or a fencepost. She’s appearing on money. For a capitalist system, that’s also a big deal.

Money is, literally, the object that signifies value par excellence in a capitalist system. Since money serves as the symbolic foundation of any capitalist economy, whatever images gets stamped on its “legal tender” is chosen very, very carefully.

If mostly the faces of men, or of White people, show up on coins, that makes statements about who we value. And, those statements are seen every day by Americans. According to the U.S. Treasury, a given coin will circulate for a good thirty years or longer. Quite a lot of people will see and hold it. That’s another reason that who shows up on coins is subject to a lot of thought.

Announced this month, a new American Women Quarters Program will feature a series of notable (but under-appreciated) American women on the “tails” side, beginning with Maya Angelou.

The series is the brainchild of a bipartisan group of four female members of Congress, who co-introduced the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, to solicit public input into new US coin designs.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen certainly seems to have taken this new series seriously. A no-nonsense economist who has taught at Harvard, LSE, and UC-Berkeley, Yellen “often speaks in a monotone voice about Fed policy.” Yet, clearly, even this financial wiz understands the powerful symbolism embedded in the system over which she currently has dominion. Secretary Yellen positively waxed poetic when introducing the new American Women Quarters Program: 

“Each time we redesign our currency, we have the chance to say something about our country—what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society.”

Janet Yellen, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury

All of which is to say: Maya Angelou showing up with George Washington on quarters is reason to celebrate!

For more, read the NPR piece about the new coin here. Read what Michelle Obama has to say about it here. See a preview of images from the entire new series of five American Women Quarters here.

Does “Reasonable” = Racist?

What can anthropology contribute to the critical conversation about race in America, following the welcome jury decision in the Derek Chauvin trial?

After they amassed and presented a week’s worth of technical details–medical, anatomical, temporal, legal–in the end, the prosecuting attorneys’ case against Derek Chauvin rested on a simple claim: A “reasonable” police officer would have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck well before the excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.


Miraculously, a jury of 12 peers unanimously agreed with that argument.

Every Black American (and probably every U.S. historian) knows how unlikely that verdict was. Indeed, on average, only one or two killings of a civilian out of a hundred by a police officer even goes to trial in the U.S. Why? Because, at base, the general assumption goes that a “reasonable” police officer would have acted the same way, given the challenging circumstances, so there’s no need to put him (or her) on trial.

And, until now, that argument–both its racist assumptions, and its racist implications–won out.

But what does it mean to invoke the “reasonable man [or woman]” as a model for a jury’s decision?

Back in 1955, the eminent social anthropologist, Max Gluckman, pointed out that the notion of the “reasonable man”–which lies beneath all Anglo-Saxon as well as many other systems of jurisprudence–is, at base, founded on cultural values.

He didn’t put it in quite that way. In analyzing the legal system of the Barotse or Lozi people of Zambia, he wrote:

“as Barotse judges define the reasonable man, they bring into their definitions many facets of Barotse life which are not ostensibly part of the law. These facets include a variety of social and personal prejudices. I believe the same process can be detected in the decisions of our own judges and juries.”

From: Max Gluckman, “The Reasonable Man in Barotse Law,” in Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (New York: Free Press, 1963)

Those “prejudices”–which we might as well consider equivalent to “values”–dictate what members of particular societies consider what is, and is not, “reasonable.” Like most cultural values, these cultural models are neither universal nor unchanging.

Before the Derek Chauvin verdict, police departments across the U.S. judged it “reasonable” for 98-99 police officers out of 100 (likely, a white officer) to kill a civilian ( likely, a Black civilian), because of the particular context. Even in the rare cases that police officers killing civilians are formally charged, it is unlikely that the trial will result in a conviction–and, especially, a conviction of murder.

Last week, a jury in Minneapolis gave America a gift. Suddenly, the racist justification for (white) police officers easily killing (Black) civilians is no longer a basis for a “reasonable” decision.

As Black commentators have been pointing out since the moments after the verdict was handed down in court, it will take far more than one trial to change cultural values. For, in the end, cultural values are at stake–and such values do not change quickly or easily.

Yet, thanks to the past year of BLM events remaining front and center around the country (even the globe), racism is one cultural value that no longer holds primacy in the white American imagination. Now that the eyes of the nation were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom, there is no going back to assuming that a white officer killing a Black civilian is, automatically, “reasonable.”

We must, of course, keep pushing for accountability in all police killings. Even more importantly, we must keep pressing for structural change not only to put murderous police officers on trial, but to retrain all police officers in de-escalation tactics. Re-labeling them as “peace officers” or “safety officers”–emphasizing their potential for nurturing rather than violence–might be a good, discursive start. Incorporating mental health professionals and social workers into their departments–as the city of Santa Fe did last week with their new “Alternative Response Unit”–would be a great, more tactical start.

Meanwhile, I remain proud of my discipline. The late Max Gluckman fundamentally got it right when he argued that, ultimately, legal systems rest on cultural values.

But, community standards of “reasonableness” hold sway–until they don’t. If he’d been around to hear last week’s verdict, I’d like to imagine Gluckman breathing his own sigh of anthropological relief as he nodded approvingly.


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 2: The Posters

 

Mass of Women, online photo by Noam GalliPhoto by Noam Galai

Women (and some men) with signs, as far as the eye could see.

In my first post about the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, I chronicled the social and emotional ties I saw created in this space of massive communitas, feminist style. Here, I offer a textual analysis of the posters I observed.

Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Above the sea of pink knit hats, thousands of posters claimed the sky. Their messages ranged from instructive to witty, from loving to outraged. Let’s browse through a small selection of some of the most creative and impassioned, and see what they can tell us about this extraordinary moment in America’s still-young democracy.

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Poster, Tell Us Why You Came, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

 

At the entrance to the event, a team of independent filmmakers documented the day’s events. They didn’t need to pester people to beg them for interviews. Instead, they staked out a prominent spot and simply held up an appealing sign: “Tell us why you came.”

Everyone had her story, and these filmmakers wanted to document as many as they could.

Mine was simple. I told them: “I came as a feminist dedicated to the radical proposition that women are human.”Poster-Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women are People (Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post), cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

Later, I was gratified to see a man bearing the same conviction. The strategy behind the motto works best when men are on board, too.

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Poster, Women Are Watching, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

I like the multiple layers of this poster.

The long lashes and bright blue eyes evoke women’s beauty—a classic subject of men’s gaze.

But the message below up-ends that practice and puts women in the active position of viewer rather than viewed.  That message challenges the gross misogyny of Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about women (the infamous “pussy-grabbing” remark being only one of many).

More broadly, this poster announces that women are paying attention to any gross misdeeds Trump may attempt. The women’s movement that re-birthed on January 21st, 2017 attests to this poster.

 

Poster, We Cant Unhear What Youve Said, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster adds another sense modality to the sentiment of the last one. Not only are women watching the antics on the House and Senate floors, they are also listening to the outrageous speeches. And they are not forgetting. Trump’s bank account can’t buy amnesia for the rest of the world.

This poster implicitly evokes the power of the Internet. Pre-Digital Age, politicians could conceal their misdeeds, their offensive statements, and even the bills they introduced into the legislature, far more easily. Now, digital cameras and cell phones-turned-tape-recorders document politicians’ back-door dealings; investigative reporters “follow the money”; and any citizen can hold police accountable with a simple snap of the shutter.

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Poster, Trump Quote, Pussy Grab

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s infamous comment resonated everywhere that day in Washington. In case anyone had been living under a rock all fall and needed help decoding the pink knit caps with “cat ears,” this poster reminded everyone of the odious Say what?! statement that outraged even Republicans.

“Pussy” used to be an X-rated term used by men to refer insultingly to women’s genitals. With a president as an avowed, enthusiastic sexual harasser,  women have now re-appropriated the metaphor and turned it against would-be “pussy grabbers.”

Poster, Dont Grab on Me, croppedPoster, Keep Your Laws off My Pussy, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Poster, Real Men Grab Patriarchy by the Balls, Photo by MC

Photo by Mina Cooper

“Pussy”-as-vagina and “pussy”-as-cat have now combined such that women are re-claiming their gendered identity as a space of agency rather than victimhood.  Effectively using the strategy of the gay rights movement, which re-appropriated “gay” and “queer” as terms of pride and self-identification, feminists have re-appropriated “pussy.”  Not only was “pussy” a degrading term for women’s genitals; “Don’t be a pussy” previously meant, “Don’t be a coward,” with the vagina standing in synecdochally for cowardice. The thousands of cat-pun-themed posters and -knit hats in view everywhere in D.C. signaled a powerful message: these women would not be bullied into submission. Rather, women own their genitals and feel empowered to push back against the sexist agenda of the Trump regime.

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Poster, Trump Grabs Crotch of Statue of Liberty

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster distressed me more than all others I saw. I kept finding myself somehow compelled to look at it, then compelled to look away.

The idea of a sexually harassing president is odious enough. Taking that image as a metaphor for raping democracy, as symbolized by the feminized Statue of Liberty, is, if such a thing is possible, even more disturbing. Whether from direct experience or from hearing about it from friends and relatives, all women know what it is to be sexually assaulted. Imagining our collective polity and shared values assaulted in this symbolically resonant way is almost too painful to contemplate.

Yet Trump’s abhorrent statement from long ago, now immortalized, has spawned a new generation of feminists. The feminist artist who visualized this metaphor has created a powerful image that is bound to speak for months and years to come, for all who so much as glimpsed her horrifying poster.

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Poster, Embarrasser in Chief

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s personal history as a proud sexual harasser may even include rape—several accusations have been neither fully proven nor discredited. As such, the individual representing our nation to the world is deeply problematic. How can such a person have been chosen as Time magazine’s “person of the year”? This poster mocks Time’s decision by applying a new, degrading title, along with an iconic image of evil–the horns of the devil in Christian iconography (inherited from the satyrs of Greek mythology)–to our commander-in-chief.

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Poster, Dr Seuss Rhyme, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

Why does everyone like Dr. Seuss? Because he distills complex concepts into simple rhymes that even young children get.

This brilliant poster takes advantage of that strategy. Donald Trump’s disturbing history of sexual aggression towards women is protested via a child’s rhyme—not to belittle the seriousness of our president’s outrageous misogynist history, but to insist in the clearest and simplest possible terms on the basic fact of its unacceptability.

And, in case anyone missed the Dr. Seuss connection, the poster mad that inspiration explicit with a signature red-and-white-striped hat.

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Poster, My Body, My Choice, Photographing Crowd

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This sign echoed hundreds of others referring to so many issues important to America’s women. Having a “pussy-grabbing” president terrifies young women, who keenly appreciate the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought to keep abortion legal and safe, breastfeed in public, name sexual harassment as a crime, and put rapists behind bars.  In other words, “My Body. My Choice” resonates across multiple registers.  It indexes the many struggles women have waged across multiple centuries and communities to assert somatic autonomy; the battles that have already been won to achieve this aim; and the precarity of those successes in the new U.S. administration.

This particular sign was silk-screened, along with hundreds of others, by members of an arts collective who donated their expertise and services at the Nasty Women Exhibition, a six-day art fair held in Queens, NY, the week before the Women’s Marches. All artwork at that exhibit sold out, and the entirety of the $42,000 raised was donated to Planned Parenthood. In this photo, my daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, doubled as sign-holder and photographer as she observed and marched.

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Poster, Never Again, Coat Hanger, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another devastating combination of 2 words + 1 image.

Roe v. Wade represents just one of many rights that people at the Women’s March aimed to defend. But it epitomizes the anger that women feel at the life-threatening medical risks they would incur if Roe V. Wade were reversed.

This poster speaks poignantly to my own family history.

My maternal grandmother had thirteen dangerous and illegal abortions.

Or so my mother once told me. Out of a combination of shock and embarrassment, I never asked my mother any details. And I certainly never queried my beloved grandmother about what must have been painful memories, as the topic was entirely taboo during the years when my grandmother was alive. But from what I know of my grandmother’s life, I find the claim entirely plausible.

As Jews living in extreme poverty in shtetls of Eastern Europe, both my maternal grandparents had only managed to attend grade school, through maybe the third or fourth grades, before they managed to flee religious persecution and make new lives for themselves in the U.S. Once here, they found religious freedom but continued to live in poverty: they rented the same three-floor-walk-up, one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for 50 years. They both worked long, hard hours for decades—my grandfather, as a waiter; my grandmother, as a licensed practical nurse.

My grandmother had two daughters, but the second (my aunt) was born with a serious kidney disease, and the doctor wasn’t optimistic about her chances for survival. My grandmother devoted herself to her sickly daughter’s health, and through her love combined with her basic nursing training, she managed to keep her daughter alive.

According to my mother, this medical and emotional trauma, combined with the family’s poverty, convinced my grandmother to put an end to her childbearing years after my aunt was born in 1923. But reliable birth control methods were still decades away. My grandmother’s only recourse to thirteen more pregnancies was to have thirteen back-alley abortions. Here’s where my pre-anthropological days fail me. I don’t know the details of who did the work, where, and how much they charged, although I imagine that coat hangers might well have been involved.

Until Jan. 21, 2017, this old family story, while a part of my maternal lineage, seemed worlds away from the lives of modern American women. As we await the drama unfolding in the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, images of coat hangers sometimes invade my dreams.

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Poster-Decriminalize Womanhood, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

A personal favorite. This poster says so much with two words and one powerful image.

So many women–in the U.S. and elsewhere—are sexually assaulted. So few rapists are ever even tried, let alone convicted and jailed. And in recent years, so much legislation has been proposed by Republican politicians at both state and federal levels in the U.S. that aims to curtail women’s hard-won freedoms.

Moreover, in middle schools, girls across the U.S. and elsewhere view textbook drawings that make the inside of their bodies seem like alien territory.

The net effect of these efforts is that, to some young women, it feels that the simple state of being a woman is being criminalized.

The artistic creator of this poster has used warm colors to draw the uterus as an object of beauty. Along with the über-short and über-clear text, she declares that a woman’s genitals should be the source of pride, not fear, much less invasion–whether physical, symbolic, or legal.

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Poster, My Pussy Bites Back, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

And this poster individualizes the determination to protect women’s bodies by evoking a veritable vagina dentata motif. Here, we see an empowering response to Trump’s threats to women’s reproductive rights and sexual autonomy.

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Poster, Grow a Vagina, Betty White Quote, photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

For many years, “Grow a pair” or (more explicitly) “Grow some balls” has served to urge men and boys to gain courage. In that idiom, testicles function as a metaphor for all that is stereotypically associated with masculinity — physical strength, emotional steadiness, tenacity.

This women’s march not only challenged the economics of patriarchy. With posters such as this, the protest challenged our deepest assumptions about gender.

“Grow a vagina” as an exhortation to be brave urges girls and women to think of their genitals as organs of strength. Any woman who has ever menstruated gets it. So does any woman who has lost her virginity to a man. And what about childbirth? There’s a reason Asante women of Ghana liken childbirth to going to war. And don’t even get me started about rape. As every woman knows, women’s genitals are the site of almost super-human strength.

 

Poster, Fight Like a Girl, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster expands the notion of female strength from the genitals. Here, women are depicted categorically as strong. The poster’s motto overturns two phrases commonly used to encourage boys to be strong: “Don’t cry like a girl” and “You fight like a girl.” Here, fighting like a girl is taken as a badge of honor, with girls depicted as a model to emulate, not avoid.

 

Poster, Resister, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

In this poster, the beloved fictional character of Princess Leia stands dramatically for women’s ability to defend themselves. The double-entendre, single-word text packs a powerful punch. With those eight letters, women are at once offered Princess Leia as a role model for resistance, and a vision of sisterhood both with that fictional character, and with one another.

Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women

Years ago, the renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued that men are, intrinsically, the weaker sex. His book, The Natural Superiority of Women, first published in 1952, was an inspiration to the founders of the National Organization of Women in 1966.

The set of posters just analyzed suggests it might be time for Ashley Montagu’s book to become required reading in high school social studies classes across America.

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Poster, Womens Rights are Human Rights, Black, Worker, Immigrant, Trans, Poor, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

If the hundreds of posters I saw shared an overarching theme, it was probably, “Intersectionality.”

Unlike the “second wave” of (largely white) feminists of the 1960s, feminists of the 21st century understand that the fates of the world’s women are interlinked, and, moreover, that our struggles are also interlinked with those of other marginalized and oppressed populations. At the Women’s March in Washington, everywhere, I saw religious minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically vulnerable—both in person, and represented on signs.

Poster, Build Bridges Not Walls, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

I took the “bridges” on this sign both in the literal sense, concerning the US/Mexican border—and as a metaphorical sign urging political alliances to link the many marginalized and vulnerable groups now targeted by the Trump administration.

 

Poster, I Want as Many Rights as Guns Have, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos /Huffington Post

This poster makes ironic ties to another bitter controversy in the contemporary era: the rights of gun owners vs. the need for public safety.

Are women really less valued than guns in American law and American society?

 

Latina Girls with Posters

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

These young Latina girls probably ranged from 13-16 years old, but their posters testified that they already identified as women. And their posters signaled their early understanding that in 21st century America, this identity comes with political baggage, and demands solidarity and pluck.

The energy and positivity of this cheerful but powerful young group felt infectious.

 

Muslim Woman Holding Poster, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This young Muslim women displayed a dazzling understanding of intersectional issues. Islamophobia, reproductive rights, racism, misogyny, ignorance, hatred, climate change, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, and love all found a place on her packed poster. As such — and in contrast to her own headscarf-wearing body — her poster proclaimed a subliminal retort to the common American stereotyping of Muslims as “other.” Through her poster, this young woman asserted her common humanity with so many “others,” thereby deconstruction the “othering” impulse itself.

 

Poster, Republicans Will Protect Your Rights if You Are a Fetus, Photo by LS, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

If the protesters understood acutely the ways in which seemingly disparate issues intersect, the same cannot be said for Republicans who see these issues as unrelated. This poster in effect offered a meta-critique of those conceptual blinders. The ironic result it pointed out: the unborn have more rights than many groups of people outside the womb.

 

Button, Dissent is Patriotic, ACLU

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The movement began with women, and attracted over a half a million of them in Washington, D.C. alone. But men joined in as allies, often pointing out the intersections with other issues.

The legal right to protest Trump’s policies was on people’s minds early on. The button I spotted on this man’s hat proved prescient.

With a president who has declared that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” the ACLU — staunch defender of free speech — should become a major player in the next four years.

Thankfully, in the weeks following the inauguration, the American Civil Liberties Union attracted unprecedented donations by ordinary Americans. According to a report published by CNN on Jan. 31, 2017:

“The American Civil Liberties Union said it received $24.1 million in online donations over the weekend.

In a normal year, the activist group makes about $4 million in online donations. In one weekend, it raised six times as much money.”

The ACLU will doubtless put these funds to important use.

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Poster, So Mad, Blood Coming out of Wherever, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another personal favorite.

Back in Aug. 2015, Fox news journalist Megyn Kelly moderated a debate among Republican primary contenders. Kelly was especially tough on Trump for his anti-women agenda. After the interview, Trump dismissed Kelly’s challenging questions by referring to her genitals: he implied her questions lacked legitimacy because they must have been produced by menstrual processes — “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her . . . wherever.” Reverting to an age-old patriarchal habit of delegitimizing women’s claims for equality by suggesting out-of-control hormonal processes signaled that Trump’s misogyny was unlimited.

This poster revisits that moment and turns it against Trump. The sign holder owns her anger, and even associates it with her menstrual cycle. As with the pink knit “pussy hats,” in so doing, she is, in effect, using the logic of the gay rights movement, once activists re-appropriated the previously insulting terms used against them–“gay” and “queer.” This sign-maker’s menstrual anger does not control her; rather, she controls it, and for a political purpose: to push back against the sexist agenda of Donald Trump and others of his ilk.

Note, too, the angry tampon in the upper-right corner. Animating that piece of menstrual technology gives life to an inanimate object that is an intimate part of many modern women’s monthly bodily regimes. As such, the angry tampon re-channels the anger of all women, everywhere, who were denigrated by Trump’s insulting dismissal of Megyn Kelly’s professional journalism.

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Poster, Legitimately President like a Ham Sandwich is Legitimately Kosher, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Not all posters were grim or angry. Even through their outrage, some protesters found ways to make us laugh. This clever Miller analogy offered a bitter chuckle for Jewish protestors.

 

Poster, An Actual Ikea Cabinet, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

Another punster targeted not Trump, but his Cabinet picks.

At the time of the Women’s March, Trump had already announced many outrageous choices for top Cabinet positions, including Betsy DeVos for Education, Rick Perry for Energy, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Just a day after the inauguration, reasonable people educated about these picks were already furious.

Nevertheless, this protester’s play on words earned a smile wherever she went.

 

Poster, Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another poster offered a different play on words. The time for Cyndi Lauper’s celebration of girls protesting against sexism via partying is over. With the assault on women’s bodies on many registers, today’s girls just wanna have fun-damental rights.

Even in the most urgent of political crises, a joke can keep us sane. As H. L. Mencken once said, “What restrains us from killing is partly fear of punishment, partly moral scruple, and partly what may be described as a sense of humor.”

 

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Poster, I Cant Believe I Still Have to Protest this Shit, Cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The last theme I want to signal is the set of inter-generational conversations that abounded on many posters.

Women who remember earlier women’s rights struggles displayed their frustration with old battles that they thought they had won, only to see them re-appear with new force and Hydra-like terror.

Poster, Hello 1955 Please Hold for the Republicans, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

In the U.S., Republicans often point to the 1950s as a Golden Age. Women, and minorities of all sorts, know better.

American schools were still segregated, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books and followed across the South. Gays were still either closeted or bullied. Women were still expected to marry, have children, and devote themselves exclusively to their families while abandoning all career aspirations. The “military-industrial complex” was just being born. The Cold War divided the world into “us” and “them” while starting to outsource military conflicts to the global South. No concept of rights for the disabled even existed. Public awareness of any religions beyond Christianity was nil. Industrial expansion produced unprecedented toxins polluting the water, air, and land, without nary a protest.

Today, our nation is far from utopian, yet the gains made over the past half-century in rights for women, for minorities of all sorts, and for the earth, are undeniable. The Trump administration’s efforts to turn back the clock and undo those significant gains reminds women old enough to remember the 1950s of a nightmare that, until now, seemed like it was just a distant memory.

 

Poster, We are the Granddaughters of the Witches You Could Not Burn, Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster reminds us of a far longer timeline. Evoking the Massachusetts’ Salem witch trials of 1692-83, the women carrying this set of posters performed a sort of moving political theatre.

Feminist scholars such as Isaac Reed have argued that the Salem witch trials must be understood as a component of gendered history — rooted in patriarchal institutions and mindsets of colonial America. These contemporary protesters argued that the Puritan patriarchal mindset is still with us. They also saw the accused witches as early feminist rebel-heroes — and themselves, as their heiresses.

 

Poster, Now Youve Pissed off Grandma, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

As a feminist grandmother, I can relate to this one.

If women in general are supposed to demonstrate infinite patience, that gendered stereotype applies tenfold to grandmothers. They’re the ones kids turn to when parents are mad. If even Grandma is pissed off to the point of making a crude hand gesture, something is seriously amiss.

This poster highlights issues of special concern to the elderly — having enough money to live on after retiring, and a good enough medical insurance policy to cover the increasing costs of staying healthy.

And, yes, the poster also reminds us: old women are also vulnerable to sexual assault.

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Poster, This is Not a Moment, It Is a Movement, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Finally, lurking at the back of all our minds that day was the unstated question: “Now what?”

Posters abounded proclaiming, in one way or another, that the sun would not set definitively on that day. The momentous event — with its global impact — will be hard to dismiss or forget.

Although the Washington protest was the largest and, because of its location, the most symbolically most potent, it inspired sister marches around the country, and across the globe. Crowd estimates by scholars tell us that something like 4.5 million people marched in 915 individual events around the world.

These extraordinary numbers suggest two striking facts: a great deal of passion, and a great deal of coordination. When passion and coordination are harnessed, a powerful cocktail is created.

Which brings me to the next poster.

 

Poster, Make Feminism Great Again, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

During the campaign season, Donald Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America great again,” resonated with many white voters who feared global flows. But others saw in that slogan an unrealistic effort to close our borders to the world, and a dangerous evocation of earlier nationalist moves that produced imperialist invasion/expansion in places ranging from Vietnam and the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This poster bitterly mocks that motto. Here, “Feminism” substitutes for “America” — thereby, implicitly, challenging not only the nativist/xenophobic agenda of Trump, but his longstanding misogyny, as well. This especially subversive slogan is bound to irritate Trump (and his supporters) greatly.

 

Poster Display on Floor in Metro Station from Distance, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

What to do with all these posters at the end of the day?

Many marchers felt reluctant to ditch them in trash cans.

A spontaneous art exhibit formed at this metro station, as protesters donated their signs to thE subway floor-turned-impromptu art-gallery that expanded by the minute.

Only two days later, museums and libraries around the world, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. to the Royal Alberta Museum in Vancouver, announced that they would start collecting the posters.

 

Poster, Mobilize for Midterms, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

While museum curators soon presented exhibits protesting President Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants and refugees either by removing (or covering over) all artwork by immigrants, or by featuring such works, political activists forged their own plans.

Across the US, a new organization has formed: “Indivisible.” Already, 7,000 chapters have been created. Members are busy protesting the Trump agenda, while mindful of the numbers necessary in Congress for Democrats to reclaim the national agenda. The most effective way is to “Mobilize for Midterms”—that is, the “mid-term” elections that will take place in 2018, in the middle of the current presidential term.

This poster featured the pragmatic side to the march, complementing the poetic and the artistic approaches featured in the posters highlighted above.

All approaches were in full force in Washington, and equally welcome.

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A, H w Matching Tshirts, Cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

The joy of raising a feminist.

My daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, had accompanied my husband and me to smaller protests over the years, but this massive scene made an impression like no other.

To plan for our trip to Washington, she’d bought us matching t-shirts. No offense meant to men, but given the past few millennia ruled by patriarchy, redressing the balance seems in order.

 

Tshirt, Im with HerPoster, Im with Her

                                           Photo by Alma Gottlieb

When Hillary Clinton was still running for president, people from Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama declared their allegiance by announcing, “I’m with her.” The un-referenced pronoun easily stood for Hillary Clinton because she was the first woman ever to win the nomination of one of the two major political parties of the United States. T-shirts supporting Hillary didn’t even have to mention her name—the “her” in question was obviously Hillary.

At the march in Washington, these simple three words took on a powerful new meaning when added to multiple arrows pointing in every possible direction. Once Hillary lost, “I’m with her” referred not to one woman, but to Every Woman. The power of a gendered political movement was born with those arrows.

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The official Women’s March on Washington has called for a national Women’s Strike on March 8th. Let’s join them!

 

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

Thinking about Our Shared Common Ancestry–Pausing to Reflect Back on My Career as an Africanist

Honored to have an interview I recently did with Dallas Tatman (an MA student in African Studies at the U of Illinois) unexpectedly show up, to my surprise, on the NPR’s StoryCorps website.

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