“Some of Us Have Memory”: On Shock, Race, and the Long History of Theorizing the Impossible

The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is a moment to recharge and refresh; I always find great presentations featuring scholars with similar interests who are willing to engage, provide feedback, and help me reframe my relationship to my own work. The Association of Black Anthropologists is especially effective in this regard: facilitating mentoring, pulling together interesting panels, and fostering a scholarly community within the larger association that can serve as a necessary counterspace to the sometimes unmarked and unremarked whiteness of the AAA.

My own work on race and museums has me constantly thinking about how museums as knowledge-producing institutions find ways to articulate who their publics are and how to effectively engage them. So when I missed Melissa Harris-Perry’s Wednesday night keynote to attend the Public Classroom on Violence and Race at the Penn Museum, I figured I could treat the evening, which featured anthropologists Deborah Thomas, Janet Monge, and Christen Smith, as my unofficial conference kickoff event. During the moderated discussion, a recent incident involving the circulation of lynching images aimed at intimidating black freshmen came up and Smith, who works on anti-Black state violence in Brazil and the United States, urged attendees to consider the ways that the use of new technology to circulate these images was an instantiation of racial terror that, properly contextualized, could help us to think about the present moment as part of a long history that continues a spectacularly grotesque tradition.

This is the value that anthropological perspectives on our current moment can provide. I arrived in Minneapolis for the 2016 meetings expecting to see and hear scholars who I respect offer ways to apprehend the exhausting postelection moment in which we find ourselves. The anthros did not disappoint. Anthropologists working on structural violence, oppression, and social movements usefully reminded us that people are always trying to find ways to survive the state, that where there is death, there has always been life and organized pushback. The session “The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Anthropologists Reflect on What Just Happened,” cosponsored by the American Ethnological Society and the Society for the Anthropology of North America, was a useful touchpoint that reflected on the ways the state itself is peopled, emphasizing that the longue durée that brought us to this moment is worthy of scrutiny—including the role of the discipline in aiding and abetting some of the worst hegemonic forces at work—in order to conceive of new ways forward. Jonathan Rosa’s gesture toward insights from movements already in progress (at one point asking, “what might a citizenship of the Americas look like?”) was a particularly generative highlight.

I appreciated seeing fellow anthropologists hail various audiences in different spaces with their remarks: sometimes students and budding anthropologists, sometimes general publics, sometimes one another. Over the course of graduate school, I have observed a number of us sharing our insights beyond and outside the academic echo chamber. It is useful to see a way through a period that promises an increased incidence of hate speech, hate crimes, and acts of violence and oppression against all manner of marginalized and sociopolitically vulnerable people, in and beyond the United States, by connecting with anthropologists who have been committed to doing ethnographic work on how people make a way. Our histories, training, interlocutors, and colleagues tell us that this election is a hard right turn that links us to many others bracing for a potentially global spike in fascism—and perhaps creates new opportunities for theoretical and political alliances across borders.

In contrast to many others, I and my colleagues who participated in the roundtable “Towards An Unapologetically Black Anthropology: Reflections on Grief and Rage” did not radically reconfigure our conference remarks to reflect the postelection moment, because so many of us were already planning on a conversation about unapologetic blackness in the face of spectacular state violence. My fellow panelists and I talked through survival strategies in the midst of death, naming Renisha McBride, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines as we invoked our own vulnerabilities and the ways we push through: supporting students on campus as activists and in classrooms, participating in arts movements and committing to demonstrations and political action, being intentional about self-care practices.

Acknowledging the foundational scholars who laid the groundwork, uncelebrated, for a session like ours, Bianca Williams called for a moment of recognition in the room. Christen Smith named the stakes: “this session is a challenge to business as usual at the AAAs,” recounting the years when other scholars engaged in similar work had been shamed and sidelined for their unapologetic Blackness. “Some of us,” Smith noted, “have memory.” At their best, the annual meetings provide a link between putatively impossible sociopolitical moments like the election of Donald Trump to other, longer histories of impossibility. The work of Smith, Rosa, Williams, and so many others unearth the strategies we use to live, theorize, and work through impossibility, as crucial reminders that however (un)celebrated or (de)centered they may be, there are always folks in the field doing the work of pushing back against these repressive tides. Join us.