Light Struck: On Stories, Art, and Work among the Broken Pieces

I was weary when I set out for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), and wearier still when I arrived. I had been excited to give what would have been the first paper coming out of my Spencer Foundation–supported Gender Moxie Project, an arts-based ethnography of transgender children’s experiences in home and school contexts. But I couldn’t give the paper as planned after the results of the U.S. election, out of concerns for timeliness, relevance, and of course, fear. I feared that the seismic shift that had occurred would disappear the world of overwhelmingly positive participant experiences I was prepared to share; it was as if I had been in the process of developing photographs in a darkroom and suddenly the door had been thrust open and the emerging images light-struck, fading before I could even view them fully.

Like many others at the conference, I abandoned my paper. What follows is the brief statement I read instead:

I’m going to be honest and say that what I’ve prepared for today is not the advertised academic paper. I am not going to tell you that everything will be okay, because it won’t. The machine is broken; indeed, it always has been. But I am an artist, and I know that victory begins with the courage to be broken and to work with brokenness. To quote Leonard Cohen, of blessed memory: “Ring the bells that can still ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

After much thought, what I am giving you instead of the paper I had planned are three things artists and anthropologists must do in the harshly illuminated, still-broken world.

Do Your Work

My grandmother, who taught in some of the first integrated elementary schools in Mississippi, never despaired at the thought of the hard days ahead. “I have never been afraid,” she once told me, “because I know I can work.” Our work as anthropologists gives us the tools to counter fear through systematic illumination. It may mean reinvesting in reflexive processes, concentrating on decolonizing our work and deeply examining the methods we employ. My own work with the Gender Moxie Project can only benefit from continued reflection upon the ways in which fear generates adultist nostalgia, and how pity perpetuates the construction of children as cute, passive victims tossed on the tides of adult dealings like hapless rag dolls. They are not.

The title of my original paper came from an observation I made as part of the study. So, before I get too much further into delivering this nonpaper, here is that story. This conversation took place as a group of second-graders sat on the little rug, packing up their backpacks to go home. Greta is a seven-year-old trans girl.

Greta (out of the blue and loudly, to be heard above the noise of everyone chatting and packing): Did you know that my neighbor is transgender like me?

Students (stopping and giving Greta their attention): Really?

Greta: Yes. Her name is Phoebe.

Another student: Is she a boy or a girl?

Greta: Well, she used to be a girl but now she is a boy. That is the opposite of me. I was a boy when I was born, but really I am a girl.

The same student: How does that happen? It's not like a fairy comes down and says, “Poof! Now you are a girl.”

Greta: No, it’s not like that. I wanted to be a girl, so now I am. Look (pointing at her self-portrait on the wall), that is me.

Students: Oh. (They turn their attention back to packing.) Ms. Smith, can you please read aloud a little bit before the bell rings . . .

Young children are clever, strategic, and resistant actors. They are the original guerrilla artists. They are able to construct powerful and imaginative narratives to respond with creativity and humor to inquisitive others and their own identities. There is no magic. There is no fear, no panicked lies. Greta draws herself as herself. Because she is a girl. And she references her artwork on the wall, and art makes it true.

Greta's self-portrait
Greta’s self-portrait. Image courtesy of the Gender Moxie Project.

Tell Your Stories

The personal continues to be more political than ever. On the Wednesday after the election, I pulled all three of my children out of school and took them to apply for passports. On Thursday, I considered telling my ten-year-old that she shouldn’t wear her shiny, silver Star of David necklace because someone painted “Gas the Jews” on a mountainside ten miles from our home. On Friday, my husband and I began the process of legally changing my transgender eight-year-old’s name and gender, as our local legislators and our attorney told us we had no time to lose. My husband and I probably would not have taken this step for years to come had we not been forced to pre-emptively outmaneuver a demonstrably transphobic incoming president. I am angry, and I will keep telling this story, especially to other middle-class white people who tell me that everything will be fine. I will tell it even louder when they ask me to be nice or suggest that it is unbecoming to talk about politics at the dinner table, or that I am making people uncomfortable.

Make Art

I was an artist before I was an ethnographer. Artist-researchers in academia sometimes end up in the margins, doing work that is considered by some to be a frill or else not real science, interesting but nonessential and not a good fit for some tenure and promotion files. Thank goodness, because now we are practiced at living in the margins, and we know how to work and thrive there. Welcome to the margins, those of you who may, until recently, have been unfamiliar with the experience. “Only in the margins does growth occur,”  writes Joanna Russ (1983, 129). The arts have a long history of truth-telling and resistance from these fertile margins, from Otpor to the Yes Men, Masasit MatiOne Million Bones, and countless others. I am an artist. You are an artist. Artists wield truth in images, in words, in humor and the absurdity of unruly politics. Artists confound those who would make us afraid using the broken pieces of their own creations. Arts-based ethnography combines the tools of anthropology with creative cultural resistance. Art has unique world-making power. Art fights for us. Just ask Greta.

Reference

Russ, Joanna. 1983. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press.