Disruption at the Center: Disability Anthropology and Black Feminist Research-Creation
From the Series: Disability as Rupture
From the Series: Disability as Rupture
When the growing unruliness of my body was diagnosed as a genetic connective tissue disorder the year after I received tenure, I released the narrative through-line of my career as a political-legal anthropologist of South Asia. With severely limited travel options, growing impairment, and severe chronic pain, I had to acknowledge that the conditions in which I was working as an ethnographer had been dramatically disrupted. I would have to seek out new ways of doing ethnography and mobilize these new methods in the spaces where I often found myself: the waiting rooms of medical offices in Central Coast California, treatment centers in Baltimore, my living room couch. I would try to figure out the work of a disabled, housebound ethnographer, a term that I, like a handful of other disabled anthropologists, used ruefully before it became a pandemic commonplace.
To grapple with some of the conundrums that this new ethnographic orientation produced, I found myself turning to questions of personal history and identity: I am a writer who, as a former dancer, is very attached to her body. Whatever else I had experienced, studied, or taught over the previous twenty years, writing and dancing had been with me since my earliest memory. There might be some value in using my particular disposition, coupled with all that anthropological training, to render what I was learning about how people are demanding medical care and disability justice. To make my way forward, I was going to return to both writing and the arts and create work for very different ends. My body would be deeply implicated in the research and its expression.
In addition to all kinds of ethical and aesthetic challenges posed by autoethnography, there is also a clear epistemological one: at the center of my new project were all the things I knew without knowing how I knew them because I knew them in my body. How could that knowledge find a place within the confines of conventional ethnography? There is a remarkable tradition of sick and disabled anthropologists writing about their own impairment and physical deterioration (one classic being Robert Murphy’s The Body Silent [2001 (1987)]), but many of these texts struck me as being about the body rather than of the body. I was striving for greater immediacy; texts that were closer to the bone. They also mostly still happened in the genre of the conventional monograph, which seemed to be only one way to approach the challenge of conveying aspects of life in a rapidly shifting body.
I turned to another genealogy of thought (and movement and poetics) for models of a sensate autoethnography: that of Black feminist anthropology, where disruption is at the center of embodied practice. As many Black feminists have noted, the marked, Black body disrupts the field of anthropology, with its presumed, unmarked Whiteness. The presence of Black feminist researchers in “the field” is always preceded by linked, transnational histories of racism and liberation struggle (Brown-Vincent 2019).
Thinking “disruption at the center” draws attention to “corporeal epistemology,” in which the disrupted/disruptive body is always centered as a source for knowledge (Kondo 2018). This notion challenges conventional understandings of where knowledge comes from and how it is made; the body can also rattle or dance. Black feminist anthropology offers methodological models that are hugely instructive when working in disability anthropology; enlivening both in the same frame seems an important enabling condition for intersectional analysis in the discipline.
Zora Neale Hurston, sidelined in mainstream (read: White) anthropology as an ethnographer and theorist (if now celebrated but often under-read as a writer), provides rich offerings in this regard. Hurston disrupted the conventional practice of ethnography by putting her body on the line to a far greater extent than is suggested by the notion of “participant observer.” In Part II of Mules and Men, for instance, Hurston traces what Naya Jones (2021) calls the “conjure geographies” of Hoodoo in New Orleans. She knew that these particular Black geographies must be approached and rendered through a “felt sense,” ways of knowing and building relationality with others that register in embodied sensory experiences as well as in dreams (Jones 2019). Hurston’s method involved becoming a pupil of Luke Turner, a descendent of Marie Laveau, which included a final three-day rite in which Hurston remained lying face down on a sofa, fasting, in a “search for the spirit that he might accept me or reject me according to his will” (Hurston 1970, 245). That Hurston does not divulge the occult knowledge this experience affords her, her “five psychic experiences” (246), is another important ethnographic disruption — that of refusal (Shange 2019). But the other key point here is that the framing questions for Hurston were always forged in and through a deep relationship to the rich corpus of music, dance, and folklore of survivance and political resistance of Black communities (McClaurin 2001). Because she did not draw stark lines between the ethnographic “real” and the sensed, dreamed, or imagined (Jones 2019), a particular form might seem more conducive to her aims than others. Similarly, and during the same era, Katherine Dunham was also developing an amazing, embodied research and performance practice. The work of Hurston, Dunham, and others who embraced embodied research practices continues to influence generations of scholar-artists (Chin 2014).
The more I focus on the “felt sense” of unruly connective tissue and its neuro-muscular manifestations, for myself and for others, the less I begin with an idea of what, exactly, I will be creating. In the last four years I have created a one-act play, a few short stories, several works of creative non-fiction, a short autoethnographic documentary film, and I have begun a screenplay. I might even go as far as to say that disruption at the center has become my method, by which I mean that my inciting question is “Where does this knowledge register in my body and who might be served in the attempt to give it form?” I firmly believe that we can have as many anthropologies as we have anthropologists and that none of our disciplinary aims of openness, communication, and the possibilities of always-imperfect understanding are served through border-policing practices that wed us to one kind of object or method. But those who have not been at the center will likely have to lead the way.
Brown-Vincent, Layla D. 2019. “Seeing It for Wearing It: Autoethnography as Black Feminist Methodology.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education 181: 109–25.
Chin, Elizabeth. 2014. Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures. Santa Fe, N.M.: School for Advanced Research Press.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1970. Mules and Men. New York: Harper & Row.
Jones, Naya. 2019. “Dying to Eat? Black Food Geographies of Slow Violence and Resilience.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 18, no. 5: 1076–1099.
Jones, Naya. 2021. “Conjure Geographies, Covid-19, and Healing Futures.” Talk delivered at Center for Cultural Studies, UC Santa Cruz, February 10.
Kondo, Dorinne K. 2018. Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
McClaurin, Irma. 2001. Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Murphy, Robert. 2001 . The Body Silent: The Different World of the Disabled. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.