By Zachary Mondesire (UCLA)

The mood that Ryan Jobson captures in his 2019 annual review in American Anthropologist resonated with me. I too felt the frustration he recounts in the social media posts of Karen Nakamura, Zoe Todd, and others who participated in the 2018 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The gestures of the discipline’s “ritual self-flagellation” feel increasingly empty. They feel less as steps forward and more as strategies of liberal niceness that diffuse Black and radical anger by dissolving the grounds on which we can articulate our exasperation (Jobson 2020, 260). I empathize with the impatience for action as an anthropologist within the discipline’s growing Black community (African, North American European). What else might one suggest other than to let anthropology burn, amid the racialized exclusions and professionalizing obstacles that characterize the liberal academy? In response to Jobson’s call for a new radical humanism, I want to explore the political possibilities presented by histories of Black internationalism, for the formulation of an emancipatory ethnographic praxis that compels us to think with communities beyond the conservative spaces of professionalized anthropology.

In making the case to let anthropology burn, Jobson grapples with the discipline’s lingering confinement within liberal humanism and its inability to adequately contend with its entrenchment within settler colonialism and chattel slavery. The problem of the anthropological “field” resurfaces as Jobson thinks with Savannah Shange’s (2019, 9) insistence that while carrying out anthropological fieldwork, we must always keep “another set of fields” in view, as the “cotton, cane, tobacco, and rice” fields continue to echo powerfully in the current moment. Undoubtedly, we must continually contend with the coloniality of “the field” as a means to ideologically and physically cleave intractable difference between the site from which information is extracted from human subjects and the site in which human experts synthesize that information (D’Amico-Samuels 1997; Scott 1989; Visweswaran 1994). Jobson’s call for a “patchy anthropology” helps us to think ecologically, upward from the land itself; the patch accounts for relationality and permeability and rejects the boundaries of property, whether they surround the plantation or the nation-state. Indeed, this approach remains “deeply attentive to the specificities of place aided by long-term fieldwork,” which enables us to unthink our “possessive claim” over our ostensibly hermetic fieldsites (Jobson 2020, 263).

I read the subsequent conversation between Lucia Cantero, Ryan Jobson, and Kamari Clarke after listening to an Intercepted podcast featuring the historian Gerald Horne, who recounted the life and politics of Paul Robeson. I processed the interview with Horne in the midst of Sudan’s political transition because I have been based in Khartoum, Sudan, for the past year conducting research. Here, I have built community, engaged, theorized, and read with dissident South Sudanese men and women in exile. If I had not engaged Jobson’s arguments in this specific context, I would not necessarily have processed my own emplacement in the tradition of Black thinkers who have traveled to learn from, and build with, political struggles elsewhere. The Intercepted interview included excerpts from Robeson’s 1948 testimony to the US Senate on the Mundt-Nixon bill, also known as the Subversive Activities Control Act, which required all members of the Communist Party of the United States of America to register with the US attorney general. During his testimony, Robeson recounted his time in Russia (as so many mid-century US Black thinkers and artists described their experience of race elsewhere in the world) as a near utopia. “I found in Russia a complete absence of race prejudice, a complete absence. It was the first time in my life, senator, that I was able to walk the earth with complete dignity as a human being.” We know, more than a half-century later, that various patterns of racism exist globally and that the celebrity of figures like Robeson undoubtedly affected their experience of race outside of the United States. Later in the Senate hearing, the inquiring senator asked Robeson about the essence of communism in the United States and the Soviet Union. In an answer that compelled the conversation towards a response that did in fact attend to the spirit of communism, Robeson asked, “What is an American today? . . . We are no longer Americans. . . . We as Americans today are in a war of some kind of world struggle in which we are no longer Americans, we are a part of the World.” Internationalizing “American” in this way, he highlighted one of the fundamental elements of American exceptionalism: that we are a world apart; that there is no substantive analogy either for our success or for our suffering.

Horne positioned Robeson as the precursor to later Black radical thinkers, namely Malcolm X, who indicted the United States for the genocide of the descendants of enslaved Africans. We witnessed renewed attention to Malcolm X’s experience of travel in the latter years of his life, in the context of the international insurrection following the police killing of George Floyd. What seems to motivate those who continue to draw attention to Malcolm X’s journeys is the desire to build awareness of the central role of travel in the construction of his internationalist politics of freedom.

This brief historical exploration balances unsteadily on the overly romantic and risks contributing to the overrepresentation of men and the patriarchy of an elite vanguard of revolutionary leadership (Carby 1998; James 1997; Stephens 2005). Generations of Black women activists, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Claudia Jones, Garvin, Assata Shakur, and others have insisted on the foundational role of internationalism in shaping feminist, communist, transnational, and Pan-Africanist stances which animate the praxis of militant radical agency and world revolution.

Bringing together the internationalism of the Black radical tradition with question of anthropology’s “fieldwork” generates a series of questions. Does professional anthropology have a possessive monopoly on going to new places, engaging in debates, and listening deeply to communities other than one’s own? What if our anthropological journey is not simply linked to data collection but, to paraphrase the words of so many radical thinkers, a respite from the battle for our humanity within the machine of United States settler society? What can we gain from internationalizing our understanding of the geographies that matter in urgent global crises in addition to internationalizing questions domestic to the United States? What lessons can we learn from the Black Radical Tradition of intellectual and political journeys that labored across multiple contexts of dispossession and accumulation? How might those anthropologists who identify with this tradition as structuring both their political commitments and social scientific modes of inquiry practice the essential task of anthropology, which is to journey to “the field” and back?

The answers to these questions have substantive political stakes. The position of many self-identified Black radical social scientists has become increasingly self-satisfied as we have followed our academic training to the logical conclusion of political disengagement and resign ourselves to wait for the end of the world. While the vanguards of contemporary US-based Afro-pessimism usher the US academy towards ontological debates and structural claims about our racialized modernity, the tangible and varying political transformations of contemporary Africa, and the rest of the postcolonial world, continue to unfold. It is striking that the historical anthropology which undergirds concepts like “social death” has not led to an embrace of the political horizons enabled by long-term ethnographic engagement across multiple domains.

Over the past decade, antigovernment demonstrations have erupted and re-erupted in Algeria, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Mali, Hong Kong, India, and elsewhere. Despite our efforts to decolonize our discipline, we have not succeeded in providing ethnographic analysis of uprisings setting fire to the very institutional remnants of the coloniality that professional anthropology helped produce. How might we engage with, learn from, and mourn the lives lost in the course of such movements? The centrality of Africa in the “global wave of protest” shaping the twenty-first century (Branch and Mampilly 2015, 201) draws attention to the myriad ways people are forming political positions and identities against the ways the state is dismantling them. In this framing, the “fieldsite” does not only house yet-to-be-collected data; it is an important site of solidarity, connection, and debate.

Without a practice of theory attendant to consequences beyond its own experts, intellectual foundations, and funding sources, we in the US academy are left with the tyranny of reflexivity in which our ideations, however well intentioned, harness the same global expansionism as every other element of US hegemony. The primary means of atonement for anthropology’s original sin seems to be a geographical turn inward, on itself, to examine the ongoing crime of settler colonialism, US police violence (often decontextualized from its own participation in the world market for technologies of war), or, in recent years, the growing interest in what Cedric Robinson ([1983] 2000) referred to as racial capitalism. As a consequence, we tend to fall short fail of deconstructing the historiography of how assemblages of accumulation, accounting, dispossession, and fungibility shape our world and instead position both “race” and “capitalism” as internally consistent social facts that seem at once ahistorical and transhistorical. That is to say, while rupturing disciplinary boundaries, we seem to be fortifying the national parameters of what matters. We have chosen the inward gaze as a path to methodologies irreverent of norms rather than unsettling the project of the anthropological journey itself. A step toward such reclaiming is to recast the mobility of the anthropologist within the long tradition of radicalizing journeys foundational to the substantive activism, archival (de)construction, and militant pedagogical practice that shape the broader Black radical project.

Anthropologists have long critiqued the ostensible discontinuities between bounded spaces (Gupta and Ferguson 1992) and the incarceration of the Native in their ethnic homeland (Appadurai 1988). Visweswaran (1994) led us to think about the practice of “homework” rather than “fieldwork” in the effort to put “anthropology in reverse” and thus to unsettle the entrenchment of knowledge production in the West. Such critiques have left a rightful and lasting blemish on the utterance of “the field” in contemporary anthropology and the practice of fieldwork in the elsewheres of where we condense capital and value. The genre of anthropology’s auto-critique has long targeted the othering of people and space through the location of knowledge production, expertise, and social theory itself in North America and Western Europe. The question is whether substantive change accompanies the guilt of the liberal academic’s growing cognizance of their complicity in the discipline of the university.

To be sure, I have a visceral reaction to hearing or uttering “the field” in the conversational spaces of professional anthropology. It feels impossible to overcome the coloniality imbued in the term and the project it implies. Fieldwork nevertheless has the potential to produce new and broader commitments to communal struggles against state violence as well as transnational global coalitions. How might “going to the field” in sites beyond the United States differ for the radical—in Fred Moten’s (2008, 177) sense as a “general critique of the proper”—anthropologist? Keisha- Khan Perry (2013) discusses the epistemological importance of the embodied experience of being a Black woman in Brazil. This generated new perspectives regarding past literature on Brazil’s “racial democracy” and her understanding of how gendered and racialized activism operate both globally and in the domestic contexts of her “field-site.” In her ethnography of activists in Guadeloupe, Yarimar Bonilla (2015, xii) foregrounds her own lived experience of the “sovereignty problem” in Puerto Rico, in how “we hold out our passports with a shaky hand.” This embodied understanding of the complexity of sovereignty informed her engagement with French Caribbean activists past and present. It perhaps goes without saying that sociocultural anthropologists, in particular, are well aware of the entanglement of the personal with both the political and the object of study. Yet it is important to clarify that this recasting of the journey to the field in relation to the Black radical tradition of internationalism is not simply a means to a bourgeois, university-funded, masculinized process of professional self-discovery through travel. It is a means to divest from anthropology’s monopoly on the lived experience of travel and long-term engagement with communities such that we reckon with their substantive and embodied political horizons. Rethinking the field in this way can be in a step in the direction of unraveling anthropology’s founding myths such that we starve the cyclical fires of their fuel by expanding the political possibilities of ethnography through the dislocations of fieldwork.


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