Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, Week 4: Gina Athena Ulysse on “Race: The Power of an Illusion”

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to present the latest entry in on ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice.  You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed.   In this entry, Gina Athens Ulysse discusses the film series “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”


Oh Those Savages in America’s Story of Race

The Race: Are We So Different? project is, by far, the most valuable teaching tool created by the American Anthropological Association. It contains an exhibition that travels the country and a comprehensive detailed interactive website, and “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”  There is also a related three-part documentary from California Newsreel: 1) “The Difference Between Us;” 2) “The Story We Tell;” and 3) “The House We Live In.” Each segment deconstructs this idea of race from biological, social science, cultural studies, and public policy perspectives.

The second part, which I use in classes, never fails to amaze students unless they had a particularly progressive preparatory education. It asks them to first recognize how and why this story was created, and also to confront the omissions to which we have become too accustomed. Lately, the increase in revisionist history and absence of critical inquiry in middle and high schools has meant more students are flabbergasted by “The Story We Tell.”

I teach at an historically white institution, where students (across the board) are too at ease saying that race is socially constructed, without knowing what that actually means. My aim is to take them on a journey to unpack this notion by paying particular attention to: 1) the making of this narrative and the rise of academic disciplines; 2) changes in social structure and the language of racial classifications in relation to power; and 3) the multiple meanings/significations of racial difference concomitant to capital signs.

In a sweeping 57 minutes, the historical development of this idea of race is chronologically developed to explicate it as a method to justify the rationalization of slavery, as well as the dispossession of Native peoples and their conquest by whites. Along the way, it weaves a compelling narrative that explores the role of evolutionary theory, scientific racism, and the making of Manifest Destiny and American Imperialism. The documentary surveys the Trail of Tears and the Mexican-American War, as it ponders upon the significance of the “race question” vis-à-vis the value of whiteness and the White Man’s Burden.

Over the years, I have repeatedly heard variations of “I had no idea”; “It’s not black and white”; “This wasn’t even a sidebar in my textbook”; “Never thought of all these connections. OMG! It’s all one big story.”

Yes, it is.

I keep it old school, depending on the course and level, they had been assigned brief excerpts from Lee D. Baker’s From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race (1998), Stuart Hall’s Race the Floating Signifier (1997) Cheryl I. Harris’ “Whiteness as Property” (1991), Faye V. Harrison’s “The Persistent Power of Race in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism” (1991), Ian F. Lopez’s “The Social Construction of Race” (1994) Arlene Torres and Norman Whitten’s Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean (1998) and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (1995), or other texts.  My aim is not to inundate or overwhelm. Rather, I seek to cultivate enough sustained curiosity to recognize as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, “There is no Savage Slot”. America’s story of race is riddled with “partial truths” and narrative breaks that certainly beg further interrogation and must be filled in.

A Quibbling Intervention

Seventeen minutes into the film (at 16:55 to be exact), the narrative turns to U.S. territorial expansion due to the Louisiana Purchase from France. There is no mention or reference to the Haitian Revolution or its impact, which caused Napoleon to get rid of this territory. I often bring this to students’ attention.


After students’ feedback, I usually return to the quote from Robin D.G. Kelley, “Race was never just a matter of how you look, it is about how people ascribe meaning to how you look.” I ask them to think of recent moments that provide examples of this. They do not disappoint: “Being profiled while shopping”; “The hoodie is not the same for every body”; “Check out Key and Peele”; “When police are engaging minorities, why is the default to shoot first?”

In recent years, it has become more challenging to hold classroom discussions around race. This unit is usually a couple weeks into the semester as dynamics are still setting, so with their active presence, constructive engagement is possible. I try to approach this unit as a meditation. After years of teaching, I am only too aware of what it means to make this intervention in their thinking given the body that I am in. And depending on their readiness, things can get tough with the backlash.

As I wrote this entry last week, the importance of this project was accentuated by the super PAC strategist, Alex Castellanos’ social limits, “There is an Otherness to this President…” he said on Meet the Press.  On Twitter, my response was restricted to a mere 140 characters, I quoted Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “There is no Other, but multitudes of others who are all others for different reasons, in spite of totalizing narratives, including that of capital” (2003:27).

This brings me back to my favorite segment (41:00) with historian James Horton, 

“If America had looked the world in the eye and said we hold these people in slavery because we need their labor and we’ve got the power to do it. That would have been much better because when the power was gone when slavery is over, it’s over! But what we said was there is something about these people, by doing it means when slavery is over, the rationalization remains…”

If only we had told a different story, indeed!


Race: The Power of an Illusion.  2003. California Newsreel.

Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race (1998),

Stuart Hall Race the Floating Signifier (1997)

Cheryl I. Harris “Whiteness as Property” (1991),

Faye V. Harrison “The Persistent Power of Race in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism” (1991)

Ian F. Lopez “The Social Construction of Race” (1994)

Arlene Torres and Norman Whitten Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean (1998)

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (1995),

—- “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” (1991)

Gina Athena Ulysse is a feminist artist-anthropologist-activist known both for her spoken word performance and her ethnographic sensibility. She is Professor of Anthropology at Wesleyan University, and the author of Downtown Ladies, an ethnography on Jamaican informal Commercial Importers and Why Haiti Needs New Narratives. She considers her spoken word pieces to be “alter(ed)native” forms of ethnography. She weaves history, statistics, personal narrative, theory and Vodou together in her art in order to address social (in)justice, intersectional identities, spirituality and the dehumanization of Haitians and other marked bodies. Her next book, Because When God Is Too Busy: Haiti, me & THE WORLD, a collection of poetry, performance texts and photographs will be dropping Feb 2017.  You can follow her on Twitter or at her personal website



3 thoughts on “The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, Week 4: Gina Athena Ulysse on “Race: The Power of an Illusion”

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