Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus Project, Week 16: Victor Kumar on James Baldwin, Margaret Mead and Ethnographic Approaches to Studying Race

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to relaunch the second semester of an 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, Victor Kumar discusses James Baldwin and Margaret Mead and Ethnographic Approaches to Studying Race.


Near the intended end of the party, my friend announced the peculiar reason for my being in America at the present time and invited the company to tell them their frank opinions on the Negro problem. For a moment a somewhat awkward silence descended upon our party, a queer feeling that our relation of human understanding was broken. (Myrdal 1944, 33)

Years ago, I had an unsettling experience while helping to teach a course on ethnographic methods. Focusing on the concept of neighborhood in Baltimore, the course was designed to train students in basic methods while at the same time honing their curiosity and ability to formulate anthropological questions. The goal was to give the sense of ethnography as, on the one hand, comprising longstanding and relatively stable procedures while, on the other, entailing a creative process that overturns and transforms itself as it moves along the contours of a field.

The semester was almost over before I realized that students were shying away from questions of race. The connection between race and neighborhood had been introduced in one of the first classes with a brief history of segregated housing (first by law, then covenant, then redlining). Yet, students had, in their fieldnotes and reports, been prepared to note race but not to explore it. The class was in danger of perpetuating the longstanding yet precarious truce that the “status quo” of the United States has had discussing issues of race. The omission is quite problematic for the study of Baltimore, a city in which race can be so readily seen working and playing, breathing the air, getting stuck in traffic, laughing, crying, praying, and doing its laundry. Coming into that semester, in the spring of 2014, the events of Ferguson were still very visceral for me. It would be only a handful of months before Freddie Gray would die while in the custody of the Baltimore city police.

I brought my concerns to the professors co-teaching the course and they made a class available for me to explicitly open up questions of race and blackness. I cannot speak to what the students learned, but for myself, the experience set in my mind the advantage of teaching race and ethnographic methods together. It also reminded me that anthropological field methods have been attuned to questions of race for most of their history.

A few months after the course, these issues returned as I helped to train fieldworkers for a study on interactions between the police and sex workers, a field loaded with not just concerns of race but simultaneously of class and gender. Initially, I was concerned with how little time I had to prepare a study team of which only one other member had experience with ethnographic methods. Yet, they took to the approach almost effortlessly and the study quickly started to accumulate an impressive body of fieldnotes. It was as if they had long been carrying and developing an ethnographic impulse, waiting for the opportunity to harness it. The experience reinforced for me how the breaking of silences and inattentions forced on race (and class and gender) can be just as important to ethnographic pedagogy as providing new observational instruments or analytic lexicons.

It has been long and well acknowledged that part of ethnography’s power lies in its ability to transform the fieldworker, to establish new modes of judgment and experience. I want to focus on one route to this transformation especially salient in explorations of race: the power to grant permission. The humanizing and celebratory notions that underlie the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as racial consciousness movements of other places and historical moments) can be inspirational in this regard. For all the cues that enforce an awkward silence or demand blind assertions on the issue of black life, ethnography permits attention unapologetic in its intensity. Ethnographic methodology makes race available to speak, feel, manipulate, and even play with in novel ways. There is a history here: it is no coincidence, I think, that the ever spirited Zora Neale Hurston begins her groundbreaking ethnography Of Mules and Men with the declaration: “I was glad when somebody told me, ‘You may go and collect Negro folklore’” (2009, 1 emphasis mine). I would guess that the permission cited came from Franz Boas but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

When Hurston credits the “spy-glass of Anthropology” with her ability to see her own “negroism,” she points to a deep resonance between racial consciousness, born of activism and social justice, and anthropological methods of attention. The connection is more than historical since both dispositions provide means for describing and addressing complex social realities. What I would suggest then are ways of using one to inform the other. In practice, this would mean not just setting particular forms of activism or racialized modes of policing as objects of inquiry but of making sure that when students are trained in tools of ethnography that they have an attention to something like black life ready at hand.

The anthropological archive can offer some assistance. It is easily forgotten that, in his foremost collection of essays, Boas (1940) gives race top billing. Segregationists and racial supremacists took great pains to refute Boas when he produced “by far the ablest plea yet made for the ‘backward races’” (Smith 1905, 111). Much of the weight of this plea lay in Boas’ near obsession with proper method and evidence, an approach smartly captured by Hurston (1996).

Away from his office, Dr. Boas is full of youth and fun, and abhors dull, stodgy arguments. Get to the point is his idea. Don’t raise a point which you cannot defend. He wants facts, not guesses, and he can pin you down so expertly that you soon lose the habit of talking all over your face. Either that, or you leave off Anthropology. (Hurston 1996, 152)

Ethnography may provide permission but it is not a blank check. The insight of its creative expression finds its most supportive root in evidence. We need not read Boas’ essays on race for their conclusions. The methods and measures they bring to bear can be informative, too. As important seem to be the methods he seeks to leave behind. His arguments made a huge impression on the racial burden of anthropometry for instance.

My point is that these erstwhile issues of anthropological history and theory could be methodological instead. The same holds true for modes of argument. Movements for racial justice have long offered ideas of what constitutes evidence or how we assess its value.

“Now, this is the evidence” James Baldwin asserts. Is this not a clear and succinct example of how claims and evidence should be mutually organized in anthropology too?

Further evidence that Baldwin can speak deftly to anthropology is on grand display in A Rap on Race (1973), a transcribed set of conversations he had with Margret Mead in 1970. I have long been intrigued by the twists and turns of this text. It carries a sense of profound terror and injustice in an almost whimsical manner. Baldwin and Mead play off of each other like two veteran storytellers who haven’t decided if they are putting the children to bed or scaring them around the campfire. The result is a circuitous tale that follows the path of race to many ends of human existence: experiences of selfhood and estrangement, gender and sexuality, politics, literature, the everyday and the extraordinary. Race appears here not as an object in the world but as an approach, an opening through which so much of life can and often does pass. As a work of theory, the book falls flat but as material for the exercise of method, it excels. The conversation takes so many twists and turns, some passage or turn of phrase is bound to resonate with the reader. If nothing else, it is an invitation to break the awkward silence and explore what race is doing here.

The reminder has been helpful for me in my experience studying policing. When speaking in the political or structural level, it makes sense to identify racialized policing practices and the way they target blackness and exploit its association with danger and vulnerability. Ethnographically however, all policing practices can appear racialized because, especially in a city like Baltimore, race can appear in any of them. The identity and experience of being black may congregate most readily around techniques like stop and frisk but this should not overshadow their presence elsewhere. Race does not infuse everything but attention to it can take us anywhere.

Works cited (in order):

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Of Mules and Men. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940.

Smith, William Benjamin. The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn. New York: McClure, Philips & Co, 1905.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996.

Mead, Margaret, and James Baldwin. A Rap on Race. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co, 1971.

Victor Kumar is a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He is currently writing a dissertation that explores the therapeutic work of experience for acupuncture practice in the United States. For the past few years, he has been a research assistant and fieldworker for the SAPPHIRE study (Sex-workers And Police Promoting Health In Risky Environments) at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He is also fairly good at keeping a straight face.

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