Image from projects.bettergov.org
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.
As I walked towards the Mother Emmanuel Church I found myself counting every step I took, part of me didn’t want to arrive. On June 19th I took a morning bus to Charleston, South Carolina, two days after a self-described white supremacist walked into the historic black church of AME Mother Emmanuel and, after sitting in for an hour of bible study, murdered nine black churchgoers. Reverend and Senator Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend and Doctor Daniel L Simmons Sr., Ethel Lance, Myra Thompson, and Susie Jackson were gunned down on the evening of June 17, 2015. The shooter was able to reload five times during the attack, prompting gun rights activists and some black faith communities to argue that having a firearm within the church’s premise could have prevented the attack, while President Obama spoke in the immediate aftermath, saying that “once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”