Findings: Part 1 from Issue 3 of Anthropology Now

CUNY Graduate School Student Collective:

Akissi Britton, Risa Cromer, Chris Grove, Carwil James, Martha Lincoln, Michael Polson, Sophie Statzel, John Warner

This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.

In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.

Retracing Histories of Race

Jemima Pierre. 2009. “Beyond Heritage Tourism: Race and the Politics of African-Diasporic Interactions.” Social Text 27(1 98): 59–81.

Many hope that Barack Obama’s election points to a “postracial” age. However, lingering histories of racism were on the minds of many as Obama visited the West African nation of Ghana this summer. Ghana’s historic role as the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence and its Elmina slave castle make it a premier site for diaspora tourism. As the first African American president of the United States, Obama’s first official “return” trip to sub-Saharan Africa is tremendously symbolic—not only for African Americans (and other Blacks in the African Diaspora)—but for continental Black Africans too. Indeed, while it is often imagined that race only has significance in the United States and the African Diaspora, Jemima Pierre reminds us that race has been central to self-understanding for continental Africans.

In her article “Beyond Heritage Tourism: Race and the Politics of African Diasporic Interactions,” Pierre uses Ghana’s booming heritage tourism industry (one avenue that facilitates interaction between Africans and
Diaspora Blacks) as a point of departure. She adeptly argues that to comprehend Ghanaians’ history and self-understanding, one must understand the country’s complicated racial history. Africa is not just a land of “ethnic conflicts” or “indigenous cultural traditions,” but it is also shaped by conceptions of race and related racial dynamics and tensions—dimensions many social commentators avoid. A focus on “ethnicity”
and “nation” alone fail to consider how Africa, as well as local events in Ghana, relate to global inequalities and power imbalances that rely on race and racism.

Similarly, the diaspora cannot continue to be construed as a privileged site of racial understandings—race has a long and complex history in Ghana, via slavery, colonialism, development, Cold War politics, and pan-Africanist movements. This history is marked by local, continental, and global socioeconomic hierarchies that shape Ghanaian experiences in ways similar to those of Blacks throughout the diaspora (62). Heritage or “roots tourism” is often viewed as a harmful imposition of “racial” ideologies upon an apparently nonracial Ghanaian public. This ignores the history of race within Ghana. Ghanaians have lived and are living within a cosmopolitan society, whose commercial and political interactions connect them to global ideas about race. As Obama follows the “return” route of so many diasporic Blacks to Ghana, Pierre reminds us that this doesn’t simply hold significance in the United States but has a real—and racial—importance in contemporary continental Africa. Indeed, this importance has roots in a long history of African interactions with its diaspora amid shifting global hierarchies.

Akissi Britton

Caring about Dementia

Janelle S. Taylor. 2008. “On Recognition, Caring, and Dementia.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 22(4): 313–35.

Like millions of Americans caring for aging parents, anthropologist Janelle S. Taylor is the primary caretaker for her mother, who lives with dementia. Taylor reflects on the question that sympathetic friends always
seem to be asking: “Does she recognize you?” These queries about her mother’s memory encourage Taylor to explore a larger social phenomenon: “Why is it apparently so difficult for people to ‘recognize’—
as a friend, as a person, as even being alive—someone who, because of
dementia, can no longer keep names straight?” Taylor asks. “How does the turning away of friends, at the level of personal networks, relate to processes of ’social death,’ social exclusion, and abandonment of people with dementia on a broader level? In short, how do questions of ‘recognition’ in its narrowly cognitive sense get implicated in the ’politics of recognition’ on a broader scale?” (324–325).

This second meaning of “recognition” is the one raised by political movements working to achieve official governmental acknowledgement, including movements to legalize gay marriage. “Recognition politics” movements aim beyond pragmatic goals to seek social recognition for their members and thus a sense of legitimacy or selfhood. But as Taylor notes, dementia complicates key assumptions of recognition politics. She explores how claims to social and political recognition are often linked to
cognitive capacity, the ability to “recognize” people and things. How then can people such as Taylor’s mother retain social visibility in an age of recognition politics and popular horror stories about “losing” a loved one to dementia? Taylor argues for a new politics of recognition that would let people such as her mother retain their social visibility as caring—and cared for—individuals.

In the 1990s, a movement began within medical institutions that championed a humanist concern for recognizing the essence of the person within dementia, or what other anthropologists of senility describe as the “personhood turn.” This movement resists the treatment of people with dementia as “socially dead”—an idea that links personhood to cognitive capacity. Taylor shares this movement’s concern, but she suggests that we think about personhood not as something one has, like an essence or a capacity, but as something defined through social interactions, such as caring and relating. She cites memoirs from adult caretakers and personal memories of afternoons spent with her mother to illustrate ways to relate to, and thus “recognize,” people with dementia. For example, Taylor describes instances that might be interpreted as her
mother’s failure to follow social norms, such as her hyper-attentiveness to neatness, as ways her mother “cares back.” This alternative approach offers ways to see and care anew. For elderly people who suffer from
dementia, Taylor’s proposal for a new politics of recognition offers personal evidence to affirm how caring is a political and regenerative
act.

Risa Cromer

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