Statement of Purpose Keywords:
Transnationalism, Memory and Africa | Afro-Diaspora
On a balmy October night in 2014, I spontaneously hopped into one of Accra's trademark yellow and blue taxis with three friends for a night of music and merriment at Alliance Française. I was on exchange in Ghana at Ashesi University and had invited my friends to spend mid-semester break with me at my grandmother's house in Accra. As the pulsating and infectious beats of the legendary Ga music ensemble, Wulomei filled the walled compound, my eyes wandered around. It was a visual smorgasbord, with an array of beautiful brown women and men, immaculately and eclectically dressed, some with piercings and tattoos, which is quite unusual in the Ghanaian context. Their aesthetic sensibilities were diverse, but oddly complementary of one another, as though they were predestined to inhabit this space together on this night and create a beautiful, cosmopolitan collage. Their demeanor and self-presentation exuded a defiant self-assuredness that piqued our interest. “They must be returnees,” one of my friends explained.
Returnees, I would come to learn, are a growing group of Africans and Afro-Diasporans who are choosing to move "back" to the African continent. I became curious about what had spurred this boom and the impact of returnees on the socio-cultural and economic landscapes of the countries they were returning to. As I spoke to returnees, I learned that gender identities and romance are other complex layers of the experience. I began work towards an honors thesis on return migration to Accra, Ghana, and continued my fieldwork during the summer of 2015. In 2016, I received the Nancy "Penny Schwartz" Undergraduate Essay Award from the Association of Africanist Anthropology for three chapters excerpted and reworked from my thesis, Taking It Back To The Motherland: The Untold Tales of Accra’s Returnees.
In my dissertation, I plan to build on my undergraduate fieldwork and continue to study Accra as a site of return. Accra is a “city in transition” (Dupont 2014) with deep histories cosmopolitanism and return migration. I will explore the different waves of return, from the post-independence wave of the 1960s to the post-2007 surge after new oil reserves were discovered in Ghana. Many migrants develop an almost mythical imaginary of their homeland. For Accra's returnees, the essentialized image is held up against the reality of life in Accra upon return. Ghanaian society and her "locals" place on them the onus of proving, in a variety of situations, that they can not only survive but thrive in an African city. In my dissertation, I will continue to unpack what Nadia J. Kim (2009) refers to as the “authenticity dilemma,” and examine whether returnees are able to (re)integrate into Ghanaian society upon return.
Our world today grapples with the challenge of responding effectively and ethically to an ongoing migrant crisis. Though there are nuances of temporal and geographic specificity, this contemporary discussion on human mobility is not novel, but rather a continuation of a discourse. We have long been curious about why people leave their homes, where they go, how they are received in host countries, and whether or not they chose to return to their countries of origin. However, this discourse has generally perceived migration as a singular, mono-directional life event, when it is not. Migrants often move back to places where they lived before or to which they have ethnic or kinship connections (Niedomysl and Amcoff 2011).
I will draw from a rich bank of global interdisciplinary literature on return migration. The study will be grounded in American anthropologist, George Gmelch’s (1980) seminal definition of return migration: "the movement of emigrants back to their homelands to resettle." Dutch sociologist Frank Bovenverk’s (1974) typology provides a starting point for categorizing returnees. Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983), Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture (1994) and Arjun Appadurai's Modernity At Large (1996) will guide the process of mapping identity formation and cultural liminality in a rapidly changing, ever technological and culturally diffuse world. Drawing from Laura Nader's emphasis on the importance of studying the "middle and upper ends" of society (1972: 1), the participants in this study will mainly be middle and upper middle class. By "studying up," I hope to contribute to the ethnographic discourse on power within cultures. I will also draw on the autoethnographic methodology as employed by Zora Neale-Hurston in Mules and Men (1935), and her masterful navigation of writing from within a culture, as an insider-outsider.
I see Duke as the ideal location to work towards my proposed dissertation. The project will find a home within the cross-disciplinary and globally minded approach of the program. There are several members of the faculty whose mentorship will be invaluable. Laurie N. McIntosh, whose research on identity-formation among Norwegians of African descent will provide important methodological and theoretical frameworks for this project. Lee D. Baker, with his expertise on the impact of identity on the everyday lives of Afrodiasporic people, would also provide great guidance to this work. I hope to also work with faculty in the Department of African & African American Studies and in particular Michaeline A. Crichlow. I am excited to learn about opportunities to attend lectures and participate in vibrant discussions at the John Hope Franklin Center and look forward to engaging with these opportunities as well.
Since graduating from Macalester College in 2016, I have engaged with a variety of professional and volunteer experiences. As a Program Assistant at the Minnesota Historical Society's Department of Inclusion, I worked to bring more people of color into the museum field through college and high school fellowships. For the last two years, I have worked with two college mates to create an empathy-building children's book in response to increased bullying after the 2016 election. Ethnographic interviewing skills came in handy as we journeyed to elementary schools to speak with students and collect scenarios for the book. Most recently, I am the Curatorial Project Assistant for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize exhibition on laureates, Denis Mukwege, and Nadia Murad. Through these experiences, I have been challenged intellectually and strengthened my passion for ethnography.
Throughout my undergraduate studies, my main motivation was to continue on to graduate school and train to become a professional anthropologist and researcher. In my studies toward a doctoral degree, I hope to continue to examine the impact of migration and transnationalism in the Black diaspora through the experiences of migrants engaging in these mobilities. It would be a dream come true to do this at Duke.
Statement of Purpose
Keywords: Politics of Place, Urban Ethnography, North America, Politics of Representation, Aesthetic Hierarchies, Critical Race Studies, Class Studies, Political Economies
How do the intersections of race and class affect African Americans' presence in the arts? What is the impact of racializing behavior for musicians of color? I came to these questions as a freshman in college, when I stepped onto the stage of the Amherst College Symphony Orchestra and realized that I was the only Black musician out of the 92-person ensemble. Though many Black classical musicians are accustomed to this racial isolation, I was particularly shocked, as my previous experiences with orchestra in my home community were quite diverse. Growing up in Columbia, MD, I was accustomed to diversity in every aspect of my life, from swim team to math club to orchestra. My bubble of positive racial representation burst when I arrived at Amherst and discovered that my childhood experiences were quite uncommon. This revelation led me to question why that might be the case, and more specifically, why so few African Americans participate in classical orchestral music.
Since the 1990s, Blacks have comprised about I of major American symphonic orchestras, a number that has remained unchanged for nearly three decades. Asian Americans and Latinx participation in symphonic orchestras has improved markedly, while African Americans have yet to increase their participation in these ensembles. Two decades ago, the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based non-profit organization, created the first entirely Black and Hispanic professional orchestra in the world. A few other orchestras comprised of minorities have emerged, but major American Symphonic orchestras have yet to see improvement in Blacks' participation in their ensembles.
My dissertation will expand upon my undergraduate senior honors thesis, a preliminary exploration of discrimination, exclusion, and confusion about cultural belonging in American symphonic orchestras. I hope to develop my research with contemporary anthropological discussions of community, belonging, aesthetic hierarchies, and politics of representation, as writing my senior thesis worked to generate further, more thoughtful research questions about this topic, all of which can best be addressed through an anthropological dissertation.
With established access to a community of Black musicians, I hope to ground my ethnographic research with the Sphinx Organization. As a sort of “Black Mecca” within the orchestral world, Sphinx acts as a space in which Black musicians can be themselves, rather than perform an identity. The Sphinx Organization conceptualizes the absence of Black participation in orchestras primarily as a "pipeline issue," in that Black and Latinx students do not have access to the resources needed to support and produce an accomplished musician. However, this issue involves myriad considerations beyond a lack of resources. Why is there the impetus to create entirely separate orchestras for minorities, and is this a solution? What is the significance of the orchestral stage as a space of social inclusion and how does it serve as a cultural marker for inclusion and exclusion? In my dissertation, I hope to address these questions by putting research involving the intersections of class and race (Fennell 2015; Cox 2015; Mahon 2004) and aesthetic hierarchies (Sharman 2006; Davila 2001; Pham 2017) in conversation. In doing so, I will highlight some of the more insidious concerns related to this lack of participation and representation.
As my research has shown thus far, there seems to be an implicit understanding of orchestral music as being an exclusively white tradition. Orchestral music is classified as a "high arts," a subcategory of the arts that has a history of racism and exclusion in terms of what practices may or may not be given value. In my research, I will unpack the essentialist concept of the “high arts” and the Eurocentric construction of orchestral music as a white tradition. Do Black people truly not belong in the high arts, or were they made not to belong? Who decides whether Blacks belong, and what processes perpetuate this notion of inclusion? What are the boundaries surrounding the "high arts" community, and how do class and race intersect in this context? It is my aim to interrogate ideas of exclusivity surrounding these established, taken-for-granted aesthetic hierarchies, and to explore how race and class-based social positioning both establish and maintain these inequalities.
Additionally, my research involved discussions of representation, and what it means to be recognized. With DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as a framework for my exploration of critical race theories, I want to add to this discourse by integrating Stuart Hall’s ideas of visual language as constructing meaning in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (1997) with John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. What does it mean to see and be seen within the context of the orchestral stage? Is there a performative Blackness or Whiteness that is expected of certain kinds of musicians, and what are the stakes of this performativity, both for those on the stage and off the stage? While this case of racial discrimination affects a relatively small community, I aim to highlight the macro-sociological effects of raceand class-based prejudice and discrimination.
During my time at Amherst, I discovered a passion for filmmaking, documentary films, and ethnographic methodology. My first documentary project during my freshman year at Amherst explored how an east-Indian dance form called orissi created meaning for people of both Indian and non-Indian descent, and how it influenced dance in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts as a whole. In doing this project I learned how people create meaning in these cross-cultural interactions, which was significant considering my upbringing and being accustomed to sharing cultural art forms. I moved on to complete other film projects, working with the Smithsonian to create short documentary pieces about folklife from different cultures, and creating a visually and auditorily compelling documentary for my senior thesis. My time at NYU has been instrumental in providing further opportunity to conceptualize and develop short films and to hone my production skills in the Culture and Media program. Working with Faye Ginsburg and Arlene Davila, amongst others, has enabled me to consider my work through the lens of an anthropologist.
I have discussed my research goals with Professor Lee Baker and feel that his unique historical study of intersections between the development of American Anthropology pedagogy and the foundations of race relations and racial imaginaries in From Savage to Negro (1998) would act as an exemplar of how I should explore hegemonic systems in my own research. Professor J. Lorand Matory’s Black Atlantic Religion (2005), which challenges to the narrative of transnationalism as a recent phenomenon and his studies of transnational and translocal flows of information and cultural practices, would provide an excellent framework on my research involving cross-cultural interactions in the musical world. Another guiding force for my research would be Professor Charles Piot’s work involving agency as engagement (as opposed to rejection) with European cultural modes, along with his consideration of a long history of global cultural crossings. I am excited for the opportunity to apply to Duke University, as I feel that this school, with its encouragement of interdisciplinary work, passionate professors, and desire to create a positive learning environment will allow me to develop into a strong scholar.