How do you breathe, which is to say, how do you live?

Sometimes life is a prayer, a quiet one that you whisper on exasperated breath.  And sometimes days are but a breath, and weeks a string of breaths or prayers or breathing prayers or praying breaths that escape your lips before you even have the chance to sigh or sing or sit in silence.

These six weeks have taught me to breathe in ways I had never imagined possible before.

Inhale.  But do not take the entire world in.  Only the places and people and things that most excite you.

Work fervently.  Ask questions.  Ask questions about your questions.  Read and ponder and imagine and create and believe.


More than the black feminist theory, the literary criticism, the technical knowledge about Digital Humanities skills, I am most grateful for the process.  The space in between the inhale and exhale where we wrestled with our ideas in productive tension until they were proven durable.  Never before have I had to think so critically about my academic and technical choices, nor had I ever had to think about anyone but a professor reading my work, let alone the prospects of an audience.  I enjoyed being given the task of more than blank pages on which to breathe life – a platform to create, opportunities to face my fear of public speaking head-on, a community with which to engage and get excited about my and their ideas.  These are the things I cherish most about this process, the dynamism of research and academia I have encountered through these experiences.

Don’t get me wrong – I am excited about project and will continue to develop my ideas as I develop my ethnographic sensibilities.  This work has encouraged me to continue to focus on the richness of the Caribbean experience, quite often overlooked by academics from the Global North.  This work has also reminded me of the urgency of anthropological research – that it should always be seeking to make strange the familiar and the familiar strange so as to move towards a more empathetic and altogether more just world.  Afro-Jamaican working class women are positioned at the base of Jamaica’s race-class hierarchy, are often the victims of interlocking systems of structural oppression and are often blamed for causing the conditions they encounter.  As long as I can research, my work will always be positioned towards unpacking the social relations that intersect to produce marginalization in Caribbean societies, especially Jamaica.

But the process is what I will carry with me as I embark on the rest of this journey.

There is another way that this program has taught me to breathe.  It is the kind of gentle breath that asked me to be kind to myself, mind and body.  I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life.  Lack of stability, security and the tentacles of poverty have done much violence to my personhood, but in an attempt to be productive, I had to face the ways I was not loving myself, even when I was given the chance to.  The night we sat around candlelight, having dinner, sharing ourselves with each other as a community, I learnt to breathe, to not police myself, but be vulnerable and live in the moment.  Today, I try my best to remember that.  And even while I was in and out of medical centres, body screaming in between blood tests and ECGs, I realized that the only thing my body really needed was rest, and care, and prayers and breaths and breaths and prayers.  I have not fully overcome anxiety, but I am on a path I’ve never trod before, one that leads to health of mind and body and soul.  I’m not crying, I promise.

I am grateful to this program in more ways than one.

I will end with one of my favourite poems from Nayyirah Waheed which best characterizes the turn my life has taken:

All the best for the summer, everyone.  Let’s keep in touch every now and then.


“…and if we don’t have it, you ain’t gon’ have it either, cuz we gon’ tear it up.”

“…and if we don’t have it, you ain’t gon’ have it either, cuz we gon’ tear it up.”

~ Fannie Lou Hamer speaking on radical youth movements of the 60s

See, Fannie had the right idea – nobody is free until we’re all free.  Nobody gets to be free until we’re all free.  Black folk have been telling us this from the advent of this haphazard, violent project known today as the Western world.  Black folk throughout history can teach us many things about liberation, but perhaps one of the most pertinent reminders is that the movement for liberation must be led by those who are most marginalized.  How can white middle-class people begin to imagine the landscape of freedom when they have never known the dangers of the most treacherous social terrains?  Liberation must always center those who are most dispossessed.  Only they, knowing the societal boundaries of dehumanization, can restore us to a sense of humanity that is not bound up in the oppression of others.  This is why intersectionality is important (and a love letter of sorts to marginalized black folks – queer, woman, trans, poor, child, elderly, undocumented, incarcerated).  It reminds us to center those who are most vulnerable, a centering that not only means including more diverse narratives or theory, but DECENTERING those who occupy hegemonic power.  Tokenization is not an option.  Structural changes are needed to reimagine a world that is not poisoning itself with oppression.  That is what decolonization looks like.   

Enter: Digital Humanities.

I’m already skeptical of everything in this world, especially being of the Afropessimist school of thought that posits that this world is anti-black at its very foundation and until we grapple with that reality, we will forever be doomed to reproduce its oppression.  In the first couple papers we read, I was not moved by the claims that Digital Humanities was revolutionary, at least not in the fullest sense of the word.  Revolutionary in the sense that it offered an innovative alternative to the humanities as it was understood, sure, but even the humanities (prior to DH) was struggling to decolonize.  Lafayette’s faculty today, for example, is still overwhelmingly white (including the Africana Studies department).  So how can a truly revolutionary DH emerge from these conditions?

Risam was right to highlight that any Digital Humanities that wants to claim relevance must organize out of a black feminist and intersectional lens.  The example she gave about coding is perhaps one of the most useful.  That there are groups that exist such as Black Girls Code is testament to the paucity of minoritized groups in areas of technology, particularly because the learning of code is most often only accessible to upper middle class white men. What epistemologies have been obscured, peripheralized?  The plain fact is that knowledge production is inherently political and any perspective or area of study that wants to claim an apolitical posture should be examined with deep skepticism for the danger that it poses in uncritically reproducing existing oppressive social dynamics.  

I also appreciate Risam’s argument for the use of black feminism in praxis in that she suggests that every manifestation of Digital Humanities must be guided by the specificity (or locality) of its given context, not by monolithic, hegemonic methodologies.  I thought about the places that most need the Digital Humanities, like Jamaica, where so much of our heritage is sitting at a precarious place, always at risk of erasure, but I struggled to imagine a DH that was uniquely Jamaican or Caribbean. Still, It’s a struggle on which we must embark if we are to have a truly liberatory, revolutionary DH instead of one that reifies the Global North’s dominance.  Intersectionality does not present the risk of limiting the field, as Risam posited, but rather it extends the field into a new range of possibilities for exploration, like Dr Meredith Clark’s interesting work on Black Twitter (

I look forward to a DH committed to centering the Global South, people of color, women, the working class, queer and trans folk and others who have been othered.  Or else we gon’ have to tear it up.

Fighting in Outer Space is Hard, Y’all

Wading through digital projects and readings, where are you finding your inspiration? What parts of things you’re reading and seeing resonate most with you? Where are the gaps in your research and what are you still looking for? What are your thoughts as you get started?

Y’all, grappling is an understatement.  Imagine me on Mars fighting a muscular, hungry grizzly bear that voted for Trump and then you’ll get a better idea of the kind of struggling in which I’ve been engaged for the past couple days.  I don’t know if I’m winning this fight, but I do know that the more I wrestle with some of the questions of my research is the more I feel encouraged to refine my scope, particularly because of the readings I’ve done and the projects with which I have engaged.   Due to lack of resources, my project has changed shape and will no longer examine folk songs (though I will be taking that project up very soon in the future), but rather, I will examine dancehall, a vibrant genre of Jamaican music and I have been particularly influenced by the readings I’ve done.  Most prominently, Carolyn Cooper’s Sweet & Sour Sauce: Sexual Politics in Jamaican Dancehall Culture, Donna Hope’s Man Vibes: Masculinities in the Jamaican Dancehall, Johannes Skjelbo’s Jamaican Dancehall Censored: Music, Homophobia, and the Black Body in the Postcolonial World,  various readings on Queer Theory and the tool Scalar have been most useful to me in discerning the direction of my project.

Cooper’s incisive analysis on the nuanced meaning that dancehall takes on in working class communities (and how it is perceived by middle and upper class Jamaica) has especially inspired me to ask questions about how women negotiate their sexuality and claim (sexual) agency in a space that is highly patriarchal.  She challenges readings of women in dancehall (which she said are afflicted by the Western gaze) as merely capitulating to patriarchal oppression and instead offers instances in which women exercise their agency in the choices they make in the music about their sexuality.  This is an area of interest for me that I think could be further illuminated.  The contemporary moment of dancehall has seen singers like Ishawna publicly (and perhaps privately) reclaiming a sense of their sexuality most tangibly by demanding that their male sexual partners to reciprocate oral sex (a taboo of massive proportions).  Reading Queer Theory has also helped me to identify a framework from which to examine the ‘abnormal’ in the dancehall music industry and what that might have to say about the social landscape.

I’m also particularly interested in using TimelineJS or Scalar (or both if possible).  I’m still a bit intimidated by learning how to use either tool, but I think Scalar especially would be a good platform (based on what John has showed me) to post videos, links to scholarly articles, interviews all organized around my main argument that is interested in identifying moments where women have used dancehall as a space of feminist engagement.  I also like that it allows for conversation from my users because studies of dancehall music are relatively new and feedback is necessary to enhance the quality of scholarship.  I also don’t like the idea of studying working class culture, but not ceding platform for those who are most directly influenced by it to weigh in on its effects.  Scalar seems to resolve those points of conflict.

In concluding, I am so excited that I’ve come closer to the questions I want to be asking and I look forward to continuous fights on Mars with the bear who voted for Trump which will hopefully lead to much more pertinent questions being posed (and perhaps, even answered) of intergalactic proportions.


On Songs and Stories

Sometimes, I like to think of myself as a storyteller.  I have always been that child on the bus to sit quietly and watch the exhausted mother rock her baby to sleep while her two boys fuss over who is more smarter than who before she reaches over and pinches both of them on the lips as a kind of warning of the whooping that might come their way.  I have always been the child to chuckle to myself as I eavesdrop on the drunk old men gathered at the door of the grocery store boasting about who can still get these young things pregnant.  Science fiction or superheroes never interested me as much as engaging with stories of people reckoning with the fullness of their humanity.  And that’s what folk songs are for me – stories about survival.  They remind me that despite systematic violence and silencing, my foreparents chose to sing about victory and pain and death and hope and joy and love and sex.  Yes, sex.  Who wants to think about their parents having sex, much less their great-great-great (great-great…) grandparents doing the genital gyration?  Me.  Maybe not for the reasons you’re thinking (shame on you), but because we have a way of obscuring history by rendering invisible the narratives that do not serve us.  It’s not enough to think of our foreparents as revolution leaders.  Of course, we do this in an attempt to humanize them, but how do we deny them the fullness of their humanity if we do not engage in excavating the mundanities of life?  What made them laugh?  What made them jealous?  How did they think about the future?  We must wrestle with these questions if we are truly interested in undoing the assault that the purveyors of history have launched on the dignity of our forefathers.  I’m interested in using folk songs as an instrument to interpret Jamaican sexuality.  In a colonial world where my foreparents’ bodies were deemed property, I am interested in the ways they contested that claim by exercising personal agency (however compromised) over their own bodies.

During this summer internship, I hope to learn about how to use other modes of knowledge production to shape my project.  Specifically, I would like to learn to create an accessible and interactive website on which viewers can not only listen to folk song recordings, but also view videos of people singing and talking about the meaning of the songs.  I would like to choose 15-20 songs along the historical timeline (1650-1962) and analyze them for a reading of heteronormative gender relations and queered gender relations.  However, I know I might have to think about selecting a historical timeline that is practical given the time constraints within which I am working.  I’m also especially interested in whether colonial ontologies of Jamaican sexuality are recognizable in modern musical traditions such as reggae and dancehall.

I would like to draw upon the established academic literature (including ethnographies) regarding Afro-Jamaican life under colonialism.  It will definitely be challenging to find all my sources, which is partly because folk songs are an oral tradition and their lyrics aren’t always transcribed and I also expect to encounter some challenges in finding people to talk about the sexually suggestive nature of the music, but I hope to counter that problem by working through a network of Jamaican academics who may have greater knowledge of and access to those resources than I do.  Additionally, while I’m absolutely open to reformatting or reshaping the questions I am asking, I really want to maintain the idea of using music (of any Jamaican genre) to interpret Jamaican sexuality.

I’m so excited to be working on this project and have started to do preliminary reading (“From Field to Platform” by Pamela O’Gorman “Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall” by Nadia Ellis) and I started to reach out to Jamaican academics who may be able to help me tell the story of Jamaican sexuality through folk music.  This project has personal and political meaning for me.  It’s a way for me to honor those who have come before me and contributing to the academic tradition that seeks to excavate our humanity.  Here’s to hoping I can do justice to that legacy and this project!