|Born again: Anthropologist Dr. Irma McClaurin infuses pursuit of global truths about inequality with personal experience|
Page 1 of 4Excerpts of a presentation to the African American Leadership Summit and Black Church Coalition at the Insight News Editor’s Roundtable at Sunnyside Café in December.
I am the first generation to go to college in all my extended family and the first to acquire terminal degrees. The first one is in creative writing and English and the second is in anthropology. I understand what it means to return to school. I was a mother full time when I went back to get my PhD. So I bring to this position a lot of different experiences.
My entry into anthropology was accidental; I began to work on some research and people said, if you’re going to go and do all that work, you might as well go and get a degree. And if I wanted to move up in my administrative job at the time, I needed to have that credential, because a creative writing degree was not highly valued in the university at that time. They kept asking, “When are you going to get a real degree?”
I call myself a “born again” anthropologist, because in many respects I had the opportunity to come to a new understanding of my experiences growing up, about the inequality I had experienced, and what I felt intuitively was wrong with living in Chicago, which is residentially segregated.
That is, Black folks who lived on the West Side didn’t go to the North Side because that’s where the white folks were. You didn’t go past Cicero, 5500 West. Do you remember Martin Luther King‘s visit to Cicero? He said, “If Mississippians want to learn how to hate, they needed to visit Chicago and Cicero.” It was one of the most adverse environments into which he had ever gone. I grew up in that kind of a segregated city. I have always felt that there was something wrong with my lack of access to certain kinds of things-- places that you couldn’t visit, you couldn’t afford, places you weren’t welcome in, but I had no name for it.
It wasn’t until I began to study anthropology that I became aware that there are theories that could explain this, and that there are people who have been writing about this, beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois who was first, I think, urban “anthropologist.” His study, The Philadelphia Negro  really was anthropology-- intensive, detailed research in communities in which he tried to document and provide analysis that he hoped would help to change the social conditions of African Americans. After Du Bois, there is Charles S. Johnson, also a sociologist, who published The Negro in Chicago in 1921, founded Opportunity Magazine, established the first Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, and subsequently became President of Fisk. Du Bois and Johnson were not doing what was called sociology at that time-- they were really doing anthropology—urban anthropology. I am influenced by them, and also by St. Claire Drake, an anthropologist who in collaboration with Horace Cayton continued the tradition of Du Bois and Johnson by conducting research in Chicago on Black communities. In 1945, they published Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in an Urban City. So I claim them all as my ancestors, as my academic and intellectual ancestors; these are the people whose research and activist scholarship really fuels me. What do I study? The social construction of inequality – I want to understand why some folks have and some folks are have nots. I want to understand structures of inequality. I want to understand how people resist such structures, negotiate them, but also how sometimes they are complicit in helping to maintain their own impoverishment and inequality. I want to understand all of that from the perspective not only of what books and experts tell me but what the people themselves have to say.
I began my career as an anthropologist by doing research in Belize, Central America. Now some of you might ask, well why didn’t you do it here in the United States? And the answer would have to be a strategic one. I understood early on that if I really wanted to become a card-carrying anthropologist, I could not do field work in the United States; to be valued in this field, especially as a Black anthropologist, you have to go outside the United States. So, if I really wanted to be credentialed in a way that would command respect, and which later allowed me to get tenure in an anthropology department that at the time was ranked eleventh in the country, I had to do it their way. But I thought, I know I can find some Black folks –we’re all over the Americas. Belize, formerly British Honduras, has a population that at the time I visited in 1991 was about forty-seven percent people of African descent – people who look just like us African Americans. In fact, most of us would be welcomed in Belize with open arms. People would say you’ve got some ancestors somewhere who connect you to us.
The other interesting thing about Belize is that there are five different “ethnic” groups. It’s a multi-ethnic society. There are mestizos, people of Spanish descent, there are Garifuna, people of African and Amerindian descent. Unlike us who have this real rainbow of folks who look different yet call ourselves African American, in Belize the there are two groups of African-descended people (Creoles and Garifuna) who don’t see themselves as necessarily connected. They have different histories, and do not feel that they have shared or common interests. So that was interesting and unique to me, because both groups looked “Black” to me. So why is it that they’re not? Why is that they don’t see themselves as part of a unified group identity? They don’t marry each other; they don’t necessarily interact socially with each other. So trying to understand this racial system, that was different from the United States in which we believe one drop of Black blood makes you Black, was important to me. In addition to people of African descent in Belize, there are East Indians who were recruited as indentured servants from India, where I spent some time as an undergraduate student. Many of the East Indians in Belize tend to follow Afro-Creole culture. They speak creole. Their food is just like that of Black folks’. This is very different from what one would find in Trinidad or Guyana, where the influence of East Indian culture is very strong.
And of course you have the Maya Indians. We often talk about indigenous people as though they are all one group, well in Belize they speak Kechi, they speak Mopan, and they speak Yucatero-they are not all the same. We call them Maya, but they see themselves as having different histories and conditions. So I was attracted to learning about people from all of these ethnic groups in order to understand inequality. What I focused on was women’s conditions, because sixty percent of the women in the 1991 Belize census said that their primary occupation was “home duties.” They were unemployed, mostly undereducated, even though Belize has a high literacy rate, and very exploited, with a lot of domestic violence. So that is what I focused on; I talked to women in the rural areas, but I also spent time working with the Department of Women in the city. I also apprenticed with a traditional healer. I then went into the more rural areas and spent time there and collected the stories of these women. I completed my research in 1991 and in 1996 the book Women of Belize was published and amazingly, twelve years later, it is still in print.
I’m pleased to say in Belize, they consider it the bible. This is the book they’ve used, when they did their first report to the United Nations Commission to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
And, about five years ago, a Belizean press published a book called Women in Politics in Belize and one of the authors informed me that “we borrowed from your book very heavily.” So even though the research was done in 1991, the findings and analysis are still relevant. I have used this research to serve as an expert witness for legal clinics working with women from Belize (and Suriname where I also do research) seeking asylum on the basis of domestic violence.