The Carter G. Woodson Institute, U.Va.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute

for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia

Woodson Fellows

Ashley Ngozi Agbasoga

Pre-Doctoral (Anthropology)
Northwestern University
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Ashley Ngozi Agbasoga

Pre-Doctoral (Anthropology)
Northwestern University

Ashley Ngozi Agbasoga’s research includes social movements, racialization, blackness, indigeneity, nation-state formation and geography. Her dissertation, titled We Dance With Existence: Black-Indigenous Placemaking in the Land Known as México and Beyond, illuminates how Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous women engage in placemaking practices that reveal and unsettle notions of race, place, and (nation-) statehood in México. Merging ethnographic and archival research conducted from 2016-2020 in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Mexico City with theories and methodologies from Anthropology, History, Black Studies, and Native/Indigenous Studies, Agbasoga argues that Black-Indigenous placemaking practices create two critical ruptures: first, in the (re)produced bifurcation of blackness and indigeneity, and second, in the Mexican state’s racialization of its territory as mestizo. These ruptures generate space to think about alternative possibilities for Black, Indigenous, and Black-Indigenous communities throughout what is known as “The Americas”/Abya Yala.

Sarah Balakrishnan

Post-Doctoral (African History)
Harvard University
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Sarah Balakrishnan

Post-Doctoral (African History)
Harvard University
Public Land and the People’s Power: Colonialism, Community, and Mass Politics in the British Gold Coast (Southern Ghana), c. 1807-1957

My research reveals how human geographies of the Atlantic slave trade shaped colonial rule in the Gold Coast, leading to the British state’s early—and path-breaking—downfall. In March 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve independence from colonial rule. My project suggests that it is no coincidence that it is also the territory where the colonial state owned the lowest proportion of land—a fact owed to transformations in human-land relationships during the slave trade. By tracing a history of territorial occupation and spatial formations before colonization, I reveal how endemic migration during the slave trade created population pressure in the south, leading to a division in land that resembled private property. Whitehall’s subsequent declaration that all land in the Gold Coast was “the private property of its people” not only prevented mass annexation by colonists, but forced colonization by unusual means. Contrary to studies of colonial states that privatized and enclosed the commons, I examine the reverse process: the “public”-ization of the private. In order to govern the Gold Coast, Britain supplanted the private estates of the slave trade with a public forged through state infrastructure, agricultural commons, and public spaces designed for rituals and mass surveillance. They reorganized all land and sovereignty in the colony according to a public/private divide. What they did not count on, however, was how this project would introduce a new vision of political community: an “anticolonial public” united by these transformations to land and space. Even more than the Pan-African activism of figures like Kwame Nkrumah, popular protests surrounding the functions of public land made the colony ungovernable by the 1940s. Against studies that analyze decolonization through identitarian categories like race and nationhood, my project traces the evolution of a body politic—“the anticolonial public”— through changes to human geographies that occurred over nearly three hundred years.

Dana Cypress

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (English)
University of Pennsylvania
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Dana Cypress

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (English)
University of Pennsylvania
"In the Time of Disaster: Representations of Hurricane Katrina in African American Literature and Culture"

My project, "In the Time of Disaster: Representations of Hurricane Katrina in African American Literature and Culture", explores African American post-Katrina cultural production that engages the political, cultural, and social effects of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. I read the spatio-temporal parameters of Black post-Katrina films, music, and literature to consider how these texts challenge and revise our cultural memory of the storm. I argue that together these texts, which include works by Jesmyn Ward, Patricia Smith, Mat Johnson, Kiese Laymon, among others, contextualize Hurricane Katrina as a process that unfolds on a continuum of ongoing Black freedom struggles rather than a discrete event. The temporal disruptions found in my archive expand the depth of historical knowledge about the affected region to make visible the social and political preconditions of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and aftermath. The spatial orientations of Black post-Katrina cultural texts bring the Mississippi Gulf Coast into view alongside New Orleans. I read this geographic pivot to Mississippi as an important intervention of Black post-Katrina cultural production that provides an expansive view of multiple souths in the region and the otherwise obscured histories of coastal Black communities adversely affected by the storm. Together, these spatio-temporal revisions offered by Black writers and artists reveal the figure of the Black mother as central to African American cultural and literary interpretations of the storm.

Amanda Gibson

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (History)
College of William and Mary
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Amanda Gibson

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (History)
College of William and Mary
Credit Is Due: African Americans as Borrowers and Lenders in Antebellum Virginia

Amanda White Gibson is a doctoral candidate at the College of William and Mary. Her research uncovers the credit market experiences of those most vulnerable to the externalities associated with the slavery-based capitalist economy. It describes enslaved and free African Americans’ use of credit from the American Revolution to the Civil War; how enslaved individuals borrowed to free themselves, what happened when they did not pay debts imposed on them by the jail system, and free and enslaved African Americans’ employment of credit at stores and banks. It also attempts to describe how African Americans in Virginia conceived of debt in their own lives, for example using debt, with varying degrees of success, as a tool to distance themselves from slavery and racial oppression.

Matthew Greer

Pre-Doctoral (Anthropology)
Syracuse University
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Matthew Greer

Pre-Doctoral (Anthropology)
Syracuse University

Matthew Greer is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Syracuse University, where his studies focus on the archaeology of enslaved life.  His dissertation project, Assembling Enslaved Lives: Labor, Consumption, and Landscapes in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, uses historical archaeology, Black studies, and assemblage theory to write the stories of enslaved people in back into the history of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. By analyzing some of the objects, practices, and institutions that affected, and were affected by enslaved people as they labored, bought and used commodities, and inhabited local landscapes, the project assesses what life was like for those enslaved in the Valley and how enslaved Shenandoahans shaped the region’s political economies. The latter point is especially important because to demonstrate that enslaved people mattered in the Valley is to demonstrate that any history that ignores them is incomplete.

Alysia Mann Carey

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (Political Science)
The University of Chicago
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Alysia Mann Carey

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (Political Science)
The University of Chicago
‘I felt the hand of the government in my womb’: Black women, state violence, and the transnational struggle for life in Brazil and Colombia

My dissertation is an ethnographic and community-engaged study investigating the impacts of state violence on black women and communities in Brazil and Colombia. Centering the grassroots leadership of Black women, I examine how they organize and resist the myriad forms of state oppression that intersect and interact in their everyday lives. I use a framework of intimacy as a way to understand Black women’s political thinking and action by articulating how intimacy and activism intersect, through emotions, grief, homes as organizing sites, and the politicization of motherhood and care. In centering the leadership of Black women in Brazil and Colombia, my dissertation will contribute to literature on race and politics, feminist theory and African diaspora studies by examining how Black women are creating networks of support and autonomous organizing by leading movements that resist systems responsible for the violence against themselves, their families, and their communities. Drawing on 18 months of qualitative, ethnographic, participatory, and Black feminist research, I not only explore these movements’ use of a framework of intimacy to understand state violence, but also examine the extent to which their collective repertoires of contention are also rooted in (re)claiming and (re)creating autonomous Black intimate spheres and practices.

Jillean McCommons

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (History)
University of Kentucky
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Jillean McCommons

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (History)
University of Kentucky
The Black Appalachian Commission: Regional Black Power Politics and the War on Poverty, 1969-1975

Jillean McCommons is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky. My dissertation project, “The Black Appalachian Commission: Regional Black Power Politics and the War on Poverty, 1969-1975,” is a social history of the Black Appalachian Commission (BAC), a Black-led grassroots organization created to address the specific needs of Black people in the thirteen states that comprise the Appalachian region. My dissertation highlights the intersections of Black Power Studies and Appalachian Studies by examining Black Appalachian demands for structural change during Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty through Richard Nixon’s subsequent dismantling of liberal policies after 1972. To understand Black conceptualizations of regional identity, my dissertation also draws on theories from the field of Geography, including Black Geographies and Black Ecologies, to uncover Black Appalachian epistemologies of land, identity, and place.

Janée A. Moses

Post-Doctoral (American Culture)
University of Michigan
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Janée A. Moses

Post-Doctoral (American Culture)
University of Michigan
A House to Sing In: Extra/Ordinary Black Women’s Narratives about Black Power

Under the direction of Michael Awkward, “A House to Sing In” considers the lives, times, and cultural expressions of Amina Baraka, Nina Simone, and Elaine Brown. By studying these three black revolutionary women together, I consider the extent to which they simultaneously complied with and resisted gendered formulations of revolutionary identities. I challenge African American Studies’ dichotomous misrecognition of black women as either extraordinary because they are, as Joy James states, “not bound to a male persona,” or ordinary because they are publicly bound to a male persona. I deploy the term “Extra/Ordinary” to argue that the reality of black women’s experiences comprises both the extraordinary and the ordinary. My scholarship differs from case studies of black revolutionary women as solely exceptional warriors on the front lines of the black freedom struggle in that I highlight considerations of their day-to-day experiences as wives, mothers, and lovers.

James Parker

Post-Doctoral Fellow (World History)
Northeastern University
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James Parker

Post-Doctoral Fellow (World History)
Northeastern University
The Fluidity of Late Colonial Development: Water Management, State Building, and Rural Resistance in Kenya 1938-63

My current research positions rural East Africa within a broader global narrative of environmental management and social change by examining the role that access to water played in colonial Kenyan statecraft between 1938 and 1963. I study three development projects in the arid and semi-arid landscapes of Kenya, where the colonial government invested thousands of pounds expanding water access into the hinterland to spur agricultural production. Rather than benefiting rural groups, these centralized projects altered the ecological properties of the land with dire consequences, as the rerouting and redistribution of water left entire regions parched and barren, and communities fighting for access to dwindling resources. By comparing policy proposals and implementation with the protestations and resistance of community groups, I foreground communal attempts to push back against their exclusion from water resources while examining how development policy altered local production and modes of survival. Based on extensive English and Swahili archival sources in Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States, my project ultimately argues that the colonial Kenyan state’s obsession with profits over rural lives cut off communities from water, leading to drought, famine, and dispossession on an enormous scale. That the British government were frequently unaware of these outcomes further demonstrates the disconnect between global policy makers and localized experiences and demands the centering of rural voices. As such, my approach offers a new historical perspective on the implementation of development policies and provides a localized socioenvironmental perspective to a topic dominated by top-down political and economic analyses. Reinserting water, and the human relationship to it, is vital to understanding the role of economic policy in shaping environments in the global south. Centering the experiences of resistors and rural populations further draws attention to the inequitable distribution of resources and the role of capital and race in development ideologies.

 

Brian Smithson

Post-Doctoral (Cultural Anthropology)
Duke University
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Brian Smithson

Post-Doctoral (Cultural Anthropology)
Duke University
"Piety in Production: Video Filmmaking as Religious Practice in Bénin"

Brian C. Smithson is a cultural anthropologist who studies the audiovisual cultures and religions of West Africa. As a Woodson Research Associate, Brian is completing a book titled Aesthetics of Praise: Making Movies Religious in Bénin—a story about cash-strapped movie producers, Christian–Muslim animosities, and professional rivalries in Yorùbá-speaking Bénin. The book shows how moviemakers overcome these hurdles by championing Yorùbá indigenous religion, its ethical principles, and its moral demands. The movies they make borrow from African art cinema and Nigeria's Nollywood alike. Yet it's in producing these movies—in those moments when Muslims and Christians work together on sets and in studios—that video filmmakers come up with a common language to appeal to potential patrons and honor shared religious attachments. In the process, they champion a religious field where Yorùbá indigenous religion provides an essential resource to shape political possibilities across religions, borders, and oceans in the face of global trends that lead to religious division and economic insecurity in Africa. 

 

Brian's work draws from his experience as an apprentice video filmmaker in Bénin, and his co-production of a full-length, Yorùbá-language movie under the guidance of several Yorùbá filmmakers. Brian earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and a master's degree in African Studies at UCLA. He has taught at Duke, Bowdoin College, and UVA.

Tracey Stewart

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (Music)
University of Virginia
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Tracey Stewart

Pre-Doctoral Fellow (Music)
University of Virginia
"Being Maroon: Music, Memory and Power in Articulations of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Jamaican Maroonage"

My dissertation, “Being Maroon: The Role of Music in the Definition and Socio-Cultural, Economic, and Political Development of Jamaican Maroon Communities,” is an ethnographic project that draws from over two years of field research in Jamaica. I examine music as integral to economic and political mobility; to socio-cultural conceptualization, education, and preservation; and I identify it as a veritable historical archive that offers readings of colonialism from the point of view of Jamaican Maroons and other colonized communities influenced by ongoing present-day colonialist encounters. Jamaican Maroon music and cultural icons such as Grandy Nanny of the Maroons are used to make and to contest claims of being and entitlement that are linked to two eighteenth century treaties between Jamaican Maroons and British colonialists. These treaties are at the crux of often opposing conceptualizations of Maroon nationhood that are informed—in large part—by complicated historical trajectories which foment conflict in the socio-economic and political realms of present-day Jamaican Maroons, non-Maroon Jamaicans, and the Jamaican State. 

     This study was developed within the context of historical and current debates over issues of sovereignty, the definition and designation of indigeneity and marronage, the pre-emancipation and pre-independence extra-legal negation of what are inarguably legally binding and ratified treaties, and the post-independence question of the validity and enforceability of those treaties on and within the borders of a newly independent Jamaica. My work offers an innovative, comprehensive, and historically rooted ethnomusicological analysis of these present-day debates in contemplation of the possibilities for Jamaican Maroon futures and the futures of the colonized, worldwide. It lets music tell these very important histories. 

Photo Credit: Keith Woodson