Thinking about race in anthropology through poetry

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On November 3, the McGill Anthropology Graduate Student Association (AGSA) organized the workshop Thinking about race with ethnographic poetry as part of an ongoing series on racism and racial justice in anthropology. Ethnographic poetry is a method of research where anthropologists study the poetic works of an individual with the aim of understanding the poet’s relationship with his culture, community and audience. This workshop aimed in particular to present the anthropological applications of poetry and to reveal how reading poetry can help anthropologists avoid potential racial prejudice, a pervasive problem in the field.

“The Association of Graduate Students in Anthropology recently launched a task force called the Racial Justice Task Force,” said Alejandra Melian-Morse, one of the event’s organizers, in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “We have been thinking and trying to take more responsibility for racial inequalities in our anthropology department. We wanted to do something more creative, to help people think in different ways on a topic that is very difficult for a lot of people to talk about.

Justin wright, socio-cultural anthropologist, performance poet and current poet in residence at SAPIENS Review animated the workshop. Wright explained how reading poetry is an important component of anthropological research methodology, as it details the story through emotional language. They described how poetry can capture the emotions of the writer at a specific point in time in a way that factual language used in historical documentation cannot. They also explained how their work as a socio-cultural anthropologist examines the many ways blacks experience individual and collective trauma.

“I see anthropology as a method of dealing with the lives of black people,” Wright said. “Poetry also works in this way, as a tool to uncover the unspoken truth of our past. [A poet] answer to [their] world, to what is happening in [their] time. A poem is not just a piece of poetry where it is only for the author. [A poet] does this in the service of [their] community, to help them move forward in a certain way.

Wright explained their “six question method” for reading poetry as ethnographic material: one has to ask who are the author and the audience, what is the subject of the work, when and where the work was. written, what context prompted the writer to compose the poem, and how it was received historically.

“[Poetry and creative prose] often speak directly about the lives and rights of authors, their experiences and cultures, ”said Wright. “We cannot consider this kind of works as anything other than rich experiences, as ways of being of history. Poetry is a meaningful language. When we talk about reading poetry as ethnographic material, […] we are talking about heavy research, engaging its questions in a scholarly way, in the service of ethnography and in the service of anthropology.

Wright fuses their knowledge of anthropology and poetry to explore explorations of historical black traumas with contemporary representations of black experiences. They explain the use of such anthropological methods as a way to broaden their understanding of different cultural considerations.

“Anthropology helps me find a way to orient my poetic devices to get to a certain point, a certain type of emotional logic, a certain argument,” Wright said. “Anthropology has helped me think about what I’m doing specifically with [my poetry]. “

This workshop was one of many other events to come in a series explore the intersection of racial justice and anthropology. Other events include film screenings, creative workshops, as well as interviews with podcasters and content creators.


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