This ethnography began in assault. For ten years, I have been a partner to Women With A Vision, Inc. (WWAV), a New Orleans Black feminist health and social justice organization founded in 1989. On the evening of May 24, 2012––two months after WWAV won a major legal victory against sex work criminalization––their headquarters were firebombed and destroyed. Refusing the fatal intent of the arson, I worked with the organization’s foremothers to rebuild WWAV’s own archive and stitch the organization’s history to generations of southern Black women who saw their own life-giving work eviscerated through the same tactics of erasure. The result is a polyvocal, enchanted ethnography, which moves with WWAV leaders as apprentice and accomplice––to analyze the religio-racial terms of their erasure and speak themselves and their histories into being. Fire Dreams, thus, serves as a model for how scholars can approach the work of organizations with unapologetically transformative demands: as theory and method to build the world otherwise.
I have published portions of this research in partnership with WWAV’s Deon Haywood in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (2018) and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society (2017). Interviews completed through this project are part of the “Born in Flames” oral history project.
I am also beginning work on my next project, “Moral Medicine,” a historical ethnography of the emerging women’s carceral sphere in nineteenth century Massachusetts, New York, and Indiana that connects that period’s carceral imaginaries to our current era of mass criminalization. Building on my research on gender, race, and religion, this project investigates the implications of the public health and drug policy slogan of “Treatment, not Punishment” as agents of the state and nongovernmental organizations began to apply it to sex workers in court-mandated programs. While this turn was framed as a strategy for mitigating a dramatic increase in women’s incarceration, I argue that it is in fact the continuation of a more insidious nineteenth century moral health discourse through which non-normative genders, sexualities, and sex have long been constructed as “diseases” to be “cured” through moral and medical technologies. As a project conceptualized in partnership with scholars and practitioners, this research aims to illuminate why women’s prisons became such critical sites for working out ideas about the relationship between religion and science (most often, on the bodies of black and immigrant women), and how this gendered “common sense” about transgression and punishment continues to inform present policies and imaginaries in unexpected ways.
a wall is just a wall
This historical research of gendered carcerality is buttressed by my ongoing public humanities work to build abolitionist archives of struggle. “A Wall Is Just A Wall” is a study of religious practice, forced migration, and social transformation, which moves with Chicago’s Rev. Doris Green throughout her more than three decades of work to hold together the relationships that mass incarceration would sever. Against academic portraits that rehearse the quotidian terror that our nation’s ballooning prison empire has wrought, this project asks: Why has mass criminalization not been able to destroy the communities it has been wielded against? Rev. Green’s spiritual labor to organize multigenerational Black liberation study groups with the incarcerated and their loved ones provides a migratory map of community connection, meticulously and deliberately stitched against the violence around them. Assembling these stories into a monograph and multimodal archive is work I undertake for scholars, students, and activists alike.
Portions of this research have been published in a CrossCurrents special issue on “Religion, Political Democracy, and the Specters of Race” (2019), edited by James Logan.
refusing to vanish
Finally, I am completing a co-authored project with South African Islamic liberation theologian, Farid Esack. Refusing to Vanish explores gender, faith, and justice in a time of AIDS through the witnesses of two HIV-positive Muslim women: Faghmeda Miller from Cape Town, South Africa and Waheedah Shabazz-El from Philadelphia, USA. Both women were diagnosed at dire moments in the AIDS epidemics in their countries, and both have gone on to transform their personal struggles for treatment, care, and support into public lives of meaning for thousands. As such, Waheedah’s and Faghmeda’s lives and work not only shed light on the complexities of resistance in the midst of extremis; their stories also illuminate the complex interplay between HIV vulnerability and forced removal, between Muslim women’s leadership and traditional religious authority, between public figures and private selves.
A preview, “Refusing to Vanish: Muslim Women’s AIDS Activism,” was published by The Revealer for World AIDS Day 2017. Foundational research for this monograph was included in Islam and AIDS: Beyond Scorn, Pity and Justice (Oneworld Press, 2009).
the war on drugs is a war on relationships
This project examined the community-level systemic dislocation caused by mass incarceration, its historic and contemporary intersections with the domestic AIDS epidemic, and the citizen movements to address these twin epidemics. As a grounded ethnography of borders, vulnerability and social death, this research took a community of HIV-positive formerly imprisoned activists in Philadelphia as its guides, moving with them as they worked to repair the tenuous threads of communities neighborhood by neighborhood. Its interdisciplinary conclusions engaged and spoke back to the fields of public health, critical prison studies, and gender studies.
A peer-reviewed article-length piece was published as part of Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Cages (University of Georgia Press, 2012).