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 Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2020), 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.
Launched in memory of formerly incarcerated AIDS activist, John Horace Bell, the “Making Abolition” archive is a collaborative project to grow the Florida State University Libraries’ rare books collections at the intersections of freedom, confinement, and abolition. We are focusing on zines, posters, art books, campaign materials, workbooks, and other media produced by BIPOC women, queer people, transgender people, and gender nonconforming people in prison. This archive will guide a series of political education workshops with FSU students and the broader Tallahassee community for reflecting together on what abolitionists actually do and imagining new horizons of struggle here in North Florida. Our first donation was a collection of zines and toolkits from Mariame Kaba.
I am also beginning work on my next project, “Moral Medicine,” a study of how religion and science have intersected in the history of gendered criminalization, both before the abolition of slavery and in the making of Jim Crow modernity. The central claim of this project is that women’s prison history cannot be derived from men’s, and southern criminalization histories cannot be extrapolated from those written about institutions in the North. However, the history of gendered criminalization in the South is the history of our nation as a whole. Centering southern Black women in our histories of religion and criminalization can help us to differently understand and track the prison’s beginnings; doing so is essential for imagining its ends. “Moral Medicine” puts this claim into action through a rigorous, community-collaborative research design that supports formerly incarcerated women in excavating the histories of the institutions that once held them captive and in mapping the geographies of the freedom they create today.
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).