The more of the world I see, the more fascinated with it I become. At less than two months old I took my first international flight, from my birthplace of Saint Paul, Minnesota to Ouagadougou, Upper Volta – which was renamed Burkina Faso amidst a coup d’état launched by Thomas Sankara while my family and I were living there in 1984. I have been on the road ever since, living in ten countries on six continents and working or researching in seven countries, also on six continents. My formative experiences come from an eclectic range of people and situations. But as an American métisse who spent much of my life in West Africa, race – an unstable and contingent component of my identity – has always placed me on the other side of the majority. I am thus intrigued by how we construct and perceive the “other” in direct exchanges and imagine her across a global terrain.
Sociology, the science of society, is a great fit for my unbounded curiosity. Things I love to do: travel, patronize public spaces, people watch, all the time making sense of unlikely combinations, new perspectives and our common humanity, are what I believe make a great sociologist…and a great person with many improbable friendships forged along the way. In particular my otherness, métissage, and partial exclusions have fueled my passion for ethnography, wherein I may directly navigate belonging across the boundaries that have both defined me and allowed me to evade definition: race and nation within Africa and her diaspora. Moreover, I recognize that my double privilege – the capacity to be both and neither as well as the entitlements that have brought me to where I am as a scholar and global citizen – places me in a coveted position to hear and be heard.
However, as our world becomes ever more porous, I understand that the best way to study society comes from an interdisciplinary perspective. As reflected in the latest trends in scholarship, great answers to tough questions emerge out of dialogue with diverse voices working together to unearth, poke and prod all the relevant angles. My interests, thus broadly defined, are in Africa and the African diaspora, cultural movements, development and globalization, identity politics, masculinity, postcolonial theory, un- and underemployment and urbanization.
I aim to produce scholarship that is not only pertinent to the most pressing issues of our day, but that is interesting enough for people – a public beyond the academy – to pay attention. My hope is that my research inspires interest in my audience and greater understanding for my subjects. I believe that my scholarly contribution is twofold: to build bridges between increasingly disparate worldviews and to illuminate the journeys of those who, by way of social and economic exclusions, leave an absence in the formal record. This sense of purpose is reflected in much of the writing to have come out of my dissertation fieldwork: opinion pieces in my university newspaper, The Daily Californian as well as in the globally-renowned Africa Report, and visual sociology pieces that analyze photographs of men and street art in Abidjan, featured in the American Sociological Association’s Contexts Magazine and Poetics, an interdisciplinary journal on culture, the media and the arts.
I invite you to check out the following multimedia from my time in Abidjan: the first is a song I produced with Busta, a former mobile street vendor and Tino and MC Black, my research assistants who were perfume vendors in Abidjan’s Adjamé market and active participants in the local hip hop scene (these are their stage names). As an American, the cultural capital my association afforded them was priceless, so before I left the field we collaborated in producing this song in French, English, and local dialect.
“Je me bat pour mon avenir” [“I fight for my future”]: listen
Second is some footage from a capoeira class I taught during my down time at the École de Danse et d’Échange Culturel (EDEC), one of the foremost performance companies in Côte d’Ivoire which actively encourages foreign exchanges. In teaching capoeira – an art developed by African slaves in Brazil – I was able to gain entry into Abidjan’s cultural underworld as an artist in my own right.
Capoeira in Abidjan: watch
I share these pieces of myself with you as a peek into how my personal life and research blended together in ways that rubbed off on me, on my subjects/friends, and my findings – putting the “participant” in participant observation.