An interview by Jenny Davis for The Wesleyan Argus.
Walking into University Professor of Anthropology Gina Athena Ulysse’s hexagonal office in the Anthropology building is like entering another world. Books line three full shelves and are piled up on the floor, tables, and desk, and an entire wall has been devoted to a colorful collage of posters, photographs, and a timeline of activism at Wesleyan. Ulysse sat down with The Argus ostensibly to chat about books, but the conversation flowed from activism to her noted performance art to that time when President Barack Obama listened to her speak for four full minutes.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelves?
GAU: I think more than I need to have on the bookshelf! There’s so much. And you should see at home…it’s worse. Books that I’ve read, that I need to read, that I plan to read. You know I’m an anthropologist, so lots of ethnographies, cultural studies, black studies, feminism, and then materials on teaching and pedagogy. I’ve also lots of history as well. I consider myself an anthro-historian; the work I do has always been grounded in history.
A: What about the wall of art?
GAU: That art wall—that’s my history at Wesleyan. I’ve been here 15 years. Ancient history! I have the Wesleyan activism timeline. There are pieces from my very first year here. These are mostly announcements and posters of events on campus. Some I attended, participated in, or helped organize. Others are speakers I brought to campus. Posters from invited events held elsewhere. I have an active public presence on other campuses. My grandmother’s photo is on the wall. Former students. My picture with Obama is on there.
A: What were the circumstances of that meeting?
GAU: Oh! In ’08. That was the year I got tenure. I met him because Jamaica Kincaid, who’s a writer, was awarded an honorary degree at graduation. I was asked to introduce her. So Obama got to listen to me. In one of my favorite pictures, I’m facing this huge crowd introducing Kincaid, and he’s listening. That was before he became president, but still: President Obama got to listen to me for four minutes!
A: Which books are currently on your nightstand?
GAU: Well, one of my favorite writers is Walt Whitman. Love Whitman. I have lots of poetry. I’m one of those people who’s very cautious about what I read at night. I don’t want to read anything that will upset me, so I create a bubble around myself. Who do I have? Whitman, Audre Lorde, Alain de Botton. I also have Rumi and Césaire. And Thich Nhat Hanh. Love Thich Nhat Hanh. I have lots on mindfulness around to keep me a bit more present. The thing I read—my guiltiest pleasure—is Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. I have read every single one. Love them. I don’t know when the next one is coming out, but I get them, and in two days, I’m done.
A: What are you working on right now? I know you’re a poet, a performance artist, and an anthropologist.
GAU: Well, I think with respect to my writing and performance, there’s two new works. I started a spoken word project called BlackLiberationMash-Up. It’s a remix of excerpts of black liberation texts from the 19th century to the present, which I turned into a long narrative. Nicole Stanton, [Chair of the Dance Department], and I got together, she added choreography, and we’ve been working with a couple other dancers juxtaposing the text to her movements. We showed it in Brooklyn, which went very well. We performed the work at a black arts conference at Dillard University in New Orleans in September. We were recently accepted to yet another conference on generative arts in Florence, Italy in December.
My other work is a book of essays on pedagogies and diversity matters in universities. I wrote “Pedagogies of Belonging” last year during the national student uprising. As you know, fieldwork is significant to anthropology, especially long-term. So my first book, “Downtown Ladies,” based on my dissertation research, was a study of female traders who did import/export in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. The second, “Why Haiti Needs New Narratives,” came from years of thinking about representations and teaching my Haiti course here.
A few years ago, it dawned on me I have been doing extensive research, as a participant-observer at Wesleyan. Yes, “I’ve been in the field at [a] historically white institution for the last 15 years! I’m an expert at this!” It is a place not made in my image, where I live my outsider-ness, figured out how to navigate it—somewhat successfully, at times—and have knowledge of the complexities and oddities of institutional culture. I’m very curious about how places like this keep recreating themselves. I now see Wesleyan as [a] historically white institution that has yet to recognize the parameters of its white shadow. Isn’t that lyrical? It is really weighed by its long history and in so many ways, it is unconsciously conscious—unable to fully see itself yet. I must give shout out to Carl Jung. Until that awareness happens, is truly understood, and owned, substantive shifts will less likely occur.
A: Where do you intervene in this unconscious white shadow, especially in the classroom?
GAU: Because I teach challenging subjects, when I make interventions, people who have taken my courses know I begin with the premise that we have to accept each other where we are, not where anyone thinks they should be. Patience is key if one is committed to a transgressive pedagogy. You have to be able to recognize difference, accept it, figure out innovative and humble ways to engage with it, and also let it be if you wish for moments of authentic engagement. Otherwise learning cannot possibly happen. There must be commitment to ground rules, some uncomfortability and mindful presence to recognize that it’s not personal. That’s real tough. But if you—student—don’t make an effort to step out of that, you’re missing an opportunity for engagement. I, too, must be ready to be challenged by my students. Many a time, Paolo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” has come back to haunt me.
I grew up under a dictatorship, then became an activist after our migration. I became an American citizen years ago, so I take my rights and freedom of speech seriously. I went into the academy as an activist, and I’ve managed to still hold on to parts of that, which has not been professionally easy. I often tell people, “I didn’t go through this, so you could, too. You still have to fight, sure, but I’d like yours to be a different one.” I do my part. That’s what working in solidarity is: thinking of change and transformation together, as a long-term process. It’s a relay. Getting older, I also know when it is time to walk away. Life is much too short.
A: What books excited you as a child? Looking back, what do you think of those books?
GAU: Oh, my God. “Martine”! Because I grew up in Haiti. I read the “Martine” books—let me Google! [Jumps up and runs to computer]. And I read “Tintin” before I realized it was really, really fucked up in terms of post-coloniality. [Laughs]. And “Babar”! I loved “Babar.” I did not grow up with my little anti-colonial decolonized mind all ready-made. It took a lot of conscientization (Shout out to Friere again). It’s the context of migration, for me. What happened when I came to the U.S., right? Learning a new language. But oh, my God. And then, of course, “Le Petit Prince.” [Types on computer]. I have not seen the covers of these books in ages. There you go, “Martine Fait la Cuisine”! You just made me relive my childhood. Thank you! Oh, my God.
A: Which other languages do you speak? What’s the experience of reading in different languages?
GAU: I speak French and [Haitian] Kreyòl, oh and a little Swedish from my junior year abroad. I better start being serious about learning Spanish. I’m ashamed of the fact that I do not speak Spanish—yet. I still read in French, and in Kreyòl. I have a lot of poetry in French. Reading in these languages bring me back. In fact, my last book, I was adamant that it be trilingual. Thankfully, it was translated into French and Kreyòl, because translation is a social justice issue. People must have access to the work. This book focuses on issues of representation in the media. I kept thinking, “Oh, the people I’m talking about can’t even read it,” that would have been so fucked up to me.
A: I’ve read a little bit about your work, and something that stood out to me was your focus on viscerality: the way things feel in the body. Where did that come from? What’s the relationship between feeling and reading?
GAU: That’s where the performance comes in. The commitment to viscerality is about performance, why I’m so dedicated and have made a complete turn to it. That’s what I do now.
It’s been a slow process since 2001. I was performing as an undergraduate and a graduate student. I could say lots about my professional development and how I situated myself within academe. When a discipline has difficulty embracing its humanistic side because it undermines the social science part, what do you do as a spoken-word anthropologist? Sure, it’s cool. Now. Twenty years ago? It was like beating my head against a brick wall. This goes back to what we discussed about the unconsciousness…the shadow. Sometimes, there’s such a disconnect. We can be so disembodied as intellectuals. This divide of the cerebral from the visceral…if you’re a “scientist,” you’re definitely not an embodied being, but if you’re an “artist,” sure, but no one is as certain of your intellectual abilities. And I am a self-assured Black woman. Well, that complicates everything!
This old binary maintains some of the fragments and fractures that are crucial for the academy to keep functioning. Who has the investment in disciplinary lines? No subject lives their life along disciplinary lines. When you’re breathing, living, working, nobody says, “You’re having an economic experience right now,” or “You are having a biological one in the next moment.” You’re having a totality of experiences that don’t fit neatly into these academic categories. The function of disciplines is an institutional one. My thing with viscerality is loyalty to interdisciplinarity: to take and recognize the subject that’s been split in the academy and make it more whole.
A: How do you bring that viscerality to spoken word?
GAU: It all comes out of the pipes. People ask me if I dance, and I say, “No.” But it’s very visceral. I chant and play with the tones in my voice. It’s skill, right? I chant a lot. Chanting opens portals. It’s part of Buddhist practice—any spiritual practice has some chanting. I use Vodou chants. The whole point is…you’re commanding a space and can invite an audience to really be in that space with you. So, I engage with it in ways I hope will inspire. I don’t necessarily need to move. I need to know how to expertly, and rather strategically, use my voice to keep people present with me. The interesting thing I’ve figured out through my practice is what it means to take my time. What it means to really work with time, and sometimes a little bit against time. Once you have an audience, and you’re fortunate enough that people want to be your audience, it’s a gift already.