On Monday, April 25, students, faculty, and community members gathered in Beckham Hall for a lecture, discussion, and book signing by Aimee Meredith Cox, a cultural anthropologist and tenured professor at the University of Fordham. Her talk titled “The Ethnography of Writing Yourself In…and Out,” discussed her book “Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.”
Cox is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of African and African American studies at Fordham University, Lincoln Center. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan, and she has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Center for the Education of Women and the Ford Foundation.
Professor of Anthropology Gina Ulysse introduced Cox and described the challenges of being a young black woman getting a Ph.D. in anthropology.
“When you’re a black woman getting your Ph.D. in anthropology, you’ve gone through the ringer,” Ulysse said. “[Cox is] not just talking about shapeshifting, she’s living her shapeshifting.”
Cox began her talk by asking for a moment of silence to acknowledge the collective energy in the room.
“I just want to take a few seconds for us to acknowledge the fact that we are here, all of us here collectively,” Cox said. “That there are a of lot people who supported us, loved us, and sacrificed so that we could be here today and that we are holding this space together.”
Cox then described her work.
“I’m a cultural anthropologist…for me what this means, in perhaps the most concise terms, is that I’m interested in how we shape the world and how the world shapes us in a very basic way,” Cox said.
Cox studies the young black girl demographic. She examines how popular narratives shape the girls’ lives.
“Black girls are largely framed in narratives that highlight their risks,” Cox said. “They’re potentially at risk for a long list of social ills and potential personal failings…. What undergirds both of these discourses is resiliency. Resiliency is almost synonymous with black girlhood.”
Cox worked at and did her research at a shelter in Detroit, which in her book she describes under the pseudonym Fresh Start. The shelter serves women between the ages of 15 and 21-years-old, many of whom were there for the same reason. Cox asked members of the audience to imagine the common cause that sent women to the shelter.
“Abuse,” said one student.
“Rejection from being queer,” said another student.
“Pregnancy,” said a third student.
Cox said that the students’ answers were not wrong, but when 89 percent of women described why they were in the shelter, it was because their homes were too crowded. When a house had too many bodies, it was the body of the teenage girl that was asked to leave. It was assumed that the teenage girl was resilient enough to find her own way.
While researching at the shelter, Cox interviewed the women as well as their families. It was important to work with the girls’ families because homeless shelters tend to isolate the girls.
“Institutions like homeless shelters can isolate individuals,” Cox said. “I argue that it is even often foundational to their work when the communities and families these individuals come from are perceived to be dysfunctional or even pathological.”
Cox worked particularly closely with one family—the Brown family, including Janice, her sister, and cousins—in order to understand their family history and their experience with the shelter and with Detroit more generally. Cox learned that the girls’ grandmother, Bessie, had migrated from Alabama to Detroit after her two twin brothers, Simon and Samuel, had already done so and were making money on music. When Bessie arrived, her brothers did little to help her and it was difficult for her to find jobs. This pattern of insecure work continued for Bessie’s daughters, who took on multiple part-time cleaning jobs and performed back-breaking labor to care for their families. The women of the Brown family were unable to pursue an artistic way of life like Simon and Samuel had.
Bessie’s grandchildren used the term “struggly” to describe the experiences of their grandmother and mothers. It was different from “a struggle,” “the struggle,” or “struggling through.”
“‘Struggly’ was doing these same, difficult, hard things with no promise of reward,” Cox said. “Struggly required strength to get by, but does not offer strategies to get out. Struggly leaves no room for creativity, dreaming, experimentation, self-making or expression of pleasure. Men may struggle, but it is women who are struggly.”
Cox said that the adult men in the Brown home rarely contributed money or help and were not expected to do so. The bodies of men hold an intrinsically higher value than the bodies of women because they represent the potential for income. As more men moved in, the bodies of the teenage girl were pushed out or they left on their own.
Cox said that many of the women in the shelter had left home because of entitlement.
“To Janice and her cousins, entitlement means having the right to recognize the value of people over property or resources and takes for granted that individual actions always have consequences for the larger community,” Cox said.
Cox also said that Janice’s decision to leave was seen as disobedient by her family. They said that she had plenty of homes to live in, even though these homes were overcrowded and unsafe.
“[The girls at the shelter] understood that they did not have to be sleeping on sidewalks or covered in newspapers at storefront entranceways to be properly homeless,” Cox said. “They also knew that home should be more than basic shelter from the elements and wanted this more than space, not just for themselves, but for their mother and grandmother as well.”
While the women were in the shelter, they enacted change. First, they demanded that the maximum length of stay be extended from three months to one year. A longer stay would allow the women to secure a more stable living situation and reduce re-entry to the shelter. However, one potential problem could be that if women began staying longer, fewer women could then be served by the shelter. This would reduce the number of women served in reports to the state, and funding for the shelter could potentially be reduced.
The second demand made by the women in the shelter was that relocation assistance be more readily given. The shelter’s policy was restricted, in that funding would only be provided to those who were moving back into homes with certain sanctioned relationships. The women’s efforts strove to redefine the acceptable relationships that could receive relocation funding.
The third thing that the women did was start “BlackLight,” a creative, political performance project that approximately five young women in the shelter started on their own. They practiced in a large activity room at the shelter and used creative forms such as dance and writing to express what they were experiencing. These creative processes allowed the women to create a different sort of political narrative beyond themselves.
These young women would perform on a sidewalk until a crowd had gathered. They would then freeze and ask a spectator to take a slip of paper from a hat. The paper contained statistics about the struggles the women faced. When a conversation was started, the women would resume their performance.
Cox said that these women, who had worked through the system, were best suited to make changes to the system. She described shapeshifting as the desire of institutions to fix a person while the person desires to fix the institutions.
To conclude her talk, Cox read a brief section of her book, held a short question and answer, and conducted a book signing.