Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures

This book of essays was the result of an Advanced Research Seminar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, NM.  Participants were myself, Robert Adams, Lynn Bolles, Aimee Cox, Dana-Ain Davis, Kate Ramsey, and Rosemarie Roberts. You can see video and other material from the seminar and our week in Santa Fe here.

This book explores Katherine Dunham’s contribution to anthropology and the ongoing relevance of her ideas and methodologies, rejecting the idea that art and academics need to be cleanly separated from each other. Drawing from Dunham’s holistic vision, the contributors began to experiment with how to bring the practise of art back into the discipline of anthropology – and vice versa.

Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture

Back Cover Copy — What does it mean to be young, poor, and black in our consumer culture? Are black children “brand-crazed consumer addicts” willing to kill each other over a pair of the latest Nike Air Jordans or Barbie backpack? In this first in-depth account of the consumer lives of poor and working-class black children, Elizabeth Chin enters the world of children living in hardship in order to understand the ways they learn to manage living poor in a wealthy society.

In order to move beyond the stereotypical images of black children obsessed with status symbols, Elizabeth Chin spent two years interviewing poor children living in New Haven, Connecticut, about where and how they spend their money. An alternate image of the children emerges, one that puts practicality ahead of status in their purchasing decisions. On a twenty-dollar shopping spree with Chin, one boy has to choose between a walkie-talkie set and an X-Men figure. In one of the most painful moments of her research, Chin watches as Davy struggles with his decision. He finally takes the walkie-talkie set, a toy that might be shared with his younger brother.

Through personal anecdotes and compelling stories ranging from topics such as Christmas and birthday gifts, shopping malls, Toys-R-Us, neighborhood convenience shops, school lunches, ethnically correct toys, and school supplies, Chin critically examines consumption as a medium through which social inequalities-most notably of race, class, and gender–are formed, experienced, imposed, and resisted. Along the way she acknowledges the profound constraints under which the poor and working class must struggle in their daily lives.

Check out my most recent Amazon review:

By Olivia Glenn on January 5, 2015

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

I only purchased this book because I needed it for my intro anthropology class, but after reading it, I’ve decided to integrate into my personal book collection instead of selling it to another student. It isn’t the most life changing book that I’ve ever read, but it does do a great deal of exploring the dynamics of agency and privilege within the lives of the children that it follows. Furthermore, it opens up a broader discussion of how these two concepts work in the lives of black people and lower income people as a whole in relation. Everyone should read this book, whether they’re an aspiring social justice worker or if they don’t believe inequality exists. Either way, it will offer you a broader perspective toward how you view the lives of others in the world and how you view your own.

My Life With Things: The Consumer Diaries — Forthcoming from Duke University Press, spring 2016

Unconventional and provocative, My Life with Things is Elizabeth Chin's meditation on her relationship with consumer goods and a critical statement on the politics and method of anthropology. Chin centers the book on diary entries that focus on everyday items—kitchen cabinet knobs, shoes, a piano—and uses them to intimately examine the ways consumption resonates with personal and social meaning: from writing love haikus about her favorite nail polish and discussing the racial implications of her tooth implant, to revealing how she used shopping to cope with a miscarriage and contemplating how her young daughter came to think that she needed Lunesta. Throughout, Chin keeps Karl Marx and his family's relationship to their possessions in mind, drawing parallels between Marx's napkins, the production of late nineteenth-century table linens, and Chin's own vintage linen collection. Unflinchingly and refreshingly honest, Chin unlocks the complexities of her attachments to, reliance on, and complicated relationships with her things. In so doing, she prompts readers to reconsider their own consumption, as well as their assumptions about the possibilities for creative scholarship.