Interview by undergraduate student Sydney Moore (2020). Major: Women's Studies. Minor: Political Science.
Can you tell us a little more about the project you’re working on this year?
My larger project, “Ill Erotics: The Cultural Geography of Illness, Sexuality, and Self-Making Among HIV-Positive Young Women in Jamaica,” is about the politics of HIV and self-making in the sexual lives and grassroots organizing of young women living with HIV as they navigate the contradictory relationship between the state, health institutions, and community organizations. This year, I am focused on chapter four of my dissertation, which explores women’s bodily experiences with illness as well as the politics and affect of mourning women living with and dying from HIV/AIDS. So in terms of work, that means building the chapter, revising it, and doing so while being in conversation with my archive and an interdisciplinary community of graduate students and faculty here at the institute.
Why did you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?
I chose this topic because I’ve always been interested in how Black women respond to illness and inequality. I started thinking about this topic while growing up in Brooklyn and working as a peer educator at Project Reach Youth, an HIV educational and arts activist organization in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In my hometown, I was exposed to the ways mainstream discourses portrayed Black people as victims of a paralyzing plague. I heard the narratives that framed young Black women as “carriers of diseases” and sexually deviant. I saw how Black Caribbeans were framed as vectors of transmission as Haitians became the only national group marked as at risk for AIDS by the Center for Disease Control (the U.S.'s official governing institution of public health). I witnessed how marginalized groups, particularly women of color, embodied inequalities. I grew interested in exploring HIV beyond its view as solely a medical condition of contagion, fear, and exclusion. I wanted to understand how Black women experience and respond to it as a social condition, a cultural reality, and a political issue. By centering an understudied topic—the cultural and sexual politics of HIV/AIDS—among an understudied population—Afro-Caribbean women—I hope to reorient the ways we understand HIV/AIDS activism, confront health inequalities, and resist state neglect and marginalization in ways that craft new forms of organizing, living, and relating to each other in intimate ways.
Why did you pick to focus on Jamaica specifically?
Jamaica offers insights on how to approach race, gender, health inequality and marginalization from a post colonial space. Although Jamaica has the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the Anglophone Caribbean and young Black women are disproportionately impacted, much of the work on the epidemic in the Americas has been centered on the United States and excludes the experiences of Afro-diasporic women. Additionally, people in the United States know little about the ideological and political contexts that contributed to the 1982 classification of Haitians as an HIV/AIDS “risk group” by the U.S. We also know very little about the continued marginalization of U.S. communities of color today. The exclusion of the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular, from studies of the cultural politics and activist history of HIV/AIDS produces an incomplete understanding of the cultural knowledge of the epidemic, its daily impacts, and its political implications for organizing, policy, and interventions in the Americas and beyond. As a research site, Jamaica provides me with a way to explore transnational connections between people, bodies, and ideas. Jamaica helps me insert the Black Caribbean and Black Caribbeans more strategically into American Studies, thereby expanding the field by including other countries throughout the Americas beyond the U.S.
What have you discovered in your research? What are some of the key takeaways?
One of the things I have discovered from my research is that young women want to be proactive about their health while also being proactive about maintaining their mothering practices, supporting other peers living with HIV, and pursuing active sexual lives. This becomes particularly challenging when public health, institutional, and state practices do not fully account for young women’s holistic and competing needs, desires, and interests. Furthermore, their sexual lives and intersectional health experiences really underscore the importance of bridging together concerns for sexual freedom to movements of gender and racial justice. This is imperative in order to get beyond the narratives of pathology that often characterize the sexualities of women of color in general, and Black youth and Black women in particular.
How does being in this environment with other fellows drive your project? What is one thing you’ve learned from another fellow?
To me, being in the group emphasizes the social process of writing and revising. Contrary to popular beliefs in the academy, intellectual work does not occur in isolation. You must engage with a community of thinkers and actors. It also emphasizes to me the importance of making my work legible to people outside of my fields. That is the only way that we can communicate across disciplines, ideologies, and perspectives in ways that allow us to generate more productive engagements with each other, as well as more relevant research that bridges the divide between scholarship and practice.
What is one choice you’re glad you made during your undergrad?
I am glad that I allowed myself to explore the humanities in its depth and richness, and not be lured into thinking that my job prospects should trump my intellectual desires. It is important that we not rob ourselves of our passions. It’s also important that we not underestimate the value of these kinds of perspectives in shaping policy, in advancing national debates, in influencing community interventions, in changing the world for generations to come (this is partly why #WeArePublicScholars means so much to me). They all build the toolkit needed to transform the world we live in today, and how we show up as individuals within it.
What advice would you give to undergraduates?
Build a village of mentors and co-conspirators. The work to reimagine how we live must occur in community. We need mentors because you don't know what you don't know. In order to understand what you need to know, what you need to ask, and the things you can explore at the various stages of your career, it is helpful to be in conversation with someone who has already been through it. The exposure to effective mentorship models is something that has shaped my development in every way as a scholar, as an activist, as an educator, as a researcher, and now as a health humanist. As you build your village, learn from each other. I know that is hard to do when you are always on the move planning and worrying about the next milestone, but one of the fundamental parts of this experience is being in a community with other people. That is not always easy to see when we are always focused on the everyday nitty-gritty of getting through and getting by. I have been there so I understand how that can undermine the larger vision of building a community of actors. When you leave here you will know people who will be in government, health clinics, academia, policy, medicine, law, and the list goes on. You can amass your energy, your expertise, your experience, and your skill to make a broad-based change. You can connect with people and build productive movements around shared goals and visions because that is the only thing that will get us through the crisis of our current political and social reality.
Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?
Because the study of humans is critical to the survival of humans. The humanities are enmeshed in our daily lives in ways that are critical to our wellbeing, to our knowledge production, to our movement building, and to our efforts to create a better present and future. When we really take a step back and look at many of the things we are going through a lot of it stems from our inability to coexist as humans in ways that are respectful, humane, and compassionate. I think that a humanities lens that is interdisciplinary and transnational can help us figure out how to not only survive but to thrive by developing connecting in deeper ways that can give rise to concrete social and political action across space and time. how to not only survive but to thrive by developing concrete social and political action across space and time.