----------------------------------------------------------------- File created 2/26/96 by The Gazette Newspaper of Record for The Johns Hopkins University Volume 25 / Number 22 / February 26, 1996 ----------------------------------------------------------------- A Black History Month Feature: Growing Pains Leslie Rice ------------------------------------ Homewood News and Information In America, it's a familiar story: My great-grandfather came to this country with just the shirt on his back, and it was ripped. Even his shoes had holes in them. He worked 48 hours in a 24-hour day for a paltry 75 cents an hour... We are a country with an intense interest in suffering. And rarely is suffering considered more a virtue than when it is identified with the struggles of ethnic groups as they enter mainstream America. Last Tuesday, Homewood visiting anthropologist Brackette Williams looked at our preoccupation with pain in a talk called "The Pain of Ethnic Growth." The talk, the second of the new Frederick I. Scott Jr. Discussion Series, named after Hopkins' first black graduate, was part of the Black Student Union's Black History Month program. "Suffering has become an important buzzword in the construction of a national history," Williams said. "And for ethnic groups, it is very important to demonstrate and to be able to prove what they have gone through to get here." Williams touched on a wide range of issues dealing with race and ethnic identity and raised questions like, How does one perceive one's own suffering against the backdrop of one's ethnic group? When is suffering virtuous? "Paul Gilroy argues that 'suffering confers no virtue on the victim--yesterday's victim may be tomorrow's executioner,'" she said. On the other hand, she notes, in this country, it is important for ethnic groups to demonstrate that their people have not been a drain to the nation, that their cultural history has proved they as a group can sustain themselves against the unjust. How long does it take, she asked, for an ethnic group to earn its place in the mainstream or among the elite? And why do they become victims of a backlash if they take those places prematurely--before what those in power consider the proper time? "As ethnic groups move through the economy, they celebrate all their 'firsts,' " she said. "The first doctor, the first lawyer and so on. And when the counting becomes obnoxious, then they can stop." On a year's leave of absence from the University of Arizona, Williams is revisiting Hopkins for the year--she received her doctorate here in 1983--to teach and complete the final edits of Women Out of Place: The Gender of Agency and the Race of Nationality, a collection of essays she has compiled from a panel of anthropologists. The book examines how the roles of women are shaped by the development of nations. It is due out in August by Routledge Press. Appearing in the collection will be a study by Williams on Afro-Guyanese men and women and another she co-authored that examines the role of gender in Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. She is working on a book called "Just Yesterday Talking to Tomorrow: Studies in Guyanese History and Ritual." And just so she can stay completely busy, she is writing her next manuscript, "E Pluribus White: The Culture of Invisibility and the Race of Citizenship in Discourse on Multiculturalism in the U.S." For the past several years, Williams has focused her research on Guyana, but she has a range of interests almost exhausting to think about. She has studied the homeless in Manhattan and Queens in New York and in Tucson, Ariz. She has studied the elderly in rural Alabama and continues to examine cultural identities among ethnic groups in the United States. Williams has been aware of the spaces between cultures all her life. A child of migrant laborers in the Southwest, she grew up in a multiethnic environment, while her family worked among Mexican, Native American and, occasionally, other black families. Endlessly on the road, she suspects she learned to read by the enormous billboards that punctuated the highways of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. "I cannot remember not being able to read," she says. "Sometimes I think there is this false notion about the impoverishment of poverty. There were always things for us to read. They were always cast-offs and usually out-dated and old, but we always had newspapers and magazines to read." She counts herself lucky to have attended a school surrounded by a lucrative copper mine, so the expenditure per child at the school was above the norm, and the school brimmed with highly motivated teachers. Those teachers worked with the migrant laborers' children on an individual basis so even if a student attended school only 60 to 100 days a year between farming seasons, that student didn't necessarily fall behind. "They must have been a special group of teachers because they put up with me," says Williams. "I was a pretty obnoxious kid, and they reacted to me with a healthy mix of tolerance and punishment. And in the back of my mind I always knew that the worst form of punishment would be to kick me out, and I definitely didn't want that. I mean, where would I create trouble if I didn't go to school?" During her sophomore year of high school, Williams won a scholarship, which allowed her to attend a predominantly white, middle-class boarding school. "It was then that the world looked very strange to me. I couldn't believe that people lived that way," she says. "Then I lived in a predominantly black environment, and even that, too, was strange to me." She graduated from Cornell University in 1973 and received a master's in education in 1974. She was studying for a doctorate in human development at the University of Chicago when she realized that her most exciting courses were in anthropology. In 1976 she transferred to Hopkins and enrolled in the anthropology graduate program. "Ultimately I'm interested in the individual, but I'm more interested in where the individual falls within the community," she said. In a way, Williams has been an anthropologist all her life; her observations as a child of a migrant worker family were her first field research. "I never thought of our life as good or bad. It was just something we did," she said. "But I was very much aware of how certain ethnic groups were treated; how some were punished for speaking Spanish, how some flowed in and out while others never could. And I was very much aware of power, the power the white managers and landowners could hold over others. I don't think it is at all necessary to have lived that kind of life to become a good anthropologist, but I do know that I have been conscious of those issues all my life."
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