John Jackson is Anthroman

Anthropology is at a crossroads, and from where John Jackson is standing, there’s no direction one can turn that doesn’t lead to some sort of existential crisis.

For one thing, says the Richard Perry University Associate Professor, “The completely undiscovered territory that anthropologists prided themselves on finding in the past is gone.”

For another, “All the stuff anthropologists have done to gain their authority, other folks are doing now.” Journalists frequently beat them to the scene, and sometimes stay longer. Video cameras enable end-runs around written description and analysis, raising the question of whether traditional ethnographers are vital interlocutors or redundant middlemen. And anyone with an Internet connection knows that the kind of cultural access that used to make anthropology unique is now often available in the next chatroom.

Furthermore, Jackson argues, we are living in a “hyperscientific moment” when “human genomics and the statistical analysis of massive data sets are privileged as holy grails in the search for contemporary solutions to social problems.” Which begs the question: What can an ethnographer possibly hope to contribute?

 

The 21st century is not the first time anthropology has been in crisis, but the challenges it faces now may transform the discipline as thoroughly as the conceptual upheavals of the late 1960s, or the rise of postmodernism in the 1980s. Social anthropologists have long viewed culture in terms of ritual and performance, but the Internet is changing the context in which those things play out even more radically than older forms of mass media have. With one leg planted in the Annenberg School for Communication and the other in the anthropology department—not to mention his affiliation with the Center for Africana Studies—Jackson is right in the middle of these changes. He’s a filmmaker, an academic, and a playful commentator who uses a bespoke superhero figurine as the banner for his blog, From the Annals of Anthroman. And Anthroman is decidedly not a khaki-shorts-and-canvas-tent kind of dude.

“That we reproduce sociality through these ritualized forms of performance, that’s kind of quintessential anthropology,” Jackson says. “I think what’s new is that these aren’t just rituals that you see in a hut-community somewhere—these are rituals that once they go up on YouTube, you can see them almost immediately, halfway around the world. And people can then duplicate it in places where they would have otherwise never had access.”

In other words, communities no longer adhere within strict spatial boundaries, and sometimes a single physical place can represent very different things to different people. Both of those realities loom large in Jackson’s first major work of ethnography, Harlemworld.

“Harlem first suggested itself to me as a full-fledged field site in Jamaica, West Indies,” Jackson wrote in the beginning of that 2003 book. “It was there that Harlem jumped out at me in all of its imaginative grandeur—and not just through BET broadcasts of hip-hop music videos on local television sets or through cotton T-shirts emblazoned with Harlem’s name neatly displayed in local tourist shops … Harlem congealed for me against the heat and sand of the Jamaican coastline because of how often and matter-of-factly many Jamaicans I met there purported to possess knowledge of that not-so-distant place. Some of them had actually been to Harlem. Many constantly wrote and telephoned relatives and friends who were still there. Others had never set foot in Harlem but spoke of its symbolic import for the black diaspora in seemingly heartfelt ways.”

Sitting in his office on the second floor of the Annenberg School, Jackson muses, “There’s a way in which when you say Harlem, almost no matter where you are on the planet, thought-bubbles pop up in people’s heads about what that actually means. But at the same time, it’s in northern Manhattan in New York City, folks go through it every day, and there’s a kind of straightforwardness and connectedness to the place that some people would imagine means that it isn’t that exotic at all.

“What I like is that contradiction, or that paradox,” he continues. “That it can be both this kind of fanciful mythological space for people, and also a real, hard, tangible and inhabitable place in New York City. And I think what anthropology is trying to do as a field is figure out places like that, especially if more and more places become just that.”

 

That “if” could just as well be an “as”—and what Jackson describes is hardly limited to Harlem. When Bronislaw Malinowski pitched his tent among the Trobriand islanders in 1915, for example, their world of garden magicians and adolescent free love represented a tightly confined realm of knowledge that only a social anthropologist could claim to penetrate. Today it would be hard to find an ethnographer bold enough to make that assertion. Package tours started visiting Malinowski’s old field site in 1962, and today Papua New Guinea’s government maintains a Web page plugging the annual Yam Festival, among the islands’ other tourist attractions. 

Jackson’s current project delves still more deeply into that busy intersection of culture and mass media. After pausing to write Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness—an unusually entertaining volume whose take on contemporary racial divisions and conspiracy theories proved prescient when coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was hijacked last spring by the sensation that was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—Jackson has returned to his work on what is probably the most fascinating community you’ve never heard of in the Middle East: the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem.

In a lecture at the Penn Museum in March, he shared some of his research on the African Hebrews, which has ranged from public-access television channels in the United States, to soapbox evangelists on big-city street corners, to the Negev Desert in Israel.

The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem can be traced to Chicago, where an African-American named Ben Carter founded the group in 1966 after renaming himself Ben Ammi Ben-Israel. Ben Ammi regarded himself and his followers as descendants of “ancient Hebrew Israelites” held captive in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon during biblical times. In 1969, after a two-year spell in Liberia, he led a group of about 100 of these Black Hebrews, who addressed one another as “saint,” to Israel, which issued them temporary visitors’ visas. They installed themselves in the Negev, instituted a purely vegan diet as a means to biological immortality, and never left.

“The first time I visited them in the quaint and quiet desert town of Dimona” in 2005, Jackson says, “I was surprised to confirm that the initial 100 people had ballooned to thousands—between 2,500 and 3,500—and that these African-American immigrants, who evoked the Right of Return to justify their presence in the Holy Land, have established themselves as a recognizable if quirky segment of contemporary Israel’s multicultural landscape. They have become a little-known satellite community of contemporary black America—an intentional community that lives on its own relatively self-contained village compound. But not just there. Saints live and reside all around the world.

“This is a community based in Israel, but that is decidedly global,” Jackson emphasizes. “Right now, if you were to open up your computer and go online, they have a very sophisticated Internet presence. You can listen to the community radio station 24 hours a day. You can buy all the items they sell. You can visit various parts of the community virtually.”

The African Hebrew Israelites are themselves scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere, with satellite branches in the Caribbean, brethren in the United States, and community-development projects that they underwrite in countries like Ghana and Benin. In 1998, Vanderbilt University medical researchers found that the Israel-based contingent has dramatically lower levels of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension than African-Americans in the United States, despite their common genetic heritage. Forty years after their exodus—an event they commemorate annually in a New World Passover ceremony—the African Hebrews continue to proselytize those they left behind.

“They would argue that everything coming out of contemporary black America is pathological to its core,” Jackson says. “You name it. The music—hip-hop especially—they demonize … The food is clearly pathological, clearly destructive to the body, all the sort-of-traditional black food. African-American notions of intellectuality, African-American versions of community—everything, go down the line, they would demonize … And all of that pathology, they would argue, is a function of Israelites—Hebrews—not abiding by what they committed to vis-à-vis God’s covenant.”

Several years into his field work—which may occur in Israel one month and on his Web browser the next—it’s evident that Jackson’s tool kit has to run the gamut from religious studies to biology to media-analysis as well as the classical ethnographic method he likes to euphemize as “deep, deep hanging out.” In his view, the most compelling questions about the African Hebrew Israelites can’t be answered by human genomics or statistical analysis.

“I’m interested in trying to figure out how they created this multinational, transnational, global diaspora community—this almost empire of veganism and everlasting living—that is so completely under the radar,” Jackson says. If that means recalibrating social anthropology for an era dominated by globalization and mass media—“things ethnography was decidedly not concocted to study,” he points out—so be it. What better mission could there be for Anthroman?

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