Thinking with Ashanté Reese: Grief as a Black Feminist Methodology

In my blog post Peer Ethnography: My Theory & Method, I think through my decolonized approach to research inspired by Black feminist theory. An example of this is the way Ashanté Reese discusses grief as methodology in her ethnography Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. As a mental state and an emotion process, grief allows her to transform an intellectual understanding of the relationship between Black death and food access into embodied knowledge.

Book cover

In her book, Reese references the work of Irma McClaurin who problematizes the way anthropology dismisses key theoretical interventions of nonwhite scholars by claiming they lack “objectivity.” Reese states, The autoethnographic approach to anthropology that McClaurin and others advocate for is essentially an approach that makes visible and embraces the fact that for some Black feminist anthropologists, there is no hard and fast distinction between “us” as researchers and “them” as the community in which we serve” (134-5). This is definitely true in my own work.

Furthermore, McClaurin addresses “the entrenched nature of authority in anthropology” which excludes feminist theoretical analysis of ethnographies and calls on Black feminist scholarship mainly for anecdotal evidence (2001: 50). Despite their academic training, Black feminist scholars speak out of what Foucault would call “subjugated discourses” because of their experiences of “multiple jeopardy” as articulated by Deborah King. Black feminist scholars also contend with what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness” – a disjointed multiplicity in how they construct, embody, and perform their personal and professional identities (McClaurin, 2001: 52).

Reese signals how the lived experience as Black women is a key component of Black feminist epistemology (McClaurin, 2001: 62). In her book Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (1991), Faye Harrison emphasizes that “knowledge-production and praxis are inseparable” and therefore, Black feminist anthropology has political effects (9). Hence, it is notable, but unsurprising that Reese’s grief over the death of Caylon, a community member in her field site becomes a methodological tool. Caylon’s passing informs Reese’s study of Black food geographies through her own affective response and embodied experience of Black death and its lurking proximity, a form of oppression Reese shares with her interlocutors. Thus, Reese calls attention to the ways in which the “unexpected death of a research participant/friend/comrade,” particularly in food studies, is not usually a methodological or theoretical consideration, but nevertheless highlights that it is a public and professional matter as much as it is a personal one (2019: 137).

Additionally, Reese recalls that a truly “participatory ethic” is what distinguishes anthropology from disciplines within the social sciences, requiring “us [researchers] to be humble, vulnerable, and willing to reorient ourselves toward things we once thought we knew” (Harrison et al., 2016). Thus, the experience of grief is considered a part of this ethic which also serves to decolonize anthropology. Black feminist praxis provides the “tools, language, and permission to experience vulnerability as part of the work, not separate from it,” making way for rich theoretical interventions through an experiential understanding of social reproduction in Black communities can be ascertained (McClaurin, 2001: 137).

As articulated in the title and contents of her fifth chapter “We Will Not Perish; We Will Flourish,” Reese demonstrates how her interlocutors’ employ creative communal tactics of self-reliance that concur with Black feminist theory and praxis that “shed a light on how to move forward” (McClaurin, 2001: 137). Reese shows how community markets and gardens have the potential to cultivate visions of Black futurity in the midst of death and destitution, particularly since most of the demographic data “signified that the community was not flourishing” (Reese, 2019: 122). Thus, the garden is a central site of self-reliance and a symbol of Black feminist self-making – as Alice Walker articulates: “in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own” (2001 (1983): 243). A well-maintained, healthy, thriving community garden symbolizes “the healthy, thriving community they wished to see” and collective responsibility over the produce fosters community survival and communal growth in the midst of loss and grief (Reese, 2019: 123).

As I work through my dissertation project on Black maternal mental health, I will continue to think with Black Food Geographies and how to integrate emotion, affect, and altered mental states into my methodology.

How does grief or emotion show up as a lens or methodology in your work?

Featured Image Description: A collage centering the profile image of a black-and-white Black woman with tears drops on her cheek. Multi-colored strips make up the background and cut out words in Spanish read, “donde antes nos rompían las palabras levantaté / hoy nos han nacido alas” which in English translates to “where before the words broke us up / today we have been born wings.”

Photo Credit: Arist @represiva

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