Deborah A. Thomas

Feb 26, 2021

Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation

Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair

Duke University Press 2019

How can ethnographers use multimedia presentations of their work to reach new audiences, build different relationships with their participants, and promote new practices of witnessing and representation? On today’s episode we talk with Dr. Deborah Thomas, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She tells us about her collaborative and multimodal project, Tivoli Stories (tivolistories.com), based on the 2010 police and military incursion into a West Kingston community in search of a notorious drug trafficker and community don that left at least 75 dead. 

The project includes a documentary film titled Four Days in May, a museum exhibit, and the 2019 book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Entanglement, Witnessing, Repair (Duke UP, 2019). Deborah explains how a background in dance led her to become an accidental anthropologist with an interest in both sovereignty and experimental ethnographic practices. She then discusses the Tivoli Stories project, describing how collaborative attempts to gather testimonies of the incursion led to first a documentary and then her book. She takes us behind the curtains for some of the simultaneously aesthetic and political choices of the film and book, including the use of portraits to humanize participants as distinct from the common images of suffering that may be termed ghetto porn. Her reflections offer a concrete and insightful look at an alternative means of ethnographic practice attuned to the lives, experiences, and politics of the communities we study.

Alex Diamond is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Texas, Austin. Sneha Annavarapu is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago. Dr. Sneha Annavarapu is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago.

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