She Looks Like Us
When Evelyn Johnson meets Álvero Calderon during a 1972 New York encounter, the thrill of being new to someone is exhilarating. The shine of their encounter soon tarnishes when Evelyn returns to her small southern neighborhood and Álvero settles back into his seaside Panamanian town. Still, the seeds they sow in each other’s lives grow into a tangle that draws them together. By carnival 2003, the root splits the surface and cracks open fault lines in each of their communities that forever alters the lives of both families.
Drawing on my ethnographic field research in Portobelo, Panama as well as my experiences growing up in a Black Southern “funeral home” family in Charlotte, NC, She Looks Like Us is a novel that mixes magical realism, myth, memory, and history to construct US and Panamanian characters that engage with the thresholds between their variegated hemispheric Blackness. These thresholds trouble the perceived boundaries between imagined and “real” family, between the world of the living and that of the dead, and between the truths we make into lies and the lies that we make true in the service of race, ethnicity, class, and family. Importantly, the conventions of the novel allow me a site through which to render longer scenes from my Portobelo field notes and to attend to aspects of everyday life in greater detail than did the ethnographic monograph or essays.
The Dukes and Duchesses of Black Charlotte
An Oral History Monograph and Digital Humanities Project
My next major research and creative project brings my interest in Hemispheric Blackness back to my “homeplace” of Charlotte, NC through an ethnographic and oral history-based study focused on African American men’s social club called “The Dukes Club.” Built on the principles of self-determination and cooperative economics, The Dukes Club afforded its members the ability to fellowship, travel, and exercise community through an independent, secular organization as well as construct a freestanding building that they owned, occupied, and managed. Almost sixty years later, the organization remains an active institution, and my father is one of two of its oldest remaining members. Known as “Dukes,” the male members as well as their spouses, referred to as “Duchesses,” represent a wealth of knowledge on mid-to-late twentieth century Black Charlotte from the perspective of those who witnessed its transition from segregation to integration. Using the club as its anchor, this project will focus on the mainstream and underground economies that this particular Black southern community used to create sustainable working- and middle-class lives in the midst of Jim Crow segregation as well as their experiential knowledge of the city’s transformation from textile industries to banking over the last half century. It will also examine how autonomous organizations, like The Dukes Club, created valuable local spaces for Black secular sociality during a time in which segregation limited southern Blacks’ collective leisure activities to the church, school, nightclub, or neighborhood. The Duke’s Club is a unique vehicle through which to examine mid-to-late twentieth century Black sociopolitical and economic experiences in Charlotte because its members all were raised in the city and have remained there throughout their lifetimes. Born between the late 1920s and 1940s, its members span two generations, live in predominately Black neighborhoods throughout the city, and are retirees from industries as varied as truck driving and house painting to banking and education.