MLK Day in Plaquemines Parish

A friend on the coastal restoration advocacy side of things down here in south Louisiana put up a post on social media tonight that surprised and resonated with me. She wrote, “Across the Mississippi River from this spot is Fort St. Phillip. Years ago one of the bunkers built for war was converted into a prison. The segregationist Judge Leander Perez had barbed wire, flood lights, and electric fences installed in the fortress surrounded by impenetrable swamp. He dared Martin Luther King and Malcom X to come to Plaquemines Parish. Now the ideologies that fashioned such a terrible place are being healed by time and the hard work of so many brave people that have stood up for what is right. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

I was surprised because it’s rare to hear white folks down this way make such explicit connections between the swampy landscape and the parish’s history of staunch racism. It is good to know that this knowledge is out there to be shared and perhaps used to shape work to be done in the future. It resonated with me as another clear moment in my tenure of research here where deltaic processes – swamp, inundation, accretion, subsidence – intersects with political ones – settler colonialism, racism, coastal restoration. Ft. St. Philip, like many sites in Plaquemines Parish, carries this collection of strange bedfellows as it is gradually sedimented deeper and deeper below the Gulf of Mexico. The fort served as a colonial outpost and point of defense, but the natural environment go the better of it and it sank (as did several other forts built along the lower Mississippi River). By the 19th century it was but a relic of its former self (the battle of 1812 might have been its last stand). The fort’s reputation was rejuvenated, however, under the reign of ‘arch segregationist’ Leander Perez who outfitted it as a detention center – a spot to corral any civil rights activists who dared to upset the order he set between residents of different colors and economic status in his parish. He was a millionaire arch segregationist and in desperate needs of total political power.

The legend of his civil rights prison in the swamp is no secret. A while back, I met an older gentleman one weekend on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. He happened to be from Buras, LA. Transplanted to Metairie long ago, we got to talking about the forts on the lower River. He reminisced on scavenging about Ft. St. Philip and Ft. Jackson, collecting artifacts. I asked him about Perez and the stories of his civil rights prison in the swamp. Yes, he told me. That was true. Perez even lined up cattle barges right behind this man’s house on the west bank of the river, he told me, to load activists upon to transport them across the river to the old fort. History and personal research point to the general consensus that this was largely a political stunt. He never did it, the man told me. Yet, I thought, it’s ramifications are anything but mere ‘talk.’ While certainly not the first thing most residents will talk about when I ask about the old times in the parish, Perez’s jail is a reminder of the ferocity of hatred and fear and that political power can wield. Many folks still living know these stories and some that are far darker, sharing them infrequently and only with people who, to the best of my perception, they trust want to know those stories for the right reasons.

I also had another feeling when reading my friend’s comments about Perez and how we have come a long way on MLK Day 2017 but still have a long way to go. It is the same feeling I had when crafting a syllabus on Black life in the US when I realized every week was about oppression: Economic, social, gendered, racial, emotional oppression of Black communities. Every week. And while these histories are important to expose ourselves to and learn from, one key thing was missing: Black joy. Black joy as a part of the experience of Black people in the US is something that I believe is integral to our understanding of the evolution of race relations. To have the Black experience predominately defined by the action of their oppressors – structural, societal, or political ‘bosses’ – does a disservice to our understanding of the variety and richness of an otherwise overgeneralized characterization of the “Black experience.”As an anthropologist this means teaching classic Zora Neale Hurston and Aimee Cox’s new work on dance, Black girls and resistance alongside WEB DuBois’ and Michelle Alexander on historic social and economic inqualities imposed upon Black citizens in the US.

Upriver from the colonial fort-turned civil rights jail-turned-coastal restoration project were the 2017 MLK Day celebrations in the town of Bohemia, last stop on the road following the east bank of the Mississippi River. Inside a sizable church adjacent to a 23-foot tall river levee, praise and joyous song rang out amidst celebrations of the accomplishments of civil rights activists in the parish, working during and after the reign of the arch-segregationist. Song, dance, poetry, and scripture guided the celebrations. No one talked about Perez or segregation, but they did talk about fighting for equal rights, their love for God, and for their community. Young, medium, and old showed up. Elected and unelected leaders. They read MLK’s speech on the steps of the shell of a courthouse that kept their great-great grandparents from registering to vote, celebrating their community’s accomplishments and their hope for the future. It ended with applause and, of course, BBQ and boiled crab. It was a party, a block or ‘down the road’ party. Kids swinging in the trees, men barbecuing, everyone digging into hot food and cool drinks. Black joy.

Black joy and struggle intersects in unique ways all over the US. In Plaquemines Parish it also intersects with environmental uncertainty (and its unequal distribution among coastal residents). This east bank still has a sprawling jail (another topic) although it is not Perez’s fort. But the east bank is also a place very much claimed, loved, and celebrated by the residents who call it home, not confined or defined by the symbols or actions of those who have sought to oppress and dispossess them of their livelihoods and homes. ‘Natural’ disasters, discrimination, and fluctuating economies have threatened to wipe this place and its people out many times. Every time, though, leaders emerge from the community to help them fight and rebuild the place and life they love at the farthest corners of the Mississippi River. I am very grateful to have shared this day down the road in this community and draw from their tradition, knowledge, spirit, and joy as I continue to do my best to represent their lives through my work as a scholar, teacher and friend.



Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field

Really digging on this post from Savage Minds

Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field

March 30, 2016 

…In public spaces, personal and professional, it’s surprising how often our year or so of fieldwork is alluded to as the time of our lives. In methods courses as much as published writing, we generally get the feeling the fieldworker is having a great time (when they’re not, it’s often a contained experience, reframed as educational experience). Part of it is probably natural nostalgia. Part may be the very conditions of research (an advisor once warned me to be careful what you work on, as you’ll come to love it a little either way). And part of it may be our fear of the otherwise: we’ve all read Malinowski’s diaries, and stories of enjoyment somehow suggest mutuality, as if our experience means our interlocutors felt the same. The idea is that ethnography entails loving attention, and positive affect – passion, interest, and intimacy – is what prompts, drives, and directs our research. Despite decades critiquing the romanticization of field research, we still talk about it in pretty glowing terms….Read more

Natural Infrastructures: Sediment, Science, and the Future of Southeast Louisiana

Excited to share this piece I just wrote up for the anthropology and environment society. Check it out here on their Engagements blog.

Natural Infrastructures: Sediment, Science, and the Future of Southeast Louisiana

“Losing a football field an hour”

1_historic+future land loss
“Historical and projected coastal Louisiana land changes: 1978-2050” (

Losing land at an average rate of approximately a football field an hour, Louisiana is disintegrating into the sea. Since the 1930s, the state has lost over 2,000 square miles of its coast to the Gulf of Mexico due to accelerating rates of coastal erosion and the channeling, damming, and leveeing of the Mississippi River that has cut the river off from its surrounding wetlands (Couvillon et al 2011; Barras et al 2003). Efforts to abate land loss and protect the sensitive environments of the coast reveal a host of contradictions in knowledge about the coastal landscape and its biophysical characteristics, as well as contests over how to define and design the future of this place. My current research focuses on those contradictions by examining the science and politics surrounding coastal restoration practices.

Graphic depiction of solid land compared to wetland in Louisiana included in the popular online article ‘Louisiana Losing its Boot’, 2014. This graphic is a dramatized version of a study by Blum and Roberts (2009) that estimates that 10,00-13,500 square kilometers of coastal Louisiana will be drowned by lack of sediment and sea-level rise by 2100.

Continue reading “Natural Infrastructures: Sediment, Science, and the Future of Southeast Louisiana”

Measuring the Anthropocene into Existence

This is the first part of a piece written by my archeologist friend, Scott Schwartz, for the Penn Environmental Humanities lab. You can find the full text here.


Prior to the 17th century temperature didn’t exist. Only the privileged counted the number of years they’d endured or numerically valued their wealth. The quantification of reality has a political and economic history that is encoded in the technologies that observe and produce this reality. How did the notion of reality as quantifiable become naturalized? Why did metrical concepts like temperature emerge when they did? These questions can be interrogated through the archaeology of knowledge production. Archaeology here is not a stratigraphic metaphor implying layers of knowledge. Rather, it denotes an investigation of material (as opposed to discursive) culture. (Lucas 2004) Products of knowledge like temperature or gravity have material strata that become obscured through normalization. Excavating the buried materiality of concepts, specifically studying the material culture of measurement, challenges this practice of extracting meaning from matter. Continue reading “Measuring the Anthropocene into Existence”

Infrastructure + nature

Currently working on a blog post for Environment and Society about the way recent scholarly attention to infrastructures can help anthropologists think through changing human environment relations. The triptych below was taken while visiting a restoration project that just wrapped up in Barataria Bay this summer and is part of my discussion about the different infrastructures of restoration.

Long distance sediment pipeline and marsh creation project. Monica Barra, 2015.