R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor
Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also core faculty in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, holds a secondary appointment with the Graduate School of Education, and is a member of the graduate groups in English, Africana Studies, and the School of Social Policy and Practice. Prior to her appointment at Penn, she spent two years as a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for the Americas at Wesleyan University, and four years teaching in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She is the author of Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Entanglement, Witnessing, Repair (forthcoming), Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (2011), and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and The Politics of Culture in Jamaica (2004), and is co-editor of Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (2006). She is also co-director and co-producer of two films: BAD FRIDAY: RASTAFARI AFTER CORAL GARDENS (with John L. Jackson, Jr. and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn), a documentary that chronicles the history of violence in Jamaica through the eyes of its most iconic community – Rastafari – and shows how people use their recollections of the Coral Gardens “incident” in 1963 to imagine new possibilities for the future; and FOUR DAYS IN MAY (with Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn and Deanne M. Bell), an experimental documentary that juxtaposes archives related to the “Tivoli Incursion” in May 2010, when Jamaican security forces entered West Kingston to arrest Christopher Coke, wanted for extradition to the United States, and killed at least 75 civilians. Thomas is also the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston, which opened at the Penn Museum in November 2017. Thomas has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals across the disciplines.
As someone who has been interested in what new forms of community, subjectivity and expectation are produced by violence, and in how these are expressed and mapped, Thomas is currently working on two projects that continue to probe these issues, though in very different ways. The first continues from her investigations of the 2010 “Tivoli Incursion” in West Kingston. In the wake of that event, a team of internationally-based forensic pathologists was invited to observe and provide procedures for the autopsies being performed. Because there was no local cadre of forensic pathologists (the Jamaican government has historically contracted with doctors from South Asia to work in this field), one member of that team subsequently established a fellowship to train graduates from the University of the West Indies Medical School in Canada for a year, with the goal of developing a Jamaican team of doctors able to serve in this capacity. Thomas is exploring this emergent phenomenon in relation to long-standing anthropological and Africana Studies approaches to rituals oriented toward tarrying with the dead. She has also begun a project on contemporary Chinese investment in Jamaica, and is interested in how China’s growth throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean must be seen in relation to broader shifts away from a taken-for-granted dominance of the West.
Prior to her life as an academic, Thomas was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Women, a company that is committed to using art as a means of addressing issues of social justice and encouraging civic engagement, and that brings the untold stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community. Thomas was also a Program Director with the National Council for Research on Women, an international working alliance of women’s research and policy centers whose mission is to enhance the connections among research, policy analysis, advocacy, and innovative programming on behalf of women and girls. She was editor of the journal Transforming Anthropology from 2007-2010, and is currently on the Editorial Committee of the Caribbean-based journal Social and Economic Studies. She is the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association, for which she has also co-edited the Visual Anthropology Section. She was a member of the Executive Council for the Caribbean Studies Association from 2008-2011, was Secretary of the Society for Cultural Anthropology from 2010-2014, and currently sits on the board of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD).