CHR Fellows Think Through Democracy, Disposability, & Repair

by Kristofer Stinson

Over the course of Fall 2023, the cohort of CHR Residential Fellows discussed and presented work related to the Center's annual theme of Democracy, Disposability, and Repair. This theme called attention to the ways that forms of disposability have been characteristic (and even constitutive) of modes of social and political life. As such, the CHR asked its fellows to ponder questions such as what ways democratic modes of governance were bound up with the disposability of human and non-human life? On a more hopeful note, we wondered if democracy offered possibilities for resistance, reparation, and repair?

These are expansive, pressing questions - and it takes an intellectual community to address them. So at the end of a productive semester, CHR wanted to reflect on the ways our Residential Fellows addressed these questions in dialogue, research, and presentation. 

The first challenge of this theme is to recognize some of the very real forces of disposability at work in the world—from the displacement of peoples, to forced incarceration and enslavement, to daily encounters with extreme violence.  Associate Professor Steve Barnes's (History and Art History) new project, tentatively titled, “Bearing the Unbearable: Producing Social Worlds in Modern Mass Detention” will attempt to think comparatively about mass detention as a key tool used by the modern state to control and often dispose of populations. Furthermore, with his carefully selected case studies, he will consider the ways in which both authoritarian and democratic governments have relied upon them to enforce expectations and dispose of those deemed problematic or threatening to the body politic. 

These dynamics are present, too, in Associate Professor Jonathon Repinecz's (French and Global Affairs) project, “Toward Peacebuilding Humanities: A View from the Great Lakes Region of Africa." Prof. Repinecz is interested in bringing the insights from humanities research and the tools from conflict and resolution studies to bear in communities and regions torn by chronic violence. The project rests on a corpus of oral histories that serve to document and preserve the voices and stories of those who have experienced and witnessed violence and the disposability of family and community members; using those stories Prof. Repinecz hopes to help build a path forward from dispossession to healing and belonging. Together with peace activists in Central Africa to language, Prof. Repinecz hopes to articulate a strategy of “narrative repair” that can be used both there and in other communities disrupted by violence. 

CHR Fellow Laura Brannan Fretwell (History and Art History) provided another example of the complex interaction between the ideas of our annual theme by exploring both the perceived disposability of African American communities and also their attempts at resistance and repair through petitioning and community building. In “Forgetting the Freed: Buried Histories of Chimborazo Park in Richmond, Virginia," Laura examined the history of the creation of a local city park in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1870s that displaced an entire community of free African Americans who lived on site. As such, she demonstrated the way in which newly freed African Americans were effectively disposed of as white neighbors petitioned to have them removed from their settlement on Chimborazo Hill—but also the active resistance of African Americans, in terms of petitioning not to be evicted. in maintaining community bonds through continued affiliation with Fourth Baptist Church, and in the resettling of African Americans in the Church Hill neighborhood north of the park.

Professor Jennifer Ritterhouse (History & Art History) also examined they ways in which democracy unfolds in areas marked by discrimination in her project “Southern Feminism at Its Finest: Betsy Brinson and the ACLU Southern Women’s Rights Project.” Prof. Ritterhouse uncovers an unexpected moment of democratic activism and repair among feminists in the South. In highlighting the life of Betsy Brinson, a lesser known southern feminist and her important work on the Southern Women’s Rights Project, from 1977-1981, Prof. Ritterhouse provided a compelling study of southern feminism that was racially inclusive and dedicated to the needs of poor and working-class women. In doing so, CHR was encouraged to look for agents of repair even in places most often defined by their tendencies to treat certain populations as disposable and worthy of exclusion. 

The American South also figures prominently in the work of Assistant Professor Stephanie Rambo (English)
as the site of both extreme violence against enslaved African American girls, but also as the site to which they return, as women writers, in a reclamation of black girlhood through a critical practice Rambo describes as “de-picturing.”. "Black Girl Memory: Visual and Spatial Politics in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents" charted how Black women, writers and artists used memory across genre and time in a process of re-narrativizing their girlhood selves. In so doing, Prof. Rambo demonstrated that memory was integral to understanding girlhood as not only a tangible stage and temporal space, but a site of return and recuperation, evidencing new modes for reading and conceptualizing Black girlhood while shifting traditional ideologies around childhood. By returning to one's girlhood, black women in the American South found a powerful way to revive and relive what had been taken from them.  

Ian Sinnett similarly challenged us to look for ways democracy and repair endure even amidst chronic dispossession. Ian's project, "Hip Hop Sampling and the Aesthetic Repair of Spatiotemporal Disjuncture," focused on the New York City music scene of the 1980s to examine how the particular factors of this historical moment - e.g. the rise of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on urban working class communities, even to the point of bulldozing whole neighborhoods - shaped digital sampling’s rise as a dominant expressive and creative practice. In the process, parsed out the ways material conditions of disposability and discrimination interact with the creative practice of sampling and music production. 

In all, the CHR Fall Fellows offered us a persistent hope - that even in a world characterized by disposability—the tendency to render certain groups as expendable, harmable without repercussions, unworthy of the rights and protections offered to others in society—democracy still offers the possibility of redress. Even more, our fellows’ work helps us to see how communities themselves engage in creative acts of repair. Some of this work of hopeful repair, as CHR explored earlier this semester in an event called "Research as Repair," comes from our fellows scholarship itself. In the case of the long history of "forgetting the freed" in Richmond, for example, Laura sees here project as an intentional, much-needed remembering, recovering, and archival “repair” of the history of the freed community who once lived on Chimborazo Hill. Ultimately, our fall fellows have demonstrated that through humanities scholarship we have the capacity to change the way people see, think about, and interact with the world around them.