Do you remember the best piece of advice you received while planning to do research in the Caribbean?
For the past few years, I have collected the “words of wisdom” concerned colleagues, researchers, elders in my discipline, “everyday experts,”* friends, and family members have graciously given me before, and during, my multiple research trips to Jamaica. In a recent volume of Transforming Anthropology**, I wrote about the five themes that connected these pearls of wisdom in a piece titled, "'Don't Ride the Bus': and Other Warnings that Women Anthropologists Are Given During Fieldwork." Although the individuals giving me advice seemed dedicated to thinking up ways to help me navigate unfamiliar territory, and genuinely wanted to make me feel comfortable in this space, in reality, much of their advice and warnings only worked to remind me of three things: (1) I was traveling alone; (2) I was a foreigner; and (3) I was a woman. For almost all of my advice givers, the gendered fact of Number 3 somehow exacerbated their anxiety and concern around the first two sentiments. It seemed that being a foreign woman alone in Jamaica, and the Caribbean more broadly, was somehow dangerous and problematic. Subsequently, these well-meaning American tourists, business travelers, African diasporic researchers, and Jamaican residents called, emailed, and whispered strategies to help me deal with the obstacles I would undoubtedly face.
In my article, I conclude that the advice people gave me during my research did not necessarily help me figure out how to get around Jamaica, or do my fieldwork research more efficiently. However, their advice did tell me a great deal about the ways Jamaica, and the Caribbean more broadly, are read through racialized, nationalized, gendered, sexualized, and classed lenses. Additionally, I realized that there were not enough spaces available for those completing research in the Caribbean, (particularly women), to talk about and discuss their experiences—the daily ins and outs of “doing research,” while navigating bustling city streets, crowded beaches, lively taxi car parks, jam-packed buses, and peaceful mountain towns. The silencing of these stories does not prepare our graduate students to do better research. And the revisionist histories that we often include in the texts that we write, erasing the highs and lows of our experiences, often downplay the significance of our identities and how these social markers affect our interactions with, and research about, the Caribbean.
Therefore I ask you: How was your experience of doing research in the Caribbean? What advice would you give current and future researchers working in the diverse locations that make up the Caribbean?
*I use the term “everyday experts” to describe the individuals anthropologists have traditionally called “informants.”
**Volume 17, issue 2, October 2009.
Contributed by Bianca C. Williams