In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.
by Alexander Rocklin
I was on an airplane back home to Chicago from Trinidad and Tobago last summer, after a layover in Miami. Summer is the only time during the year I have to read for pleasure and I was enjoying Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym. In order to avoid distraction on planes I typically listen to music while I read. However, this is often not an effective deterrent to interruption. We were about halfway through the flight when I noticed that the woman sitting a seat away from me was gesticulating and mouthing in my direction “Oh wow! What is that?” She was gesturing toward the inflight entertainment. I removed only one ear bud and holding it up I told her the program was NBC’s obstacle course extravaganza, American Ninja Warrior. She used this moment of at least one unblocked ear canal to start up a conversation, asking the what do you do question.
I don’t typically give much thought in my reply to this question because in my experience people have not shown much interest in what I do (on airplanes at least, not while doing research in Trinidad, where people are curious and confused by a white guy from the US studying things East Indian). When I told her I was a historian of religion who studies Hinduism and Islam in the Americas and was going to start as a visiting professor in religious studies her eyes lit up. She told me she was coming back from a summer mission. Our discussion meandered between her work, American Ninja Warrior, and the book I was reading. I shared with her my plans to go on the job market in the fall and all of a sudden I felt a jolt as she grabbed my arm with one hand, put her other hand on my shoulder, and began to pray over me. She asked her god to help me with my move to Oregon and with my coming job search. I awkwardly thanked her.
When I told her I was coming back from doing research in Trinidad, she said was coming from the Dominican Republic and that she had been to Mexico the year before; that there was a lot of work to be done in the field in Mexico. She informed me that many of the people there had given up Jesus and eternal life to worship Death and Satan! I asked her if she was talking about the Catholic folk saint Santa Muerte. I explained that most devotees of Santa Muerte identified as Christian and did not see themselves as worshiping death. She was for many just another saint, if a particularly responsive but unofficial one. She looked at me as I spoke, but transitioned without comment to tell me about her work in the DR. As she was talking the calendar app on my phone began to buzz. I absentmindedly took the phone out of my pocket and dismissed the reminder. As I did so my seatmate’s eyes went wide again as she saw the background on my phone, an image featuring a glaring demon with protruding fangs from the cover of a late 19th century book on “obeah,” popularly defined as African Caribbean magic.
She immediately went back to her ninja warriors. I looked over at her for a moment and then went back to Pym.
At the level of the airplane conversation (at the least), given how cursory they often are, I wonder how much control we really can have over how our seatmates identify us and understand what we do/say (and vice versa). And our desires and intentions (when/if those can be consciously and coherently articulated and determined) only take us part of the way. Our projects of identity confection are hardly the only things that make us. There are things and bodies beyond what we would call ourselves that get caught up in making us “who we are” in a given context, despite how we construct ourselves. The novel Pym’s protagonist is Chris Jaynes, a college professor who identifies as Black. However, he has very light skin and is identified as white—and his African American associates are taken to be his slaves!—by [spoiler alert] the novel’s titular character. Initially, in Jaynes’ case, it was his skin that Pym assumed told him something important (given his antebellum point of reference). But also the Victorian explorer interpreted him in relation to Jaynes’ travel companions in order to make sense of him. We and our flightmates have a variety of frames that order our interactions, constrain but also make possible some sort of understanding of the world and where we might fit in it. But the various elements can change and shift. I went from anonymous neighbor to fellow worker in the Latin American missionary field to likely worshiper of Death and Satan (!) in the span of little over half a dozen minutes. Or at least that was my take on our interaction. Different people will situate us differently using different things—different bits of our bodies, who and what we associate or are associated with, in their work of identifying us. The information I provided but also the background image on my phone helped to shift the ways in which I was legible for this woman, in apparently startling ways.
Though neither missionary nor obeahman, I will take whichever of these identifications affords me the most quiet time for reading.
Alexander Rocklin is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Willamette University. He completed his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His research interests include colonialism and the politics of the category religion, religion and race, and histories of Hinduism, Islam, and Afro-Atlantic traditions in the Americas. His work has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and the New West Indian Guide.