Anthropologist Aimee Cox wins Malkiel Scholarship for work on ‘slow death’

Aimee Meredith Cox
Aimee Meredith Cox

Yale cultural anthropologist Aimee Meredith Cox says that when Americans picture death in black communities, they tend to focus on incidents of sudden, lethal violence — a shooting or a deadly confrontation with police.

I’m interested in how we think about slow death,” said Cox, associate professor of anthropology and African American studies. “What does it mean when you attend a school that does not see you, does not value you, and is killing your spirit? What does it mean when you can’t find healthy foods to eat in your neighborhood? It’s the ways that people experience not just a physical death, but a social and spirit death.”

Cox, who joined the faculty last year, is working on a book project that will examine grassroots efforts in black communities in Appalachia and the Rust Belt to reimagine social empowerment, redefine success, and reverse the cycle of “slow death.”

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation recently named Cox a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Scholar — an honor awarded to junior faculty who study contemporary American society and are committed to building an inclusive campus community for underrepresented students and scholars. The award will support Cox’s initial ethnographic fieldwork this summer and fall as she evaluates potential research sites in West Virginia, Tennessee, and southern Ohio.

This grant will provide me the resources I need to do my job as a cultural anthropologist,” she said. “It will give me space to refine my arguments, establish connections in these communities, and determine where I should focus my attention. It is a gift to have this preliminary work supported, and I’m very thankful for it.”

Cox’s first book, “Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship,” shared the stories of young black women living in a Detroit homeless shelter, analyzing how they confronted the trials of daily life and engaged with and critiqued a society that granted them only partial citizenship. The book, which was based on eight years of fieldwork, won a 2016 Victor Turner Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing among other honors.

She said the idea for her second book, tentatively titled “Living Past Slow Death,” was inspired by a grassroots initiative in Jackson, Mississippi — one of the nation’s most politically conservative states — that seeks to create a robust alternative economy in the city’s black communities by forging a network of cooperative enterprises, such as an urban-farm co-op, housing co-ops, and cooperative businesses.

I’m interested in how people in a given community define community empowerment and success, especially in the Trump era,” she said. “In Jackson, people have redefined what it means to be rich, which enables them to pool their resources and develop new kinds of wealth that collectively benefit the community. What other ways are black communities reimagining and remaking how we understand political engagement and social empowerment?”

A community might define academic success differently than the mainstream practice of measuring achievement through grades and test scores, she said.

There’s a whole other set of measures that people use to define educational success that we don’t often discuss, which can look like many things,” she said. “It can be creative capacities or the ability of young people to be productive in their communities in ways that aren’t visible in the school system. It’s not that these definitions supplant mainstream definitions of success, but they are meaningful and often not in conversation with the mainstream.”

The nation’s current political climate has exposed the role of racism and structural barriers in marginalizing communities, which enables people in those communities to focus on developing new ways to address inequality, she said. 

Whereas before, much of the effort was about exposing inequity, now the conversation has moved beyond establishing evidence to thinking about community collaborations and redefining measures of success,” she said.

Cox decided to focus her fieldwork will focus on black communities in Appalachia, a region commonly associated with white poverty.

I’ve always been fascinated by what it means to be black in Appalachia,” said Cox, who grew up in Cincinnati and whose mother was raised in West Virginia. “I became curious about tracing the migration of black folks from Appalachia to the Rust Belt, which they saw as a land of prosperity in the same way that southern blacks sought opportunity in northern cities during the Great Migration.”

Despite the success of “Shapeshifters,” Cox says the prospect of researching and writing another book is daunting, as there is no template for it. She says she draws inspiration from colleagues and students on campus.

I have felt more like myself here than at any other institution where I’ve worked,” she said. “Colleagues are engaging with my work in sophisticated ways, helping me think through my ideas. It is such a vibrant intellectual space. The students are mind blowing. There are a lot of inspiring people doing transformative work. I love that.”

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548