Welcome to the publication, “Representations.” This is a project designed to bring the perspectives of a wider variety of groups to the forefront of the anthropology classroom. To celebrate Black History Month, we are covering the accomplishments of 28 Black anthropologists across 28 days. Learn more about our project; read on for the amazing accomplishments of Irma McClaurin.
Irma McClaurin is a “born-again” activist anthropologist. She began her training in 1987 as a bio-cultural anthropologist at age 37 and without ever taking a single class in anthropology. At the time she had completed an MFA in English (1976) and published a substantial amount of poetry. In 1989 she earned the MA in Anthropology under the guidance of the late Sylvia Forman, one of the founders of the Association of Feminist Anthropology and first woman chair of Anthropology at UMass Amherst.
While enrolled as a graduate student, McClaurin continued to work as an Assistant Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences Academic Advising Center. She completed her fieldwork in Belize in 1991 and was awarded the Ph.D. in 1993, supported by Ralph Faulkingham and Robert Paynter, after the death of Sylvia Forman a year earlier. Her outside member was Caribbean Political Scientist Carline Edie.
In 1996, Rutgers University Press published McClaurin’s ethnography, “Women of Belize: Gender and Change”, noted for its unusual writing style and the centrality and celebration of women’s voices. This emphasis on centering Black women’s lives in the anthropological canon was evident in the publication of “Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics” — again published by Rutgers in 2001. As renowned Black anthropologist Johnnetta Betsch Cole noted in her foreword, “no one has ever put these three words together: Black, anthropology, feminist.” In doing so, McClaurin established a new genre of Black feminist anthropology, which had not existed before, but now resonates and has influence works like Black Feminist Archaeology and others.
In 2002, “Black Feminist Anthropology” was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Title” by Choice Magazine; it is a designation only given to 600 books out of 12,000 reviewed, and rarely to an edited book. Both of McClaurin’s books are in print and she has published numerous chapters and journal articles. She is also noted for having served as Editor of “Transforming Anthropology”, and elevating it from a “publication” to the “journal” of the Association of Black Anthropologists. A prolific writer of poetry and scholarly works, McClaurin is an award-winning public author. She has published essays in Américas Magazine (Organization of American States), Caribbean Journal, Indyweek, and Insight News. McClaurin is a regular columnist and Culture and Education Editor with over 90 columns to date.
In 2015, the Black Press of American named her “Best in the Nation Columnist” and presented her with the First Place, Emory O. Jackson National Column Writing Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
McClaurin was the first permanent woman President of Shaw University in 2010, and joins a cadre of Black women anthropologists who have served as college/university presidents: the late Niara Sudarkasa, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Yolanda Moses.
In the course of her career as an administrator, scholar, and public intellectual, McClaurin has made numerous contributions — founder of the Africana Women’s Studies Program at Bennett College for Women; Associate VP & Founding Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s first Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC).
Her most recent contribution is the founding of the “Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive” (BFA)at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This initiative is a collaboration between McClaurin, the UMass Amherst Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center. The BFA will serve as an interdisciplinary repository to identify, collect and preserve the contributions of Black women. Says McClaurin, “I am building an archival ‘home’ for artists, academics, activists, and working Black women who wish to be visible in history and have their voices heard. This is my legacy to Black History and American History, and most importantly to Black women.” http://irmamcclaurin.com/
Written by Heather McIlvaine-Newsad, PhD, Western Illinois University.