Swedenburg, Ted. (2005). “Chapter 9: White Devil as Expert Witness.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (143-157). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Anthropology’s life outside academia and apart from academic objectives often forms and moves in ways unlike its traditional counterpart. Ted Swedenburg shows in “White Devil as Expert Witness” (2005) that the process of alternative anthropological work challenges academically legitimized practice. Anthropology and ethnography in alternative domains protrudes from and destabilizes orthodox frameworks. His piece highlights anthropology’s awkward translation into extra-academic domains, ironic for a discipline which prides itself on the ability to translate, and transfer across, differences. Swedenburg’s critically reflexive piece is a strong example of the problematics of ethnographic intervention, where discipline finds effective application only by disrupting or departing from its characteristic tenets. The work also prompts us to reflect on the success of anthropology’s efforts and the limitations and deficits of its traditional academic template.
Swedenburg’s alternative anthropology began when we was called to serve as an expert witness in a court case pertaining to prisoner’s rights. The suit against the New York State Department of Correctional Service was filed by the inmate Intelligent Allah Tarref who sought to have his religious rights legally recognized (143). This required first that the plaintiff’s community, the Nation of Gods and Earths, be recognized and instituted as a religion. It was Swedenburg’s role to draw on his anthropological expertise, perspective and practice, to convince the judge and jury that the Nation of Gods and Earths was not a gang, not a “security threat”, but rather a religious group “according to conventional understandings of the term” (146).
One blaring irony of this intervention speaks through the title of Swedenburg’s essay and its discussion should be premised by an introduction to the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE). The NGE is a community, ideology, and way of life emerging from the syncretism of “Afro-centrism, pan-Africanism, and Islamic cultural and religious influences” (144). Clarence 13x, a former Nation of Islam member expelled for his heretical teachings, was its founder (145). After leaving the NOI he changed his name to Allah and took to the streets of Harlem to a preach and proselytize his philosophies. In brief they held Black Men collectively as God and Black Woman is Earths (145). Those who recognize their divinity constitute 5 percent of the population and are the members of the NGE, hence the community’s alias Five Percent. Caucasian “white devils”, created by a malevolent scientist Yaqob, constitute 10 percent of the population who, among other evils, were spreading the teachings of Christianity and Orthodox Islam (145). The remaining 85 percent is the poor ignorant population who are exploited by the devilish 10 percent. Swedenburg, according to a fundamentalist Five Percent perspective, is a “white devil” connected to devilish academic and state institutions which confront and criminalize the NGE (145). Yet it is these institutions which supported Swedenburg in challenging the state on behalf of the Five Percent and legally legitimizing their community.
NGE membership is not easily identified, though can been seen in their rap music by a critical observer. Some of their lyrical messages are overt but most resemble apocrypha (Swedenburg 1997). Noting the signifiers of NGE membership requires familiarly with Islam and the Qur’an (Ibid). Aside from commentary on socio-political climate, NGE music is full of prayer. However, this actually sets them apart from orthodox Islamic faith which forbids sacred messages to be sung (Ibid). This illustrates one of many ways in which the NGE reflects familiar religious institutions yet differs from them radically. These unique variations complicated the state’s definition and incorporation of the NGE into legal frameworks. As NGE messages were also a challenge to identify, their textual and sonic messages could not be easily controlled, censored, or persecuted. Likely this illusiveness, along with racialisation and post-9/11 moral panic, prompted the classification of the NGE as a threatening group.
Swedenburg’s work contested the hegemonic classifications such as “gang”, which denied the recognition and rights of unorthodox collectives (143). However, this merely asserted other classifications which kept the NGE bound by hegemonic persepetives. Despite anthropology’s critique and re-articulation of the outdated classificatory system and its evaluative criteria, Swedenburg, as any other ethnographer might have, had to appeal to old discourse to communicate effectively outside the academic domain.
The intervention of the term “religion” into NGE’s identity is another point of irony. NGE is self-proclaimed a “way of life” and association with the category ‘religion’ is often protested (153). Though many of the members are Muslim they set themselves apart from the orthodox Islamic faith and the structures of religious institutions. However, they must lean on this legally recognized categorisation in order to gain recognition and (supposed) rights and protection by the state.
Swedenburg was one of many resources the judge used for adjudication. His anthropological expertise was put to the analysis of written documents rather than traditional fieldwork. However, previous research on Franco-Algerian Rai music, ‘Islamic’ African-American rap, and Isreal’s Mizrahi dance music, “’border’ musics of the middle east as well as middle eastern-inflected musics of the west” (Swedenburg N.D.) gave him authority over NGE’s evaluation. His data was selectively incorporated into the expert report, omitting some of the data which complicated the NGE’s position and was not translatable into an objective, legal vernacular.
In the end Intelligent won the law suit. But this was not primarily on account of the objective evidence produced by Swedenburg and the other witnesses. Rather, the verdict was drawn based on precedent and the judge’s subjective evaluation of sincerity of belief (152). While Swedenburg strived to translate anthropology into the criminal justice domain, the judge drew on what is a crucial but under-acknowledged part of anthropology’s practice: listening seriously to an(other); meeting them human to human.
Though this case would set a precedent for the legal status of NGE communities, individuals, and their sonic and textual communications, it did not necessarily alter public perception. No longer an “unauthorized group”, the NGE’s members on the street and in prison could practice and preach their way of life without persecution (143). But this did not disrupt the “dominant…discourses which treat young male blacks as dangerous, pathological, and violent” (150). It did, however, give to street-rapping NGE members, their Allah School, or circulated publications legal recognition and rights which would serve them in confrontations with the criminal justice system.
During the trial Swedenburg faced the question ‘have you been there?’ (149). This prompts the anthropologist to consider the criteria by which their work is legitimated. Is the discipline defined by perspective or method? Can the veteran anthropologist translate the wisdom of their field experience to understand other contexts? These are questions I cannot fully explore here, but rather I’d like to respond to the question of the Department of Criminal Services. Though Swedenburg had not been to the field referred to by the defendants, he had indeed conducted fieldwork, and a multi-sited project no less.
In order to “make effective arguments that might persuade the court to accord NGE members the same religious rights accorded to other recognized faiths” (147), Swedenburg traversed the NGE’s sonic and textual fields and, by the translation of many differences, brought them into conversation with the criminal justice system. To liaison the vernaculars, Swedenburg had to enculturate to legal language, customs, and practices, and underwent hours of ‘expert’ witness initiation. He observed and participated in the compilation of legal and cultural data, its scripting into legal narrative, testified at trial, and produced a 9 page report substantiating the plaintiff’s argument. He also studied the Allah School’s publication “The Five Percenter” (146) and drew on his own research on NGE Islamic hiphop (Swedenburg 2002a). Swedenburg had “been there”, in the fields relevant to context’s demands (153).
The ironies of Swedenburg’s anthropological intervention leads us to consider the weaknesses, limitations, and deficits of the current academic paradigm and expectations of the discipline. The knowledge produced must often be transmuted for its consumption or application in legal, state, or public domains. This may indicate that anthropology’s critical conversations about ‘otherness’, difference, and similarity are not having the impact they could, and should, beyond the academy.
Where is anthropology missing the mark? How is it that its conversations and practices, mostly relevant to critical socio-political issues, are belittled and dismissed outside the towers and texts (111) while other sciences are enticing the public with popular journal publications which broadcast discussions such as How Did We Get Four Limbs? Because We Have a Belly (Science Daily 2014), Low semen levels in mice make for fatter sons (Science News 2014), or A turkey’s wattle inspires a biosensor’s design (Science News 2014). I am not dismissing the importance of the discoveries of ‘hard science’. I only urge anthropology to find equal space in the public’s interest where it can speak to, and perhaps change some minds and discourses about difference. If this could be so, perhaps the anthropologist’s professional experience would differ from Swedenburg’s. Rather than needing to reify the constructs of its harshest critiques, the discipline could engage other domains in a dialogue open to alternative “way[s] of life” (153).
2014 How Did We Get Four Limbs? Because We Have a Belly. January 24. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140127112729.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+sciencedaily/top_news/top_science+(ScienceDaily:+Top+Science+News), accessed January 25, 2014.
2014 A turkey’s wattle inspires a biosensor’s design. January 28. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/turkey%E2%80%99s-wattle-inspires-biosensor%E2%80%99s-design, accessed January 28, 2014.
2014 Low semen levels in mice make for fatter sons. January 28. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/low-semen-levels-mice-make-fatter-sons, accessed January 28, 2014.
1997 Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent. http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/5per.html, accessed January 27, 2014.