I teach in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and the School of Medicine at New York University. My research integrates political science, economics, history, and medical anthropology through an explicit focus on debt, slavery, insurance, forensics, and incarceration.
My 2015 University of Chicago Press book, Forensics of Capital, explores how Senegalese people determine who owes what to whom, in daily interactions and in geopolitics. In showing how discourses on debt are used to assess social standing, I trace how Senegal became a leader of political and economic reform in Africa. I treat forensics as a theory of capital as well as a theory of sovereignty that explains how people adjust social standing based on whether they receive payment for outstanding goods and services, as well as for crimes and offenses. The main argument of Forensics of Capital is that the social profile of an individual or country is a credit profile as well as a forensic profile.
I am currently at work on two books that center on slavery, insurance, and incarceration.
Life explores how the US insurance industry affixes monetary value to human life with more breadth and nuance than any scholar has yet attempted. Breaking with the consensus among historians that slave insurance is distinct from life insurance because slaves were legally classified as property, I demonstrate that life insurance was built from the legal rationale and commercial logic of marine insurance and, later, slave insurance. While previous studies of slavery and insurance have largely focused on slaves as cargo, I reveal why people who held slaves in abundance preferred to rent rather than to sell them after the slave trade to the US was outlawed in 1808. Rented slaves were usually insured so planters could recover the value of these premium human assets if they died while in someone else’s possession. So many slaves were rented by private firms and entrepreneurial individuals that, during the last few decades of legalized slavery, a thriving market in slave insurance emerged that privileged slaves in select industries: those working in the most hazardous and lucrative enterprises (coal mining, railroad construction, steamboat traffic), artisans (cobblers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights), bureaucrats (clerks), and those with proven expertise in managing domestic affairs (cooks, butlers, barbers, drivers).
If my research on insurance reveals that even people who were enslaved could inhabit social standing approximating that of dehumanized free workers, my other current book project explores how free people can be trapped in a predicament that approximates slavery. My graphic non-fiction book, Before 13th –narrated by Frederick Douglass—revises the scholarly consensus on the history of convict leasing, demonstrating that it did not begin with the 13th amendment, but several decades prior. In the decades following independence, debtors fled their obligations in places like Virginia, seeking solace in places like Kentucky. Kentucky’s first settlers erected a penitentiary soon after they arrived, inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s proposed legal reforms which sought to end the use of capital punishment for all serious offenses. Yet, when the wealthy textile merchant, Joel Scott persuaded the state legislature to lease the penitentiary to him and began experimenting with having inmates farm hemp—a crop so grueling it had only been worked by slaves until that juncture—he created the nation’s first convict lease system.
At present, I am also engaged in ethnographic research in Eritrea concerning commendations the state prepares for the families of veterans who died during more than three decades of warfare with Ethiopia in order to secure and defend independence. I am interested in the clinical practices and vernacular strategies Eritrean medical experts and soldiers use to conduct forensic analysis and to thus develop scientific explanations for cause of death. These narratives were eventually used to create the “martyr certificates” the government routinely issues to the families of the deceased. In the process, Eritreans have developed ad hoc scientific procedures for medical analysis as well as surgical techniques that combine vernacular knowledge with clinical insights and methods. “Martyr certificates” are not merely forensic objects but memorials to slain heroes. Eritreans often frame and hang them in their homes in lieu of photos of the deceased loved ones who are honored with the most sacred of all holidays, “Martyrs Day.”
I am the recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, as well as Harvard University’s W.E.B. Dubois Research Institute of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies and Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.
I have served on the editorial boards of Social Text, Souls, Disability Studies Quarterly, Sport in Society, and Cultural Anthropology. At present, I am Editor-in-Chief of Transforming Anthropology, the flagship journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists.
I am currently writing, producing, and directing animated, short, musical, “Fishing,” which explores the ingenuity of people who are incarcerated.
I built the multimedia archive, Treasury of Weary Souls, the world’s most comprehensive ledger of insured slaves