This year the SANA Prize for Distinguished Achievement in the Critical Study of North America was awarded to Lee D Baker. Currently, Baker is associate vice provost for undergraduate education, dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts and sciences, and professor of anthropology and African and African America studies at Duke University.
At the award ceremony, which took place during SANA’s annual business meeting during the AAA meetings in Chicago, Baker spoke of the importance of having an intellectual home to sustain oneself as a scholar. For him, SANA has long been one of those homes, having served as both president of the section and at-large board member. In these roles, he helped to bring the section into critical and productive conversations with other AAA sections, including the ABA. His contributions to both the section and the discipline over the course of many years have been profound.
Baker’s books and articles have informed critical debates on the history of science. In particular, his work has shed important light on the role of the social sciences in shaping racial taxonomies in the US and their lingering effects on North American society. He is the author of two books, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954, published by UC Berkeley Press in 1998 and Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Duke University Press, 2010). He also edited the volume Life in America: Identity in Everyday Experience (Blackwell Publishing, 2003). In From Savage to Negro, Baker uses two key court cases, Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education as bookends. He demonstrates the role that intertwined developments in law, politics, the constitution and the meaning of racial categories played during this transformative period in American history. In Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture, he demonstrates the social and political impact of distinct ethnological treatments of Native American and African Americans around the turn of the 20th century. Announcing the award, SANA President Julian Brash noted that, “In these two books Dr Baker succeeds spectacularly in accomplishing something many anthropologists have attempted: elucidating in great specificity the ways in which anthropological analysis both produces and reflects the broader social, political, and cultural context.”
His contributions extend beyond the academy. In recommending him for the prize, a notable group of Baker’s former students and colleagues note that, “Professor Baker’s work is distinguished for tracking racial categorizations not only in the history of anthropology, but in American culture more broadly. Professor Baker makes a powerful case for the centrality of social scientific research in the shaping of American life and politics. This emphasis not only sheds crucial historical light on the anthropology of race and racism, it also, and perhaps more critically, enables us to understand the ways such scholarly work can be used and misused in the public sphere.”
His work on the African Diaspora and in black studies further emphasizes the role black intellectuals and institutions have played in advancing anthropological theory, legal casework and, ultimately, social change. Baker’s own public engagements reflect this intellectual tradition, bringing his rigorous scholarly insights to bear on public debates and contributing to new public institutions, like the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center, which memorializes the lives of enslaved African Americans in Lower Manhattan. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Durham Herald Sun and he has made numerous appearances in documentary films and news outlets, speaking on issues of race, education and the history of anthropology. Through these public engagements, he brings debates on race in America, “post-racialism,” multiculturalism, and the history of racialization to broader audiences without abandoning his own rigorous and careful historical analysis.
In addition to his pioneering research, Baker’s commitment to teaching, mentoring and service make him an excellent example of what it means to be an engaged scholar both within and outside of the academy. His teaching has inspired numerous graduate students who comprise the next generation of anthropologists. The SANA membership was delighted to recognize Baker’s many contributions with this prize.
Maggie Dickinson is the contributing editor for SANA’s Section Notes. Please send inquiries and ideas for future columns to email@example.com.