When, on September 13, 2021, we lost Steven Gregory, we lost an inspired and inspiring political anthropologist, one who was as committed to social justice as he was to using ethnography to show how ordinary people labor to bring it about.
Steven authored several books, Santeria in New York City: A Study in Cultural Resistance (1999); Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (1998); and The Devil Behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic (2007). The latter two earned, respectively, the Anthony Leeds Prize in Urban Anthropology and the Gordon K. Lewis Book Prize from the Caribbean Studies Association. Steven’s fourth and unfortunately last book, The Valley & the Acropolis: Power, Spatiality, and the Politics of Knowledge, is in press. The titles of these tomes offer a fine overview of the passions that animated Steven’s meticulous research. His body of work foregrounds the racial politics of space and place, as they intersect with gender and class and as they operate at a variety of scales, from the neighborhood to national and transnational spaces.
When Black Corona was published, it became an instant classic in political anthropology. Yet for Black American anthropologists its importance lay elsewhere, for here was a deeply meaningful, affirming, and profound intervention into the study of our communities, which had long been studied through the notion of deficit, itself racialized and spatialized through the idiom of the “ghetto.” Here was a loving but no less complicated portrayal of Black people’s everyday politics, in both institutional and quotidian settings. To occupy the ethnographic space of Steven’s work is to be a fly on the wall of many a meeting. But it is also to inhabit the precious cultural spaces where play and pleasure unfold and where community is created, therein shaping people’s investments in all those meetings.
The backgrounds of Steven’s parents, both deceased, found expression in his ethnographic work. His father worked for the New York City Sanitation Department and his mother was a visual artist. One of Steven’s first major publications was an article about the complicated forms of agency of a Black woman who led a clean-up campaign in her Corona neighborhood. Having earned his bachelor’s degree from Pratt University, where he studied photography, Steven put his jointly visual and documentary orientation to excellent use in his anthropological work. His photographs convey ethnographic meaning, enlivening his analyses almost as much as his verbal descriptions do. Steven’s work in the Dominican Republic reflects his interest in the artistic expression of always-complicated Black political imaginaries. His analysis of the gendered cultural politics of a telenovela production is itself art.
Against the strains of postmodernism and critiques of anthropology emanating from other quarters, Steven defended ethnography as a way of knowing the world and of understanding the politics of race in particular. In the late 1990s, Steven and I went together to an academic talk given by a famous philosopher of race. We left before the question-and-answer period. As soon as we were out of earshot, Steven exclaimed, “God bless anthropology!” As is evident in all of his work, Steven engaged the abstraction of social theory only insofar as it helped advance arguments about real people’s political predicaments and commitments—words that Steven often used. Otherwise, as with this talk, he was impatient with ungrounded abstraction.
One of Steven’s former undergraduate students, anthropologist Oneka LaBennett, offered a remembrance along these very lines. He served as a discussant on a panel she organized for the annual meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of North America, where she gave a paper titled “’She’s Mad Real’: The Politics of Consumption Amongst West Indian Girls in Brooklyn”. As LaBennett recalled, “I remember that he remarked on my interviewees’ notion of realness—a concept I was still fleshing out when I wrote the conference paper—and he said something along the lines of “It seems to me that Lacan would have us thinking about how notions of reality are fraught with contradiction. But when I think about how a teenage girl in Brooklyn might respond, I think, well, maybe f*ck Lacan!” What a very “Steven” thing to say.
Steven will forever live in the memories of the anthropological and Black studies communities he helped to build at Wesleyan University, New York University, and Columbia University. He was a great friend to the City University of New York, where he would, at a moment’s notice, show up in classrooms to field questions from students about his work.
In losing Steven, we have lost a treasure. Thankfully, his contributions—themselves a treasure—will live on forever.
(Jacqueline N. Brown)
Cite as: Brown, Jacqueline N. 2021. “Steven Gregory.” Anthropology News website, December 9, 2021.