R. Jean Brownlee Term Professor
Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also core faculty in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, holds a secondary appointment with the Graduate School of Education, and is a member of the graduate groups in English, Africana Studies, and the School of Social Policy and Practice. Prior to her appointment at Penn, she spent two years as a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for the Americas at Wesleyan University, and four years teaching in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She is the author of Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Entanglement, Witnessing, Repair (2019), Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (2011), and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and The Politics of Culture in Jamaica (2004), and is co-editor of Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (2006). She is also co-director and co-producer of two films: BAD FRIDAY: RASTAFARI AFTER CORAL GARDENS (with John L. Jackson, Jr. and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn), a documentary that chronicles the history of violence in Jamaica through the eyes of its most iconic community – Rastafari – and shows how people use their recollections of the Coral Gardens “incident” in 1963 to imagine new possibilities for the future; and FOUR DAYS IN MAY (with Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn and Deanne M. Bell), an experimental documentary that juxtaposes archives related to the “Tivoli Incursion” in May 2010, when Jamaican security forces entered West Kingston to arrest Christopher Coke, wanted for extradition to the United States, and killed at least 75 civilians. Thomas is also the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston, which opened at the Penn Museum in November 2017. Thomas has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals across the disciplines.
As someone who has been interested in the afterlives of imperialism, in the forms of community, subjectivity and expectation that are produced by violence, and in how these are expressed and mapped, Thomas is currently working on a couple projects that continue to probe these issues, though in very different ways. The first concerns the “Death of the West,” its models of sovereignty, and its conventions of knowledge production. She is mapping this epochal shift through two contemporary Caribbean phenomena. The first has to do with the massive investment by the Chinese state and Chinese companies into infrastructures and consumer markets throughout the Caribbean. She is interested in these processes as harbingers both of a displacement of earlier colonial and imperial Western hemispheric relations, and as a reconstruction of pre-modern modes of empire-building. Thomas follows the multi-faceted attempts to construct a deep-water port and logistics hub in Jamaica at various sites, and is interested in the forms of activism these attempts have produced, as well as in the rumors that have circulated in their wake. The second site through which she is investigating the death of the West is the dismantling of modern sovereign notions of law and policing toward the hegemony of a risk-oriented security strategy that is tied to agendas related to urban renewal. Here, she is interested in the effects of Public Law 114-201, which was passed by Congress in 2016 as the result of activism from the Jamaican Diaspora Foundation, among others. She is following the initiatives that emerge from this law, and the debates and discussions between diaspora communities and representatives of the security forces in Jamaica, in order to shed additional light onto questions of extraterritoriality and sovereignty and onto how these questions are expressed in national, transnational, and diasporic terms. Thomas has also begun a new film project on the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church in Jamaica.
Prior to her life as an academic, Thomas was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Women, a company that is committed to using art as a means of addressing issues of social justice and encouraging civic engagement, and that brings the untold stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community. Thomas was also a Program Director with the National Council for Research on Women, an international working alliance of women’s research and policy centers whose mission is to enhance the connections among research, policy analysis, advocacy, and innovative programming on behalf of women and girls. From 2016-2020, she was the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association, and was co-editor of the journal Transforming Anthropology from 2007-2010. She currently also sits on the Editorial Committee of the Caribbean-based journal Social and Economic Studies. Thomas has contributed to a number of professional associations, having been a member of the Executive Council for the Caribbean Studies Association from 2008-2011, and of the board of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (2012-2017). She was also the Secretary of the Society for Cultural Anthropology from 2010-2014.