While studying abroad in Ghana as an undergraduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Prof. Carina Ray (AAAS) wanted to understand more about her own heritage as well as figure out why race seemed to operate differently in various places. She was particularly interested in how what it means to be black is different in a place like Ghana than in a place like the United States.

Questions like these have continued to inspire her to pursue the research topics that she now writes about as a historian of Africa. This fall, Ray will begin teaching courses as an associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis. 

In an interview with the Justice, Ray explained that she was first exposed to questions about African self-perceptions while taking African history courses as an undergraduate student. She majored in American Studies with a pathway, or focus, in ethnic studies. The pathway in ethnic studies created a “tailored [and personalized] way [of] undergraduate study which blended West African Studies with U.S. Ethnic Studies,” Ray said.

Ironically, while a student at UC Santa Cruz, Ray took several courses instructed by Brandeis alum Angela Davis ’65 in the “History of Consciousness” program. “Those were … very important courses that would impact my thinking.” Ray explained. “All of the questions that I became interested in, I have continued to pursue [throughout my career.]”

Ray spent her junior year studying abroad in Ghana pursuing answers to questions that were both personally and intellectually interesting to her. 

For example, she was interested in learning more about her Puerto Rican family’s African roots, while at the same time was curious about what it means to be black in a place like Ghana in comparison to a place like the United States. 

“What you realize is [that] the U.S. is very particular in the way that race operates especially because of the history of slavery and racial segregation in the United States ... In the context of the U.S., black is a very all-encompassing category … incredibly diverse … and I think that is a very positive thing in so many ways.”

Comparatively, Ray learned that race is more narrowly defined in Ghana and found it “hard to be of African ancestry but be seen as white.” This feeling motivated her to look closely at the differences. “This has been my career — trying that question: why it is different … [and] to understand it in a really unique and meaningful way. So whatever I initially considered personally challenging has ended up being the most intellectually stimulating pathway that I have been on over the past 20 years.”

While pursuing her doctorate degree in African History at Cornell University, Ray wrote a dissertation that later would become the inspiration for her first book, “Crossing the Color Line: Race, Sex, and the Contested Politics of Colonialism in Ghana.” 

The book focuses on interracial sexual relations in colonial Ghana and how those relationships changed throughout the late pre-colonial period through the colonial period and then into the period of independence. 

In her book, Ray focused on two sets of relationships: those between African women and European men in Ghana and those between African men and European women in Britain.

“In a narrow sense, the book is about these interracial relationships. But what I was really interested in and trying to do was to paint a picture of everyday race relations: how did Africans and Europeans relate to one another during this colonial period in Ghana? So using the starting point of these intimate relationships, you actually begin to see [that] they are part of a much wider grid of social relations and that bigger picture was also something that I wanted people to understand,” Ray explained. 

In order to write her first book, Ray spent several years intensively researching in the national archives of Ghana. Her book follows primary resources established through her research. 

She also spent considerable time in Britain and traveling to find people who are descendants of those particular relationships and those who lived during the time period. 

“I really privileged the primary sources, and in part in many ways because not so much has been written about the particular subject so there are fewer secondary sources to draw on but in my own way I really tend to privilege the [Ghanian] archive and the primary sources.” 

Ray explained that her first book is also “very narrative driven. I really pay attention to the stories and I try and center those [in my writing] and then we find analysis into them.”

Currently, Ray is writing her second book, “Somatic Blackness: A History of the Body and Race-Making in Ghana.” In this book, she plans to explore “how people [in Ghana] historically conceptualize ideas around blackness, the body and human difference.”

“We know that ideas about the body and human difference develop in moments of encounter with other kinds of bodies … We know a lot about how Europeans responded to these encounters, but I’m interested in asking how West Africans responded to these encounters and produced their own ideas about the body, how they came to understand their own bodies ... and ...to develop their own somatic norms,” Ray said. 

She plans to incorporate her research in Ghana into her courses at Brandeis. Next academic year, she will teach “Introduction to African History” as well as “20th Century African Icons,” “Race, Sex, and Colonialism,” and “Assassination: A Political History of Post-Independence Africa.”

Ray was drawn to Brandeis through the recent cluster-hire initiative and the growth of the AAAS department. She is one of 14 new tenure and tenure-track faculty to join Brandeis this year.

Last fall, Ray came to give a lecture in one of Prof. Jasmine Johnson’s (AAAS) courses. She explained that she was taken aback by the excitement and the preparedness of Brandeis students to ask difficult questions. 

“I’ve never really seen so much enthusiasm in a student body for this kind of knowledge. The students just seem so ready and hungry for this curriculum in African and Afro-American Studies and it’s really exciting.”