On Nov. 7, the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies held the Annual Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture, entitled “Choreographies of Black Freedom.” Prof. Shoniqua Roach (AAAS/WGS) had a discussion with New York University Professor Aimee Meredith Cox about her book “Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship,” as well as the evolution of Black girlhood studies. 

“Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship” focused on an ethnography of a homeless shelter called Fresh Start for young women in Detroit, Michigan. The project started in 1998 and had an unorthodox study methodology due to Cox’s extensive interaction with the women and her substantial participation in the shelter’s management as a volunteer and later as the shelter director. 

Beginning as a dance instructor, she volunteered several times a week. Her university profile details her dancing experience; she “has performed and toured internationally with Ailey II and the Dance Theatre of Harlem and has choreographed performances as interventions in public and private space in Newark, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.” She is also a yogi and trains other yoga teachers. The more time she spent at the shelter, the more she learned about their other services, such as a street outreach program. Cox also noticed a lack of leadership. At the time, Fresh Start had not had a shelter director for three years, while case workers and shelter staff were overworked. Cox stated that the shelter board, which consisted of white women who held executive jobs at Ford and General Motors, was capable of quality feminist analysis but not racial analysis. Since Cox was already visible among the young women and staff, the board suggested that she become the shelter director, to which she agreed. 

As a graduate student at the time, she saw her peers getting jobs and similarly wanted to take the same step into adulthood. She thought she had been studying for too long, and with her new role at Fresh Start, she felt like she had a tangible job. Cox was the director for three to four years. 

Roach mentioned ethical concerns regarding Cox’s substantial involvement in the shelter’s everyday workings, deliberating whether or not her position detracted from the objectivity of the research. Cox had robust decision making powers, such as choosing whether a woman could stay at the shelter, as well as hiring and firing abilities. Moreover, she wrote grants and structured the curriculum for the young women and staff. 

Cox talked about how many researchers found Detroit to be an apt place to study because it provides a rich environment for examining deindustrialization and Black communities. She countered Roach’s question by challenging the ethics of researchers who gain a lot from studying marginalized communities but don’t necessarily give back to the community. “Before you enter the shelter space, I want you to think about what it is that you’re bringing. How are you a benefit in this space?” she asked. 

Furthermore, Cox explained that by taking on the leadership role, she learned things that she wouldn’t have otherwise. She wanted to “sort of like peel the veil back and see what it really meant to be of that space [and] not to just move through it.” Transparency was very important to Cox, and she was candid about the type of book she was writing.  

She added that “any time you enter that space, that space is transformed by your presence.” Regardless of whether she took the job or not, her existence as a researcher at the shelter would have changed the space’s dynamics. Additionally as a leader, Cox “was faced with [her] own inadequacies. Part of what happened is that it forced the disruption of this idea of the all-knowing researcher.” She discussed her failures due to her lack of managerial experience and what she learned from handling a staff of 40 people. Moreover, Cox had to manage the transition from a 12 bed shelter in the attic of a church to a new building with 40 beds. Becoming the director challenged her own blind spots, and she used her curriculum suggestions as an example. Cox wanted to implement a feminist studies curriculum taught by caseworkers to the women in the shelter. However, the workers pushed back and debated the usefulness of the curriculum. If feminist studies was not the most essential information the young women needed at the moment, they did not want to spread their already thin resources to a low priority course.   

“Even though I can sit here and say it made for a richer and more complicated ethnography, and I do think that it allowed for a more generous and humane reading of everyone in that space, there are some real things we can think about ethically,” Cox said. 

Cox challenged the objectivity and authority of researchers and pushed back against narratives of passive subjects. Paralyzed by the fear of not doing justice to the women’s stories, Cox stalled on writing her book. She decided to go back to Detroit, hoping that it would motivate her to make more progress. Some women from the shelter invited her to dinner, and they asked Cox when she was going to finish the book. The women from the shelter wanted to check in with Cox and started offering her more stories in case the problem was a lack of content. Cox highlighted that scholars often talk about vulnerable communities in a way that “denies their intelligence and their exposure … These young women understood what the University of Michigan was, they knew what tenure was, they knew what Duke Press was, [and] they understood what it meant to have their stories out in the world,” Cox stated. The women from Fresh Start played an active role in storytelling, and they were humans with rich, complex lives, not a passive group. Rather than applying theoretical frameworks to understand the young women’s experiences, Cox wants to emphasize a conversational framework that shows how the women’s stories transform researchers’ conceptions of a theory.

The goal to accurately represent research subjects also affects her writing process. Cox makes sure to be physically active when she’s writing because she believes that when people are not grounded in their own body, it’s easier to commit violence and misrepresent others. 

A key topic in the book is how movement, dance, and bodies can be used to enact change. Dancing helped women in the shelter heal themselves, create a space to collectively process what they were experiencing, and think about their bodies as tools for improving city life. The young women would stage performances to gather an audience and engage with them in discussions on the state of Detroit. Cox’s book pushes people “to think about your body as more than a site of dismissal, degradation, or vulnerability.”

Additionally, Cox admired the women’s deep commitment to activism because they worked to improve a city that has not protected them; they participated in advocacy despite circumstantial constraints, such as having no home and working multiple jobs to support themselves or their families. 

Her book “Shapeshifters” won the 2016 Victor Turner Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing, an Honorable Mention from the 2016 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize, and the 2017 Book award from the Society for the Anthropology of North America. 

Cox helped develop Black girlhood studies, and she referenced formative childhood experiences and other academics that contributed to the field. Cox grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and observed that there was no significant language to understand the Black diaspora. Moreover, academic fields were structured in rigid binaries. She heard the word “feminist” for the first time from her father because he called himself one. For her dad, feminism meant caring about all human life. Early in life, she danced a lot and through that form of expression, she said she “really came into my body in the space of my home and my backyard.” One’s level of power can be determined by how others view and categorize one’s body. The feeling of freedom Cox experienced while dancing inspired her to think about the body as an agent of change. She referenced a fellowship talk given by Professor André Lepecki on the origins of the word “choreography.” Choreography meant codifying movement, and how to contain it and manage bodies. 

Cox mentioned author Toni Morrison and her books “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula.” “The Bluest Eye” showcases Black girlhood in the Midwest, and the Black female friendship portrayed in “Sula” reminded Cox of how the women at Fresh Start built a strong community of support. 

Author Gloria Jean Watkins, who wrote under her pen name bell hooks, talked about how the view from the periphery allows people to see everything. White, cisgender, heterosexual, and landowning males make up the center, whereas the young Black women from the shelter would be on the periphery. Cox was interested in how that outside view affected their conception of family, community, labor, and transformation of spaces. Cox also mentioned the work of Professor Ruth Nicole Brown, sociologist Joyce Ann Ladner, and digital ethnomusicologist Kyra D. Gaunt. 

Cox doesn’t “consider [herself] a Black girlhood studies scholar.” She wants to research the larger questions that arise from Black girlhood, like the relationship between body and space, rather than only study the concept itself.

Her work exemplifies innovative experimentation and pushes the limits of academic study. As a graduate student, Cox wanted to be seen as an intellectual. She worried that if she used her dance background to study the way that the body relates to space, people wouldn’t take her seriously, especially as a Black woman. Cox also avoided using terms like “embodiment” since they weren’t as commonly used in the past. When considering researching education in informal settings among Black women, she “was too afraid to even say ‘among young Black women.’ I think I said something like ‘urban settings’ [instead].” A mentor at graduate school, who was also on the board of Fresh Start, helped Cox choose a research topic. Cox’s mentor encouraged her to forget about academic language and directly express what she was interested in. Cox broke new ground for anthropology studies, and while addressing ethical concerns is crucial for obtaining reliable data, academics should keep creating ways to expand scholarly fields to marginalized communities.