Channeling History and Renewing the Discipline with New Faculty Dr. Thabisile Griffin
Thabisile Griffin is a historian and currently a post-doctoral ICLS fellow in Global Racisms at Columbia University. She is new faculty at SCI-Arc as a professor of history in the Liberal Arts department. Her work explores property and enclosure in the Atlantic world, British colonialism, race-making in the eighteenth century, and Black indigeneity.
We spoke to Dr. Griffin to learn more about her work as a historian, her time at SCI-Arc so far, and her thoughts on how history stretches us.
Welcome to SCI-Arc Dr. Griffin! I know you are a historian of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, specifically the Caribbean. Can you share what led you to study this?
Early in my first master’s program, I remember thinking the Caribbean, including all of the connected coastal regions in the Americas, was such a formative space because of how magnified events seemed to be, compared to North America. From the treatment of enslaved African people, or indentured laborers, to mass insurrections, to sugar production, and so forth, the Caribbean seemed like a space where everything that happened there emerged at an extreme. Especially repression, no doubt because of the level and consistency of resistance movements organized by Black, indigenous, Asian, and poor white laborers.
As a comparative, it was a really simplified and mostly incorrect assertion, the Caribbean was and is not exceptional in its fire, insurrection against slavocracy and racial capitalism happened everywhere. But for that initial reason still, the Caribbean felt like a place that held gargantuan potential and magic, both then and now. The fortitude and creativity of people in determining autonomy and world-building, the precarity of the changing climate, the layered cultures, the memory and archives in the water, the shoreline, the volcanoes, the sands. The lineage so many of us have in the Caribbean and the Atlantic world, with colonial trade winds determining the crux of so many of our identities today—nationality, race, gender, surnames, and histories of migration and labor.
And now years later, writing on the Caribbean specifically during the eighteenth century, the era that historians call the “Age of Revolutions,” has given me much more than I could imagine. The emergence of modern capitalism and its dependence on slave labor, and the enormous role that market played as a foundation to our current system, really puts the urgency of this era and place into perspective. And the last thing I’ll say is that the Atlantic world at large has given me the stories of so much contradiction, complicated figures, varieties of freedom dreams, unexpected comraderies, and new renditions of success and power, that has really humbled me as a person. A close and honest study of history will force upon you an unexpected level of compassion for anyone, with an understanding of how they (and really we) got here. So that kind of understanding breeds a humility that is quite necessary in the project of world-building and liberation struggles today.
In addition to your position at SCI-Arc, you are a faculty fellow at Columbia University, and hold a post-doctoral position there in Global Racisms. I know it is also affiliated with the Ambedkar Institute, which studies anti-caste struggles and the life and works of B.R. Ambedkar. Can you talk more about this experience, and what you’ve been up to?
Absolutely. I have been working closely with Anupama Rao, who is a dynamic historian of systems of colonial genealogies, systems of social difference and Indian History, and someone who is dedicated to not only scholarship but also public-centered programs that properly engage informal intellectuals and organizers on the violence of race and caste globally. So needless to say, my position there is a delight. I recently put together a three-day symposium at Columbia/Barnard and the Schomburg Center in Harlem, entitled Blueprints for Undercommons: Local and Global Wildness, which invited intellectuals and artists from multiple countries to discuss their work and experiences under certain topics; strikes and chaos, language, and accusations of crazy, and improvisation and the arts. The series was informed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s writings on “the Undercommons,” which simplified, is both a practice and place of fugitive freedoms against logics of manufactured debt, racial capitalism, and neoliberal conceits. The series was an attempt to study historical and contemporary examples of global undercommoning that have been understood as wild and incomprehensible forms of ‘acting out,’ or as instantiating periods of disorientation. I wanted to study, explore, and delight in the genius of the incomprehensible.
What is your area of study/expertise? How do you plan to incorporate this into your teaching at SCI-Arc?
I’m a historian of the Atlantic world, with a specialization in the eighteenth-century century Caribbean, British colonialism, and Black indigeneity. I look at the history of the Black Caribs in St. Vincent, and their relationship to property, abolition, white peasantry, racialization, identity, and international comradery against the unstable dynamics of British imperialism, market expansion, and dispossession. My work also explores logics of property and property relations in the eighteenth-century century Atlantic world, and how these logics and relations were of course dispelled by the laboring class. I’m inspired by theorists, designers, scholars, and architects that are already challenging the discipline and practice of architecture that is rooted in an insistence of private property and western notions of development. Folks like Doreen Adengo, Mabel Wilson, Theodore Jojola, Olalekan Jeyifous, and many more incredible people that have been thinking, creating, and remembering, counter to a tradition of dispossession and racialism. One of my utilities at SCI-Arc then, is to make sure students understand the political and social histories of their craft, the context that made it achievable, and possibilities beyond. I am also teaching a survey course on the history of racialization in the Americas for incoming undergraduates, which will include all of the Americas from the fifteenth century onward.
How do you see the study and scholarship of the history of racialization, imperialism, and abolition in America as applicable for students of architecture today—both generally and in terms of furthering design?
I think the history of fabricating any kind of difference, in service to an economic system that prioritizes surplus by any means, is an urgent study for us all. Specifically, the making of race, and histories of imperialism and abolition, have the capacity to assist people in thinking broader about how they understand themselves in this world, and how they relate to everyone and everything. When I say everything, that includes nature, from mycelium life-giving systems to Harriet Tubman on a twenty-dollar US bill.
Charging them to think about what is being destroyed or distorted, and what is being preserved, and why? History is here in a way that seems contradictory—we learn to think broader and with more openness, by looking closely at the details. The infrastructure of every-day life, how and why that Starbucks replaced that youth center, why close to 40% of people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes, why some city blocks are subject to more intense heat waves than others. But also, and more importantly, history gives us infinite examples of people that have revolted, organized, studied, designed, and transformed the conditions of the most vulnerable. So, in the case of imperialism, or repressive military or state domination, there were always abolition movements, households, scholarship (both formal and informal), artform, and whispers that pushed back. And in many ways, did so successfully, because of traditions of struggle we now can stand on. So generally, history gives us the inner-workings and details, so that we can ask better questions and come to new contradictions to patiently grapple over. It makes you question and refine your service to this world. History stretches you.
In terms of furthering design, it’s clear Sci-Arc students are quite renowned for groundbreaking, radical, and eccentric work. It’s also clear that they are audacious enough to struggle for what they believe in. Hopefully I can contribute in a small way to their already exciting trajectory.
What are your pedagogical goals at SCI-Arc and beyond?
First to make sure students understand the history of Los Angeles and the Americas, to ground them in the place in which they practice. I have yet to decide, but I think I’ll also teach an elective on a history of a global commons, and some other surprises. I’ll be for sure offering an elective on the history of the Caribbean and the making of modern capitalism as well. And of course, it shouldn’t go without saying that I also look forward to learning immensely from the students and faculty at SCI-Arc. In fact, I’m already in deep admiration of the people that have so far graced me with their time. The dynamism, discipline, and sincerity that I’ve experienced in these halls and in conversation, are already inspiring my own practice and study. It’s a pleasure to be here. Pedagogically, I also hope to nourish an excitement and affinity for reading and study. I hope to foster a classroom of curiosity and inspiration that allows students to want to make time to sit and read or think, and really be present in their thoughts about the past and what that might mean for the future. I understand study as a meditative practice, one that demands focus and presence in the midst of so much distraction.
Who or what are some of your major influences?
I’m influenced by everyone. I learn something integral from all interactions and examples. I’m a big reader, I read everything, and I find so much motivation and enchantment in the details of people’s lives—specifically autobiographies. Ultimately though, I’m influenced by the grace and tenacity of groups of people that struggle against inequities, globally. Especially the so-called criminals, the thieves, the liars, the “inarticulate.” I love the genius that is not to be found by institutions, or the artificial “west,” or copy editors. I am inspired and comforted in knowing that wherever there is repression, there are people strategically and brilliantly working to upend that system, whether onstage or quietly in the shadows, with mispronunciations or with precision, but for sure laughing. I love a good history of laughter.
Laughter is essential, especially as an irreverent response. What would you consider a history of laughter, and how does focusing on that bolster your research or way of life as a whole?
I think the beauty of a tradition of laughter is that it’s not a characteristic that demands any intent or focus, it’s a feature that miraculously survived, and comes naturally. And I’ve witnessed it in family, friends, myself, and so many others, in conditions that suggested a much different response. That’s on quite literally laughter, but figuratively, it is a kind of subversion that must be assisted by so many other seemingly impossible factors that also don’t make sense for the conditions we’re in—courage to do so, energy to do so, sacrifice, wisdom, memory. And examples and stories of impossible people doing impossible things, is the reason any of us are able to do much of the work in these institutions, in these galleries, in these spaces today. For example, in this country, anyone that is not a property-owning white male owes all of their opportunity, access, social dignity, and much of their survival to specifically Black Americans and to the Black radical tradition that continues to provide blueprint for any real democracy. And this is far from exaggeration or impassioned opinion. The history of what specifically Black Americans have done in this country has made it possible for any immigrant, any woman, any differently abled person, etc., to live and continue kicking. And laughter, both literally and figuratively, is a defining feature of that tradition.
What kind of scholarship and publications do you have in the works?
A whole lot! Haha. A manuscript/book is hopefully forthcoming on Black indigeneity in the Caribbean, abolition, and enclosure, based on my dissertation. I also have an article in the works on restitution and futurity to be published in the Art and Politics publication for the ICLS and the Ambedkar Initiative at Columbia University. There are a few other projects coming up as well, that do not quite yet have the green light, so I’ll wait on mentioning those.
Thank you for sharing and for speaking with us, Dr. Griffin! We look forward to following your pursuits at SCI-Arc and beyond.