Faculty Profile: Shanya Cordis

Shanya Cordis, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, spoke with us about the familial storytelling that piqued her interest in anthropology and about her return to New York.

Can you speak about your background and your upbringing and what led to your interest in your current field?

In my family origins, there is a convergence point of sorts: on my mom's side—Brooklyn, by way of South Carolina; and on my father's side—Guyana. I come from a very large family and I am the second eldest of six siblings. I spent part of my life in Brooklyn, and then moved to Pennsylvania which began a whole other journey of connecting with different types of folks that I hadn't encountered before in Brooklyn.

Storytelling has been a really important component to both sides of my family, and this practice has helped me to better understand where my family comes from, the inheritances of my respective communities, and how I was situated in these intersecting genealogies of movement, loss, diaspora, and home. Foregrounding this in my scholarship has emerged from a central curiosity of mine from a very young age. It is through the histories that stories named or kept silent and familial memories that I became interested in the kind of work that I do as an anthropologist.

Head shot of Shanya Cordis with curly hair and a leopard print shirt

As a young child, I loved to read. As a self-described bookworm, I would often discuss what I was reading and learning in school with my parents and anyone who would listen, which helped me to connect what I was learning in the classroom space to my own embodied experience. At home, I learned to ask questions to understand what was at play underneath seemingly obvious experiences or information or knowledge that I was being exposed to. The ability to ask questions shaped my critical thinking and desire to interrogate normative structures of power, including the kinds of knowledge and dominant narratives that erase or distort black and indigenous epistemologies.

As a first-generation college student, I was introduced to all of these new ideas, theories, methodologies, and ways of producing knowledge, and that was exciting, but it was also alienating and disorienting at times.  I didn't always know what that word theory meant, because from the perspective of western thought, it seemed that theory and theorizing excluded the kinds of embodied knowledge that my communities value. I realized that our people have been theorizing for some time, and that knowing was very grounding in a space that to some respects, aims to discipline.

Another really important experience for me has been the support I received as a first-generation college student in programs like the Upward Bound Program at East Stroudsburg University & the S.C.O.P.E Program at Pennsylvania State University. The latter was a program for high school students who were interested in the field of education. From that experience I knew that I wanted in some way, shape, or form, to be a teacher, which began my foray into my undergraduate training in education, specifically in world languages.

"Storytelling has been a really important component to both sides of my family, and this practice has helped me to better understand where my family comes from, the inheritances of my respective communities, and how I was situated in these intersecting genealogies of movement, loss, diaspora, and home."

My interest in research came through my involvement in the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, another undergraduate program that helped to encourage young folks – Black and Brown folks – to be exposed to research, and to conduct their own research projects, with the ultimate aim of preparing students for doctoral study. Dr. Jacqueline Toribio, who is currently at the University of Texas at Austin, was my adviser for that program. At the time my research project was a historical analysis of Japanese colonization in the Dominican Republic. It was through my participation in the program that a whole new way of learning opened up for me. Her mentorship was so pivotal for me to understand the connections between what I had learned at home and what I could do in the world.

I think another really beautiful thing about that experience was that it introduced me to Anthropology. So, while I did a historical or sociocultural analysis of this colonization in the Dominican Republic, it was through encouragement from my mentor that I was introduced to the related field of sociocultural anthropology, which would allow me to be able to do similar work with more collaborative depth and specificity.

In terms of my current research in the fields of Anthropology, Black Studies and Indigenous Studies, in many ways my focus stems from a commitment to contribute to scholarship that would provide insights into the structural conditions that affect black and indigenous communities, toward possibilities for new forms of healing and redress. As a Black and Indigenous Warrau-Lokono researcher, it remains central to the kinds of research I engage in to speak to these specific, yet intersecting histories that structure and inform our social and political order. And so, engaging these respective fields has been a natural kind of coming together of these intellectual and disciplinary “worlds.”

How does this manifest today in your work? What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on my manuscript, which is called Unsettling Geographies: Anti-Blackness, Gendered Violence, and Indigenous Dispossession in Guyana. This project focuses on a series of intersecting critical questions: What are the conditions that enable indigenous land dispossession in the Guyanese context? How do ongoing histories of colonialism, slavery, and indentureship shape the relationships between Afro-descendant and Indo-descendant and Indigenous communities in the current political moment? What are some insights and contradictions that emerge from living in the wake of dispossession and how do we see these legacies manifest in the propagation of extractivist state development?

"What are the practices, the ways of being, the forms of care, that communities imagine and create for themselves that cannot be fully constrained by these dynamics of power?"

What has also been central to this work is to bring it back to the grounded experiences of communities with whom I belong and work alongside — to foreground the everyday negotiations of these kinds of power structures that operate in tangible, bodily ways in the lives of everyday Guyanese people. This project attends to the specific, yet related experiences of Black, Indian, and Indigenous communities, while also tracking the intentional and unexpected forms of being and living that challenge and exist in excess of this nexus of power. What are the practices, the ways of being, the forms of care, that communities imagine and create for themselves that cannot be fully constrained by these dynamics of power?

How do you conduct your research?

As a sociocultural anthropologist, my work engages ethnography, participant-observation, and oral histories as integral methodologies to my research. My approaches are also very interdisciplinary; grounded in Black Studies and Native and Indigenous Studies, while also pulling from the field of Geography. My work foregrounds an interdisciplinary feminist lens to engage these questions of land dispossession, gendered violence, and anti-Blackness. I believe there's something really crucial about the toolkit that allows for a fuller analysis that would in many ways be very incomplete if those were not part of the research project, namely troubling assumptions of knowledge production, centering the body in these processes, and putting forth an analytic that tracks the connections between racialized spatial politics and the political economy of dispossession.

Are you also making that toolkit visible?

Yes, and I would say that my work emerges from and foregrounds my graduate training in activist anthropology, as part of a robust methodological practice that I was trained in at the University of Texas at Austin. This methodology takes seriously the power dynamics that permeate the research process, between the researcher and the research participant dynamic, and the implications for that dynamic in theoretical analysis and knowledge production. As such, it requires interrogating how we engage these ethnographic processes, how to take that messiness to reveal something about the conditions that continue to operate in the lives of my research participants, in the service of addressing those enabling conditions, while also holding front and center the kinds of contradictions and tensions that exist within the research process itself. With regards to my research project, this toolkit has allowed me to interrogate seemingly progressive policies and development initiatives, to reveal some of the ways that that might actually not be what's happening on the ground in order to shift focus in asking new questions and creating other forms of relationality and possibility that do not reproduce exploitative relations.

What influenced your decision to come to Columbia?

One of the biggest influences in deciding to come to Columbia has to do with the interdisciplinary rigor of the faculty. There's just really amazing work that Indigenous scholars, anthropologists, and Black geographers are doing here at Columbia: Audra Simpson, Vanessa Agard-Jones, and David Scott, to name a few—really important work that speaks to the intersectional work I focus on. And folks that are also taking seriously the Caribbean as a critical site that needs to be centered in the ways that we theorize questions of indigeneity, race, racialization, or anti-Blackness.

There is a lot of intellectual exchange across disciplinary boundaries, which again holds a huge appeal to me because my work is interdisciplinary. There doesn't seem to be any lack of programming that fosters inter-disciplinary dialogue and exchange; I feel like there is always something that's happening at Columbia that touches different aspects of my work. I feel invigorated by that kind of environment. It is also really important to be able to develop and teach courses that are in alignment with my research and my work more broadly outside of academia. Since I was trained as a teacher, I find that teaching and pedagogy— the ability to be able to have those conversations in the classroom, to co-create with my students, is a central aspect of my teaching practices, how I want to learn and engage with my students. I feel like I can do that here at Columbia.

Are you teaching this semester?

Yes; one course is called Black Feminist Geographies, and the other is called The Afterlives of Black and Indigenous Dispossession. The first is a core course in the department. In addition, I have the opportunity to engage and explore these topics with a diverse array of students, who bring their respective training and embodied knowledge into the process.  They're very much timely discussions, as this is a critical moment to be engaging these conversations, especially here in New York, delving into questions of the spatial practices of black and indigenous peoples in the wake of legacies of slavery, conquest, and dispossession, while simultaneously tuning to the forms of connection, care, and possibilities that also exist within and across these communities.

I imagine that having an intro class is really exciting because you're working with students who have little or no background in the topic, and maybe piquing their interest to study this further?

Absolutely. The students come from all different majors. But there's something about the course that draws them, that they want to learn more deeply and specifically about Black feminist geographies. It's a wide spread of students who have questions that they bring to these conversations about space and place, and that has been really exciting. I always try to reiterate that I am not the gatekeeper of knowledge production in the classroom; you also have experience and knowledge that I don't, so inviting them to bring that into the space with us is crucial.

"This methodology takes seriously the power dynamics that permeate the research process, between the researcher and the research participant dynamic, and the implications for that dynamic in theoretical analysis and knowledge production."  

How does your background in education as a discipline impact your teaching?

That's a great question! I feel like when I was a graduate student and I started working as a teaching assistant and got into the classroom space, I learned very quickly that my background and undergraduate training in Education would help me tremendously in some of the logistical aspects involved in teaching such as: How do I organize my time in the classroom? How do I prepare a plan? What exercises am I going to be doing for the day? How am I going to make these theories and abstract texts concrete? How do I help facilitate the conversation in the classroom, so that students are talking to each other, and not just to me? My K-12 education training has helped me translate that to adult learners, and to think about how to “translate” some of the theoretical and conceptual aspects of course content, but also to invite students into a collaborative learning environment.

What has the move from Spelman to New York City and to Columbia been like for you?

It's always a whirlwind when you are returning home or moving to a new city. I felt like I could reconnect in a different way with my existing communities, friends, and family. My partner and I are both familiar with the city, but I’m not familiar with this area, and I'm not familiar with Harlem. It has been a really beautiful experience to take the time to get to know folks in my community, to learn about the histories and the living presence of Black and Indigenous folks in Manhattan. I always want to invoke a practice of learning about the histories of a particular land and place—because they matter deeply in the current social and political moment when those things are being actively erased by legislation.

What are you looking forward to?

I'm really looking forward to building community. To survive in any institutional space, it's really important to establish and cultivate relationships and connections, and to have support as a junior faculty in particular. I'm trying to be very intentional about nurturing community-building and connecting with folks both in academia and outside of it, and engaging in dialogue across those spaces, as it's central to the collaborative work I am committed to.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am excited to share that I have a forthcoming co-authored article, the annual review article for the American Anthropologist journal. It is the first time that it's being co-authored and I've had the honor and the privilege to work with a dear friend and colleague of mine, Sarah Ihmoud. We're very proud of what’s emerged from this endeavor, which has been a huge undertaking. That has been no small feat over the last several months, but we were able to center a collaborative process, working alongside our incredible research assistant, Camille Samuels. It has been the most fun that I have had writing over the past few months.