Member of the Week: LaShawn Harris

LaShawn Harris

Associate Professor of History

Michigan State University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research project focuses on the policing of New York’s Black women during the 1980s, a period widely remembered for urban decay, economic instability, political conservativism, crime, racial violence, and new cultural music and art forms. I became interested in the topic as I began writing an article about urban violence and the highly publicized 1984 police killing of Bronx resident and grandmother Eleanor Bumpurs. Published in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, the article, entitled “Beyond the Shooting: Eleanor Gray Bumpurs, Identity Erasure, and Family Activism against Police Violence,” recovers the life of Bumpurs from historical obscurity. It attaches a personal narrative to one of New York City’s most recognized yet understudied police brutality cases of the 1980s. Additionally, my curiosity and interest in 1980s Black life and culture is personal. I came of age in New York City during the 1980s and lived across the street from Eleanor Bumpurs. She was my neighbor. Her killing was my entry point into the understudied socioeconomic and political lives of late-twentieth-century, working-class, urban, Black women and the diverse ways in which varying socioeconomic and political structures and institutions, those deeply rooted in race, gender, and class oppression, worked to deny them citizenship rights and protection and dignity. Moreover, the Bumpurs case became a way for me to study and document my Bronx community’s history and how that community actively contested state sanctioned violence and systematic oppression against all New Yorkers. 

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?  

In Fall 2020, I’ll be teaching a course on Black Women. The course explores the experiences, worldviews, and accounts of African American women’s socioeconomic and political lives, from slavery to freedom. Throughout the course, the students and I pay close attention to the diverse ways in which surveillance and policing, as insidious forms of state sanctioned violence, was and continues to be an occupying force in Black women and girls’ lives. We extensively discuss slave patrols, convict leasing, state reformatories and social welfare programs, and police brutality and terror, as well as the Black women and girls’ resistance against pervasive state and anti-black violence.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m look forward to reading several books before Fall semester starts: Kim Gallon, Pleasure in the News: African American Readership and Sexuality in the Black Press (University of Illinois Press, 2020) and Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Lies That Divide Us (Penguin Books Limited, 2020). 

What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers? 

Emerging scholars of urban studies should: select areas of study that interest you; work closely with advisors and mentors in the field; engage in peer mentoring; have a supportive academic #Squad; and always believe in yourself. 

Click on the play arrow, below, to listen to LaShawn Harris discuss more about her research on Eleanor Bumpers as well as recent activism protesting police violence. Interview by Alec Dawson.

Interview with LaShawn Harris.

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