Urban anthropologist Rebecca Carter is interested in the ways in which people living in socially and environmentally precarious places — particularly the most vulnerable citizens in the urban delta, from New Orleans to Saint-Louis, Senegal — confront uncertainty and overcome crisis and suffering through rituals of belonging and place-making.
Carter’s research interests have a deeply personal origin. Some of her immediate family members live in New Orleans, and her father and stepmother lost their home and possessions in a Hurricane Katrina-related flood and fire. Seven other homes on the block were also destroyed. “I was very moved by how my family and their neighbors dealt with the tragedy. They were amazingly resilient, despite the extent of their loss,” says Carter, who has been teaching in Brown’s Department of Anthropology under a two-year American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) postdoctoral fellowship. She has just been appointed assistant professor of anthropology and urban studies.
As a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Carter was already interested in issues of crisis and recovery and originally planned to look at the role religious pilgrimages to the Lourdes shrine in southern France played in suffering and healing. “But then Katrina happened,” she says, and she shifted her research focus to New Orleans.
Carter’s first book project, Placing the Dead in New Orleans: How Murder and Mourning Saved a City, examines urban redevelopment in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, focusing on religious responses to the persistent problem of urban violence. In a city where the majority of the victims as well as the perpetrators of homicide are young African-American men, she explores the process of marginalization that has accompanied post-disaster recovery and the work of several church groups to end the violence and claim a “place” for themselves — and their lost loved ones — in the city moving forward. “I look at several religious ministries that counter exclusion and displacement by asserting the social and spiritual value of black lives, in part by properly acknowledging, identifying, and mourning all those who have been lost to violence,” she says.
At one Baptist church, for example, a group of women formed a support group to remember their deceased children and grandchildren. “By honoring their relations through ritual — such as celebrating the birthdays and marking the death anniversaries of their loved ones — these women insist on their right to a home within the nonviolent, nurturing, and inclusive city they envision,” Carter says.
Carter is exploring a new and comparative project in Saint-Louis, Senegal, an urban delta similar to New Orleans in its geography, French colonial history, creolized culture, and extreme social and environmental vulnerability. She examines how residents there envision the future of their city, contend with social and geographic exclusion, and survive within and work to transform increasingly precarious conditions.
“Rebecca’s interest in urban anthropology makes her a great fit for our interdisciplinary program,” says Hilary Silver, director of urban studies. “Her impressive scholarly research touches on topics we want to cover, including responses to natural disasters in cities around the world, and her presentations of her work are beautifully crafted and inspiring. Rebecca’s teaching has already earned high praise from students and faculty alike. Her course on urban anthropology last year was precisely the sort of community-engaged, active learning that urban studies prides itself in,” she says.
“We are delighted we were able to hire Rebecca as an assistant professor of anthropology jointly with urban studies,” adds Daniel Smith, chair of anthropology. “She brings us new and important strengths in the study of cities, where most humans now live, and builds our expertise on the United States.”
Carter describes her experience at Brown over the last two years as “really productive and rewarding. I have had great students — hardworking, thoughtful, fully engaged, and committed to the learning process,” she says. “My colleagues have been fantastic, too. I’ve been inspired by their work and grateful for the ways in which they have welcomed me and supported my own progress. I really look forward to continuing the exchange, working with students and faculty in anthropology, urban studies, and across campus more broadly.”
This fall, Carter is teaching a first-year seminar in urban studies that uses Providence as its classroom. In the spring, she plans to teach a course on cities of the black Atlantic. Future teaching plans at the undergraduate and graduate level include courses on U.S. urban culture, city dwelling, urban disasters, recovery and sustainability, and ethnographic research methods.
Before turning to anthropology and urban studies, Carter earned a B.A. in psychology and art theory and practice, with a focus on documentary photography, at Northwestern University and then went on to work in nonprofit management for several community-based organizations. After taking a night class in anthropology, however, she shifted the focus of her career and decided to go to graduate school.
“When I discovered the discipline, I honestly felt like a kid in a candy store. There were so many important inquiries that related to my own interests, which have always been about exploring and documenting the human condition. So it was the perfect fit for me, and now with the extension of my work into urban studies, I feel that I have definitely found my true calling.”