The Society for Urban, National, and Transnational Anthropology (SUNTA) is pleased to award the 2020 Anthony Leeds Prize to Rebecca Louise Carter for her book Prayers for the People: Homicide and Humanity in the Crescent City (The University of Chicago Press, 2019). Carter’s book explores religious practices and kinship formations among Black women in post-Katrina New Orleans as these women grappled with the loss of their kin, especially their sons, to violent crimes in the city. It explores in depth the intersection of Black death, religious work, gendered grief, and the process of social and spatial change in New Orleans, a city that has been hard hit with decades upon decades of oppression and dispossession. In her fine ethnography, Carter draws on two years of fieldwork conducted from 2007-2009, focusing on the constituents of the Liberty Street Baptist Church in Central City in New Orleans. The book invites us to spend time with Liberty Street Church’s women as they strive to “grieve well” in the face of death and loss, through participation in prayer groups, community organizing and activism, and “restorative kinship,” and as they seek salvation through spiritual and divine practices, enacted through the making of their religious spheres.
Carter traces how Liberty Street women do the transformational work of reclaiming the statistics of the death of Black bodies in the city, usually treated as business-as-usual, by formulating ways to count, enumerate, mark, grieve and celebrate the lives of those who were killed by violent crime. Through these everyday practices, Black women in New Orleans grieve along a spectrum of death/life, thus articulating new ways of experiencing violence and loss. Black women use their grief to bring back to life the names, stories, presence, and relevancy of those who lost their lives to violence, breaking free from “the limits of the world laid upon them.”
Prayers for the People thus moves beyond labels that have been imposed on spaces inhabited by Black folks in US cities, such as “the ghetto,” towards an expansive conceptualization of Black urban life in the city. Carter conceptualizes Black spatiality in New Orleans as life in the “crescent city” –with its histories of slavery, Jim Crow, and later urban renewal, failed public housing, and redlining, socio-spatial inequalities that became starker post-Katrina– while simultaneously showing how the everyday spaces of the city are being shaped by movements for social justice, freedom, and liberation. New Orleans emerges as a precarious yet productive city, a means through which the author liberates her subjects from the stereotype of the ghetto.
Throughout the text, Carter deftly interweaves ethnography and self-reflection, thus offering a richly-textured portrait of what she describes as the “slow reframing” of the city’s “moral architecture” and the “relational reconfiguration of value in the continuous raising of the dead.” She beautifully describes her positionality and methodology in a passage on the “failure of fieldwork,” highlighting the dilemmas of speaking for others, particularly in vulnerable communities. She also details how her positionality changed vis-à-vis the grieving women in Liberty Street as she grappled with the death of her own father during fieldwork, a loss that forced her to connect differently, perhaps more personally, to the grief that these women were enacting in their daily life. The bookbuilds on existing bodies of literature pertaining to Black women’s everyday mediation work, kinship, urbanism, and religion; yet its intervention lies in the way it threads these literatures together. In so doing, Carter fundamentally shifts our understanding of contemporary Black urban life.
It is fitting that this year’s prize should be granted to a book that shows the labor done in Black communities to grieve, repudiate, and prevent the violence that Black bodies are subjected to on a daily basis in cities across the United States and globally, amidst racist discourses that paint Black spaces as places that are “inherently” violent or dangerous. As Black Lives Matter protestors march the streets demanding racial justice for Black bodies, Carter’s book gives us a glimpse into the intimate spaces of grief after death in Black families, the everyday work of making life from death, and the transformational role that this labor can play in the project of recovery and transformation of the Black experience in cities.