AMANDA REID, Ph.D. in History, 2020
Recipient of the 2019-2020 Alfredo D. & Luz Maria P. Gutierrez Dissertation Award
Research interests: Gender Studies & Sexuality; Latin American & Caribbean Studies; Race & Ethnicity
Amanda Reid was awarded her Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan in December 2020. As of publication (April 2021), she is currently holding a postdoctoral position in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University.
Interview and text by Nicholas Farrugia, LACS Administrative Assistant
Reid graduated from Williams College in 2012 with a B.A. in Visual Arts & Africana Studies. With opportunities from The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the Fulbright Scholar Program, she explored archival records and collected firsthand research experiences prior to her enrollment in U-M’s doctoral program. Reid recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in History, with a fascinating dissertation titled: “To own ourselves; dancing Caribbean radicalism in independent Jamaica.” She was the 2019-2020 recipient of the Alfredo Gutiérrez Dissertation Award for Graduate Students from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Through her research, Reid explores dance and choreography from the West Indies and the Caribbean and how art forms became a political representation and response to the governmental transition to post-coloniality.
Reid’s research primarily investigates the emerging West Indies dance culture and its social and political influence in the post-colonial Caribbean. Reid’s dissertation details the mid-20th century in Caribbean history, a period where people experienced a moment of collective being and a sense of individualism separate from U.S. imperialism. Through examinations of visual performance art from past and present, as well as extensive archival and ethnographic research, Reid writes about the intellectuals who revolutionized the “Caribbean Renaissance” with the dance movement. The full dissertation can be found in the University of Michigan’s Deep Blue research data repository.
Growing up surrounded by the influences of Jamaican culture and history, Reid was drawn to the country of her roots from an early age. In high school and early in her college experience, she identified a gap in curriculum with regards to Jamaican culture, politics, and history. These topics would ultimately become the focus of her academic career. With support from the Mellon Mays Fellowship program, Reid traveled to Jamaica during her undergraduate studies and began immersing herself in research on the “Miss World” pageantry from the 1960s and ’70s. Upon graduating from Williams College in 2012, Reid was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in Vietnam before entering her Ph.D. program. While in Vietnam, she became interested in U.S. tourism in Southeast Asia and the rise of neoliberal governance after years of political turmoil. Reid quickly identified a commonality between both of her research interests: the impact of U.S. imperialism on nations and cultures in the region.
On to the University of Michigan
Arriving at the University of Michigan and joining one of the largest history departments of any public research institution in the country, Reid was taken aback by both the breadth and interdisciplinary nature of her new academic home. She immediately connected with professors whose disciplinary training ranged from history to romance languages to dance. Being part of a department that cross-lists much of their curriculum provided her with a unique opportunity to learn and participate in disparate studies within the scope of her dissertation. Reid seized the opportunity to take classes in anthropology, American culture, and dance studies and began to frame her research first within Latin American history and then more specifically within the Caribbean. In her second semester at U-M, Reid enrolled in a dance theory class titled “Dancing Women, Dancing Queer,” taught by Professor Clare Croft, a dance historian and theorist. The class curriculum centered around movement research, a previously unexplored field of inquiry for Reid. She recounts the experience as “therapeutic and freeing. I realized that I wanted to continue thinking through embodied and creative ways.” This became the initial catalyst to Reid’s work and continues to be an influence in her research to this day.
Alfredo Gutiérrez Dissertation Award
Every year, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies offers one Ph.D. candidate the Alfredo D. & Luz Maria P. Gutierrez Dissertation Award for Graduate Students to a student with a particularly innovative research project with broad interdisciplinary appeal in Latin American and Caribbean studies. The recipient of the award is expected to use the award money to aid in their dissertation write-up. Reid’s award coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it provided the financial support for her to focus on dissertation write-up while safely relocating to Crown Heights, a predominantly Caribbean community in Brooklyn, New York. In this environment, Reid was able to do her writing and surround herself with like-minded individuals who served as constant sources of renewed inspiration for her dissertation work. Being a part of this intellectual community in Brooklyn gave Reid a more determined purpose in her writing, while also connecting her to other like-minded academics, a privilege she attributes to LACS.
A Decolonial Approach within U.S. Area Studies
The development of Latin American studies curriculum in higher education in the U.S. during the late 19th to late 20th century generally used the area studies program model by which academic work was structured and categorized around rigid geographical boundaries as defined by US federal agencies (Hoffnung-Garskof, 2012). Latin Americanist scholarship and scholarly exchange became central to the U.S. project of Pan-Americanism in the 1930s, resulting, to some extent, in “the marriage of scholarship and higher education to nationalist foreign policy concerns” (Hoffnung-Garskof, 2012, p. 10). However, since this time, scholars of Latin American studies centers at many universities that received federal funding would become instrumental in exposing the effects of U.S. imperialism in the region through their scholarship and teaching. As she began her journey into academia, Reid found herself becoming part of what she describes as an intellectual community that was using the master’s tools to expose imperialist realities. Motivated still by the gaps she identified in knowledge and teaching on Jamaica, Reid solidified her decision to focus her studies on the country of her roots and the consequences of U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean.
While Reid’s research spans across multiple countries, she primarily examines the Caribbean region’s relationship to and influence on Jamaica and how Jamaica’s own distinct story materialized. Her archival research in New York and England focuses on the West Indies as a colonial region. These studies helped to construct a clearer narrative of the region through time and informed the process of how influences spread and grow within the region.
Dance, an Intellectual Conversation
Reid’s research hones in on post-colonial Jamaica in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This was a time of transition in Jamaica, a colony under British rule that achieved full independence in 1962. The post-independence era saw growing social and racial divides among the nation’s people. The very same year of the nation’s independence, Rex Nettleford and Eddy Thomas founded the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC), the first of its kind. At the time, there had been little precedent for funding national projects to develop creative institutions, so the newly founded National Dance Company changed the landscape of Jamaican cultural arts. As Reid describes:
The National Dance Theatre Company in Jamaica almost represented the country as national ambassadors. It was the first important arts and cultural group in Jamaica and was pivotal in defining what “authentic Caribbean-ness” looked like. The company at large used their voice as a power to push against the government’s prejudices.
The dance company was in a position to affect cultural policy through its ability to use performance to protest multiple forms of social prejudice and state-sanctioned ideas of Jamaican identity. The latter half of the 20th century saw a tremendous surge in anti-gay violence in Jamaica. The dance company, in some ways, provided a fugitive space for non-heteronormative sexuality and gender expression. Rex Nettleford, choreographer and public intellectual, served as the NDTC’s Artistic Director from 1962 until his death in 2010. Her dissertation importantly gives due credit to the many women social dancers, social welfare workers, performers, and anthropologists that created what is now recognizable as Jamaica's Afro-Caribbean dance language, while examining the racial, gender and sexual politics that allowed for Nettleford’s outsized influence in this arena (Reid, 2020). Complicated as this history may be, Nettleford’s leadership role was critical to the company’s ability to organize a creative platform that allowed for a wider range of expressions of sexuality and gender in art forms. During a period in which Jamaica’s social climate remained highly contentious, Nettleford’s political status, and to some extent his own queerness, afforded protection against prohibitions of queer expression, negotiating a different way of expressing gender and sexuality. While efforts to build democracy in Jamaica have been limited by the failure to address deeply rooted structures of inequality in a society built upon a plantation-based economy, Reid notes that Nettleford’s “brand of cultural politics called attention to micro-level, individual clashes with neo-colonialism and small steps towards liberation (Reid, 2020, p. 3).”
The Growing Influence of the National Dance Theatre Company
The National Dance Theatre Company aided in the development of new art programs in Jamaica as well as created space for other creative institutions to flourish. It also represented the beginning of a much greater movement towards defining an authentic Caribbean-ness that pushed back against government prejudices. During this time, new forms of social and political conversation were dominating the news across Latin America, and these ideas around race and freedom began to filter into the Caribbean. The island nations embraced notions of racial democracy and made them their own. The NDTC was pivotal in providing a generative space where dance became an intellectual conversation, where artists and spectators debated and transformed conceptions of the value of the Black body in a post-slavery society.
[The dancing academics of the NDTC] privileged the black body in motion as a central site through which to theorize political sovereignty, national belonging, and self-ownership. Transnational migration, international artistic exchange, and Cold War geopolitics all shaped the ways members of the NDTC articulated an expressly Jamaican dance language, and the ways audiences perceived them.
This phenomenon of shaping intellectual conversations through movement and the ways in which ideas, embodied in dance, spread and transformed throughout the Caribbean became a focal point of Reid’s research. Circum-Caribbean dance movements emerged, representing an amalgam of different Caribbean dance styles. Laborers who moved throughout the Caribbean played a large role in the spreading and borrowing of dance movements to make up a regional style. The circulation of dance built local solidarities that were sustained and shared to forge a regional identity, one that was collectively anti-U.S. and anti-imperialism. Rather than establishing an outspoken regional identity, the conversation became embodied in the dance, and the movement became a shared language of racial democracy.
Now in her postdoctoral position at Stanford, Reid looks back fondly on her time at the University of Michigan and LACS. She expresses gratitude to Alfredo D. and Luz Maria P. Gutierres, and the intellectual community of Latin Americanists and Caribbeanists that LACS brings together. Reid’s success at U-M was in part made possible by the many scholars from around the U.S. and the world that LACS invites to contribute to the intellectual community in Ann Arbor.
While Reid’s travel plans were put on a temporary pause due to the ongoing pandemic, she continues to do archival work with her sights set on her next research project: investigating Caribbean migrants and dance in the UK during the 20th century. With a robust understanding of West Indian creative expression and its impacts, Reid turns toward the role of Caribbean arts movements around the world, and specifically how they have helped shape the idea of ‘Blackness’ in the UK.
Amanda Reid’s dissertation abstract:
“To Own Ourselves: Dancing Caribbean Radicalism in Independent Jamaica” is a political history of the West Indies grounded in dance as a decolonizing epistemology. This work charts the development of staged concert dance in Jamaica, particularly the choreography and community of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) from 1962-1976. Led by Rex Nettleford, a choreographer, public intellectual, and cultural consultant to the Prime Minister, the NDTC’s diaspora aesthetics and theories of race and nation directly affected cultural policy. This dissertation shows that dance pedagogy and performance informed a specifically West Indian strategy of embodied radical politics, and that dance was central to nationalist efforts to identify a practice of freedom as bodily self-ownership in response to the failures of the state’s vision of post-coloniality. Using movement analysis, queer theory, black studies, and transnational history methodologies, this project explores how migration, regional aesthetics, and Caribbean diaspora all formed the relational system through which Jamaican dancers theorized erotic agency and bodily autonomy. “To Own Ourselves” contends that the NDTC’s performance history constitutes a queer archive of West Indian nationalism and black radicalism during the decade that followed independence when anti-racist social movements in the region and the circum-Caribbean migratory sphere sought to transform standards of physical virtuosity, ability, and value for black bodies. The NDTC drew on what this dissertation identifies as the performance strategy of “smaddification,” or the use of spectacle and exaggeration as a political tactic to protest the erasure and flattening of representations of gendered blackness within Jamaican multi-racial nationalism. The NDTC’s concerts became a space of participatory democracy not only for company members but for the general public, who used dance as an occasion to critique state-sanctioned ideas of Jamaican identity. The shifting criteria by which audiences and state actors judged the NDTC’s ability to represent the nation reveal the instability of Caribbean systems of racial legibility and national belonging, as well as the creatively adaptive ways that black Jamaicans reenacted their history to assert their claims to social citizenship.
Doctoral Committee: Associate Professor Clare Croft, Co-Chair Professor Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, Co-Chair Associate Professor Paulina Alberto Professor Paul C. Johnson
Hoffnung-Garskof, J. (2012). Latin American Studies and United States foreign policy. International Institute Journal University of Michigan, 2(1), 8-12. https://doi.org/10.1163/2468-1733_shafr_sim090040092
Reid, A. (2020). To Own Ourselves: Dancing Caribbean Radicalism in Independent Jamaica (0000-0001-8187-6554). Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan. Deep Blue Repository.