by Barbara Rose Johnston
Forman tribute book cover
PreambleA few years ago I enjoyed one of those impromptu conference meals we all know so well. Crashing a table for two to indulge in Portland’s “wine & dine restaurant week” menu three of us talked for hours. At one point I was asked: How did I come to do the work I do? My response was immediate: I am who I am, thanks in large part to Sylvia Forman, my Anthromom. Their reply: What do you mean? And, what’s an Anthromom? My aim in this essay is, in round about fashion, to answer those two questions.
I grew up in a large family and an even larger household. My parents were active members of the Catholic left and our California home hosted a steady stream of temporary or long term residents: down-on-their-luck vets, unmarried women and their babies, foreign exchange students (from Africa, Asia, and South America), and refugee families (Indonesia, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala). Our family marched with Martin Luther King when he visited San Jose. Parents and older sibs worked with Caesar Chavez to bring about the United Farm Workers Union. I still remember that day we attended mass in the dusty fields of the Central Valley and then said, “See you later, Dad!” as my father, wearing his business suit, tie, and office shoes, marched off with farm workers on their 340-mile trek from Delano to Sacramento. From the point of view of neighbors, classmates, and distant relatives, we were unusually large, noisy, odd, disturbingly political family. My sense? We were never bored. And, our best friends were and always will be, our siblings.
One day stands out when I was sick at home with absolutely nothing to read. In desperation, I turned to the “do not touch” bookshelf that held my mother’s thick, dusty college texts. Looking for books with pictures I found one with black and white photo inserts, and snuck it upstairs to examine in the girl’s bedroom. That’s where Mom found me on the floor, trying to understand those pictures. Very thin, very sad, people with big open sores on their skin; body parts with ulcerated burns; a pile of human legs; dead people with cut off arms; a man with long gashes of opened skin all over his body. I was afraid she would be mad at me for taking a book from her “do not touch” case. Instead, she got down on the floor to explain the images and how this book came to be in our home. In 1948, Terry Burke Johnston took a graduate course at Stanford, a class of five. The four other students were gaunt men, new to campus, who spoke with thick German accents. They were Holocaust survivors. The professor was also new. He was a lawyer who assisted in the Nuremberg Tribunal prosecution of the medical case and he brought Tribunal records to Stanford to be archived. Terry and her classmates spent much of their time reviewing and organizing those files. Later published in a ten-volume set, the book I had found on my mom’s shelf was one of two volumes that presented the medical case.
As I write this recollection fifty-three years later, the memory of that book and time on my bedroom floor is vivid for both my ninety-three-year old mother—my first Anthromom—and for me. The Nuremberg proceedings, including those photos, were published not only to convey the horrific meaning of “crimes against humanity” but, with overt intent, to also encourage the commitment to insure “never again.”
Sylvia and MeI met Sylvia Helen Forman in September 1982, shortly after arriving in Amherst to begin three semesters of course work at the University of Massachusetts. As the term unfolded and my PhD plan solidified, Sylvia agreed to serve as an advisor on my dissertation committee. I took no classes with her, but we gained a sense of each other at department meetings and in conversations in her office or at the campus bar. Mostly we swapped stories. While her family life was not a topic she cared to talk about, she was quite animated over her California life. In her teens, she left the DC area and headed to San Francisco, describing at times the sit-ins, revolutionary meetings, protest marches, the music scene. My older brothers attended some events and actions in which she was involved. We knew some of the same people. Her Berkeley PhD was supervised by Laura Nader, the teacher I most admired in my one-year experience as a Berkeley undergrad. We realized we had a shared sense of place and times that were formative – in different ways – for each of us.
In October 1983, Grenada was invaded by the USA (Operation Urgent Fury). Knowing I was just back from a summer of working in the Caribbean, Sylvia pulled me into an organizing meeting with her, Johnnetta Cole, and other faculty and grad student members of the US-Grenada Friendship Society and the Radical Student Union. A protest rally was proposed and, as I knew and worked with Grenadian folks in the Virgin Islands, I was eager to help. Sitting around the organizing table was a familiar sensation, as a lot of activism was organized around my family’s table as I grew up. I had no problem interjecting and expressing my thoughts, and shared an account I had recently heard at the end of the summer from folks anchored out in St. Thomas Harbor. The US military had recently conducted a black-op practice raid in St. Thomas (commandos dropped off two miles out, swimming in under the cover of night to take over the radio station, power plant, and other key sites, then swimming back out before dawn). This military invasion was clearly a planned event. I think maybe Sylvia saw me in a different light after that meeting. I was clearly at home in a diverse crowd of activists. I ended up participating in the campus protest event, giving a brief speech at the rally before the march. By the time I left Massachusetts in February 1984 to do my dissertation research, Sylvia Forman had agreed to serve as my dissertation chair.
In the Virgin Islands I did my research, coached gymnastics, finished a territory-wide prehistoric site survey, birthed a son, and taught anthropology to nursing students at the College of the Virgin Islands. I met Sylvia in Philadelphia at the 1986 AAA conference to receive critical comment and feedback on a dissertation draft. In February 1987, I flew up to Massachusetts to defend the thesis (toddler in hand and seven month-baby in belly, my mom flying out from California to help). Response to critical comments and revisions to the dissertation were made, the final typed version was sent via airmail at the end of March. On April 17, 1987, Sylvia called to tell me my dissertation had been accepted by the University and I was officially granted the PhD. I gave birth at home to son number two the next day.
In the spring of 1988, I was back home in California living with my folks as my husband was coaching men’s gymnastics at Stanford. Sylvia sent me a Sacramento State Environmental Studies job announcement. I applied, interviewed, and accepted a lecturer appointment. Paid employment meant I was able to again attend the AAA meetings. Over the next four years Sylvia and I hung out together at the meetings. She introduced and reintroduced me to colleagues and friends, we attended many of the same sessions, and she brought me along to her dinners and late night party dates. In each venue she made a point to school me on how her network was built, who was involved in varied agendas and why, what interests were being served or ignored, and why these times were for the discipline as a whole were potentially powerful, potentially transformative.
For Sylvia, the annual gathering of the anthrotribe was not simply an opportunity to confer and share knowledge. Watching her connect and reconnect with members of her vast network, listening to their conversations, I realized that the discipline itself was Sylvia’s research focus and the meetings were her fieldwork sites. She explored the structural means by which anthropological knowledge is shared or voices are suppressed. She readily identified the loci of power and the means by which privilege or inequity is structured in the discipline. She was an applied anthropologist whose action-oriented research aimed to reveal the architecture of power in the discipline and the relative role of the Association in privileging some, while silencing others. Her work – be it focused research on the status of women, serving as a program chair for the annual meeting, or organizing actions to demand transformative change – was the work of a creative union organizer.
At the 1990 AAA meeting I accompanied Sylvia in the halls and session rooms, bars, dinners, and parties. She made a point to inform her friends and coworkers of the work I was doing (organizing an interdisciplinary study of the linkages between human rights abuse and environmental crisis to inform a newly commissioned United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment). And, she pointedly asked them to assist me. As a result, I suddenly had the attention and, as time went by, the assistance of current or former leaders in a number of professional associations.
At the 1991 meeting, Sylvia let me know that her breast cancer was not responsive to treatment and she was entering the terminal phase. She asked that I keep this news to myself and accompany her in this swansong endeavor. We attended sessions, organizational meetings, and celebratory gatherings of the thematic collectives she had helped bring into public space. On our last evening, we sat in the conference hotel lobby into the wee hours of the morning talking to each other and the random folks who came by. And, then I said goodbye to this friend, this Anthromom.
I received a card in the mail from Sylvia a few months later. It was a farewell card with instructions: Go to Berkeley and sit outside of Laura Nader’s office until she opens the door and lets you in. Laura will be interested in your work. Keep her posted.
Sylvia died on March 1, 1992. I went to Berkeley as instructed, and began a friendship that continues to this day.
I do so appreciate my Anthromoms.
Cite as: Johnston, Barbara Rose. 2021. “Anthromoms and Ripples in the Pond: Thank You, Sylvia Helen Forman.” In “Genealogies of the Feminist Present: Lineages and Connections in Feminist Anthropology,” edited by Lynn Bolles and Mary H. Moran, American Ethnologist website, 24 May 2021, https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/legacies-and-genealogies-in-feminist-anthropology/anthromoms-and-ripples-in-the-pond-thank-you-sylvia-helen-forman
Barbara Rose Johnston is the Center for Political Ecology Senior Fellow for environment, health & human rights, and Michigan State University Adjunct Professor of Anthropology.