Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Heath Pearson

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Heath Pearson, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Princeton University. Heath’s dissertation, titled The Carceral Outside: Land Loss & Governance in an American Prison Town, looks at the way land and the human assemble over and across time amidst ever-evolving capitalist enclosures that rise and fall within carceral democracy.

My home is rural Indiana. But on this particular day, during my first semester of graduate work at Princeton, I was sitting behind my parents on a train to New York City. My mom had never been to the City. The energy felt larger than life. I flunked out of college on my first try and for seven, long years, I had to work every job imaginable to claw myself back into school. My parents chattered quietly and politely, as rural Indiana folk do, and I sat behind them, reading alone. “Excuse me,” the question invaded my focus. “Are you a graduate student?” asked the man sitting across the aisle. Noticing my confused expression, he quickly followed: “Not many people read Walter Benjamin on the train.” I laughed and we made small talk about my research interests.

Anthropologists often tow a malleable line between academic and everyday. After ten minutes, I felt a ghostly tap-tap-tapping on my shoulder. I turned to see a retiree peering over the seat, her nose squeezed between the seatbacks. “I’m so sorry to eavesdrop, but I simply had to invite you to lunch with me. I am a retired high school teacher and I live in a south Jersey town with five prisons. I would love to show you around.” At the end of the school year, I journeyed down to little Cliptown for lunch with Ramona. “You wouldn’t believe it,” I told my mom over the phone, “the disowned factories, the small-city vibe amidst thousands of acres of farmland, and the warm presence of restless ghosts made it feel like home.”

For me, home is that frightening, ghoulish picture of the White man with hollow eyes staring into the camera and pointing back with a lazy left hand to two lynched bodies…Marion, IN. That’s my hometown. Cliptown, NJ, with its landscape of indigenous genocide, Japanese-American forced labor during WWII, and the multiple correctional facilities that now enclose land and life all felt so familiar. The same mechanics of empire that I learned to dodge, dip, and duck as a young boy at home, I found stretched to south Jersey and beyond.

My research highlights and theorizes from people building home in spaces intended for death. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: “In our lifetimes, we have never been more in need of the inspiration, the lessons, and the strength of those who have bequeathed to us the certainties and uncertainties of home today.”*

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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