Commentary – Love for My People: Some Reflections on Sheila Walker and Life-Affirming Anthropology

I said I love being Black.
I love the color of my skin,
it’s the skin that I’m in.
I love the texture of my hair,
and I rock it everywhere.
I said I love being Black!¹

It’s Jawnteenth 2020, and a few hundred community members have taken over Fifty-second Street, the commercial corridor and cultural lifeblood of West Philadelphia, with marching and chanting.² For three weeks straight, our city has rebelled against state violence against Black people and advanced the local struggle to defund the police. Days earlier, Fifty-second Street was occupied by armored tanks and riot police, who assaulted residents with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other chemical weapons. But, on this holiday commemorating Black freedom, we break from shouting promises of “No Justice, No Peace.” We hold space for the joy and love in liberation, as our parade winds through the streets with a drill team of percussionists and the Concrete Cowboys equestrians. Neighbors honk to the cadence of our voices from cars and gather on stoops to dance, chant, or raise a fist with us. Our repeated chants are affirmations of care to one another: We love being Black.

“I am ethnocentric. And I have absolutely no intention of ridding myself of my ethnocentrism because I like it.” (Walker 1991, 23)

This declaration—to unapologetically love one’s community and one’s self—is the “life-affirming position” that anchors Sheila Walker’s “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism: Some Reflections of an Afrocentric Anthropologist.” The short essay begins with Walker recounting a university seminar organized around the theme of “Ending Ethnocentrism,” during which her white colleagues conflate Eurocentrism’s “long and consistent history of oppressing others” with Walker’s defense of the “positive ethnocentrism” of Black folks, who choose to center our kinfolk in our lives and labors. As Walker makes plain, professional encounters of this sort are more injurious than colleagues being “honestly unable to comprehend” the distinction between white supremacy and identifying with and having love for one’s people. Re-centering whiteness in the process of redressing its innumerable violences disregards the “beingness” of non-white people: “It essentially denies who I am, and even denies me the right to define who I am” (Walker 1991, 23).

As higher education undergoes its latest reckoning with (its own) white supremacy, Walker’s reflections still read as provocatively as they did thirty years ago. In this moment, national uprisings persist in their demands for police abolition. A growing number of campus abolitionist formations are interrogating universities’ ongoing harms against Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities through policing, prison investment, gentrification, and labor exploitation. And yet, the responses of campus leaders to these demands for justice have been overwhelmingly “toothless” solidarity statements,³ virtual townhalls, anti-racist booklists, and high-level diversity and inclusion appointments. These measures make a teachable moment out of struggles for radical transformation of the material conditions of Black suffering. They are the neoliberal manifestations of Walker’s principled critique of those individuals and institutions who do “not want to see themselves as implicated” in white supremacy also being the ones who are able to conspicuously position themselves as “working to end” the oppressive structures “of which they are beneficiaries both materially and psychologically” (Walker 1991, 24–25).

Walker’s essay and the fiercely self-possessed example of her intellectual journey urges us to consider what is life-affirming—or not—about the circumstances, praxis, and imagination of Black Anthropology in a time of global Black rebellion.⁴ In her 1978 essay that introduces a special issue on Black Education, “A Challenge to Anthropology and Education,” Walker uplifts the contributions of a multigenerational group of Black scholars, who do not all define themselves as anthropologists but make use of anthropological tools, guided by the “faith” that anthropology has “relevance to the liberation of Black people from the devastating consequences of over four centuries of white racism” (Drake, quoted in Walker 1978, 76). As an anthropologist and organizer who was both radicalized and professionalized in the wake of spectacular Black deaths and the ongoing Movement for Black Lives, what I find most generative in this essay is Walker’s insistence that “there is fertile ground for anthropologists to plow that really needs plowing” (Walker 1978, 83). I understand this statement to be an invitation to re-center the goals of Black liberation in Black scholarship, to interrogate the question of what it is that anthropology can materially do for Black people (if anything), and, returning to “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism,” to audaciously love our folks out loud.

In two months of quarantine and another two months in the streets, the most hopeful I have felt about the prospects of Black freedom was in those jubilant moments shouting “I love being Black.” Black people are dying, slowly and quickly. We are also always struggling, surviving, loving, and creating the new worlds we envision. As Walker’s scholarship continues to teach us, to be positively ethnocentric, to be one who “gratefully and ecstatically participates in [the] many manifestations of that cultural orientation,” is and must be joyful self-determining kin-work (Walker 1991, 24). To imagine oneself as contributing to the liberatory struggles of one’s people is and must be an act of pleasure. To like it, to love it, to be pleased by it, is enough.


1. The chant “I Love Being Black” is a popular call-and-response in Movement for Black Lives/Black Lives Matter protests, which is attributed to the Black Youth Project 100. A studio version is featured on BYP 100’s “The Black Joy Experience.” Black Youth Project 100 Choir. 2018. “I Love Being Black (Chant).” YouTube. October 18. Accessed July 26, 2020.

2. “Jawnteenth” was an event held at Malcolm X Park in Philadelphia on June 19, 2020, by Black Lives Matter Philly, where I am a core organizer. The name is a portmanteau of Juneteenth and the beloved, all-purpose Philly term, “jawn.”

3. Englad, Jason, and Richard Purcell. 2020. “Higher Ed’s Toothless Response to the Killing of George Floyd.” Chronicle of Higher Education website, June 8. Accessed July 26, 2020.

4. Sheila Walker’s 2015 article, “Milestones and Arrows: A Cultural Anthropologist Discovers the Global African Diaspora,” is a generous self-retrospective on a professional life well lived.


Walker, Sheila S. 1978. “A Challenge to Anthropology and Education.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 9(2): 75–84.

Walker, Sheila S. 1991. “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism: Some Reflections of an Afrocentric Anthropologist.” Transforming Anthropology 2(2): 23–26.

Walker, Sheila S. 2015. “Milestones and Arrows: A Cultural Anthropologist Discovers the Global African Diaspora.” Journal of African American Studies 100(3): 494–521.

About the Author

Krystal Strong

Dr. Krystal Strong is an assistant professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division in the University of PennsylvaniaGraduate School of Education, a member of the Anthropology graduate group, and a faculty affiliate of Africana Studies, the Price Lab for the Digital Humanities, the Center for Experimental Ethnography, and the Hub for Equity, Anti-Oppression, Research and Development (HEARD). Learn More