Truth-teller: Anthropologist Keisha-Khan Y. Perry

The anthropologist of Black social movements in the Americas is the Presidential Penn Compact Associate Professor in Africana Studies.

Keisha-Khan Perry in her office, surrounded by books
Keisha-Khan Perry, anthropologist of Black social movements in the Americas, is the Presidential Penn Compact Associate Professor in Africana Studies.

Keisha-Khan Y. Perry is the Presidential Penn Compact Associate Professor in Africana Studies. As an anthropologist of Black social movements in the Americas, she has degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Texas at Austin; she was an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow and has had professional appointments at Brown and Princeton. 

But despite this establishment pedigree, Perry is, at her core, a radical and a truth-teller. “I get paid in integrity, academic integrity,” she says. “That’s my cachet.”

Established as a department at Penn in July 2012 after 40 years of Black studies, Africana Studies is an interdisciplinary and cross-regional approach to the history, sociology, anthropology, and literature of Black lives across the diaspora. 

Perry adds another component to this department. Her work is comparative and transnational, adding to an existing strength in Africana studies of scholars who focus on Black women’s scholarship, says Michael G. Hanchard, the Gustave C. Kuemmerle Professor of Africana Studies. 

While Perry conducts most of her research in Brazil, Portuguese is actually her fourth language. Originally from Jamaica, Perry grew up bilingual in Jamaican Patois and English. She migrated to New Jersey at age 10, accompanying her mother, an environmental activist. Her mother went to community college, Rutgers-New Brunswick, and then to Rutgers Law School, where she continued her work in environmental activism and prisoners’ rights, while Perry went to Science Park High School in Newark. 

The experience shaped her intellectual journey, Perry says. “It was the first place that I had Black teachers, that I had people assign Black scholars, films like “Eyes on the Prize,” a 14-episode documentary of the Civil Rights Movement, she says. Beyond church, Science Park High “was my first introduction to Black life in the United States and learning about Black history in a very critical way,” she says.

Her life during this time was “a series of what seemed like serendipitous moments,” Perry says. While waiting around in the library, a librarian handed her a book with information about going abroad. Perry applied for and won a scholarship to go to Spain the summer after her 10th grade year, where she stayed with a host family and perfected Spanish, her third language.

She talks with students about how chance and conversation can open doors. “If people don’t really talk to each other, know how to talk to strangers, know how to interact, are in the right places at the right time, they don’t catch these opportunities because they’re missing the opportunity to connect,” Perry says.

Later, while at Georgetown, planning to be diplomat, Perry met a historian who encouraged her to go to Brazil, again changing the trajectory of her life and work. 

In Brazil, she began working with a local women’s organization in Gamboa de Baixo, “It’s a small coastal community in the center of Salvador that has been fighting for land and housing rights since the early 1990s,” she says. “And I kind of joined that struggle in solidarity and to offer my support.” 

This meant photographing protests to writing memos to making food, while simultaneously doing an ethnographic study of the women’s activist work, documenting their participation and leadership and the way racial and gender identity played out in urban spaces.

The result, “Black Women Against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil,” was reviewed in more than 20 publications and won the National Women’s Studies Association Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Award in 2014. 

Perry worked on a translation of this work into Portuguese, which was published in September 2022. “I always felt that it was so important to have my book available in Portuguese so that activists and scholars in Brazil could read my book,” she says. 

“It took a very long time to get that done. I don’t think people understand the emotional and physical and mental labor that it takes to translate a book and publish it. Even with the support of translators, you still have to go back through and read it carefully as well as update it for a Brazilian audience,” Perry says, noting that she considers the work her biggest academic accomplishment to date.

“Keisha’s ethnographic and anthropological focus is on Black and brown women’s mobilization from spaces of social, economic and political marginalization, independent of formal political parties, trade unions and elite feminist organizations,” Hanchard says. “What’s unique is that she has focused on people who created their own independent institutions. They were not necessarily tethered to political parties, trade unions, and elite feminist organizations but instead were organized around discrimination, housing, and gentrification.” 

Keisha-Khan Perry in her office, surrounded by books
“The world is all about being honest and truthful,” says Keisha-Khan Perry. “I think there was really no other way for me to do the academy. I felt that I had to be one, truthful, and two, be an advocate.”

Part of Perry’s commitment to the work is rooted in its connection to her own life. While an undergraduate student at Georgetown, she volunteered at a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter every Friday night. And while she was in college, Perry’s own mother lost her housing while in law school at Rutgers. 

“As immigrants, as students, we always dealt with questions of housing precarity in this country,” Perry says. “That’s just a personal reason around why I’m always so obsessed, so committed to questions around housing justice and the fact that that is one of the most important struggles in the United States at this particular moment.”

Perry is now in a place to mentor students and give her own advice. She encourages her students to be in conversation with communities about what kind of research questions are important and what kinds of ideas need to be highlighted in the work, “so there’s that kind of co-thinking, a co-theorizing that takes place, also citing scholarship that comes out of these communities, even if people don’t have Ph.D.s,” she says. “It’s about being truthful about where you got your ideas.”

Since Perry arrived at Penn, Hanchard has been working with her to mentor graduate students. “She’s a very demanding and fair teacher,” he says. “Students are really empowered by working with her.”

Perry uses a wide range of Black feminist scholars in the courses she teaches at Penn, including Introduction to Africana Studies. “We have to normalize the teaching of these ideas in classes, so that students recognize themselves in the text but also see themselves as contributing to that intellectual tradition,” she says.

Perry’s forthcoming book is titled “Anthropology for Liberation,” a methodological work about research, writing, and teaching for social justice. “This idea that activist research is somehow kind of a glamorous, hero-type experience, I think needs to be troubled,” says Perry.

“I wanted a serious kind of conversation,” she says. “I thought a lot about what it meant to do research in a violent zone, right in spaces where Black people are experiencing state violence on an everyday basis, and you’re part of that space and working in solidarity with those people, so you yourself become part of that.”

Perry says she’s known people who have been killed by the state, seen people threatened, and was present with her young son during a sudden neighborhood police invasion, when they watched machine gun-wielding officers kick a Black man’s head under a parked police car. “I talk a lot about the everyday presence of police violence, what it means to do work with helicopters flying over and bullets flying and those kinds of things,” she says. There is a responsibility to document violence as part of a global effort to eradicate that violence, Perry says, but witnessing takes a toll. 

At the same time, she says, there’s an end date to this research. At some point, she goes home, while the Brazilian women stay in Gamboa de Baixo. “I’m thinking a lot about how to maintain integrity but also being very honest about the limitations of doing that work when you do pack up your things,” Perry says. “My former doctoral advisor, Edmund T. Gordon, has always said, ‘Do the right thing.’ And the right thing has been to do work that maintains your integrity, maintains the integrity of the communities that you’re doing work with.”

For Perry, integrity was the only option. “The world is all about being honest and truthful,” she says. “I think there was really no other way for me to do the academy. I felt that I had to be one, truthful, and two, be an advocate.”