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November 5, 2001

The Outsider

By Eric Rangus



Mark Auslander speaks softly. On occasion, when discussing his work and background, he almost slips into a whisper. But listeners do not mind leaning forward to catch every word since each syllable carries with it a great deal of fascination.

But listeners do not mind leaning forward to catch every word since each syllable carries with it a great deal of fascination.

“I’ve always been intrigued by Africa,” said Auslander, assistant professor of anthropology at Oxford College. “I think it’s very natural for an anthropologist to turn to Africa since so much of our understanding of what it means to human come out of that continent.”

Much of Auslander’s early research was conducted in southern Africa. One of his projects, in South Africa, dealt with death and memorialization and their roles in people’s understandings of the themselves and their future.

“Local communities struggle over how to imagine a new future,” Auslander said. “To do that they need to create a useable past.” That’s done, in part, through the construction of gravesites, mortuaries and crypts to honor and remember those who have passed on.

It was that research that helped guide Auslander to study African American cemeteries—not the most common subject for a white professor. But one that doesn’t adversely affect his research.

“You can study your own culture, but even then you are necessarily an outsider,” said Auslander, who now focuses a great deal of his research on a variety of African American issues. “Any good social scientist should be suspended between objective and subjective positions.”

Another factor that his influenced Auslander’s recent efforts has been his work with The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (the MARIAL Center), of which he is a core faculty member.

“MARIAL has allowed me to do what I most love, which is to combine undergraduate teaching with research, and to have my students, from their first day on campus, involved in a regional research project,” Auslander said.

The first of those projects, in 2000, involved the Oxford City Cemetery. The whites who are buried there were some of the town’s—and Oxford College’s—leading citizens. A great many of whom were slaveholders. For many years, city funds were used to maintain the cemetery, and the portions where these people were buried were more professionally maintained.

“But the official tours always neglected half the cemetery,” Auslander said. “That half was where African Americans, including those who had been held in slavery by the founding fathers of the college, were buried. [It was] where their children and grandchildren and other descendents were buried.”

First, Auslander’s sociology students became involved. Then his anthropology students joined them.

On weekends, they helped the community plant flowers and repair erosion damage. The students then began documenting the lives of the people who were buried there. They spoke with members of several African American congregations around town and gathered information and family histories.

Coming out of this effort was an exhibit, “Tragic Beauty: Exploring the Oxford African-American Cemetery,” and—perhaps most importantly—a financial solution to keep the African American portion of the cemetery clean for current and future generations.

“We are committed at Oxford to getting our students to engage critically and originally with classic texts,” Auslander said. “We feel that happens best when students are outside the classroom and trying out what they’ve learned inside the classroom in the ‘hurly burly’ of everyday life. From the moment I got here at Oxford, that seemed possible.”

Auslander’s students also were instrumental in the creation of “A Dream Deferred: African American at Emory and Oxford Colleges, 1836–1968” which was on display at Oxford last January as part of the Year of Reconciliation and will be exhibited in Special Collections beginning in January 2002.

Students from Auslander’s Cultures of the African Diaspora class collected information and memorabilia from both white and black families to tell the story of African Americans’ experience at the University.

“As the oldest part of the Emory system, Oxford is perhaps a little more conscious of its identity as a Southern institution,” Auslander said. “We are surrounded by the presence of the past here, and that creates the greatest opportunities in teaching.”

This semester, Auslander is team-teaching a class on the American South with Susan Ashmore, assistant professor of history. While the class covers the period of 1840–1940, the focus is on the first half of that time period and how Americans from other regions of the country may view Southerners as “outsiders.”

Auslander has team taught before, but this is his first time doing it at Oxford.

“It’s been a sheer delight,” he said. “Every day Susan and I find ourselves learning new things about one another, about methods of interpretation as well as bodies of knowledge. It’s wonderful having a well-trained Americanist to work with.

Most recently, Auslander was co-coordinator for a three-day workshop, Oct. 26–28, on racial violence and reconciliation titled “Lifting the Veil of Silence.” It featured a mix of academics, historians and activists who discussed lynchings and racial violence in their communities.

As an anthropologist who studies narrative and storytelling, the subject matter, while quite difficult, immediately drew his interest. “How do you tell this story?” he said. “Are these stories that can only be captured through positive narrative history? Are these stories that can only be captured through art and poetry?

“These are the sort of issues I have been very interested in.”


Back to Emory Report November 5, 2001