Roy Wagner 1938-2018

Hi Linda Porter Gracie

I hope you were able to see what Edy Marie Gonzalez wrote in response to your query on my Facebook page about Roy Wagner. It was lovely and true.

Roy was one of those larger than life characters, but not in the usual way. There was no bombast and neither his brilliance nor his kindness nor his absolute craziness hit you in the face. He loved Coyote medicine, but never cruelty.

The first time I remember talking with him was at some UVA presentation. I’d just arrived, fresh out of Philosophy, and suitably arrogant towards my new, seemingly theory-poor discipline. I questioned the speaker (Roy) on a nuanced point regarding category boundaries, as the other first term grad students looked at me in shock. I expected to be rebuffed by The Great Man and was ready to argue. Instead he seemed interested and asked where he might learn more about the subject. I was awed by the humility of his true intellectualism. He was curious and patient in ways that too few academics are.

When he discovered that I knew about Santeria and had spent two years with a brujo, we became best friends. He helped me transition into anthropology (with the Roy Wagner twist) and was, for a time, my dissertation advisor and remained on my committee, asking the final and most Roy-like question at the end: “And how would you explain all of this in terms of quantum physics?” I’ve no doubt that it made for one of the most unique dissertation defenses of anthropology in UVA history.

He was also Pontius Pilate in the on-going, ever changing production of Jesus Christ Superstar that my friends and I (Joseph Hellweg, Indra Davis, Sarah Boone, Raymond Cruz et. al) practiced at my King St. house for semesters on end. Roy did not have a great singing voice, but he regally embodied the part, displaying his usual good humor and a flare for drama and what can only be categorized as Vogueing.

Roy was among the most talkative people I’ve ever met and there were no trivial conversations. When you entered his office, hung out at Edie Turner’s house, or spoke on the phone, you had to be prepared to devote time to enter what I called Roy World. It was a place of vast imagination, a library’s worth of knowledge, anecdotes galore, recognizably Chicagoan anthropology, a plasticity similar to that that Bob Zimmerman applauded in me back at Sarah Lawrence, but with a more extensive range of knowledge in many areas. It was a place of stimulation and joy and exhaustion, fortified for him by vast quantities of unbelievably strong coffee.

I returned from my first field trip among healers and independent coffee growers in Puerto Rico with a pound of the best coffee on the island for him. Roy was delighted and immediately poured the entire bag into his small (4 cup?) coffee maker, for one intense batch that he delightedly consumed within the hour.

Roy was soft spoken and intense. He loved music, wit, and animals. He was kind but never condescending to children, unfailingly gallant, fun, and could be bitingly sharp, but only with his peers. He was protective of students and underdogs and he talked to everyone as an equal. My husband- an outsider to the academy- has fond memories of schmoozing with Roy, who of course made it his business to casually ensure that Raymond was included and comfortable.

He was a wonderful story teller and mischievous teller of truths. He could render what must have been painful aspects of his life into gently humorous yet still touching stories.

Roy was special. He would send me chapters of a book he was working on but he almost never wanted to discuss the actual typewritten pages, but rather, the concepts and sets of a priori beliefs from which they were constructed. He loved that I’d been a Wittgensteinian philosopher and could follow and add to his journeys into language games and meanings.

He was playful, delightful, and easily delighted, and thus always had an aura of youthfulness. We danced & sang together, watched tv, had meals, and did all the superficially mundane things that friends do (we once went to the mall!) but that’s not where the heart of our bond was centered.

It’s impossible to say who Roy was, and is, to me. He was among the few who made being the first African American and first older student in grad anthro at UVA doable. His book, The Invention of Culture is still read, with good reason. At heart, Roy was the embodiment of intelligence. Ever curious, mind as sharp as a razor, willing to appear foolish in pursuit of ideas. He was Diogenes-like in his quest for the truth of understanding.

I trusted Roy and Roy could be trusted. I can’t say that of many people. He was always himself: always and in all ways. Roy will always have a place in my heart and I’ll be very interested in hearing about his adventures if we again meet up in some form or fashion. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, as I said before, I like to think that Roy and Edie are regaling the other Ancestors with great stories and questions and that there’s an endless supply of good coffee for Roy. Form may change, but The Journey never ends.

A Caribbean Inspired Rant

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As my heart alternately breaks and inflames with rage, I find myself anxiously begging our representatives to hurry to rescue the US citizens of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. To do what all we can for the VICTIMS of ravaging storms, in and around the Caribbean. This is what my heart is screaming.

But then my knowledge of history and the current political climate and economic priorities kicks in and I know that the point is not to “save” Puerto Rico, it’s to let as many die or give up as possible. The point is for the capitalist vultures to finish what they’ve been doing: wresting complete control over the land and all resources, including the remaining workforce. The point is to let 45’s friends and their ilk denigrate the people for being poor after taking away their ability to thrive at home. For a man who declared bankruptcy multiple times to dare to disparage victims of colonialism and hurricanes while allowing, no, encouraging his disaster capitalist buddies to steal all they can.
The pattern can also be seen in the current attempts to disenfranchise the stricken people of Barbuda by the government of Antigua, whose members have vested interests in development that will do little to profit the people of Barbuda, but will certainly take away their inherited rights to the land they hold in trust.
If these uber/hyper capitalists have their way, you won’t be able to subsist on your own land, grow your own food, use solar, fish, or pluck an avocado from a tree. Remember the 2020 Plan to eliminate agriculture in Puerto Rico? Then also remember that, as a Barbudan elder often said to me, “A people who cannot feed themselves are bound to become slaves.”
Look around the US as unions are decimated, water is polluted and your rights to it are handed over to those who pollute and sell it back to you. Look at the outlawing of your right to collect rainwater or go off grid in states like Florida. Look at the destruction of a once internationally envied, free education system. Look at the ways in which you’re stimulated to buy what you don’t need but are dissuaded from being active participants in your own governance. Look at the millions who are a paycheck away from devastating medical debt, the millions of Americans imprisoned, often because they can’t afford bail or good representation.
Look around and know that you are all being colonized and enslaved. You are Puerto Rico on a three second delay. Wake Up and ACT.

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Barbuda 2010. “The Light.”

This is a photo I took in Barbuda in 2010. I was trying to capture “The Light” that many believe to be the spirit of the island. It is my most heartfelt and sincere hope that The Light will restore the Caribbean and return the land to the true people.