Remembering Sally Merry: Jennifer Telesca

For those of us who as former dissertators had the fortune and pleasure of working with Sally Merry, the celebration due her is more than academic, scholarly, intellectual. She was a giant in the field, both in anthropology and in sociolegal studies. Yet learning from Sally was never just about how to craft the grant application, the book proposal, the conference paper that had to be delivered in fifteen minutes or less. Under the master’s wing, we were her apprentices, low wage earners willing to forsake pay in the professional world to acquire a trade from someone so skilled and erudite that she won the highest accolades from her peers. The latest was the Franz Boas Award from the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

The AAA bestowed on Sally its highest honor for exemplary service to the profession on a Friday night in November 2019 at the end of a routine business meeting. Seating was limited, which prevented me from witnessing firsthand the moment the executive committee, as it wrapped up its agenda, officially declared Sally the winner of this award. We all knew it was coming. I heard afterward that the room gave her a standing ovation.

That evening, instead of reveling in her achievement among the discipline’s most prominent figures, Sally celebrated with her mentees, old and new, over dinner. Together we sat at a long table at a Lebanese restaurant, banquet style, to accommodate family and eight of us who had traveled to the AAAs that year in Vancouver. She wore the medal the entire night, beaming with joy and profoundly at peace. Rounded, gilded, engraved, attached by a burgundy ribbon, the award seemed to me like a gold medal on the chest of an athlete at the Olympic games. Like an Olympic champion, Sally worked at the highest level, tirelessly, perfecting her craft over many years. The list of her achievements is now well known: five single-authored books, three edited volumes, over one hundred journal articles and reviews. Amid this remarkable scholarly production, whose caliber won her several awards, Sally was elected—and served—as president of the Law and Society Association, the American Ethnological Society, and the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.

That Sally chose to celebrate the Franz Boas Award with her family and graduate students says a lot about her. As one of Sally’s apprentices, I was socialized into a way of being in the academy despite, as Sally taught me to understand, its shortcomings. The corona times have made these shortcomings even more evident. Institutions of higher education have shown themselves to be dysfunctional in a global order as top heavy, riven with inequality, thirsty for power. Money is everywhere, but how poorly it is distributed. Leaders rule without accountability while the assault on labor continues. A structural reboot is desperately needed. Sally modeled how we might accomplish the transformation through goodwill, camaraderie, and grace.

Sally’s generosity with her students was legendary. Two hours to talk about an idea for a dissertation topic, multiple times a semester? No problem. Her concern for issues of social justice touched her very core. The subject matter for her scholarship speaks volumes: human rights, gender violence, disempowerment stemming from colonialism and empire name three. I think of Sally when I remember bell hooks’ words: “When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match, we have integrity.”

It’s not just the loss of a scholarly titan we mourn. It’s the loss of—and yearning for the idea of—an academy with integrity, where service does not sap our energy but invigorates us, where good scholarship is compatible with being a good colleague, where advising is not an emotional burden but a vocation worthy of remuneration commensurate with the labor that it is. Academic service must no longer be treated as women’s work, feminized, its productive power systematically absent from the budgets found on some administrator’s Excel spread sheet.

I have known Sally since 2006 when I first began graduate school at New York University. Over the last few years, post graduation, over lunch around Washington Square, Sally opened up somewhat but remained stoic. In the fourteen years I knew her, I can recall only one time (and it was toward the end) when she acknowledged the challenges she faced in the academy as a mother and a wife. As we try now to assess what her loss means to us and to our profession, let us dare to imagine, in her honor, the robust pursuit of knowledge in which service is not gendered as an ethic of care. I offer this as an invitation Sally’s passing presents to us at the moment the owl of Minerva spreads her wings.

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