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Deception and Complicity—the Strange Case of Jessica Krug

Deception and Complicity—the Strange Case of Jessica Krug

On September 3rd, Jessica Krug, 38, abruptly resigned from her job as associate professor of African history at George Washington University (GWU). Apparently fearing imminent exposure, she confessed in a post on Medium that she had passed herself off for more than a decade as being of black-African descent from an ever-shifting range of backgrounds. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she told fellow students she was of Algerian origin with a German father. Later, she claimed that she was from the inner-city “hood” with a spiritual kinship to the late rapper Biggie Smalls—or, alternatively, that she was the offspring of “Caribbean” immigrants, with an Ellis Island-style tale of immigration officials’ mis-transcribing her “grandparents’” surname, Cruz. Her final self-proclaimed provenance seems to have been the South Bronx slums, where she identified as a “boricua,” or Stateside-dwelling Puerto Rican whose mother had been a drug addict. She also moonlighted as a salsa-dancing community activist with the tag “Jess La Bombalera” and was videoed at a New York City Council hearing in June 2020 berating the police for violence against “my black and brown siblings.”

In fact Krug is white, Jewish, and from suburban Kansas City. She attended a Jewish day school growing up and then the preppy Barstow School in Kansas City, where 12th-grade tuition is currently more than $22,000. Black scholars with genuine ancestral roots in sub-Saharan Africa were outraged by Krug’s “playing with the color line” for career advancement, as Lauren Michele Jackson, an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University, wrote recently for the New Yorker. Indeed, Krug is one of several white women who have recently confessed to adopting false black identities for career reasons, then getting caught.

But the real scandal—not discussed much in the media—wasn’t Krug’s decade of duplicity. It was the eagerness of the GWU faculty, along with nearly every other academic with whom Krug came into contact year after year, to enable a deception that in hindsight seems almost laughably transparent. (Only after the truth came out did anyone seem to notice that her Puerto-Rican barrio accent as La Bombalera was unconvincing.) Krug traded in crude stereotypes both academic and ethnic—and they were stereotypes that present-day academia, keen to prove its “anti-racist” bona fides and to shower rewards onto anyone who can qualify as “of color,” bought into as enthusiastically as any white nationalist forum.

Until her recent resignation Jessica Krug was an academic superstar. GWU’s history department hired her onto its tenure track as assistant professor even before she collected her PhD degree from Wisconsin-Madison in 2012. This was a feat in itself, because the academic job market for newly minted doctorate-holders in History has been depressed for decades. According to the American Historical Association, there were only about half as many full-time four-year-college teaching job openings either on or off the tenure track for history PhDs in 2012 as there were new doctoral degree-holders. The situation in the highly specialized, thinly populated sub-field of African history was slightly better but not much. But Krug nonetheless landed at GWU, a high-tuition, lavishly appointed campus in downtown Washington not far from the White House while many of her fellow PhDs in History struggled as poorly paid part-time adjunct professors hoping that full-time openings might show up down the road. And then, in 2018, GWU rewarded Krug with tenure and a promotion to associate professor—lifetime job security.

All this was on the basis of Krug’s 260-page book Fugitive Modernities: Kisama and the Politics of Freedom, published in 2018, the very year she attained tenure. It was a reworking of her doctoral dissertation and, as she explains in a preface, at least one seminar paper she had written in graduate school. The publisher was the Duke University Press. The Duke Press is famous, or infamous, for its booklist of trendy but nearly unintelligible—because thick with impenetrable postmodernist jargon—academic writings on such voguish subjects as gender and post-colonial theory. One of its publications is Social Text, the deconstructionist journal that in 1996 published New York University physics professor Alan Sokal’s hoax paper claiming, among other things, that the force of gravity was a fiction constructed by power-seeking scientists. (Social Text is still going strong, with a current issue devoted to the “biopolitics of plasticity.”)

Krug’s book is no exception to the Duke Press norm of inscrutable jargon that skeptics might prefer to call pure mush. Its theme is Kisama, an arid region of present-day Angola (it’s a wildlife preserve today) that, according to Krug, was a center of “resistance” to Portuguese colonizers and slave traders over the centuries, inspiring “global iterations of the Kisama meme” as “maroons”—fugitive slaves—in the New World engaged in their own periodic “violence” against “state power.” Krug paints Kisama as a kind of anti-state collectivist utopia that sent its “widely circulating” meme of resistance on a “remarkable odyssey” across the Atlantic. Her biggest problem is that, as she admits, “neither oral nor written records” in Africa or anywhere else provide any evidence that this occurred—beyond the fact that many Latin-American slaves were of Angolan origin, some of them apparently from Kisama. Another problem is Krug’s inability or unwillingness to write chronologically straightforward history. In order to find a coherent account of what actually happened with the slave trade in 16th and 17th century Angola you need to consult Wikipedia.

So Krug pads her book: chapters are given murky but fashionably prolix titles such as “Social Dismemberment, Social (Re)membering: Obeah Idioms, Kromanti Identities, and the Trans-Atlantic Politics of Memory, c. 1675-Present.” Postmodernist buzzwords and buzz-phrases abound: “praxis,” “bodies,” “imbrication,” “subjectivities,” “masculinities,” “reputational geographies,” “subaltern,” “interrogation,” “coloniality,” “discursive mobilization,” “gendered topographies of labor.” In order to make sense out of the book’s maps, you have to turn them upside-down or sideways, because Krug believes that conventional north-oriented cartography is unacceptably Eurocentric, reinforcing “the relationships of power that brought millions of Africans across the ocean in chains.” Sentences go on and on. A sample: “If the fundamental unit of being is not the liberal subject—the atomic individual with rights and obligations ensured by the legal apparatus of state—but rather a collective self, fashioned through the instrumental deployment of historical memory and rituo-political choreography, then, unsurprisingly, biography must function differently.”

In what is surely the book’s daffiest footnote, Krug decides that the 17th century warrior-queen Njinga (a national heroine to many present-day Angolans), who called herself a “king” when she led her troops into battle, was transgender—so Krug refers to her by the pronouns “they” and “them.” Other presumed genderqueers with unpronounceable ethnic designations pop up here and there: the “palenquerxs” and the “Palmarinxs.” The book concludes with a rambling peroration against “neoliberalism” “transnational capital,” and law-enforcement brutality in locations ranging from today’s Angola to Krug’s own South Bronx “block,” together with perhaps predictable laments over the deaths of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro.

Other African historians gave Fugitive Modernities polite but lukewarm reviews. Inge Brinkman of Ghent University, writing in the journal Africa Today, accused Krug of tending to “romanticize” conflicts between fugitive slaves and the Portuguese and wondered how she could call Kisama a “meme” without providing evidence of its actually having been passed on. Rice University historian Daniel B. Domingues da Silva, writing in Slavery & Abolition, pointed out that many of the local chiefs in Kisama had engaged in the slave trade themselves, undercutting Krug’s theory that the very name “Kisama” stood for a beacon-like idea of “freedom.”

Nonetheless, from graduate school onwards academia showered Krug’s verbiage-heavy, thinly buttressed scholarly output not just with a fast-track teaching career but with thousands of research dollars: grants from Wisconsin-Madison and GWU, and also from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the US Education Department, the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright-Hays cultural exchange program, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It was only after her confession of a falsified identity on Medium that some of her colleagues in the history of the African slave trade began to notice on social media that some of the research this money paid for might have been shoddy. She had spent only two weeks in Angola in 2010 conducting six field interviews for the book, plus four months in 2007 taking classes in Kimbundu, an Angolan language. One scholar wondered if she had ever been fluent enough to do proper fieldwork.

But Krug was more than simply a mediocre scholar who managed to hoist herself above the other crabs in the PhD barrel by combining postmodernist flimflam with a claim to an ethnic identity that would benefit from obvious racial preferences. (White Africanists have complained since the 1990s that they are at a competitive disadvantage in the academic job market.) She also took advantage of a growing insistence among academics that historians of Africa and its New World diaspora display an “activist” political agenda along with their scholarly chops. The stated aim is to counteract decades of perception of Africa as savage and backward. In 2002, Allen Isaacman, a University of Minnesota professor who headed the African Studies Association, the leading professional organization for Africanists in academia, declared in his presidential address that activist—that is, politically progressive—professors were “uniquely positioned to confront the prevailing dogmas and inherited orthodoxies in the academic and the wider world.”

Krug, with her tirades against neoliberalism and colonialism, white people and the police, gave her colleagues so much of the activism they craved—identity-politics activism—that it amounted to a near-caricature. Fugitive Modernities reminds its readers throughout of “my barrio,” “my [enslaved] ancestors,” “my cousins being held on gang charges,” “my own indigenous language of hip hop,” and the deliberate “exclusion” of “my” supposed Puerto Rican “community” from independent nationhood. At a panel at Columbia University in 2019, she played a latter-day Winnie Mandela, according to a video clip obtained by the Daily Mail, commending the brutal machete murder in 2018 of 15-year-old Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, a Dominican-American in the Bronx, on the grounds that he had allegedly been a police informant and thus had been “working against the interests of the community.” The audience on this Ivy League campus gave Krug a round of applause.

Krug matched the academic caricature she had created with a Latina sartorial caricature that was just as heavy-handed, showing up to teach her classes at GWU wearing tight cheetah-print pants, a crop top, shoulder-grazing hoop earrings, and a nose ring, according to an interview one of her students gave the Cut. In a photo on her official web page for GWU (since removed), she wears a low-cut, bust-exposing purple dress that looks more suitable for a night on the town than a morning in the classroom. Again, few on campus seemed to find her appearance odd or out of place during the eight years she taught there. Her look—barrio hot mama—apparently fit a preconceived image of ethnic authenticity among members of the professorial class. It was as though, if you came from West Virginia and taught Appalachian culture, you had to dress out of People of Walmart.

Ms. Krug said in her confession on Medium that “mental health issues” lay behind her adoption of a false black identity for so many years. Perhaps this was so; colleagues, neighbors, and dates described her as perpetually enraged at white people and those who didn’t share her anti-white antipathy. Yet whether she was mentally disturbed or simply conniving, one thing is certain: She thrived because the relationship between her and the academic world that bought what she sold wasn’t so much perpetrator-and-victim as symbiotic. Jessica Krug might have fleeced academia for a while, but academia was complicit and all too eager to make her what she was—or was not.

 

Charlotte Allen has a PhD in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America. She has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and First Things. You can follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.

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