The Layered Deceptions of Jessica Krug, the Black-Studies Professor Who Hid That She Is White
During her scholastic career, Jessica Krug’s advisers, editors, and colleagues failed to recognize the gap between something thrown-on and something lived-in. That inattentiveness was her escape hatch.Photograph by Samira Rashid
By Lauren Michele Jackson, THE NEW YORKER, September 12, 2020
At the end of August, a famous white celebrity appeared on Instagram wearing a hair style best known for gracing the heads of Black women. No, it wasn’t Khloe (Koko) Kardashian, or anyone of that tribe, nor any of the usual-suspect pop girls, Miley Cyrus, et al. It was Adele, of the power-ballad tribe, sporting Bantu knots—but that’s not all. Posted late on a Sunday evening London time—a few hours before this year’s virtual-ish MTV Video Music Awards—the photo showed the blue-eyed-soul singer, usually known for smoked-out red-carpet glamour, frolicking as part of what appeared to be a homespun Carnival celebration. She was costumed for the occasion in gold hoops and a Jamaican-flag bikini top, a yellow-feathered headdress arrayed about her neck. I’m told jokes were made, but by the time I approached social media, on Monday morning, the conversation had already coalesced around the dreaded phrase “cultural appropriation.” This time, however, the culture, or some portions of it, pushed back against the label. Black Britons chided Americans for their ignorance of Carnival tradition—it is welcome to all who come respectfully. West Indians in the United States, in turn, were irritated by their imperious compatriots. Jamaicans on and off the island bemoaned that the hand-wringing was thieving joy from their moment in the sun. (Whites, I imagine, clung to whichever angle most eased their secondhand guilt.) These lines of contention—cultural, ethnic, national—were overlapping and inexact; the diaspora, made up of so many ongoing resettlements, resists summary. The only stable reference point in the debate was the singularity that is Adele, looking snatched and a bit silly in her Bantu knots and tie-dye leggings.
Across the pond, a few days later, a woman waved a white flag. The historian Jessica A. Krug, then an associate professor at George Washington University, posted a confession on the publishing platform Medium, last Thursday, explaining that she is not who she’d been claiming to be. “To an escalating degree over my adult life,” she wrote, “I have eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.” Her life and, by extension, her scholarly career—or is it the other way around?—had been based on a lie, she admitted, or rather a glut of them, feeding on good faith like, as Krug put it, “not a culture vulture” but “a culture leech.”
The blog post is light on details—the where, when, and how of Krug’s masquerade. She speculates that “mental health issues” were an impetus for her behavior; professionals have assured her that altered identity is a “common response” to “the severe trauma” that she incurred during childhood. But she does not name a diagnosis or elaborate upon the instigating traumatic events, resorting instead to the generic jargon of self-help, blended with the D.I.Y. verbiage endemic to the self-care branch of social justice: “redress,” “harm,” “gaslit,” “belonging,” “accountability.” (Absent are the words “sorry” and “apologize.”) The post is not well written, but it wants to be—its self-flagellations taking on the repetitious rhythms of slam poetry. (“I am a coward…. I am a coward”; “Intention never matters more than impact.”) The performance is, above all, profoundly awkward. For all her apparent study of the ways in which certain oppressed groups address wrongs that are done, Krug proves incapable of writing her way to recompense. “You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself,” she writes, borrowing, with all sincerity, a term of cultural panic that lost its candor eons ago. “What does that mean?” she asks. “I don’t know.” Within twenty-four hours, a group of Krug’s colleagues at G.W. released a statement calling on her to resign or, if not, to be stripped of her tenure and fired. “With her conduct, Dr. Krug has raised questions about the veracity of her own research and teaching,” the G.W. Department of History said in a written statement posted to its Web site. On Wednesday, it was announced that Krug had resigned. (She did not respond to my requests to speak with her.)
It seems that Krug exposed herself to avoid being exposed. “I had been following her transformation for a while,” a scholar in Krug’s field told me. The scholar, a junior professor who wished to remain anonymous, met Krug more than a decade ago. “The first time I encountered her, she would talk about ‘us’ and ‘we,’ ” the junior professor said over the phone. “And I was scratching my head, like, ‘us’ and ‘we’? And then I realized she meant Black.” Specifically, “part Algerian”—Krug said that she was the daughter of Algerian immigrants on her mother’s side, and that her father was a white man of German origin. “I took her at her word,” the professor said, “But I always had certain misgivings.” Krug spoke back then of trauma as part of her heritage, describing herself as the product of rape between her mother and father, and the junior professor said that she didn’t want to impinge on Krug by bringing it up, even as she and other friends, all Latinx, harbored doubts about Krug’s claims. The way Krug spoke about the junior professor’s own identity was part of what aroused her suspicion. “I’m middle class. I’ve never tried to be anything else,” she said. “I think she was pushing me or encouraging me to adopt a more radical political position.” These sorts of challenges ate away at the remaining amiability between Krug and her Afro-Latinx peers. “There came a point when we were just, like, ‘This is bullshit.’ ” Still, they were operating on a feeling. Without proof or a violation of academic protocol or issues with Krug’s scholarship—“I always respected her intellectually,” the junior professor said—there was nothing to be done but add distance. “There wasn’t any big dramatic moment. I just quietly severed the relationship on all fronts.”
Years later, Krug came back on the scholar’s radar when mutual friends on Facebook shared articles Krug had written for RaceBaitr, a platform for race-forward news and criticism, and later for Essence. Those articles, now deleted (though Krug’s work appears in the September/October print issue of Essence), made it apparent that a change had occurred. Krug had left her Algerian roots and been remade, chameleon-like, by Spanish Harlem. “I am boricua, just so you know,” she wrote for Essence last year. Still, the junior scholar told me, “I just sat quietly with it, because who is going to believe me?”
Krug’s reckoning was finally set in motion after another G.W. professor, H. G. Carrillo, died, in April, at the age of fifty-nine, due to complications of the novel coronavirus. Carrillo, who went by the nickname Hache (“H” in Spanish, spelled out), was known as a queer Cuban-American author who captured the estranged experience of the Latin American diaspora, notably in his novel “Loosing My Espanish,” from 2004. Upon reading a tribute to the author in the Washington Post, however, Carrillo’s sister and niece contacted the paper with some critical updated information: Carrillo was not born in Cuba but in the United States, Detroit to be exact. His parents were also born in Michigan, and they, like Carrillo (born Herman Glenn Carroll), were Black Americans with no Latino heritage. This was a shock to Carrillo’s husband and to the literary community, prompting conversations among Afro-Latinx writers who had counted him as one of their own.
It was also, the junior scholar told me, “a moment of synchronicity.” On August 26th, she texted two other Afro-Latinx scholars, after hinting, on Twitter, about a possible Carrillo-like situation within her field. One of the people she texted was Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez, an associate professor of Afro-diaspora studies at Michigan State University. Together with a third scholar, Figueroa-Vásquez began doing research into Krug’s background and found proof of her identity once and for all in the obituaries of Krug’s parents. But there remained the question of what to do with the information. “We were not going to write some big flashy letter. We were not trying to ruin her life,” Figueroa-Vásquez said. “We were really thinking, as Black Latina women, how do we do this ethically?” They had no plans to contact G.W.; what they wanted, Figueroa-Vasquez said, was simply for Krug to “stop lying” and apologize. They reached out to people who know Krug personally, colleagues in her field and editors she had worked with, to gather more information. But Figueroa-Vásquez suspects that Krug was “tipped off” by one of those people. Within eight days of their initial conversation about Krug (“Black women are efficient if nothing else—we get to the bottom of things,” Figueroa-Vásquez joked), the Medium post was online and a frenzy of news coverage had begun.
Jessica Anne Krug grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Her parents, Stuart and Sherry Krug, worked as a grocer and a teacher, respectively, according to obituaries in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. Krug attended the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, a Jewish day school located in the suburb of Overland Park, followed by the Barstow School, a prep school in the city proper. In 1996, when she was in the eighth grade, Krug wrote an op-ed in the Kansas City Star against “white-male bashing,” despite her experiences with harassment from people in that demographic. “A few years ago, while taking a shortcut through a local country club, I was confronted by people who uttered slurs about the Jewish star hanging around my neck,” she wrote. She attended Portland State University and later received her doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 2012. She was “passionate about African and African Diaspora history,” Francisco Scarano, a member of her dissertation committee, told me via e-mail, describing her as a “voracious reader.” After travels to Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, he said, “she always seem to come back energized by experiences she had and by the people she had met here.” They never had conversations about her race and ethnicity, though, and Scarano said that he was shocked by the news of her forged identities.
“North African Blackness,” “US rooted Blackness,” “Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness”—even the coming clean reverts to a sweeping shorthand. In the course of her academic career, Krug has identified as Algerian, African-American, Black Boricua, vaguely Afro-Latinx, vaguely Caribbean; she’s been from Kansas City, from the Bronx, and “of the hood.” Krug’s students, interviewed by The Cut, recalled a “very heavy accent” and an affected brown-girl cool. The trail of locales and labels explicates little besides their author’s own ethnographic tastes. What unites them, though, is Krug’s affinity for Blackness as an instrument of authenticity as she made her way through academia.
Much of the coverage of Krug has reduced her story to this point: the want of Blackness. The comparisons to Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane woman, now known as Nkechi Amare Diallo, who went viral, in 2015, for her own living minstrel act, write themselves. But while Dolezal’s fabrication relied upon a flat sense of Black American identity (the Howard University degree, the leadership position at the N.A.A.C.P.), Krug’s transformation from white to Black was knottier. The places Krug chose to identify with—North Africa, the West Indies, East Harlem, the Bronx—cannily preyed upon a certain American laziness when it comes to parsing race beyond Jim Crow. It is germane that Krug hid among the bona fides of the American humanities, which, still, as a whole, like the nation as a whole, tend toward incuriosity about the difference between race and ethnicity, let alone how one cuts across the other. (Hence the tendency of so many outlets to account for Adele’s showing only in Black and white terms.)
Consider, for instance, the footage that has been circulating from a New York City Council hearing, held over Zoom in June, which shows Krug in her Afro-Latinx pose. She introduces herself as Jess La Bombalera, a nickname apparently of her own making, adapted from Bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican genre of music and dance. Broadcasting live from “El Barrio,” and wearing purple-tinted shades and a hoop in her nose, she lambasts gentrifiers, shouts out her “black and brown siblings,” and twice calls out “white New Yorkers” for not yielding their speaking time. What stands out, though, is the way Krug speaks, in a patchy accent that begins with thickly rolled “R”s and transitions into what can best be described as B-movie gangster. This is where desire outruns expertise. The Times, in a piece on Krug’s exposure, last week, nonetheless called this a “Latina accent,” lending credence to Krug’s performance. (The phrase was later deleted.) The offhand notation is a tiny example of the buy-in Krug has been afforded her entire scholastic career, by advisers and committee members and editors and colleagues. They failed to recognize the gap not between real and faux, so much, as between something thrown-on and something lived-in. That inattentiveness was Krug’s escape hatch.
A symptomatic reading of the situation is almost too easy. Krug’s academic research is focussed on unhomed peoples whose identities are not reducible to state or tribal filiation—indigenous peoples turned Africans turned slaves turned fugitives who forged a new sense of themselves out of thin air. Her book, “Fugitive Modernities,” from 2018, centers on Kisama, a region within present-day Angola whose people resisted Portuguese enslavement and colonialism in the seventeenth century. It was published by Duke University Press, which is known for its cutting-edge monographs in the area of Black studies. The editorial director, Gisela Fosado, explained in a post on the press’s blog that she, too, had been lied to—in their initial contact, Fosado wrote, Krug claimed that her surname was actually Cruz. Fosado added that she is not sure what’s to be done now with Krug’s scholarship, which “has been widely praised and recognized as important.” I, working far afield from Krug’s work in period, region, and methods, am not equipped to evaluate the fitness of her research. I can only say that her writing is heavy on the kind of equivocation (“and” … “but” … “furthermore”) that, in academic texts, can reflect broad-mindedness—or insecurity. After the Medium post was published, excerpts from “Fugitive Modernities” circulated on Twitter. Seasoned authors like to joke about the length of the acknowledgements section in books by début authors, who tend to thank everyone they’ve ever encountered, down to their kindergarten teachers. But Krug is light on thanks, and takes a combative tone. The only person acknowledged by name is the late rapper Biggie Smalls; Krug is tempted, she writes, to just “crib” her comments from him, “to stunt on every institution and person who has ever stood in my way.”
Black studies, a collaborative and multidisciplinary field, is whiter than anyone who hasn’t been in a room with us might assume. Here I’m referring not to the white scholars, though they are plentiful, but to the rest of us: gather us in a group and you’ll be hard pressed to find a tenure-track scholar darker than the proverbial paper bag. There’s a familiar story that accounts for the prevalence of lighter-complected folk in America, the post-bellum legacy of rape—the same narrative that Krug latched onto in making the myth of her “lightskin” presentation, wielding it as a cudgel to protect her against those who might try to pry into the finer points of her background. (According to the junior scholar, during grad school Krug called herself “high yella,” a playfully derogatory term for the fairer African-American set.) But then there is another story that helps account for how someone who looks like Krug can blend in, so to speak: the story of how the lightest among us have a way of perpetuating their lightness over generations, prizing it as it is prized by the institutions they move within. This presents an odd paradox among the scholars presumably best poised to confront white supremacy from inside the university: all of this light skin is not incidental to how Black studies sees itself—to who is promoted, professionally and ideologically, within the field, and to who is extended, as Krug was extended, so much benefit of the doubt.
These things are known but rarely acknowledged in such mixed company. There may be a shift in the air, though. The unravelling of Krug’s charade began with a whisper network of sorts, as so many of these things do. The whispering continues. I am aware of at least one scholar, known for playing with the color line, who quietly modified her institutional bio recently. The self-description now specifies “white.”
—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: September 12, 2020 at 09:07PM