Editor’s Note: Ed Morales is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He’s the author of the book “Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico.” Follow him on Twitter @SpanglishKid. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The news about Jessica Krug, disgraced George Washington University history professor who has been asked to resign by her department, came fast and furious on Thursday. In a post on Medium, she confessed to having masqueraded as an African descendant, “gaslighted those whom I love,” and asked to be “canceled” for having lived a “violent, anti-Black lie.”
The irony to Krug’s revelation is that she was apparently discovered because several Black Latina scholars questioned Krug’s identity after a group discussion about the late novelist H.G. Carrillo, who, after his death this year, was revealed not to be Afro-Cuban, but African-American by his sister. But it was the violence that Krug, who said in her post that she had grown up as a White, Jewish child in Kansas City, had done to her colleagues, peers and students that hurt the most.
The depth of the damage was most poignantly called out by Yomaira C. Figueroa, associate professor at Michigan State who comes from a “working poor” background growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey. In a Washington Post interview, Figueroa said it was “disgusting,” and asserted that many in the academic world are “aghast that (Krug) would perpetuate these lies and gain access to the spaces in the academy, the resources.”
Hunter College professor Yarimar Bonilla, who was a fellow at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with Krug, said on Twitter that Krug employed gross racial stereotypes to build her claim to authenticity, “claiming to be a child of addicts from the hood,” and harangued colleagues through a “woker-than-thou” rhetoric that made Bonilla feel like she was “trafficking in respectability politics when I cringed at her MINSTREL SHOW.”
What got to me most about the Krug “performance” was a video that surfaced of a talk she did at Harlem’s Studio Museum about her involvement with a community-led police monitoring group called Harlem Cop Watch. As someone who actually grew up in the Bronx and actively reported on police violence in the 1990s, I was repulsed when I watched her self-righteous rant about her youth in the Bronx constantly witnessing acts of police brutality, describing one against her brother, and even alluding to the horrific police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, which she claimed happened “around the corner from my home.”
A number of local New York activists like Andrew J. Padilla and Ed García Conde shared their brief, puzzling encounters with Krug online and traces of her involvement with Revolutionary Fitness, a left-oriented fitness center, emerged. Shawn Garcia, founder of Revolutionary Fitness, told me in an email message that Krug tried to “gain some clout by affiliating herself with us and other community organizations like Harlem Cop Watch,” but stopped hanging around “because she claimed we weren’t hard enough on gentrifiers.”
Apart from all the self-searching of this moment, there is a danger that conservatives might use this to discredit ethnic and Black studies as an invalid field to research. Just Saturday, as the New York Post plastered a mocking headline alongside a photo of Krug on its cover the Trump administration released a memo blocking some race-related training sessions for federal agencies, with Trump himself attacking “critical race theory” as a “sickness” on Twitter.
Still, the question remains, does this 21st-century race-anxiety horror show invalidate Krug’s work? Her book, “Fugitive Modernities,” was published by the prestigious Duke University Press and had been a 2019 finalist for the Harriet Tubman Prize and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize. Even Professor Figueroa admits that it was considered an “amazing,” “field-changing” book.
“Fugitive Modernities” focuses on the 16th-century history of the Kisama region of Angola, whose status as a refugee site for Africans escaping Portuguese slave traders influenced the creation of escaped slave towns in New World countries like Colombia and Brazil. Historian Toby Green, who teaches at King’s College in London, wrote a review of it in the Hispanic American Historical Review, praising Krug for “moving beyond Eurocentric concepts to ideas derived from African languages.”
In an email, Green told me that he had a few exchanges with Krug because “there are not many historians of precolonial West/West Central Africa out there!” He insisted the book was “based on solid research,” and that he “found it one of the best kinds of history, taking a sledgehammer to state power of all kinds… So for many reasons, I found the revelations (about Krug) saddening.”
Perhaps a clue to Krug’s motivation could be seen as an overzealous interpretation on her research on Latin America and Africa. In “Fugitive Modernities,” she cites an article called “The Jíbaro Masquerade and the Subaltern Politics of Creole Identity Formation in Puerto Rico 1745-1823,” written by University of Wisconsin Professor Francisco Scarano. In the article, Scarano describes how elite Puerto Rican intellectuals used to disguise themselves by writing in the coarse language of rural peasants to make more effective political arguments against Spanish colonialism without endangering their own privileges.
Krug took advantage of the willingness of many urban Puerto Ricans to embrace their African ancestors to claim Blackness – “Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness,” as she describes in her Medium post, even though she was visibly light-skinned.
I’m haunted by what one of Krug’s GWU students said to a reporter at New York magazine’s The Cut: “She would have been fine if she was just a white woman. I have taken several African Studies courses at GW taught by white professors who were just as passionate and just as knowledgeable. The things that she taught me could have been done without this whole minstrel show of a persona.”
Why Krug did what she did will be debated by psychologists, pundits and historians for years to come. “To say that I clearly have been battling some unaddressed mental health demons for my entire life, as both an adult and child, is obvious,” she wrote in her Medium post. “Mental health issues likely explain why I assumed a false identity initially, as a youth, and why I continued and developed it for so long.”
Krug says she is “belatedly seeking help” for these issues. While she does that, we can’t lose sight of how now, more than ever, our university system must support Black and brown scholars and fields of study, as well as enhance opportunities for the growth of its faculty and prestige of the field.