The Soapbox: On Anthropologist Kenneth Good, The Amazonian Child Bride He Impregnated & The Western Culture That Celebrates Him
About five years ago, my sister relayed a story to me about a professor she had at New Jersey City University who had his own book, Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomama, listed as required reading on his syllabus. My sister refused to purchase the book. It was not merely a protest against a professor taking advantage of his students to sell his own work, it was a protest against white privilege and most importantly: RAPE.
Kenneth Good, then a young anthropologist, ventured to the Amazon to study a tribe called the Yanomami some two decades ago. It was an all-expense paid, 15-month “anthropological pursuit” funded by a generous German institution. The anthropologist remained in the jungle for two years before gaining acceptance by the tribe as “one of their own” and receiving an offer to participate in a Yanomami cultural norm: child marriage. It was an offer that he graciously accepted. The child was approximately nine years old when he accepted her as his “wife.” I say “approximately” because the exact age of any Yanomami person is unknown, as the tribe supposedly can only count to two and refers to anything more than two as “many.” It is estimated that he consummated his marriage with this child when she turned 14 (and this is more than likely an overestimation because betrothed girls typically have their first sexual experience by the time of their first menses). He was 34.
By the time she was 16 years of age, Good had impregnated her and brought her to the United States after she was allegedly raped by other tribesmen in his absence. A few years later, she returned to her native land after suffering from feelings of isolation and depression. She left the professor with two children and a great story, which launched his career in the form of multiple book deals, photography exhibitions and even a proposed movie deal.
Yesterday, I scrolled through my Facebook feed to find this professor’s story back in the news. “Son reconnects with naked tribeswoman mother after she abandoned him when he saw her picture in the Natural History Museum as part of a tribal exhibit,” the Daily Mail UK‘s headline read, accompanied by pictures of a topless “tribal woman” holding hands with her now adult son, David Good (inset).
Firstly, this “naked tribeswoman” has a name: Yarima. She is a rape victim by any Western standards — which should have protected her upon entry into United States. Kenneth Good, the “anthropologist”/ “tenured professor” is nothing more than a child pedophile/hebephile enabled by White male privilege. His participation in the Yanomami cultural tradition of child marriage does not reflect cultural acceptance: it is exploitation. That same individual cautioned his son, who decided to return to his mother’s homeland, not to “walk around barefoot in underwear” as the Yanomami people do. In his opinion, it is much more acceptable to impregnate a teenager than it is to walk around shoeless or shirtless.
Yarima never “abandoned” her children, as the media suggests. She ran away from a child predator. The onus is not on this victim to remain in a dangerous situation to prove that she is a good mother. It is on this society — that calls itself “modern” — to prosecute pedophiles, even those hiding behind the cloak of “academia” or “research.”
This man is not in jail for rape or even castigated as a pedophile, and is instead celebrated. Kenneth Good is an icon in the anthropological world. His work was featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, he teaches a course at NJCU where he can force his students to purchase his book, and he has even been offered movie deals to retell his “love story.” He speaks proudly and even arrogantly about his work and achievements. Of course he does. After all, he is protected by white male privilege. A privilege elusive to some, but evident in the history of anthropology and white society’s ability to objectify, romanticize and profit from the exploitation of other cultures and the brown individuals within them. Author Ron Arias interviewed Good and Yarima when the couple returned to the U.S. and wrote: “I’m feeling uneasy because we’re talking about her [Yarima] as if she were an object or pet from another time.”
It is clear that to Kenneth Good and the Western World, Yarima was never seen as a child worthy of protection — not even as an “American” upon entrance to this country. She was merely an object to be studied and commodified.
When taking into consideration the recent outrage over a woman’s stoning in Pakistan, I wonder: would the Western academic world be up in arms if an American anthropologist were to participate in honor killings? Or female circumcision? I would love to see an American of Middle Eastern descent travel to Yemen for an ethnographic study and return with a child bride without being labelled a terrorist. America openly condemns multiple “cultural practices,” but somehow it is willing to condone the rape of a child living in its country under the pretext of cultural respect?
Perhaps, in the Western world view, she was just another “savage” who needed to be civilized. Only from that perspective could a victim of child abuse be called a “naked tribeswoman” who abandoned her children. Only from that perspective could anyone have ever thought that she needed to be “saved” in the first place.
Sadly, once again, it is those doing the “saving” who people of color actually need to be saved from.