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History Professor Nic John Ramos, PhD, Troubles the Line

By Gina Myers

Nic John Ramos stands in front of a Keith Haring mural

May 26, 2021

Assistant Professor of History Nic John Ramos, PhD, does not easily fit into any one category. Though he teaches in the Department of History, his doctorate is in American Studies and Ethnicity, which he describes as really being at the intersection of Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies. Meanwhile, his research exists at the intersection of race and medicine. And in his classes, students are just as likely to encounter graphic novels and poetry as they are historical documents and books.

Despite this interdisciplinary approach, Ramos is increasingly being recognized for his work as a historian. In 2020, he was awarded the Audre Lorde Prize, which recognizes an outstanding article on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual and/or queer history, and the Western History Association’s Ray Allen Billington Award, which recognizes work that addresses the legacy of native and/or settler peoples in frontier, border and borderland zones of intercultural contact. Both prizes were awarded for Ramos’s article “Poor Influences and Criminal Locations: Los Angeles’s Skid Row, Multicultural Identities, and Normal Homosexuality.” In their recognition, the judges of the Audre Lorde Prize called the essay “a true interdisciplinary study” that “brings together urban history, political science, carceral studies, disability studies and queer of color critique.”

Though the recognition can be nice because it means more people are reading the work, Ramos makes it clear that he is not in academia for the awards. Instead, he is motivated by personal experience and the drive to find answers to the questions he has.

A Non-Traditional Path

Before he found himself in graduate school, Ramos had been living the transient life of a militant organizer and activist—sleeping on various couches as the union he organized for sent him to cities across the United States.

Ramos completed his undergraduate degree at University of California, Irvine, where, he says, “I had the profound luck of taking political science classes that cared about questions of race, labor and class. That brought me to being an Asian American Studies major. I was reading about Black history in Asian American Studies, and I was reading about Asian American history in my Black Studies courses, so that prompted me to go ahead and take classes in Chicano/Latino Studies. So I ended up with an Asian American Studies and Political Science double major, a minor in African American Studies, and, if I had taken two more courses, a minor in Chicano/Latino Studies.

“I stayed five years. My parents did not understand why I stayed five years,” he says. “I myself didn’t understand why I stayed five years. I only knew that I had a lot of questions about the interlocking and relational nature of race, class, gender and sexuality, and I was getting them answered.”

While at UC Irvine, Ramos had an internship through the UCLA Labor Center that put him in touch with the labor movement, as well as people interested in environmental justice, racial justice, and gender and sexual justice. Following graduation, Ramos worked as a union organizer for the Committee of Interns and Residents, which organized medical interns and residents.

During this time, Ramos saw the possibilities and limitations of that type of work. Ultimately, he had more questions. “I wanted to continue some of the questions I thought I had answered [as an undergraduate] and combine that with new questions that came up while being a union organizer for six years,” he explains. “So that’s what brought me to American Studies and Ethnicity. And here I am now in a history department.”

Race and Medicine

At the beginning of his PhD at the University of Southern California, Ramos, who is Filipino, was wrestling with the idea of a racialized medical ladder. “Medicine and ideas of health are profound places to think about racism. What we call medicine itself is a product of discrimination and exclusion,” he says. “That’s what I am interested in. How is this thing that is so life-giving also a product of extreme knowledge extraction made through violence?”

Ramos’s interest in medicine comes from his family life. “My mother is a kitchen worker who worked in a hospital. It was profound to see how different my childhood experience was than my friends’ experiences who grew up in households where their mothers were nurses. That class difference made me understand the different racializations that were happening,” says Ramos.

The interest deepened when, as a labor organizer, he was sent to King-Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles in 2005. The board of supervisors had just closed down the trauma center and were preparing to close other units. Ramos’s job was to take testimony from the union members who were providers.

“Our providers said to the supervisors, if you close down this hospital, you will see the implosion of Los Angeles’s health care industry. Uninsured patients at King-Drew would out-migrate and essentially overwhelm the rest of the county—both public and private hospitals,” explains Ramos. “Now as a historian, I can go to the archive and see what those words signified—how they changed the course of history.”

Prior to Drexel, Ramos was the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of Race and Science at Brown University, where he was also a member of the Race and Medicine Working Group. Housed under Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the working group was comprised of scholars of every rank interested in questions of medicine in the humanities as well as medical providers at all levels.

“We were really thinking about how slavery has cast a long shadow in the history of medicine. Most people think about medicine as outside of the logic of such heinous things as capitalism and slavery, but it is not. The modernity of western medicine is predicated on slavery.”

White physicians would argue that Black slaves were biologically inferior to white people and that any poor health conditions were due to an inherent racial weakness rather than socio-economic conditions.

“Part of our work in that group was to debunk these myths. You can still hear them in the way that people talk about how Black and brown people are disproportionally affected by the coronavirus pandemic,” says Ramos. “It’s not because they are biologically predisposed. It’s because racism exposes Black and brown people to the disease.”

Twin Pandemics

Examining history from the perspective of marginalized voices is central to Ramos’s pedagogy. In a recent section of his History of the AIDS Pandemic course, his students created a podcast that focused on the AIDS pandemic in Philadelphia.

“The whole idea is to lift the voices of people who are largely forgotten in the early AIDS crisis—these are the same voices that are still being forgotten in the ongoing AIDS crisis,” Ramos explains. “We focus on people of color, particularly queer people of color, we focus on women, and we focus on IV drug users.”

Ramos came to working on the AIDS pandemic through his research but also for personal reasons. “I have a cousin who passed away in the Philippines, and there is still a lot of shame and stigma around AIDS in the Philippines. All the stuff I do on AIDS is really out of anger.”

The podcast frames each episode in response to the 1993 movie Philadelphia, which was one of the first Hollywood movies to acknowledge AIDS. “We’re in a majority Black city, and there is hardly any focus on the Black community in that movie. The podcast is really about what the movie got right and what it got wrong. In a movie that is made as an ode to the city, it’s not doing it justice. We were trying to do it justice,” says Ramos.

“My students get it, and they were shocked. They see the same patterns repeating of the AIDS crisis with coronavirus.”

The podcast also helps connect the students back to their own communities. “For me being a queer professor of color, it is important for me to have assignments that could bridge the gap between students and the communities they come from,” says Ramos. “[At college] we tend to have experiences that make us feel alienated about where we come from, and I don’t want that with my students.”

Trouble and Joy

Ramos had the opportunity to study with cultural theorist and poet Fred Moten, who is perhaps best known for his book, co-written with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. In it, Moten and Harney draw on the Black radical tradition to criticize academia and the site of the university as one of professionalization in service of capitalism. The undercommons offers an alternative to this professionalization. It exists outside of academia and is where real study can take place—study with other people and for a common project. It’s about forging a new way of living and being in community.

As an undergraduate enrolled in Moten’s Black Avant Garde Poetry course, Ramos did not know what a big deal Moten was—he just thought he was the coolest instructor ever. “Moten was writing The Undercommons when I was an activist at UC Irvine, and we were engaged in a fight for Ethnic Studies, essentially Filipino Studies,” says Ramos. “And I remember telling him Ethnic Studies was a way to unravel the university as we knew it, and he smiled at me. So I like to think that I was thinking with him at the time about the undercommons,” he laughs.

Moten’s class has continued to influence Ramos, who is sure to always assign poetry in his history classes. The spirit of Moten’s work also infects Ramos’s own as Ramos hopes to shatter assumptions people hold.

“I like to write things that are unexpected—things that trouble you. I am so troubled with all the implications of the work and what it means for me. That’s the organizer in me,” Ramos explains. “I want people to be a little angry about the world, and I want them to ask what we need to do about the world.”

Another—somewhat surprising—influence on Ramos is Prince. However, it becomes less surprising when one begins to consider all the ways the late musician refused to be boxed in.

“There is something about Prince that is really important at all times. I think we all should be listening to Prince right now—not only because of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but because Prince did not shy away from controversy, and he did not shy away from joy. Those two things are really important,” he says.

“I tell people if there is one thing I could ever do in my life, if I could sell my soul to the devil, it would be to croon like Prince.”