OCG This Week :: “A Quiet Danger Brothers Invisible: Classroom to Home” :: In Conversation with Dr. Tommy J. Curry

OUR COMMON GROUND
Saturday, October 10, 2015
In Conversation with Dr. Tommy J. Curry
“A Quiet Danger Brothers Invisible: Classroom to Home”

10-10 Curry“In short, although masculinity may be a part of being a man, it is not the foundation on which manhood rests.”

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about Dr. Tommy J. Curry
Dr. Curry is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University. He is a Ray A. Rothrock Fellow 13′-16′ in the Department of Philosophy.  He is an editor of PhilPapers, Choice Magazine and a regular contributor to RacismReview.com and OUR COMMON GROUND.

Over the last several years, Dr. Curry has published over three dozen articles in prestigious venues like: The Journal of Black Studies, The Radical Philosophy Review, The Pluralist and The Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society. He is the editor of a forthcoming re-publication of William H. Ferris’s The African Abroad, and is currently working on several manuscripts: the first full-length publication on Derrick Bell’s political philosophy that birthed the Critical Race Theory movement entitled Illuminated in Black; a philosophical exploration of Black male death and dying entitled “The Man-Not;” and a book on Josiah Royce’s racism.

His work in social justice, applied ethics, and bioethics concerns the present interpretation of the Belmont report, and the racial/class barriers to minority access to medical innovation in health care.

He has been interviewed by Forbes.com, the Wall Street Journal,Salon.com and other popular venues for his opinions on politics, ethics, and racial justice issues.

 Episode Notes
“So we have hypothesized since 1978, that Black manhood is different than the concept of masculinity, in 1992, several studies decided to test this notion. Guess what they found:

Historically, the images of Black manhood have been unidimensional, and research has tended to focus on the inadequacies of Afro-American males’ role performance. In this preliminary analysis, we explored the cultural constructions of manhood as defined by Afro-American men at various social locations (age, occupation, income, and marital and family status). Manhood was defined in terms of the self (self-determinism and accountability, pride), family (family), the human community, and existential ideology (spirituality and humanism). It is our view that issues of self-determinism and accountability (i.e., directedness, maturity, economic viability, free will, and perseverance) are at the core of the self and of manhood and form the foundation on which family role enactment, pride, and living through one’s existential philosophy (e.g., spiritual, Afrocentric, and humanistic) are based. Interestingly, discussions of masculinity were absent from men’s definitions of manhood. Perhaps this reflects an awareness of the differences between the physical sexual man and the social man that Hare and Hare (1985) suggest is critical in Black boys’ transition into manhood. When respondents were asked to rate attributes related to masculinity (e.g., physically strong, competitive,masculine, and aggressive), they saw it as somewhat important. In short, although masculinity may be a part of being a man, it is not the foundation on which manhood rests.”      Andrea Hunter and James E. Davis-1992

On this broadcast, we begin with the recently released report by the Schotts Foundation for Public Education, “Black Lives Matter”
We recommend that you either review or read it prior to the broadcast.http://blackboysreport.org/

“It seems that America has tolerated and grown accustomed to the under-education of African American males largely because it has written this off as a “black problem.” Rather than being embraced as an American problem and challenge, our leaders in politics, business and education, have implored the Black community to do something, while washing their hands of responsibility for the failure of the public institutions that should serve them. . . .
The consequences have also been evident in the high rates of unemployment in economically depressed, socially marginalized neighborhoods, cities and towns where desperation festers and crime and violence are rampant.

The consequences have also been felt by families and communities where fatherless children fall prey to a vicious cycle of failure in part because they lack access to fathers because they are incarcerated, or don’t have the skills to obtain a job to support their family.” – Pedro A. Noguera, Professor of Education
Executive Director, Metropolitan Center
New York University – See more at: http://blackboysreport.org/national-summary/afterword-by-pedro-a-noguera/#sthash.GKiVJMsm.dpuf

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Pessimistic Themes in West’s Necrophobic Aesthetic by Dr. Tommy J. Curry

curryvoicesPessimistic Themes in West’s Necrophobic Aesthetic

: Moving Beyond Subjects ofPerfection to Understand the New Slave as a Paradigm of Anti-Black Violence.(Forthcoming The Pluralist)

by  Dr. Tommy J. Curry

This intersectional allusion to the bourgeois Black woman, her indemnification against all critique, has long been the unquestionable norm operating within the political assertions of Black feminism and the allegedly conceptual pluralization had in claiming intersectionality as a method. Carole Boyce Davies describes this tendency as condification; “a project perhaps, a behavioral process which marks the rise of a certain neo-colonial elite in the U.S. imperial context, operating for the benefit of the dominant state and its rulers” (14). Davies argues that “Condification marks the limit …but can also be seen as the ultimate manifestation of a domestic black and/or feminist bourgeois discourse” (14), and presents a concrete crisis for Black feminist calls for social, economic, and political equality, since there is no accountability to the buttressing up of empire and inequality in their march towards capitalist freedom. Davies is not alone in this analysis of Black feminism; Elaine Brown has gone as far as to say: “feminism,” assuming this word, which I don’t assume (let’s just call it that for now, women’s liberation, the liberation of all human beings), is part of my agenda. If you take their analysis, as strict analysis, you can end up having a woman like Condoleezza Rice. So they are incorrect in their ideological commitment. Condoleezza Rice would be the ultimate Black feminist icon. So they’re wrong” (3). Power within the system is justified as gender progress, and rationalized as the necessary trajectory of political progress. There are no criteria for liberation, only the accumulation of representatives that are Black and female who command the recognition of systems previously blind to their existence. The now common practice of lifting the immaterial subject, the ideal abstraction of the (Black) feminist self, represented by the mere utterance of race, class, and gender, destroys our ability to truly understand the suffering of Black people. The Black man, the Black woman, and the Black child who survive in the bare conditions of wretchedness nurtured by anti-Blackness—the poverty, death, and violence of racial oppression—are never seen. They are spoken about as factors, but never considered to be the primary subjects motivating study. Intersectionality, its synonymy with the ideal bourgeois Black woman, is an errant axiom that denies Black study for the elevation of one (powerful, Black, female) identity taken to be the finality of all Black morality.”

Introduction

The release of Kanye West‘s Yeezus  was indelibly marked by the provocation of his song entitled the ―  New Slave ,‖ which introduced a  pessimistic terminology deployed against the paradoxical condition that Black freedom from enslavement only recaptured Black people psychically in the neo-liberal entanglements of poverty, servitude, and corporatism. His analysis,not unlike currently en vogue theories of Afro-pessimism, or Critical Race Theory‘s  (racial)realist lens maintains that despite all the rhetoric and symbols of progress to the contrary, Black people are simply not free in America. West‘s  performance of ―New Slave,‖on Saturday NightLive was only amplified by the  Not For Sale  insignia projected behind him.
 As a symbol ofindependence, disengagement; a resistance against commodification, West announced hisconfrontational posture towards the industry; a posture which ignited the Hip-Hop communityand academia alike over this artistic radicalism. However, such a provocation, despite itsrhetorical flare and allure, was immediately cast as disingenuous and inauthentic. Kanye West isa Black man torn at moments by his brilliance and at times by his banality. His work is not beinganalyzed in Hip-Hop Studies and philosophical aesthetics because it is not worthwhile;
 — his analysis of anti-Black death, corporatism, and neo-liberal aspiration is enough to warrant morethan one serious study of his art. West is not studied because he lacks sufficient correctness orexhibits minimalist thoughts about the world around him, rather West is not studied because his body, his Black male body, lacks the symbolic currency to motivate reverence for his thinking.The New Slave implicates all arenas of knowledge and political production hailing from theacademy, and while his life and public proclamations are at tension with some of his work, itnonetheless necessities serious study, rather than sophistry and condemnation. This article is anattempt to draw out some of the themes concerning anti-
Black racism in West‘s ―New Slave and the double meaning this work has given that it was co-
authored with Che ―Rhymefest Smith.
It is my view that West‘s work establishes the continuity of enslavement beyond the artificial political and social changes that are attributed to racial progress and social equality.

READ AND DOWNLOAD THE FULL AND  FINAL PAPER 

 

ABOUT Dr. Tommy J. Curry

Professor of Philosophy, Texas A&M University

Tommy J. Curry’s work spans across the various fields of philosophy, jurisprudence, Africana Studies, and Gender Studies. Though trained in American and Continental philosophical traditions, Curry’s primary research interests are in Critical Race Theory and Africana Philosophy. In Critical Race Theory, Curry looks at the work of Derrick Bell and his theory of racial realism as an antidote to the proliferating discourses of racial idealism that continue to uncritically embrace liberalism through the appropriation of European thinkers as the basis of racial reconciliation in the United States. In Africana philosophy, Curry’s work turns an eye towards the conceptual genealogy (intellectual history) of African American thought from 1800 to the present, with particular attention towards the scholars of the American Negro Academy and the Negro Society for Historical Research.

In Biomedical ethics, Curry is primarily interested government regulation, the ethical limits of government intervention in the practice of medicine, and democratic potentialities that arise from collaborative doctor-patient diagnoses and regenerative medicine like stem cells. Currently his research focuses on the linking the conceptualization of ethics found in the Belmont Report to Civil Rights and social justice paradigms.

Subscribe to The Nationalist and read more of Dr. Tommy J. Curry

Follow him on Twitter

 

RATCHET ME THIS: HOW DO WE RIDE FOR PLEASURE IN A PIMP CULTURE?

REAL COLORED GIRLS

DEC 22 2013

RATCHET ME THIS: HOW DO WE RIDE FOR PLEASURE IN A PIMP CULTURE?

Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Barbara Christian, June Jordan, Michele Wallace, Harriet Tubman, Patricia Hill Collins, Sojourner Truth, M. Jacqui Alexander, Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, et. al.

 

irst things first: we are not talking to Jamilah-come-lately. If you ain’t been boycottin’ R. Kelly since Aaliyah was 14, if you even needed to see the piss tapes to persuade you further, if Kevin Powell’s BK Nation petition was your entry into this conversation, you ain’t got the answers.

Second: if you’re trying to engage in an analysis of Black women’s sexuality, without acknowledging the role of pimp culture in your framing, you ain’t been doin’ the education.

‘Pimp culture’ is the umbrella under which we map the interlocking systems of oppression that create the material conditions under which Black women experience bodily and psychic harm. Vestiges of the gator-wearing, fur cape-lined pimp show up in our private and public spaces and we feel the brunt of his solid gold cane in our experiences of mass culture apparatuses. Pimp culture employs white supremacy, misogyny, racism, homophobia and the dogma of rugged individualism to physically and psychically undermine our sense of self, diminishing our capacity for self-determination.

Pimp culture is in line with other terms used in anti-violence discourse – sexual violence, culture of violence, rape culture. Yet, in the Black feminist tradition, we use the term to center the unique experiences of Black women and signal the specific forms of knowledge that we bring in understanding the depths of physical violence and psychic trauma on individual and societal levels.

By Jess Pinkham _DSC9539.NEFCollectively, these forces show up as, for example, the vicious maligning of nine-year old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis who was “jokingly” called a cunt by a major news media outlet. The sexualized verbal battery of a Black girl child, on the public stage, in her moment of glory, was an act of psychic aggression meant to humiliate Black girls and women, while underscoring that in pimp culture we are primed to be sexually exploited even in our most innocent moments. The language used was an attempt by pimp culture to turn a Black girl child out as a sexual spectacle, reminding those of us who are grown that we don’t own the mechanisms of our representation, nor do we have the allegiance of anyone in power who will ride for us.

Many of the comments on our first blog, “The Problem with BeyHive Bottom Bitch Feminism,” along with dialogues in the Twitterverse, support the idea that we should celebrate the presentation of sexual pleasure by Black women, especially when it’s done inside of marriage. In an effort to subvert the politics of respectability, some Black feminist hash-taggers have relied on strategic amnesia that discounts the reality of the material conditions of our sexual lives. To wit:

Whenever we consider Black women on stage, we also consider the auction block. When we think of public displays of Black female sexuality, Saartje Baartman isn’t far from our minds. When Black women voluntarily show “the actual inside[s] of [our] vagina” to an audience of strangers and peeping Toms, the torture of Anarcha Wescott takes center stage. Sexual violence is not a joke. We breathe these histories alongside our freedoms, which interrupt any fantasies of an ahistoric sexuality and make us suspicious and critical like a mutha.

Real Colored Girls are serving notice: game recognize game, and we are not here for corporate entities to consume our bodies, shit them out, repackage and sell them back to us as avatars for the music industrial complex. RCG are committed to defining healthy, loving, kinky, freaky, juicy, queer, bi and hetero sexualities for Black women. We are most concerned with publicly taking care of Black women’s sexuality by addressing historical and present trauma and arguing for the creation of a cultural environment in which it is safe for us to express ourselves sensually and sexually.

A cadre of Black feminists and Black women sympathizers (those who don’t proclaim to be feminist but ride for Black women) are calling for a “pleasure principle” that creates space in pop culture for Black women to express empowered sexualities. Any set of propositions that seeks to determine the fundamental basis for our sexual expression must consider the structural conditions under which said propositions are engineered. Pop cultural texts are produced inside of this context, and failing to acknowledge that in your analysis limits the work of dismantling the structures of pimp culture. Twerk it out.

Real Colored Girls encourages the communities of folk engaged in recent discussions about this work to move beyond Bey and consider what this moment has triggered around the presentation of Black female sexualities. Beyonce seems to have mastered the impossible, given the realities for most Black women in the U.S. – taking charge of her cultural production. Close reads of her recent and past work from writers Emily J. Lordi and Daphne Brooks invite us to consider the complex challenges for Black women artists. Even though Beyoncé is suspiciously sexy and joyfully raunchy, it would take a contortionist to situate her performances as a safe & empowered representation of Black women’s sexualities. Beyonce is a product of the hip hop generation – she woke up like that. In contracting with pop culture to distribute feminism, have we diluted the struggle of our Black feminist foremothers? For RCG, this is about the political economy of culture – how global corporate structures are not the context for transformative revolutionary action, and we shouldn’t look to them for our politics.

Our dream is for a revolution for Black women and our sexualities. As Mother bell exhorts, living out this dream requires us to do,

…the critical project of openly interrogating and exploring representations of black female sexuality as they appear everywhere, especially in popular culture.

Real Colored Girls are willing to ride for our radical politic, while acknowledging our privileges as artists and academics. We promote an oppositional consciousness that imagines radical spaces for sexual expression – physical, virtual and spiritual – which is risky and not without sacrifice. We call upon the lives and recorded texts of womanists and Black feminists as scripture and theory in the flesh.

roll-callAudre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Barbara Christian, June Jordan, Michele Wallace, Harriet Tubman, Patricia Hill Collins, Sojourner Truth, M. Jacqui Alexander, Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, et. al.

bell hooks cautions that Black women,

…haven’t as a group really carved out different ways to live our lives.

This is an amazing opportunity to do this work. In the spirit of loving Black women, we invite interventions that construct a post-capitalist imagination in which to dream ourselves whole.

#RealColoredGirls

#PimpCulture

Photo Credits: Bridge to Freedom FoundationTrey Anthony

REAL COLORED GIRLS

 

A Black Feminist Comment on The Sisterhood, The Black Church, Ratchetness and Geist l The Feminist Wire

A Black Feminist Comment on The Sisterhood, The Black Church, Ratchetness and Geist

January 28, 2013

By 

Unknown-1There’s been much talk about TLC’s new show The Sisterhood, a reality show about the lives and struggles of Ivy Couch, Domonique Scott, Christina Murray, DeLana Rutherford, and Tara Lewis, five pastor’s wives in the Atlanta area.  While some critics are threatening to boycott the show, and others are framing it as evidence of black [male] preachers loosing their way (which I guess is synonymous with the Black Church loosing its way, but that’s another issue), millions of others, myself included, a former “first lady” and black feminist scholar of religion, race and media, are flocking faithfully to the television screen on Tuesday nights with popcorn and bottled water in hand.

And let me be clear: like many, I’m “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of the operative mediation of the global racist and sexist imagination through black women’s corporeal realities.  I’m tired of mass mediated notions of “black womanhood” being both the adjective and the noun that modifies and constricts space, time and meanings. I’m tired of black women consistently serving as—through both overdetermination and consent—televisual artifacts for establishing white, black and other “normalcy.”  And yes, I’m sick and tired of black women functioning as cultural mediums for soothing primal fears, representational tropes for suckling the collective fascination with black female sexuality, and work horses for demonstrating a mastery of unscrupulousness and otherness.  I’m tired.

SisterhoodAnd yet, I’m also admittedly drawn in to this show and others like it, week after week.  Like so many others before them, Ivy, Domonique, Christina, DeLana, Tara and many other reality TV women, inspire all kinds of repulsions, attractions and anxieties.  However, they also satiate [some of] our ratchet taste buds.  Can we have a moment of honesty?  The Sisterhood is a hit show.  And this isn’t because no one’s watching it.

So what’s the draw?  The Sisterhood creates a conflict between public politics, private realities and personal taste.  However, this war between the emperors’ coat of high culture and the everydayness of his nakedness is nothing new.  This ongoing juxtaposition highlights the ever increasing tensions between the “cultured” and the “ratchet;” the former drawing attention to so-called taste, tact, refinement, civilization and genius, and the latter calling attention to the so-called vulgar.  While the former is purported to arise out of the Geist – the intellectual inclinations – of our times, the latter is purported to spring forth from the worst of black culture.  However, what better communicates the spirit of the time than the ratchet?  And no, I don’t mean the ways that ratchet gets deployed to project a collage of derogatory meanings onto black women’s bodies.  I’m referring to the ways that ratchetness often undergirds the ricocheting of raw emotions and missiles of unfiltered truths.

The-SisterhoodTo uncritically bash The Sisterhood is to toe the expected party line.  To demonize the show is not only an attempt to maintain a position of moral superiority, but an assay to construct and limit meaning for the audience—an audience that may in fact connect with the human qualities of the ratchetness therein.  And trust me, I get the critiques regarding black female representations in media.  This needs to be called out everyday all day—but not while asphyxiating black women’s complex identities with mythological notions of black women’s heroic genius.  In short, binary oppositions don’t work.  They set up “us” versus “them” politics, which are both totalizing and reductive.  I think a better suggestion might be to think about the heroic qualities of black women’s genius, that is if you buy this argument, as at times being a bit ratchet. Identities and tastes shift in shades of grey, not monochrome.  That said, we don’t need another schemata.  And we damn sure don’t need another exceptionalist social fiction to cancel out our complex subjectivities, which can neither be packaged nor wholesaled, by the way.

images-3The Sisterhood isn’t “hurting the church image…[or] giving God a bad name.” Religious people have already done that.  Neither is it “abominable and offensive to the Christian/African American communities.”  I can think of a few other things, all ending with “isms” or “phobia,” to fit that bill.  And finally, it’s not evidence of black [male] preachers or the historical Black Church loosing its way–I haven’t even mentioned how the eve/gender politics here are troubling at best.  And to be sure, I’m not saying wether the Black Church or the black [male] preacher has lost their way or not.  That’s an entirely different conversation.  For starters, I think I’d first need to know what the “way” once was or imagined to be.  And truly, The Sisterhood isn’t even a representation of the Black Church.  As far as I can see, there are only two wives from historical black churches (hold this thought) on the series–whose church would likely define themselves in such a way, Ivy and Domonique.

The Sisterhood is evidence of our obsession with brown women’s lives and our pornotropic desire to lift their curtains and see everything.  In addition, it’s evidence of the fluidity between religion and culture, and the myriad ways that each cross-pollinates the other, thus broadening, limiting and confusing all kinds of meanings.  An example of this is the construction of the “first lady” concept for the show, a Black Church conception structured in both politics of respectability and patriarchal dominance, aimed at constructing alternative identities–distinct from the hypersexual/sexual savage trope–for black women, particularly during the early twentieth century.  As with the FLOTUS, it’s a title of respect for wives in religious contexts that are often theo-socially hostile to women in general.  With regard to black women, there’s a long history here apropos race, gender, sex, sexuality, respectability and wifehood.  However, I’ll save the politics of race, ladyhood and wifedom for another day.

images(Side note: background, I’d be interested to see how the “first lady” title operates for Christina, a Dominican woman married to a black new wave evangelical pastor, and DeLana, a white southern woman who, akin to her co-pastor husband, seems to fancy all things “plantation” (27:56 mark) and soft Christian rock.  I’d be even more interested in seeing how this works for Tara, a black body builder married to a Jewish Christian former pastor, both of whom appear to be working with a different set of gender politics.  But this, again, is another story.)

images-1

Ultimately, The Sisterhood is evidence of not only our obsession with brown women’s lives, the constant interpolation of religion in culture and vice versa and the static nature of meanings in our society, but our very own and ever expanding frailties, contradictions and complexities as human beings.  These women represent the thorny nature of our inner selves, particularly when situated in hostile, novel, and/or uncomfortable environments.  Sure.  Ivy, Domonique, Christina, DeLana, and Tara aren’t really sisterly (or are they?) and they argue like the women in the Basketball Wives and Real Housewives franchise.  But wouldn’t you if pimping your story on reality television somehow became a necessity, or if you found yourself in the midst of a group of others who were geographically, theologically, racially, economically, politically, contextually, and socially different than you?  Would you not have differences of opinions and take up, forcefully at that, different positonalities?  Seriously.  Are we above drama and contradictions?  Have we never been pushed to the edge to the point where we want to or choose to take it there?  Are our lives without mistakes, conflict, struggles, pain, stresses and moments of dehumanization?  Show me a person devoid of these realities and I’ll show you a straight up liar.  Yes.  That simple.

UnknownThe bottom line for me is this: these women are human.  They are women with problems from autonomous churches that differ, at minimum, theologically.  And like it or not, for Christians and others, theology shapes how people understand themselves in the world. Yes, it shapes both Tara’s unyielding “prayerbush” (s/o to Birgitta Johnson) at the 37:18 mark of the 4th episode and Domonique’s ongoing quest to live out and within her own truth.

Consciously or not, theology re-appropriates politics and ways of seeing by constructing a veil that recolours reality with simultaneous taken for granted notions of truth, hope, transcendence, capitalism, injustice and intolerance.  Moreover, the “first lady” position often serves as a protective shield against disagreement.  That is, Ivy, Domonique, Christina, DeLana, and Tara are likely used to participating in discourses where their politics and ways of seeing go unchallenged, especially within their congregations.

images-2But what happens when removed from that context?  Basically, shit goes awry—just as it would with any other group of strangers with different theo-political-socio-cultural-historical backgrounds and value systems.  My favorite on the show is Domonique. Not simply because she keeps it all the way real and clearly isn’t afraid to get it poppin with her co-stars, but because her struggle between the politics of respectability, the structures of dominance that frame her sexual past, and her quest for financial independence and selfhood are real.

Wherever we land in terms of this show being good or bad or something in between, it’s pretty significant to see a reality TV show centered on people of faith who are flawed with real issues.  Perhaps we might interpret The Sisterhood  not as an “abomination,” but as an imperfect, yet useful intervention–for the Black Church, black popular culture and black folk living in various communities.  These ladies disrupt the monolithic image of the puritanical (and irrational) religious person on one hand, and the exemplary religious heroic genius on the other.  These tropes are death-dealing.  No one can live them…or live up to them.  Let’s face it, we are messy inter-subjective beings with troubles, longings, complications, and inconsistencies–just like Ivy, Domonique, Christina, DeLana, and Tara.

And this is why we watch—and yes, with popcorn and bottled water in tow.  Because, unlike the black [male] mega church prosperity gospel preacher constantly being shoved down our throats (pun intended) as the symbol of black churches U.S.A, these folks—these women, are trying to make it and make sense of their messy lives—just like us.  And hey, like so many others in academe, the Black Church and without, they want to do it on TV.  That said, perhaps we’ve all lost our way.

 Dr. Tamura Lomax is an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice. She was guest in our “Black Women in the Prism” series

11-13 Lomax

Black Feminist Intellectual: A Conversation with Professor Imani Perry l Darnell L. Moore l The Feminist Wire

Black Feminist Intellectual: A Conversation with Professor Imani Perry

December 20, 2012

By 

DM: At present, you hold a primary appointment as a Professor within the Center for African American Studies and a secondary appointment in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. You hold a Ph.D. (Harvard University) and J.D. (Harvard Law), and your interdisciplinary research focuses on race and African American culture. You describe yourself as a Black feminist who was born in the South and who presently lives in a major northeast city. Can you give our readers the short version of your amazing journey?

Imani as a little girl with her parents at a protest in Birmingham. The sign reads “Stop the War Against Black America.”

IP: It’s hard to make this short: I was born in Birmingham, Alabama into a large Black Catholic family nine years after the 16th street Baptist church bombing. I am the child of intellectuals and activists; the freedom movement was a constant theme in my coming of age. I moved North to Cambridge, Massachusetts at age 5 (after a brief time in Milwaukee where I attended a “freedom” pre-school that was built in response to a boycott of segregation in city schools.) In Cambridge, my mother began doctoral work again (she had been one of four Black women at Yale in the Theology and Philosophy program before I was born). I was educated at a progressive Quaker school and lived in a counter-culture, multi-racial environment. In the summers, I returned home to Alabama or visited my father in Chicago. My father lived in a gay community and was very active in social justice work around prisons and Central America. I attended camp at Jane Addams Hull House and the New City YMCA, which was a few blocks away from The Cabrini Green housing projects back then. Many of my fellow campers lived in Cabrini. Needless to say, I experienced a wide cross section of American life. I also had access to excellent schools, and my parents are both active scholars and people who have devoted their lives to trying to make a meaningful contribution to the world. It is unsurprising that I became an academic; although, until I was 19, I thought I was going to be a math professor. I attended Yale as an undergraduate student in the era when 3rd wave feminism was born there; the queer community was thriving and our expressions of Blackness were expansive. And I went into a Ph.D. program at Harvard in the “dream team” era in African American studies. I began Harvard Law School when Lani Guinier first joined the faculty. I was educated, and educated well, in an exciting time.

When I graduated, my first job was as a law professor at Rutgers Camden School of Law. I worked there for 7 years, earned tenure in my 5th year and was double promoted to full professor early. At Rutgers, I taught doctrinal courses like contracts and constitutional law but also taught critical race theory and a good deal of critical race feminism. After teaching a course in African American studies at Columbia and loving it, I decided I really wanted to teach in an interdisciplinary program. I’m now in my 4th year at Princeton, where I serve on the faculty in African American studies. I’m affiliated with other departments: Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies, American Studies. And I also teach courses cross-listed with the Woodrow Wilson School and the Politics Department. What’s wonderful about that is that I meet students from across the University, and they work together to learn from the texts we read that come from a range of disciplines.

DM: You recently offered a compelling critique via social media in which you noted: “Black feminism used to be inherently radical, critical of classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, and structures of domination, exploitation and imperialism everywhere. But now we have our own versions of NOW feminism, derivative 2nd wave feminism, and tone-deaf elitist middle class feminism.” Can you say more about these contemporary Black feminisms that you’ve named and why it might be important to remember the political and intellectual frameworks out of which Black feminisms emerged?

IP: Neoliberalism has infected every area of thought, even those we think of as inherently progressive. Feminism that is about “choice” (read consumption) rather than an analysis of power, and comes through the mechanisms, and reflects the priorities, of large corporations has very limited potential to actually say much of anything about the deep structure of inequality. I think it is important to remember early Black feminisms because those women had a deep analysis of inequality, one that began with, but extended far beyond their existences as Black women to address all forms of oppression at home and abroad. Those feminists did not celebrate the powerful, but rather advocated for the least of these. And their intellectual work was never simply about the fact of someone being born in a Brown skinned xx body, but rather about the interpretive power of beginning one’s thought from the experience of being Black and a girl or woman. I am worried when I read the title “Black feminism” applied to championing women like Susan Rice. I think a traditional and sophisticated Black feminist analysis does understand that she was targeted as a function of her race and gender; and yet, it also takes a critical posture towards her ideology which lies contrary to global principles of justice. Black feminist thought is not simply an interest group advocating for powerful Black women, it is about seeing the world with a vision of liberation. At least it should be.

DM: If a shift has taken place, do you think it is possible to conceive Black feminisms that reach back–to recuperate and bring into the present—a tradition of intersectional analyses and radical praxis–and push forward–to rethink and extend analyses and political work in areas under-theorized and not yet explored?

IM: I am currently writing about gender, and I am absolutely trying to do that. I think many other scholars are as well: Sara Ahmed and Sharon Holland immediately come to mind. Moreover, a lot of the women of the generation before me (I’m 40 years old) are still thinking and writing, such as Patricia Hill Collins and Bonnie Thornton Dill. The issue is: how do we get young feminists to turn to the books and to the grassroots, as much as they turn to celebrity feminists and the non-profit industrial complex, for their intellectual and political development? There is nothing more macho than corporate power and empire, feminists ought to be immediately skeptical of both even as we have to engage with them if we live in the United States. I’m worried that not enough self-proclaimed feminists have that skepticism. Black queer studies is probably the most robust area right now, in that it is a field that remains explicitly political and deeply analytical, yet connected to the lives of ordinary people: I’m thinking of scholars like E. Patrick Johnson or Rinaldo Walcott, here. All that to say, I think exposing students to sophisticated ideas and modes of analysis will provide them with the tools to push us further. Young people will be at the vanguard of a revitalized intellectual movement for gender justice.

DM: How do these questions figure into your present and/or future intellectual/political projects?

IP: As I said, I’m writing a book about gender. It is heavily theoretical, rooted in philosophy, jurisprudence and the literature of Black women of the renaissance of the 70s-90s. I’m pushing in a different direction than intersectionality. If we read the Combahee River Collective Statement, we see something that isn’t so specific or sited at the crossroads, but expansive and frankly both Marxist and infused with the sensibilities of liberation movements across the globe. I’m pushing in the direction they, and others, set forth.

DM: And speaking of your work, you’ve mentioned that your recent book, More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States, “called [you], rather than one [you] looked for.” How so?

IP: I think part of being an intellectual is both being an active and constant reader of books and articles and also reading one’s environment. So when I say the book called me, I mean that I didn’t plan to write it but, rather, it took shape through my reading and thinking and living. The same thing with my current book projects. In academia, we are often told to have a fixed research agenda from the beginning of one’s career. I have never subscribed to that approach. I write consistently, but I write where my passion lies, and that is an ever-changing and growing thing. Living as an intellectual is prayerful. You immerse yourself in ideas; you live and love the life of the mind; and at opportune times you find insight thrust upon you. It is a blessing.

DM: Lastly, who would you name as your Black feminist sheroes, those whose lives and work invigorate your own? And why?

IP: This is an extremely hard question. There are so many, so this is just a handful of them: all women I’ve known. Certainly, the women in my family, helmed by my late grandmother Neida Mae Garner Perry, are all models of organic feminism. The sense of personal power that I learned from them has enabled every aspiration. And, as a girl, I met Ella Baker several times. She was elderly by then, and I took her to the park. Knowing who she was, I learned early on that a woman who developed a politic around ways of thinking that are traditionally conceived of as female–collaboration, participation, inclusion, process, humility–could initiate an organization that would change the world. That had a huge impact on me. Mary Helen Washington’s landmark and beautiful, Black Eyed Susans, was the first Black feminist anthology I ever read–I read it when I was in middle school–and she went to my church so doing this kind of work was “real” for me. When I was a young scholar, she praised me for maintaining a class analysis in my scholarship. That attention meant the world to me. Beverly Smith, one of the authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement, and other women of that community were often in my living room for gatherings when I was young, and the conversations they had influenced me. Kate Rushin encouraged me to read Black feminist writers specifically when I was a teenager. I listened. I also began to read her poetry as an adult. It is so human and so Black and so womanly.

In college, I interned at South End Press and, as a result, spent a significant amount of time with bell hooks. Her way of both naming injustice and the thought that produces it, but also remaining hopeful, was inspiring. And she did away with any thought that feminism had to be staid. And then, in my senior year of college, I read Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought, and I remember calling my mom and saying “THIS is what I want to do when I grow up!” It turns out she knew Pat from Black Catholic activist days. Years later, I got to know Pat myself, and I continue to be amazed by the complex maps she creates of how gender and race and class operate. Lani Guinier inspired me to go to law school and inspires me still with her ability to be critical of the site of her own privilege as a scholar who is at a very powerful institution. I try very hard to replicate that critical posture. My play-sister, Farah Jasmine Griffin, models what it means to prioritize Black women as creative and intellectual subjects, to challenge their place in dominant epistemologies, and open up new epistemological frameworks that center Black women writers and musicians. She teaches us how much we matter. And, Toni Morrison is everything. She announces to the world that the very best, the most profound, the most beautiful and the deepest cutting words emerge from the embodied lives of Black women. What better license to write could there be?

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Professor Perry is an interdisciplinary scholar who studies race and African American culture using the tools provided by various disciplines including: law, literary and cultural studies, music, and the social sciences. She has published numerous articles in the areas of law, cultural studies, and African American studies, many of which are available for download at: imaniperry.typepad.com. She also wrote the notes and introduction to the Barnes and Nobles Classics edition of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. She is the author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004) and More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York University Press, 2011). Professor Perry teaches interdisciplinary courses that train students to use multiple methodologies to investigate African American experience and culture.

 

The Feminist Wire