Last month in our discussion about the Baltimore Uprising, this column had two parts: we began our discussion on the Maryland Humanities Council website and we ended it here on my blog. We received so much positive feedback that we decided to use that format again. This month, I interviewed Dr. Janell Hobson and Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson about their latest project, #Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource List, and the work that they did to compile and curate think pieces and essays that explored Beyoncé’s visual album as well as all of the discussion that was taking place within the black feminist community about it. Dr. Johnson’s interview is featured on the Maryland Humanities Council website and Dr. Hobson’s interview is featured here. As collaborators, artists, writers, scholars, and teachers, they offer unique insight into their own writing process; their reasons for working on this project; the writers and books that inspire them; and, how they want their work to be taught, remembered, and built upon by other scholars.
As is Beyoncé’s style, Lemonade is a dense work with layers upon layers that demand to be discussed and examined and explored. It is hard to take it all in at once and the careful viewer will find themselves watching it again and again, sometimes without the sound so that they can focus on the visual elements and other times with their eyes closed, to just feel the lyrics washing over them. Lemonade the album, much like the drink, should be sipped slowly and fully enjoyed. I should know, I grew up in South Carolina where drinking lemonade was an afternoon ritual. It provided a much needed break in the midst of a busy and hot day. It gave you a chance to take off your shoes, lean back, and fan yourself as you cooled off. It relaxed you and made you feel that you were at home, no matter whose front porch you were sitting on. I was reminded of all of these childhood memories when I experienced Lemonade for the first time and since then, every time I refill my glass (and view it again) I experience it anew. As a writer and a lover of dense works, I wanted to connect with other writers who “drank the lemonade” and then decided to create their own. Dr. Hobson and Dr. Johnson answered the call and so began our discussion of what it means to deconstruct, understand, and sip the Lemonade.
NOTE: Much like the album Lemonade, some of the resources in #Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource List contain sexually explicit language. Please note that this resource list is intended for mature audiences only.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (KWW): Why did you decide to work on this project?
Janell Hobson (JH): I contributed to [Candice Marie Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus Project] and I decided to collaborate with another scholar, Jessica Marie Johnson, to put together our own online resource list for #Lemonade, available through the African American Intellectual History blog: http://www.aaihs.org/lemonade-a-black-feminist-resource-list/
KWW: Which writers inspire you?
JH: Toni Morrison is still a favorite of mine, and her influential novel Beloved was written while she was teaching at the University at Albany, where I am currently tenured. Indeed, I’m getting ready to move into a new office – the same space that she used! I truly hope to be inspired! Another writer who inspires me is bell hooks, who truly modeled for me how best to make critical theories and complex philosophical concepts accessible for a non-academic readership. Her straight-talk theorizing and abilities to take popular culture seriously have made an impact on me as well as other black feminist writers who author think pieces and various blog posts. We may not always agree with her arguments (her critical read of Beyoncé’s Lemonade is truly shallow, for example), but she is still an important contributor to black feminist thought.
KWW: What does being a writer mean to you?
JH: Being a writer means absorbing the world around you and communicating your worldview. In the clearest, most precise way that you can, even when you want to get esoteric about an idea. Being a writer in the digital age also means immediacy and intimacy with your readers. Sometimes, there’s a great connection, sometimes there’s just miscommunication, due to crossed signals and all sorts of emotional and intellectual baggage getting in the way. But, writing is about making that connection.
KWW: What book do you wish you could have written?
JH: I wish I could have written Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise. What an incredible work of fictional prose, its meditative qualities, its integration of history with the present, its postcolonial critique intersecting with African American feminist history, and the hybrid storytelling. Simply brilliant! I’m also grateful for her novel, which introduced me to a lost history concerning Mary Ellen Pleasant. I’m seriously considering a fictional retelling in which she and Harriet Tubman meet up while plotting with John Brown on the Harper’s Ferry raid. All the forgotten histories about which we could speculate! Both she and Morrison gave me that blueprint.
KWW: You refer to yourself as a scholar/writer – can you explain what this means to you?
JH: I’m a scholar who is continuously doing and engaging research and a writer who finds ways to communicate and speculate on that research. Please add to that title “educator.” I value my role as a teacher both in the classroom and in the public sphere.
KWW: What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
JH: Establish a writing schedule and write often (that might mean writing daily or writing every other day). And read other writers’ works, especially those whose writing styles and ideas truly inspire you, whether that includes more established authors like Morrison, hooks, and Cliff, or contemporary and up-and-coming authors. Some of my favorite contemporary authors/scholars/journalists right now include Britney Cooper, Emily J. Lordi, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Darnell Moore, and Noah Berlatsky, who are modeling for me beautiful writing that makes cultural theories accessible to a broader audience.
KWW: What advice would you give to your younger self?
JH: I would tell my younger self to get a literary agent and learn how to negotiate contracts and market myself, once I figured out the kind of public persona I want to have concerning my writing projects.
KWW: Fifty years from now, how would you like your work to be taught/explained and/or built upon?
JH: I would like younger scholars to recognize my work in the larger context of writers who came of age before the Internet dominated the world but who nonetheless learned to master the digital revolution while also situating it within a larger context of print and other media cultures. I learned to write HTML code, which means I can be both immersed in digital culture and maintain my distance from it. Keep in mind I was writing my dissertation when The Matrix hit theaters before it became a cult classic. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the writer immersed in the digital world: “There is no spoon.”
Twitter: @JProfessor – https://twitter.com/JProfessor
About the Interviewees:
Janell Hobson, Ph.D. is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012) and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005). She also writes and blogs for Ms. Magazine.
Jessica Marie Johnson, Ph.D. is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Michigan State University. Beginning in July 2016, Johnson will be an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of two blogs: Diaspora Hypertext and African Diaspora PhD.
*In a unique offering this month, Part 1 of this blog post about my experience watching my two sons protest during the Baltimore Uprising, will be offered on the Maryland Humanities Council http://www.mdhc.org/blog/?p=2073#.VxeN7zWvKoI website.
I started writing my new book, RaceBrave, on July 7, 2014, on the day when Eric Garner was murdered when my sons challenged me to write something everyday about what was happening around the country in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.
And so I began to write poetry, every single day, and along the way, Tamir Rice was killed, Freddie Gray was killed, the Baltimore Uprising happened, and I watched the birth of a spirit of activism in my sons. The poem, “the birth of your activism” was written in pieces every evening when we arrived back to our car after marching from his neighborhood to City Hall. It has taken me almost 25 years but I have finally returned to the poet that I used to be…
“the birth of your activism” 04.20.15 – 04.28.15
Day #1: We were unprepared. We saw the video, we knew who he was, and we knew that he had died. So, we went over to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, got out of the car, and when they started to march, we joined them. We did not know where we were going. We just knew that it had to be a place that was better than here and anyway, I figured, freedom is something that you have to go and get. I told you that Coretta Scott King said that each generation has to fight for and win their freedom and that we had to be prepared to fight until the end. (You wanted to Google the exact phrase but we had no time.) An older black gentleman in a “BlackLivesMatter” t-shirt and long flowing dreads said that Malcolm X said that if you were not willing to die for freedom, you should take it out of your vocabulary. He then asked, “Are you two willing to die for your freedom?” You looked at me but I could not speak. Day #1, we were not ready.
Day #2: We did not know if we should go back to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. You told me that you spent the day trying to get your classmates interested but nobody wanted to talk about him, at least not yet. So we talked about it and decided to go anyway, even if it was just to bear witness. We found a few more people, standing in solidarity, talking about freedom, and wondering what else we needed to do to demand that the city sees us and hears us. We decided that tomorrow we needed to bring our own signs and we needed to pack snacks.
Day #3: We packed our bags this morning because yesterday it took us a long time to march down to City Hall and then to walk back to our car. You complained that you were tired and that justice was taking a long time to get here. We talked about Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker who in 1853 said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. “Yes,” you said, “but justice is taking a long time to get here.” We tried to but could not quite agree on what type of justice we were waiting for: Justice for Freddie Gray or for Eric Garner or for Tamir Rice or Tanisha Anderson or for those who have been wrongfully convicted or for those who have been failed by the public school system. As we marched, you wondered again, if justice would ever come.
Day #4: Tired and exhausted, we decided to go straight to City Hall instead of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. You had homework and wanted to sit in the car and finish it while we waited for everyone else to come down. You said your friends laughed at you in school when you tried to talk about Freddie Gray. They said it was not a big deal and wanted to know if I was making you go. You said that it is sometimes really hard being the only black boy in your class. “They don’t care about Freddie Gray,” you said, and then you wondered if they cared about you.
Day #5: It’s Friday and you wanted to do something else. You wanted to go somewhere else and then you said you just wanted to be someone else. You said you did not want to have to care about Freddie Gray or fight for justice. “Why can’t I be like the kids in my school? They are not thinking about justice for Freddie Gray or marching or praying to stay alive.” I realized then that that this is what racism has done to our kids, it has robbed them of their childhood. Black boys and girls are not allowed to be children, to not have a care in the world, to only think of themselves. They are born into a society where they have to fight to stay alive, fight to stay present, fight to get a good education, fight for the right to grow up and when they become parents, the fight starts all over again.
Day #6 8a: We woke up early this morning. We wanted to be in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood as early as possible. Today was going to be long and we were expecting to see thousands of people. I signed up to document what happened, video taping, taking pictures, and posting them in real time. You and your brother started writing your information on a white t-shirt because someone had told you earlier in the week that if they needed to identify your body, you should have name and address written on your t-shirt. I wrote the number to the legal aid office on your arms just in case we got separated and you got arrested. We packed snacks and then we started to talk about the what-if scenarios. We knew what happened in Ferguson, we knew that Baltimore was on the edge, and we knew that today it was going to be crowded, tense, and emotional. We packed milk in case they used tear gas. During the Ferguson Uprising, Palestinians students had tweeted out that milk was the best thing to use when you have been exposed to tear gas. We packed bandanas and snacks, extra chargers for our phones and cash. You said, “Take a picture of me so if something happens you know what I’m wearing.” You laughed and said that this week, more than ever before in your life, you had gained such a deep level of respect and admiration for the foot soldiers from the Civil Rights Movement. “Just think mommy,” you said, “they did this every day.”
Day #6 11a: We stood for over an hour waiting for the March to start. We walked through the crowd, greeting other protestors like they were our family members and in some ways they were. We had been out here all week and though we did not know their names, we knew that we were on the same side. Two older brothers from the Bloods walked over and told me that if something happened, they would watch out for you and your brother. He then told you that if you were afraid and you thought something was going down, then you should come and stand behind them because they had your back. He said, “Mom, don’t worry, we got them.” We decided to fall in line behind them because there were so many people and it was not clear who was in charge. We were told that we were heading downtown and we were going to shut the City down on our way to City Hall. A young sister standing next to me grabbed my hand and told me to be brave and to pass it on. We must have looked confused. She smiled and said, “Yes, be brave. Pass it on.” So we did and then we started to march and chant, completely convinced that justice was going to meet us on the other side.
Day #6 5p: You have asked me twice if we should leave. We were told that a beer bottle was thrown at us and the cops are up ahead, dressed in riot gear and standing in formation. It was not clear whether we were going to make it to City Hall. We were near the Harbor and I felt like we were being herded. You wondered out loud about what was going to happen next. You said that you could feel that something had changed. Your father kept calling strongly suggesting that we should leave because it is obvious that people on both sides have decided that the Harbor was where they were going to make their stand. Another beer bottle was thrown and someone yelled, “They calling us niggers.” The brother from the Bloods looked at me and said, “Uhm yea, I’m not going to be too many more niggers. Not today.” We were standing still and I was trying to figure out how to get us out of here. You were scared and even though we talked about what we do if we got separated, if they used tear gas, if things got out of hand, you did not think any of those things would actually happen. For the first time, in a very long time, you grabbed my hand and your brother’s hand. “We have to stay together.” I lost my sense of direction and needed a moment to figure out exactly where we were so we could move to a location where your father could pick us up. “The cops are not responding,” someone yelled, “they just standing there.” Someone laughed and said, maybe they’re planning to drop a bomb on us. You said, “like Move?” “Move” someone said, “Move and go where?” I caught your eye and shook my head and said no, not like Move. I kept telling myself that surely they wouldn’t drop a bomb here, not down here.” We started walking and someone yelled, “They up there jumping on cars.” And then, “They are not going to stop us.” And then, “Justice for Freddie Gray.” And then, “Niggers, go home.” And then, we heard the sounds of glass breaking and sirens and people yelling and people running. I thought I heard a baby crying. We ran and we got out. We made it home and when we did, you said justice is never going to get here, is it?
Day #7: Freddie Gray’s Wake. There was a sign that said no pictures and no videos. I walked in by myself; you and your brother did not want to go. It was very quiet in the funeral home, people were sitting and crying and praying. I think that that is his mother and I smiled at her but I don’t go over. I stepped up and looked down at him. “You could have been my son,” I say very quietly, “in death your life has now found meaning.” And then I left. I did not sign the book or shake anyone’s hand. This should be a time for his family and his friends. I am a stranger and I do not belong here. I did not know Freddie Gray, wouldn’t recognize him on the street. I am only here because I want the days of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray—those type of days—to end.
Day #8: Freddie Gray’s funeral. Too many celebrities, too many talking heads, too many people talking to us and not with us. I left because it sounded like they were telling us to calm down and wait for them to work out justice for us. I left and did not look back because mega funerals do not work for me and mouthpieces who talk about justice but are not willing to fight for it make me tired.
Day #9: You climbed into the car talking about a purge. You heard that the students at Douglass High School were planning to walk out and that they wanted all students to join them. They were planning, according to you, to take over the city and like in the movie, they were going to exercise their right to purge. “Mommy,” you said, “we should go. We should make our stand.” Traffic is blocked off and backed up so we decided to go home instead. I thought that we could come back out once traffic settled down, we realized much later that we could not. The city had finally reached a tipping point and from what we could gather the cops were no longer standing in formation. We sat up all night, reading social media, and listening to the news. You wanted to be out there. You said that you had been marching all week and now that real change was coming, you were at home. You thought that we should just drive around until we saw something and then get out and join them. Join them doing what, I wanted to know. Everything, maybe we need to burn this city down for Freddie Gray. So I turned off everything so we could talk about justice, about Freddie Gray, about the 1968 Riots, about what happens when the tipping point has been reached, and about what is going to happen once the smoke clears.
Day #10: Overnight, the city changed. I told you not to worry because Dr. King once said that the universe is on the side of justice. As we rode through Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, past the CVS, cops in riot gear, preachers on bull horns, the Bloods and the Crips holding signs for #BlackLivesMatter, you quietly wonder if we are all on the same side of the universe.
Photo #1: I was in my mid-20s with two degrees; Unmarried; Living life as a poet, writer, activist, filmmaker; Dreaming of one day publishing a book and winning a book award; Planning to make films that folks would want to watch; Trying to do the activist work that my father began during the Civil Rights Movement; Reading Malcolm X, Alice Walker, Frantz Fanon,& The Little Red Book; Traveling back and forth to Africa trying desperately to find myself; Loving and defining myself as a beat poet; Making plans to change the entire world all by myself…
Photo #2: I am now in my mid-40s with three degrees and a bunch of advanced certificates; Married with Two Teenage Boys(!); Living life as an academic, poet, writer, activist, film teacher; Published Four Books and Won Two Major Writing Awards; Made films that folks watched and Got Three NY Emmy-Nominations; Helping to do the work my boys began after the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement; Reading Alice Walker, bell hooks, Michelle Aexander, & my own stuff; Traveling back and forth between baseball and basketball practice desperately trying to center myself; Loving as defining myself as a “blackmommyactivist”; Making plans to change the world with my boys…
This is my truth…what’s yours?
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Passionate, edgy, unapologetic… “RaceBrave: new and selected works” provides another glimpse into Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s work to document her experience raising two black boys in a post-racial America. On July 7, 2014, the day Eric Garner was murdered, Whitehead set out to write about what was happening across America to unarmed black people, in doing so she explores the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that resonate with parents around the country-sometimes with humor, sometimes with sadness, but always with an ear that bends toward the truth.
In marking these moments, Whitehead also reached back into her childhood diaries to examine how life has changed for her, as a writer, a poet, and a mother over the years. “RaceBrave” is a masterwork that covers multiple topics and captures every mood: today, my heart stopped is both dolorous and heartbreaking as it examines what happens when black men demand the right to be seen and to be able to breathe, while the birth of your activism examines the days leading up the Baltimore Uprising as Whitehead’s sons chose to march for ten days straight for justice, for Freddie Grey, and ultimately in search of the world that they are hoping to co-create. Going back into her archives, comfedderate flag memories highlights Whitehead’s feelings about the confederate flag in both 1980 and in 2015 while speaking my truth, finally reveals a story that she has been trying to write about for twenty-five years. In the section, “Black Love is Black Wealth,” Whitehead celebrates the many aspects of love with we are gathered, a poem in memory of her favorite uncle; a regenerative descant, in celebration of the retirement of a Marine after thirty-years of service; and, soulmates and soulfood (kuro ai), five short playful tender poems about being brave enough to fall and remain in love. At once personal and political, poignant and apoplectic, these forty-five poems evoke a society where all voices are heard, all perspectives are respected, and everyone has the courage to be “RaceBrave.”
Clip from my Keynote Address (02/20) presented at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s 90th Annual Black History Month Luncheon. It aired on C-Span on March 5.
The full speech will air on Saturday, March 5 at 2p on C-Span3’s American History TV.
Growing up, as an aspiring writer, I used to read and be inspired by the work of Khalil Gibran. I would challenge myself to find a way to make my work leap off of the page just like his work did. I memorized his words and held them close to my heart. When I realized that I was going to be a mother, that someone had chosen me, I decided that I was going to be a #blackmommyactivist and practice the art of revolutionary mothering. I wrote out the words to his poem, “On Children,” and hung them on my wall as a daily reminder of what it meant to try and practice revolutionary mothering:
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
And though I had no idea of what this looked like in practice, I just knew that in order to raise happy, healthy, and whole children, I needed to consciously speak love into their lives, to speak hope into their spirits, and to birth and nurture a sense of self and of belonging into their soul. Revolutionary mothering is hard. It is not for the faint of heart. Although there are some guideposts, set up by sister writers and scholars along the way, the path is one that each revolutionary mother must carve and scratch out daily. Dr. Gumbs takes on this challenge and studies and writes about what this has looked like in the lives of revolutionary mothers like June Jordan and Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and asha bandele. She artfully tackles this subject and then opens up the way for others to follow. I believe that revolutionary mothering is a daily practice of letting our children go. Gibran writes that as a parent, “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” So what does this mean when it is applied to the daily practice of mothering in a revolutionary way? This month, I explore this topic and more in my interview with Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumps about her forthcoming anthology, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines.
This month, I explore revolutionary mothering and more in my interview with Dr. Gumbs about her forthcoming anthology, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines.
KW: Why did you decide to write this book?
AG: The short answer is that we [Gumbs and co-editors Mai’a Williams and China Martens] believe that mothering is revolutionary. The people who aren’t supposed to have a chance to mother—like black/queer/poor people, people like us and the people who mothered us, are recreating the world every day in intimate, intergenerational, creative and collective ways—should be given a space to tell their stories. If we are ever going to have the society that we need (like one where humans get to keep living on this planet, for example) everyone needs to learn from the world-changing daily work that we call mothering.
KW: Which writers inspire you?
AG: There are so many people who have written amazing work about mothering. YOU [Karsonya Whitehead] for example, both on your Facebook page and in your book, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America. asha bandele is also a major inspiration (especially her novel, daughter, and her memoir, something like beautiful, all of her poems, her Facebook posts, her Essence magazine articles, her mama blog posts… basically everything by asha, ever). When I was teenager, asha told me that she woke up before dawn so that she could write before her daughter needed her. And so I started writing early in the morning and it changed everything.
Alice Walker’s writing about what she called “motherism,” building on her idea of “womanism,” and her classic book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (this was crucial reading for me). Audre Lorde’s essay, “Eye to Eye,” where she writes that, “We can learn to mother ourselves.” This idea of mothering ourselves along with the generous ways she writes about her practice of mothering in her essays and poems is a major inspiration. Of course, I include all of the writers in this anthology. Cheryl Boyce Taylor has a poem in this collection and she is a writer who writes a poem every single day. She is such an inspiration and I am SO glad that her poetry is in this book. And last (but not really last because there are SO many writers that inspire me) and also not least, JUNE JORDAN! Her unpublished essay where she explains her philosophy that “love is life-force” is the opening jewel of this book. Her vision and practice of how all writers can and must be accountable to children is…my religion.
KW: You refer to yourself as a scholar/writer – can you explain what this means to you?
AG: I see my role as an ancestral connection. I love to research about the lives of black women who loved their people and changed the world. And in my work as a researcher I seek to connect us to that love. My own writing consists of structured opportunities for connecting to generations of love, bravery, and change.
KW: What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
AG: Do what asha and Cheryl do. Write first. Write every day.
KW: What advice would you give to your younger self?
AG: You have nothing to prove. Ever.
KW: Tell us about the book’s cover and how it came about.
AG: The revolutionary artist Favianna Rodriguez made this beautiful image for the Mama’s Day series of cards, which is an amazing benefit for a coalition called Strong Families. This coalition is a major inspiration for us. Strong Families has brought people together to fight to change the oppressive laws that harm mother-led families, families of color, immigrant families, exactly the families at the center of Revolutionary Mothering. We just loved the artwork so much. I sent that mama’s day card to everyone I could think of when it first came out. We are so honored that Favianna allowed us to use it for the cover of the book!
About the Writer: Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a prayer poet priestess with a PhD in English, African and African American Studies and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University. Dr. Gumbs is the first scholar to research Audre Lorde’s archival papers at Spelman College and is the founder of the School of Our Lorde, a night school in Durham, NC focused on the work of Audre Lorde. She is published widely in scholarly journals and collections including Signs, Obsidian, The Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Literature and The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature and has published chapters on Audre Lorde’s work in the collections Mothering in Hip Hop Culture and Laboring On: Mothers in the Academy. She is one of the editors of the forthcoming book, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Find her on Facebook or Twitter (@alexispauline) and read more on her blog.
About the Interviewer: Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director at The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. Her most recent work, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America, was published by Apprentice House in January 2015.