A Writer with Writers: Deconstructing, Understanding, and Sippin’ #Lemonade
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.