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First Questions: The Mission of Africana Studies:An Interview with Hortense Spillers
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First Questions:
The Mission of Africana Studies:An Interview with Hortense Spillers

This interview was conducted and recorded on September 29, 2006, at the home of Hortense Spillers in Nashville, Tennessee.

KEITH D. LEONARD: This interview is to get your august perspective on the evolution of African-American/Africana studies as it has happened over your career and then to get some projections and speculations about what the next thirty years might bring. If you don't mind, I would like to use the occasion of your recently published book of essays, Black and White and In Color, as a touchstone for our conversation. Let's start with the old cliché: If you don't know where you have been, you don't know where you are going. Could you elaborate on some of the reflections that you had in the preface to the book when you were putting the collection together? What are some of the things that occurred to you as you were putting the book together?

HORTENSE SPILLERS: I think one of the things that came to my mind right away was a mix of feelings. I was both pleased that Black Studies—or this version of it—has lasted as long as it has and has continued to grow. At the same time, I was also called upon to remember certain painful and difficult days of the beginning, late '60s, early '70s, which is really when my own entrée into this particular version of Black Studies happend. And I keep saying this particular version because I think it is important to emphasize that Black Studies has been around for a very long time. We called it something else. We called it Negro History, and perhaps Negro History is almost as old as the twentieth century. I guess you can say that Carter G. Woodson formalized it even though there are certain black sociologists who have traced the systematic study of black life back as early as the 1830s, 1840s, with the conference of free people of color in Philadelphia. I think Paul Jefferson, a sociologist at Haverford, has written about the early days of black sociological formations.

So Black Studies has been with us for a long time, but this was the first time that Black Studies entered predominantly white institutions, in the late '60s, early '70s. They were not uncertain days so much as they were difficult days because individuals had to take a certain kind of weight. And so I'm remembering a little weight I had to take at Wellesley College where I started. So I was remembering [the tough times at] Wellesley at the same time that I was also chuckling about Wellesley because my impression of certain [End Page 1054] figures around Wellesley was that they hoped that all of this would go away. [Laughter] It was their objective that it go away, that these people somehow would disappear. But we stuck to our guns and I was really pleased to see that and I was thinking in the old days, when a market niche for Black Studies was being rediscovered (which was kind of like the race records of the early recording years: shortly after recorded sound comes in you get something called race records which becomes sort of like a niche market for black music). When you get to the late '60, early '70s, there was the beginning of a market for black materials and I suppose that too was a kind of renaissance, because you had one once before with the Harlem Renaissance period. So in certain ways, Black Studies was a revisiting, and the niche market was a contemporary version, an updated version of what we had seen before. And I am recalling that in those days it was really kind of touch-and-go, especially if you were trying to write a certain kind of criticism or if you tried to write from a theoretical perspective that was not riddled by clichés. You had a difficult time getting through.

LEONARD: A difficult time from the institution or were there other people within Black Studies who resisted that theory?