An Interview with Farah Jasmine Griffin
This interview was conducted by telephone on June 16, 1999, between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Hartford, Connecticut.
You have written on a variety of subjects, including pedagogy and literary texts, and migration and African-American literature, and different issues in feminist studies. And you have also commented on autobiographical narratives, film, travel literature, visual art, and other African-American expressive forms. You ended your first booklength study “Who set you flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative (1995) with a seminal description of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, a comment which I think could also apply to jazz itself as a musical form. You refer to the novel Jazz as a “portrait of a people in the midst of self-creation, a document of what they created and what they lost along the way.” I’m almost inclined to argue that such is your project, your intellectual project: to show that black people in the USA have been made objects, to deconstruct those objects, and in the process to restore black people to their humanity, their agency, while recovering and (re)presenting their subjectivity. That seems to me to be your project, especially in light of your focused interest in recovering and restoring black women and their texts. Your recovery work, especially the letters (between Rebecca Primus and Addie Brown) you edited in Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends (1999), should make a significant impact on the historiography of black New England.
You’re very astute. When I wrote that last line, initially I wrote it about Morrison’s text. But I thought, I hoped, that’s what Who set you flowin’? would do also; I hoped that what I was saying about Jazz would be true of the critical book that I just finished writing as well. At the time I wasn’t thinking about the broader project, the work that was to come, but now that I hear you say it, I think that it certainly applies to the other project or the larger project in general.
Will you talk about your academic project in general?
I think that for the most part mine is a project that is very interested in the agency of black people (especially African Americans)—their political, social and creative agency. I’ve been very much interested in the effects of white supremacy and the ways that black people have tried to counter that, particularly in our art, in our music, and in our literature. When I say white supremacy, I don’t just mean the kind [End Page 872] of horrific things that were done to our bodies physically. But also the psychic scars caused by white supremacy—and in terms of the ways that we might have internalized some of the negative things that came out of the white supremacist venture. I think that our artists especially have been at the forefront of trying to give us a different picture of ourselves. When I say artists, I mean that in the broader sense: the writers, the musicians and the visual artists as well. I think that has been the driving force behind a lot of the critical work that I’ve done, the critical question that has shaped what direction I would go in. How have we as a people managed not only to survive but to thrive in the face of this massive onslaught of physical and discursive violence against us? In addition to that I think I also try to demonstrate how complex our experience has been, to complicate understandings of that experience. You know, if our notion of migration is just of forced movement from Africa through the Middle Passage or of the Great Migration then I am interested in other kinds of mobility—travel for leisure, education, missionary work and the like. If our notion of 19th-century black life is determined by the institution of slavery, then I’m very interested in what life looked like for those people who were not slaves, who did not live in the South.
Please talk about your work as an editor—i. e., Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends and A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing (1998)—and how it figures in your project and in the larger discourse on African-American literature and culture.
Well, Stranger in the Village is a book I co-edited with Cheryl Fish. Cheryl’s work is on 19th-century women’s travel writing and mine had been on black migration within the United States. We were both interested in questions of travel, of the movement of African Americans outside the United States. I was interested in the kinds of things that motivated black Americans to travel outside the United States, especially given the circumstances under which we live here. How much of an “American” and/or “Western” identity did they take with them? How did their experiences in foreign places impact their understandings of American society and their place in it? Did they identify with oppressed people of other nations? Did they act as oppressors? What prejudices did they bring with them? I was also interested in locations where generations of black Americans traveled and settled. How did their perceptions of Paris or Moscow or Accra change over time as these places changed? In some instances I wanted to see how they responded to discovering black people/dark people in the Soviet Union or in Australia. I think the selections in this text, once again, complicate and complement paradigms that have guided our study of black literature. They continue to demonstrate the quest for freedom identified by Robert Stepto; yet in these contexts some of the things that we look for—a relationship to oral culture or Southern culture—aren’t as apparent in these writings. We also see how different the writers are—some are politically radical, others conservative, and others barely political at all. Again, it helps to complicate received notions of black life and experience in the United States. [End Page 873]
their personal and romantic lives, and their social lives, desires, frustrations, dreams. Addie is quite possibly the only 19th-century domestic who left such an extraordinary record of her life—and she is a fascinating, humorous, passionate, intelligent and exciting young woman. What I love most about her letters is that because she is not writing for publication or for white people, she is not as concerned about censoring her letters for a racially mixed audience. Therefore she discusses black people in the full range of their humanity—their strengths and weaknesses—and she does so with a degree of dignity and humor that we have rarely seen in print. Now, of course, her letters are a performance of self but for a person with whom she is in love, not for a broader audience. She wants to put her best self forward in the eyes of Rebecca. Rebecca’s letters give us the day to day activities of a Northern black school marm who thought of going South to teach as a political act in the service of her people. She is often a Northern snob, but she is always full of love, care and concern. Those black women who went South to teach the freedmen and freedwomen have often been ignored in the official histories—but Rebecca (and Addie) refuses to be ignored.
Both of these edited volumes—Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends and A Stranger in the Village—fit into my desire to provide complex portraits of the richness and diversity of black history, life, culture and language.
I’m also interested in your commentaries on the black body, especially the dark-skinned black body and the psychic scars that result from white racism and from the internalized color racism that is very much alive in our own black communities. You speak of the latter in some of your more personal writing, what you have described as “personal criticism.”
I think that a lot of the work that we tend to do—and as critics I don’t think we say this very much although it’s beginning to change—a lot of the work that we do has a kind of autobiographical basis. I think of the many things that stand out to me about my childhood—and most of them are very, very positive, so that which is negative really stands out. I think that one of the most negative parts of my childhood was growing up a very dark-skinned child in a family that cherished me but in a community that often did not quite cherish my dark color as much as my family did. And so I was always curious about it. It was always something that I couldn’t understand, and even though people would explain it to me, I didn’t get it. And I think that as I began studying our history and then seeing the way our literature oftentimes is one of the best narratives of our history, I began to think how it’s influenced us at every single level from our folk and popular culture to some of our most highly [End Page 874] intellectual pieces of work. I think that also this is another case where we see artists doing something very interesting. On the one hand you might have had earlier African-American artists who did suffer from that affliction of colorism, and I think we see that in the early literature. (Thadious Davis, in her biography of Nella Larsen, is one of the only contemporary critics to explore seriously the role of color in Larsen’s sense of self.) But what we also see is an effort to counter colorism, certainly in later fiction—Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison. I am very interested in the way that the tradition speaks to itself around those issues that might not even get picked up on by someone outside of the tradition. Of course we also see it in black cinema as well—the color politics of black film from Oscar Micheaux to Spike Lee are not necessarily that different. Again, here it is in the work of black women filmmakers that we see a change. Think of the range of beautiful skin colors we are treated to in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. The notion of color is absolutely recurring in my work. I am very fascinated by it.
I want to talk a little more about your background. I am particularly interested in your relationship to your father, because I am not used to hearing feminists acknowledge their social, political or intellectual debts to their fathers. Will you talk about your relationship to your father and how it might have helped to shape your sensibility as a scholar?
Well, I was blessed to have two very extraordinary parents who did not have the same educational opportunities afforded me, but who were both intellectuals. And they didn’t just value education as training for a good job, but they also valued the life of the mind as well. So I grew up in a house full of books and things like that. I can trace my becoming an intellectual to both of my parents. I speak about my mother, but one of the reasons that I find myself writing about my father quite a bit is that he died when I was nine years old. I think my effort to hold onto my sense of him and my effort to try and remember him—both are related to my efforts to hold onto the things he taught me, particularly about history, literature, and music. My father taught me to read music, taught me how to read books, shared his love of jazz and history and books with me. And so I think it makes sense that I would have selected the kind of career that I’ve chosen, but I also go back when I’m looking for a point of origin to my father: the trips to the bookstore and library and things like that. I think in some ways he was criticized for not allowing me to be a child, so to speak. He was so serious about my intellectual pursuits, and he was a very good teacher. I thought I was playing most of the time—and I was playing. When he died, my mother really tried to shape the direction of my education, and she would always say “Well, your daddy would have wanted you to do this.” She always emphasized that my intellectual development had to be related to my spiritual development as well. She was certainly as influential as my father, more so even because her influence was for a longer time. I would say that my father was most influential on my intellectual and political sensibilities, and my mother was most influential on my humanity, on the woman I have grown up to be. [End Page 875]
How did you find your way—and maybe I’m using an inappropriate verb—from South Philadelphia, your home, to Harvard University? What did it mean for you—a black woman—to move into one of the most elite white settings in the USA? Did you discover your project there or did you come upon it in graduate school at Yale University or since you joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania?
It was an interesting trip, to say the least. I grew up in South Philly; I grew up in what was then a kind of working-class, working-poor neighborhood with strong families, fairly intact families, where no one was living an easy life—folks were struggling, but it was a very strong community. There were the problems that plagued inner cities in the 1970s, but nothing like we have now because it was before the crack epidemic and the violence and abandonment of children that has come with it. There were drugs, and there was violence, and while I grew up very hip to all of this, I also grew up very, very protected. I grew up in a city where Frank Rizzo was mayor and Mumia Abu Jamal was a journalist on the black radio station.
Right after my father died, I was sent to schools outside of my neighborhood, so I was always kind of making those adjustments. I was never sent to boarding school, so I always came home, but I always had a juxtaposition of very different kinds of lives. The first one was being sent to a public school for academically gifted children—Masterman—and I attended that school from fourth grade to ninth grade. It was a magnet school. Kids came from all over the city and they were very diverse in terms of race and class. After that I got a scholarship and went to a very, very elite all girls’ school in the Main Line—a series of prestigious suburbs of Philadelphia—The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. I continue to be very committed to that school. And, I attribute my introduction to the American elite to Baldwin more than to Harvard. Baldwin’s on a much smaller scale (it went from K-12), but it was a predominantly white school. There were only three black girls in my class, only eight of us in an upper school of approximately two hundred girls. By the time I got to Harvard, I had been in this prep school environment and in that way it didn’t seem as odd to me. What did seem odd were the teachers. My teachers at the private school took me very seriously. Our classes were small. If I said I wanted to be a painter, that was taken seriously; if I wanted to be a poet, that was taken seriously. I wrote and served as an editor for all of the school’s publications. What was different at Harvard was that it’s very easy to get lost in that atmosphere—for all students in spite of race or gender—because it is so large and impersonal. I found that many of my professors did not take me as seriously, especially as a young black woman. I was so fortunate to meet Werner Sollors and Nathan Huggins early in my career at Harvard; I don’t know what would have happened to me had I not met them. I am almost certain I would not have gone on to graduate school had I not met them. That was pretty much the downside. Another downside was professors’ utter refusal to be supportive of Afro-American studies projects outside the African American Studies Department. The Harvard I attended was not the Harvard of the Dream Team today. The plus about going to Harvard was that everybody came through there—and if you had the initiative, you could meet and talk to and learn from all kinds of people. The first time I saw Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Paule Marshall was at Harvard. I took a class with Michel [End Page 876] Fabre on African-American expatriates. There were only four of us in the class. And, as a result of that class, I ended up going to Paris and staying in the Fabre home during the summer following my graduation from Harvard. There was only one black woman, the distinguished music scholar, Eileen Southern, who was a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and there was only one class on black women’s literature. But both Harvard and Radcliffe gave me a tremendous amount of money to co-organize a conference (the first) on the Study of Black Women in American History. I was a senior, and I was able to organize a two-day conference with Deborah McDowell, Bettye Collier Thomas, Paula Giddings, Mary Helen Washington and others. So there were those pluses and minuses. It was the kind of place that wasn’t going to reach out and help you to do anything, but if you had a vision and you had the initiative to do it, there were resources there to do it. Even the minuses were good, because they prepared me for an academy that is more open to black intellectuals and black subject matter but for the most part still does not take our intellectual endeavors very seriously. I have actually had a colleague refer to the field of African-American literature as “very narrow.” I have had colleagues who tell black graduate students that they needn’t worry too much about the quality of their work or the time they take with it, because black people get jobs anyway. This is now, at the end of the 20th century. I guess that’s why the majority of the American professorate is African-American. [Laughter.]
Why did you decide to go to graduate school at Yale University rather than Harvard? Did Yale offer you something that you could not find at Harvard? Of course, you could study with Robert Stepto and Hazel Carby at Yale.
I think that Yale was very interesting, because I knew I wanted to apply to an American Studies program, but I did not want to apply to a traditional English department because English Departments tended to be conservative, and my interests were very interdisciplinary from the start. When I decided to go to graduate school, I did not know if I were going to do a history project or a more literary one. I really didn’t know. I knew that I was interested in certain questions and certain periods. But how I was going to approach those questions, I wasn’t sure. So at the time there were just a few really good American Studies programs—Penn, Harvard, Yale, Brown, maybe a few more. And I applied to three of them and to law school. And I decided on Yale for a couple of reasons. By then Yale had a reputation of strong scholars in Afro-American studies. There was John Blassingame in history, Henry Louis Gates had just left. Sylvia Boone was there in art history, Gerald Jaynes and Adolph Reed were the social scientists. Cornel West was there, and bell hooks was the young assistant professor beginning to make a name for herself. In this way, it was a profoundly different place from Harvard. I also felt that I had already established relationships with the people I would have worked with had I gone to Harvard. Both Huggins and Sollors continued to mentor me. Yale provided a chance for me to meet some new people. The way Yale shaped my project? There were several things. I wouldn’t say it so much happened in the classroom (though Jean Agnew’s and Cornel’s classes were very important to me) as it was in the scholars who were there. [End Page 877] Agnew, West, Hazel Carby, Stepto, Michael Denning, Nancy Cott, Margaret Homans—these folks helped to shape my own intellectual project. And there were faculty at nearby colleges and universities as well. The most important of these were James A. Miller and Jerry G. Watts—in many ways they were even more influential than those at my own institution were. Even more so than those people or those courses, it was the students who were at Yale at the time, my fellow students. Tera Hunter was there in the History Department, and Saidiya Hartman was a few years ahead of me in the American Studies Program. Paul Rogers was there in art history. Errol Louis and Lisa Sullivan, who went on to become important organizers and institution builders, were both there in political science. Donna Daniels, the anthropologist, and Dianne Johnson-Feelings were there. There was a group of us, kind of a cohort of black graduate students. It was the first time that I had a critical mass of politically engaged black intellectuals who were around my age. That more than anything I think would shape the kinds of questions that I was most interested in later on. Questions of power, cultural politics. I think a lot of that happened in my conversations, over dinners and lunches and that sort of thing, with my graduate student colleagues.
It’s interesting that a major section of this interview has focused on the personal. But your work itself encourages me to look at the personal also, even though most of the work you have already done is academic. You have written some essays which we could use your term to describe as “personal criticism.” What do you mean when you use the term “personal criticism”? What do you think that form has contributed to the discourse in women’s studies? White feminists, you tell us in one of your essays, have not always embraced “personal criticism,” but black feminists and other women of color have for years written personal criticism.
I think that’s because of the autobiographical impulse in African-American writing. Ours is a tradition, a literary tradition, certainly grounded in the autobiography, the conversion narrative, the spiritual narrative, and the slave narrative. It has never been a notion of autobiography that was just about me, myself and I. It’s always been a notion of autobiography that also sought to give voice to an experience of people who seemed voiceless to the majority of the society. So it was never just about inward navel-gazing. Therefore, it is only natural that as our criticism developed some of it would take on that autobiographical voice as well—and especially from women. Then too the feminist movement had declared the personal as political. And the kinds of personal that were being put on the table were not necessarily those that African-American feminists could identify with. I credit the work of people like Alice Walker—all those creative writers, but primarily in their criticism or non-fiction—with giving a body to that criticism, giving an identity, a face, a person, not claiming objectivity or the invisibility of the critic. That’s where it first started, and I think that black feminist critics were very much influenced by the creative writer. Even if you look at the introductory essays in Mary Helen Washington’s profoundly influential anthologies, you will see that she started important criticism and history in a voice more akin to that of the black woman as creative writer than that of most academic critics. The same can be said for Deborah McDowell and Ann duCille as well. In that [End Page 878] sense, I am not saying that the sophistication or rigor is not there—it’s all there—but there is also a lyrical voice that I find so compelling. And then there is also a more personal voice as well. In Patricia Williams’ very deeply theoretical essays, there is a personal voice. We know we are reading essays about a black woman law professor—essays which are not just talking about her own condition. I think that’s where my impulse to work the personal into my own work comes from. I am always looking for a story to tell. I think that the best learning happens in stories. I learned that way. And often an essay that isn’t necessarily or entirely personal might open up with the personal because it provides a narrative.
You mentioned Patricia Williams, the law professor at Columbia University, as one of the feminists using “personal criticism.” In my interview with her for a special section in an issue of Callaloo (19.4 [Fall 1996]), I told her how much I thought of her work, especially The Alchemy of Race and Rights, as both creative and intellectual. I compared her work to that of the creative writer; I was trying to give her my highest compliment. I have a love affair with the creative voice in matters intellectual—e. g., Edouard Glissant’s creativity in Caribbean Discourse and, more recently, in his Faulkner, Mississippi.
Exactly. I think that’s the highest compliment you could pay. It means that you are as attentive to the language you use as you are to the language about which you write. What’s wrong with that? I actually wish that more of us could aspire to that. I really do. It would really make reading the criticism such a pleasure. When you read Toni Morrison’s criticism, you discover why people who are not academics read her critical writing. Or even James Baldwin’s criticism for that matter. Even as difficult as Nathaniel Mackey’s work can be, there is a beauty in the way he writes criticism. This is the voice of the critic as writer. I think that is among the highest of compliments.
Though your work is theoretical or poststructuralist, I have noticed that the language I usually encounter in poststructuralist commentary in African-American literary and cultural studies does not generally appear in your work—that is, you don’t engage the language of critical theory in your participation in the current conversation on African-American literature and culture.
It’s very intentional. I think that when I was in graduate school at some point I tried to adopt a different voice, a voice that was much more like that I was reading and hearing. I got to thinking to myself, I cannot write about black women and black women’s texts in a language that I find ugly. That’s how I felt about it. I thought it was ugly. I like to hear the way things sound when you read them aloud, and when I’d read that language aloud it sounded so ugly to me. Then too it wasn’t my voice. It was the voice of some other people, but it wasn’t my voice. It took me a long time to gain the confidence to say to myself, “You know what? I am going to write about these ideas in the voice that comes most naturally to me.” And I find that I am constantly translating my own work. Going back and saying, “That word is very lazy. [End Page 879] It does a lot of work for me, and I need to unpack that and make it really say what it is I’m saying.” And so it’s something that’s always at the forefront of my mind. Always there. And it’s interesting. Once I decided to go with that choice, the one I was most comfortable with, a lot of the theoretical and critical stuff that I was just having a really hard time putting down, starts coming to me. I think that part of the lesson is this: you just have to—and I think this is a lesson that creative writers know—that you have to be true to the voice that is in you. You have to give credence to it. You can’t let some kind of establishment, whatever that is, determine the voice that you write in any more than you want it to determine the subjects about which you choose to write.
Was Joyce Ann Joyce also concerned about the language of critical theory? I am thinking about her article that appeared in New Literary History (18.2 [Winter 1987]), to which Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., responded. What is your response to that moment in African-American literary and cultural studies? What did that moment mean in our profession?
I read that moment with such sadness. I think that it was a moment of such sadness for me and for the field. I remember that I was in graduate school when it came out in New Literary History and we all scrambled to read it. At that time we would scramble to read anything Gates and Baker published because they were transforming the field. But I think that for those of us who were in graduate school at the time, there were things about both sides of the argument that resonated with many of us. The debate was carried on amongst us, though I think those who sided most with Gates and Baker were more vocal, those who did not feared being accused of being anti-intellectual. But I do remember that all of us, no matter what side we were on, were dismayed by the tone of the critique launched against Joyce. I think what resonated most with me on the Baker and Gates side of it was that I was as excited by post-structuralism and the implications of poststructualist theory for African-American literary studies as anyone. I was at Yale, for God’s sake. I thought it would do us a genuine disservice to turn our backs on the innovative readings and insights of what we’ve come to call postmodern theory or poststructuralism (and we know it is much more complicated than those titles suggest). On the other hand, for me personally, I knew that there was something about the language of black writing that, at the time, I could not put my finger on. There was something about the language of many of the texts I read—the voice of the texts, the language of our music, the language and just the richness of black voices—that I thought it would have been a disgrace for us to abandon. I did not, nor do I now, think we are obligated to simplify our ideas or our language so that an uninformed person will understand immediately upon reading. But I do think that we ought to write in a way that is inviting. Amiri Baraka and Ralph Ellison, two of our most important cultural critics, who have theorized in complicated ways about black culture, wrote in a language that was and is accessible. The same is true for Richard Wright, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison as well. To give this up, this relationship to language, for me would have been a moment of allowing others to dictate the way we say what we have to say. I think Barbara Christian provided a much [End Page 880] better engagement of this debate later on in her misunderstood essay “The Race for Theory.” To argue for clarity in language is not to take an anti-intellectual or anti-theoretical stance. Now, having said that, I also believe that had there not been critics—that is, black critics writing about black literature—who were willing to write within that linguistic framework, the opportunities that were available to my cohort of scholars would not have been available to us. I really do believe that. Just as building institutions on predominantly white campuses, insisting on a black presence in them, challenging the canon, recovering texts, and also demonstrating a certain kind of flexibility with what was considered theoretical language, what was placed in a hierarchy of theoretical language—all of these things made it possible for my cohort of academics to have the opportunities that we have. At the time, had there not been people willing to do that, I don’t think I would have the freedom to write in the voice that I am writing in now. I would never tell another critic to cease writing in the voice that best communicates her ideas and reaches the audiences she wants to reach, but I would hope that access to opportunity, to publishing, to the distribution of the work, would not be limited to those who chose to write in a different voice.
There is an obvious divide between the project of white feminists and that of feminists of color, especially black feminists. Will you talk about some of the ways in which white feminist writing—creative and/or critical—is different from that of black feminists? In your essay on Toni Cade Bambara’s anthology The Black Woman, you quoted her as raising the question “How relevant are the truths, the experiences, the findings of white women to black women?” Toni Cade Bambara continues: “Are women after all simply women? I don’t know that our priorities are the same, that our concerns and methods are the same, or even similar enough that we may afford to depend on the new fields of experts, white females.” I know that the projects have a similar, common role, which is the liberation of women, but within the white feminist camp I see issues that are different from those that black women are concerned with. I have not been convinced, however, that black feminists—or other feminists of color—have adequately demonstrated in public forums that a racist agenda drives many of the voices and actions of the white feminist. Once white women acquire “power,” a great number of them not only further the cause of racism but also other facets of white male patriarchy. I now speak as a victim of some of those white women who continue to act out of white racist patriarchy.
There is so much in that question, Charles. Toni Cade Bambara wrote that for The Black Woman, an anthology she edited. We need to resurrect and read again and again and again that anthology. I think it’s out-of-print, so we need to lobby to have it brought back into print. When she wrote that essay, there was something that we might have identified as a white feminism and as a white feminist. That has changed; it has not necessarily fractured but certainly diversified. People were mostly talking about white liberal feminism, about the women who read The Feminine Mystique and realized through that book that they’d been oppressed. That is very different from socialist feminism, or very different from white lesbian feminism, or very different from working-class feminism. There were all of these differences, even then in that [End Page 881] early feminism, but they have become even more apparent now. Dorothy Allison is very different from Gloria Steinem.
Black feminists have always been liberationists, and this is clear from early on—the Combahee River Collective statement, Alice Walker’s sense of womanism, bell hooks, even if we look before to our pre-feminist foremothers, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Cooper—when you read any of those founding texts of black feminism, black feminism has always had black liberation as its core goal. Black feminism was part of a liberatory vision for black people, and there’s a real strong sense that black people can’t be free if black women are not free. Now the danger in that has often been for black women to be forced into a situation of comparing suffering: who suffers worst? If it can be proven that black men suffered from racism worst, then is black freedom going to be about the freedom of black men? And black feminists have always challenged that within our own struggle and our own community, even as they challenge the racism of white women, of white feminists. Sometimes—I think, this is what I was trying to say in my essay on Bambara—I’ve gone to conferences where I see the same issues, critiques and themes raised by black women over and over, and I feel like sometimes those things have been heard and other times they have not. It’s necessary that we continue to talk about them. I am told that recently at a large conference of feminist historians, prominent white feminists asserted that the early feminist movement was wrongly accused of racism. It makes me ask, “How far have we come?” But my concern is that there are factions of black women who have stopped talking to each other. As much as I think that we need to continue a critique of the racism of white feminism, we also need to recognize that there is an emerging model of global feminism whose face is not white—and that we need to be in dialogue with the women who speak in this voice. We now have a category of women of color—a category not evident in The Black Woman anthology but certainly one that Bambara presents in her novel The Salt-Eaters (my model of a black feminist novel). And even here, in this category of women of color, there are tensions. What do we gain and lose when we exchange black women for women of color? Many “women of color” have a relationship to white supremacy that is quite different from our own, have a class status quite different from our own. Some may have even considered themselves white in their countries of origin and join us as women of color with a great deal of reluctance. We live in a very different world from that which gave birth to Bambara’s anthology.
I am very concerned about our talking to each other. I think that’s because of the level of crisis confronting many black people in the United States. Like it or not, disproportionate numbers of young black men are going to jail and are dying of murder at the hands of other young black men; they are disproportionately the ones on death row. Little black boys are profiled as aggressive creatures from the time they go to nursery school. Young black women are the fastest growing prison population. More young mothers have fallen prey to crack and all the social vices that come with it than we have ever seen with heroin. The number of little black girls who are being sexually abused is outrageous and yet we have not expressed that outrage. What is the black feminist response to all of this? Black people die from diseases at a greater rate [End Page 882] than anyone else in our national population. We have always borne the brunt of the worst that this country has to offer, but we are at a place where we have never ever been.
If these things are going to be addressed, they first have to be addressed by black women talking to each other. In the Bambara essay, I am not saying we should stop challenging the racism of white feminism or of white patriarchy. I am saying that in addition to doing that we need to be as attentive to initiate a dialogue with black women who are not feminists. It is not going to be easy. It might be very painful. The majority of black women are not feminists. While they may be open to the arguments and concerns of black feminism, we have not always talked to them, particularly to non-elite black women. We cannot stop our fight against white patriarchy. Of course that is at the root of much of the suffering I describe above. We have to enlist others, non-feminist black women, black men, white women, other women and men of color in the dismantling of white patriarchy, and we have to struggle with them against patriarchy of any color—but the reality is that many black women would welcome the patriarchy of black men as a replacement for the conditions they currently face. Black feminists have got to find a way to address this.
In a short article entitled “Venus Rising: The Personal as Critical” (in Personal Narratives: Women Photographers of Color, ed. Jeffrey Fleming), you wrote the following which I hope you will amplify:
Women, especially black women, have long had to reckon with efforts to turn them into silent objects. To challenge domination, feminist activists and intellectuals established a language and analytic framework for exploring the various ways women experience oppression. The cornerstone of much of feminist criticism is that the lives and experiences of women are worthy of scholarly inquiry and theory.
This statement covers a broad range of issues, and it also references, however generally, much of what has been happening in poststructuralist writing as well as feminist critical theory.
Once feminist activists and intellectuals established that the lives of women were worthy of scholarly inquiry, they were then confronted with the fact that much of the available language for talking about or theorizing history, or life experiences, was not useful when women became the subject of inquiry. This was not just the case with feminist intellectuals, but with African Americans as well and certainly with the group that overlaps those two—African-American women. In fact, I would say it became necessary to create new ways of thinking and writing for anyone who was interested in oppressed peoples. Certain analytic paradigms, for instance, ways of talking about resistance, had to be challenged and reframed. In older frameworks, resistance might have been the big heroic attempts at slave rebellions instead of the consistency with which someone like Harriet Tubman went back time and time again [End Page 883] to bring enslaved people out of bondage. Or, better still, earlier frameworks did not see resistance in the acts of sabotage performed by house servants or field hands. They didn’t run away or plan rebellion, but perhaps they saw to it that the plantation didn’t run as efficiently as master or mistress may have liked. Before the development of alternative frames it was difficult to talk about these acts. In literary terms, prior to feminist criticism, there really was no way to talk about the gaps and the silences in women’s writings. Feminist critics encouraged us to read the silences, read the gaps, be attentive to the ellipses. I think Deborah McDowell’s Introduction to Quicksand and Passing is a perfect example of this, as is Valerie Smith’s classic essay “The Loophole of Retreat” about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Asian-American feminist, King Kok Chung, writes beautifully about the quality of silence in Asian women’s writing in her book Articulate Silences. That book was very influential to me. It’s odd, but it was as if feminists sought to give voice to the silence so to speak.
What is your response to the images of black women in music videos on BET and MTV? Upon seeing them, I always catch myself asking the performers on the screen, “Do you know that there is an ongoing movement—has long been one—that speaks against the objectification of women?”
The danger in much of this is in a complete misinterpretation of feminism. Many young women will say that it’s because they believe in women’s liberation, because they believe in a woman’s right to her body, her right to her desire and to act the way she wants and demand what she wants sexually. And that’s an argument that you will hear over and over again. That they have in fact empowered themselves. I talk to young women about this all the time, and they will say to me, “Wow, these women rappers or pop stars, by representing themselves in this way, they are breaking the silence, they are breaking the boundary, they are breaking all of this silence around black women’s sexuality.” But there has never been a silence around black women’s sexuality. Black women themselves have been silent because their sexuality was painted in just the ways that these young women are representing themselves. It would be different if these young women were representing their sexuality in a visual and literal vocabulary that was different from that of pornography and that if, in addition to their sexuality, they were also representing other aspects of themselves. Too many young women fail to ask, Who’s in control of this? What they fail to acknowledge is that a young woman—and here I am referring to stories I’ve read about Lil Kim—who is trying to survive a life on the street and who turns to her body and to sex as a means of guaranteeing that survival is not the same as a woman taking control of her sexuality and her body. It is a woman making a choice out of a choiceless situation. Or recently there was an Essence article where Foxy Brown talks about her lack of self-esteem, her feeling that because she was dark she wasn’t beautiful or desirable. So she began to do what would get her the attention she desired. Now these are tragic stories in my mind, terribly tragic stories. These are not stories of young women choosing to enjoy their sexuality out of a healthy place.
I honestly believe that Madonna has done a lot of that stuff, but Madonna is also in charge of her life and her image and her career. She is constantly improving and [End Page 884] trying to show different sides of herself. She is the person who is in charge, and even if she wasn’t in the beginning, she certainly is so now. This is even the case for Janet Jackson. Madonna is a brilliant woman. My question to these young women is “Okay, can you show me that these women are making choices on their own?” If they are in charge of the material they do, do they produce it, get the bulk of the money from it? If so, then I am willing to listen to the argument. The problem is that they are not. They are being represented as male fantasies.
But I am hopeful. I actually see a change coming. A change is coming, and I hope that it will continue to be the case. Here I am thinking of artists such as Lady B, Bahamadia, Lauryn Hill, and MeShell N’degocello. If we ever got to the point where we had black women choosing the way their sexuality would be represented, I think this might look very different from what we currently see in popular culture. Tricia Rose has written on this. I don’t think that we as black feminists have done a lot of our work for young women, especially young women who are not reading Alice Walker, bell hooks, Rebecca Walker, Joan Morgan. We have not done enough for girls who are listening to Kim and Foxy. There are a lot of young girls who can identify with Kim’s biography. For a whole generation that is their reality. I read Push, Sapphire’s Push, and when I first read that novel, I was so disturbed by it, I thought, “why would she make this up?” But now I have a very different type of feeling about that novel because I’ve gotten to know a lot of young people, a lot of little girls and young women and all of a sudden I realize that Clarice Precious Jones, the protagonist of Push, is real. Sapphire didn’t just make her up out of thin air. She is very much like too many young girls. And she is probably among the first generation of young black children whose families cannot provide a safety net for them, whose families might in fact be the biggest danger to their safety. All of the tragic things about which she writes in that book—there are young girls in group homes, in our neighborhoods and schools who are suffering these very atrocities and who don’t know what the heck black feminism is and, unlike Clarice, they never find out.
Let me add that I am not taking a position against rap music and hip-hop culture. I am taking a position against sexism, homophobia, ageism, and willful self-negation or self-degradation. There is rap music, in fact, that affirms my position.
Some of the best critiques of those negative positions emerge from within the hip-hop community. Those critiques that emerge within the hip-hop community don’t necessarily have the kind of corporate backing that gets them on MTV and gets them elaborately produced videos. It’s definitely there. We do have to question—and this isn’t just true of hip hop, this is true of all of our culture at this moment—the role of global capitalism in shaping what gets produced and distributed. It’s not only what is produced—because there will always be people doing innovative things—but what gets distributed, what’s made available, what you can get your hands on, what gets circulated. It’s not only in terms of just putting out things that are negative; it’s also putting out things that are unoriginal, lacking in innovation. People who are concerned about making money don’t want innovation. They want something that looks [End Page 885] just like what made money. I think that we are also in a crisis that’s at that point in terms of all of our cultural and intellectual production.
I want to go back to your essay on Toni Cade Bambara. You say that her anthology The Black Woman is not a black feminist text as we’ve come to understand the term. Yet you would argue that the anthology is crucial to our revisiting the early stages of black feminist discourse.
I think that text is so vibrant, because one of the things I talk about is it having both a chorus and a conflict: later anthologies would be more straightforward as black feminist, but there are some voices in that anthology, The Black Woman, that we would never see again. So the voices that are all concerned with what it means to be a black woman following the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. What does it mean? What are our movements going to look like? What kind of women are we going to be? And there are some very different answers. There are answers by people like Abbey Lincoln that call for a kind of patriarchal protection, an essay that the Lincoln of today might not write in the same way. But that essay is not a black feminist one. It is one that continues to resonate with a lot of black women. It’s an essay calling for black men to treat black women as feminine beings in need of protection and romantic love. There is a great roundtable discussion of college students where you hear one young woman saying, “You know men are our leaders.” We have the voices of an emerging black feminism, but we have other voices as well.
Will you describe the critical and theoretical discourse that follows the publication of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman? How do Mary Helen Washington’s Black-Eyed Susans and All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (eds. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia B. Scott, and Barbara Smith) as anthologies differ from The Black Woman? Please talk about the beginning voices of black feminist discourse. How would you describe the initial work in black feminist criticism?
Well, for instance, Alice Walker appears in The Black Woman, and she of course emerged as the most famous black feminist voice of the 1980s, as the author of novels and essays, and as a major figure in the recovery of Zora Neale Hurston. I don’t think there has been anything as influential on the direction of the critical and theoretical discourse that followed the publication of The Black Woman. Courses, books, panels, associations—all of these developed in the wake of Walker’s recovery work; but even more than that, the availability of Hurston’s text helped to shape the development of a canon of black women’s writing that favored texts that followed in the Hurstonian vein as well as the writing of new novels, including those of Alice Walker, especially The Color Purple (1984), that responded to Hurston’s artistic legacy. In this way, Walker helped to shape one of the main streams of black women’s creative and critical writing that followed the publication of the Cade anthology. [End Page 886]
Audre Lorde has poems in that anthology, and she would go on to become not only one of our most important black feminist voices but one of the most major and visible black lesbian voices as well. Hers was a voice that would call together a whole different group of people that would help to create a space for so many others—not only Lorde’s poetry but her essays (especially Sister Outsider, 1984) as well—and of course her biomythography Zami (1982). I recently heard that the movement of black German women was sparked by a visit Lorde made there and that she helped to facilitate the publication of texts by these women. I see Lorde as constituting the beginning of another stream, a stream that includes Barbara Smith’s influential essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” the manifesto “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” the founding of Kitchen Table Women of Color Press. Other anthologies—which followed in the vein of Lorde’s and Smith’s work that were multidimensional but more feminist than The Black Woman—include Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983) and This Bridge Called My Back (1981), a collection of writings by women of color.
Mary Helen Washington’s four anthologies, Black-Eyed Susans (1975), Midnight Birds (1980), Invented Lives (1987), and Memory of Kin (1991) were especially important because not only were they works of literary history and recovery (and I would argue an early theorizing as well), but they also made works by black women writers available to a broader audience. These creative works had a greater impact on my becoming a feminist than did any of the more critical books I would read later on. In fact, I would say that Naylor, Morrison, Bambara and Shange were even more significant to my formation as a young black feminist, as a young woman period.
Three other important and influential anthologies that followed The Black Woman not only presented black women writers but helped to shape the field of Black Women’s Studies as well: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982) edited by Barbara Smith and Patricia Bell Scott, Gloria Hull and Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Sturdy Black Bridges, and the journal Sage which came out of Spelman college. Later on Conjuring, Wild Women in the Whirlwind and Changing Our Words focused on black feminist literary history, criticism and theory. In all of these we begin to see the institutionalization of Black Women’s Studies, its emergence as a field and its entrance into the academy in what remains a very marginal but influential space. A study of these anthologies and their impact would make an extraordinary project. What I find so fascinating about them is that the early ones did not separate fiction, poetry, criticism, and non-fiction prose. They were all in there. (This is true also of Michael Harper’s and Robert Stepto’s Chant of Saints and Amiri and Amina Baraka’s Confirmations as well.) In this way the anthologies themselves were more like a publication like Callaloo. The black woman writer was a much larger category than it is now. In the Bambara anthology you not only have poetry and fiction; you also have social science, film criticism and working papers as well. As we moved on, we got more specialized, especially as we sought legitimacy in the academy. We wouldn’t dare see criticism in a volume with our fiction or fiction in a volume with our poetry. It just got more and more specialized. And I think it became indicative of the ways in which we continued not to talk to each other, if not in person then in print. I would love to see a collection come out that is a collection of poetry, fiction, criticism. We [End Page 887] could have A.J. Verdelle, Kim Hall, and Sharan Strange in the same volume. That extraordinary Harryette Mullen would appear in all the sections as poet, critic, and short story writer. I think that would be wonderful.
Where do you, Farah Griffin, see yourself positioned in the black feminist conversation? Let me put the question another way: What is the relationship of your project to the larger black feminist discourse?
That’s a very hard question for me. I see myself trying to speak to different audiences, oftentimes in different languages. I am always, always interested in the relationship of theory to history and to praxis. And the impact of all of these in people’s lives. Black feminism has made my life better and richer and, I think, has that kind of transformative capacity for others as well. I would love to have my work, more and more of my work, addressed to non-academic audiences because I am an intellectual before I am an academic. I so often get frustrated when there is a crisis and we hear the language that is used to analyze it. We know that we have come up with a vocabulary that is a little more rigorous than what we hear, and yet it isn’t out there. Imagine how different the debates around the Thomas-Hill hearings would have been had we had access, during the proceedings, to the analysis of Wahneemah Lubiano. I’d like to think of myself as a black feminist who is always in dialogue with other feminists, but also with other women who are not feminists at all, particularly young black women and with black men. I am a black feminist with a critique of sexism who happens to like most of the black men I know, to love a lot of black men and to care about the way this country mistreats them. I think the ability of black feminism to allow for this continues to be among the most important parts of early definitions of black feminism. I still find this compelling. It is a vision of black women’s freedom as part of the freedom of black people. I don’t want to let that go. Also the absolute necessity of maintaining a relationship between intellectual work and the political and spiritual health of black people—I hope that my own voice will continue to try and keep them together.
Two of your essays, published in the late 1990s, focus on teaching. In “Spell #7: Complicating Race in the Classroom at the Turn of the Century” (Transformations 9.2 [Fall 1998]), you say that “the classroom has become the space where I have been forced to expand my own definitions of what constitutes American and African-American literature to include experiences and texts that are more representative of the Americas rather than the United States.” Your “On Women, Teaching, and Native Son” (in James A. Miller’s Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son, 1997) recounts another moment in your classroom:
It was the pain and anger of my black women students especially that made me first confront my own pain and anger at reading any novel or story by Wright. These young women forced me to cease repressing those emotions. I had to share with my students the process of confronting anger while exploring ways in which the text itself provided a critique of Wright’s sexism. [End Page 888]
Undergraduate Education and Intersection of African-American Literature and Critical Theory,” that Lindon Barrett wrote for Callaloo in 1991 (14.3).
For the most part, the classroom is the place where I feel most comfortable. A lot of my academic work is pedagogically driven. It’s driven by questions that are raised in the classroom, by an attempt to work through these things with my students. There are some major conflicts, and I tend to welcome them though sometimes they are hard. Sometimes I get students who profoundly disagree with me, and with whom I profoundly disagree. I would be lying if I didn’t say there were times when that isn’t frustrating. Once a semester I have what I call a crisis of vocation. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? And yet it becomes one of the challenges that actually energize me. The problems of being black and female in the classroom. I think it’s fascinating. I think that there is a constant questioning of my authority all of the time. Elizabeth Alexander has written about this kind of thing. For students who take a lot of classes with women professors it might be different, but when I teach a big lecture course or even a class with students who are taking my kind of class for the first time, there are constant questions of my authority. Not just my authority as the person in front of the classroom, or the insistence on challenging my grades, but also in terms of my knowledge of what I teach. I used to find myself asserting my academic pedigree all the time in ways that I am sure my white male colleagues do not have to do. I doubt the women do either. I know black men experience it, though probably not to the extent of black women. That is very tiresome.
they have to hike all the way up to West Philadelphia High School at 8:30 in the morning and deal with the challenges of a poor public school. So the class tends to be self-selecting. This year I had students who were just as smart and just as special, but I was unprepared for the hostility and the level of racial and class conservatism we encountered. Although this response came from white students, it came from a couple of the black and Asian students as well. We taught on public schools and the Prison Industrial Complex. Inevitably the question of the death penalty came up and several of the West students had family members or acquaintances who had encounters with the criminal justice system (I shared this with them as well). It is one thing for a student to be for the death penalty, but I actually had one student, a young black woman, who said, “As far as I am concerned, they can’t kill them fast enough.” There was another student, a young white woman, who said that though a prisoner in a documentary we viewed had been falsely accused of the crime for which he was imprisoned, he should not be released [End Page 889] because he probably did commit some heinous crime. She said, “I can just tell by looking at him.” I find these statements morally appalling. And not every moment can be used as a teaching moment I am afraid. Some of my younger black students are like a whole classroom of Ward Connerlys. These kinds of things are very challenging to say the least. At the end of some days if you were to ask I might say I shouldn’t be doing this; but at the end of the semester I say I am right where I belong. Because in that class there were also some exceptional students. They didn’t always agree with me either, and that is as it should be. The most rewarding thing about the class for me was the West Philly High students. These incredibly bright students. I have hired one of them as my research assistant. Another has developed into an extraordinary young woman who spent her summer teaching younger black and Latino children. My hope is in these students. The problem is this: fewer and fewer are finding themselves with access to elite institutions like the ones I attended or the ones where I have worked.
I should say that I have also had some extraordinary experiences in the classroom. It has been the site of tremendous growth for both myself and for the students. But I think it is the relationships that I have developed one on one with some of my students that have proven to be the most stimulating and rewarding. I have watched individual students grow intellectually and emotionally into exceptional young men and women who will contribute a great deal. The kinds of bad experiences I describe above are, thankfully, still in the minority.
One of the problems with our educational system, our system of higher education, is that our students are not encouraged to take academic or intellectual risks. We don’t have a way to reward students who take risks and in the process that might give the wrong answer but learn a whole lot in between. I find my metaphor in a French class that I took. The teacher gives an assignment to make up a sentence. The safe student makes up a simple sentence with a subject, verb and object in the present tense. Three words. He gets the answer right. Then there is the student who tries to construct a more complicated sentence in a different tense, with some adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. More than likely that student comes up with something wrong, but she learns a lot more in the process. And yet, when the grade comes out, the three-word man gets an A and our experimenter does not. I want to find a way to reward that more adventurous student and to encourage the other one to take risks, to risk being wrong and not feel like they will be punished for it. Now in order to create this environment, you also create an environment where some students will feel free to say they think you can’t kill death row people fast enough or that certain people look like they should be in jail. And I am glad my West Philly students got to hear that because they need to know what they are up against.
How do you deal with issues of blackness and whiteness in that kind of conservative context?
It’s getting harder, Charles, it’s getting harder and harder. The students coming into my university grew up during a period when Ronald Reagan and George Bush were Presidents. These are black, white, Asian, and Latino students. They are less and less diverse economically. I am finding that the students who are not [End Page 890] profoundly conservative are in the minority. Many of my students of color are anti-affirmative action. They have completely bought into the color-blind meritocracy. All of them are aware that we live in a society that is more complicated than that of black and white and yet very few of them see how race and ethnic relations in this country are fundamentally shaped by that black/white axis and one’s proximity to either one or the other of those endpoints. The black student population in elite institutions is less diverse in terms of class but more ethnically diverse. Many of my black students have no identification whatsoever with the African-American freedom struggle, cultural and social history, because they are the children of immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa.
I had to learn something when I was a young teacher: I had to learn that I was not trying to convert them. Because that is a losing battle. I was trying to share some stuff with them, expose them to ways of thinking that might be new and more complicated, give them the kind of safe space to be able to think and talk about what was on their minds critically, and to talk about it in a way that is respectful of their classmates.
I have tried to balance things for myself by teaching outside of the university as well. I will teach anywhere. I have taught in prisons and in public schools. I’ll do workshops and seminars with all kinds of groups, community groups, young people, and older people.
One of the most exciting things that we have in Philadelphia is an annual W.E.B. DuBois conference organized by Dr. Tony Monteiro. Activists, writers, scholars all come to talk to a broad audience about DuBois’s legacy and the issues confronting African Americans. To me this is one of the most important and stimulating events we could have and it tends to counter some of the disappointments I experience in the academy. Which is why I love being in a city like Philadelphia. It’s a place where things like that can happen. That conference is a model for me of the kind of institution building we need to engage in that does not have to be entirely dependent on mainstream academic institutions. Though the conference takes place at the University of the Sciences, it is the kind of thing that could happen at a different site. I think that’s the task that faces us now. Can we build an intellectual infrastructure—associations, journals, conferences—that are not dependent upon the white academy for its funding, real estate, or legitimization?
In January of 1994, a very important conference on black women in the academy was sponsored at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but, except for the special section that I asked Saidiya Hartman to edit for Callaloo (17.2 [Summer, 1993]: 407–49), I have not seen one word in print from the very important papers and positions represented at that historic gathering. (The special section Saidiya Hartman edited in Callaloo contains her general report on the conference and papers Elizabeth Alexander, Angela Davis, and Mae Henderson presented there.) That there was no publication of the proceedings of the conference is very disappointing in light of what allegedly occurred at MIT and the potential positive impact it might have had on the academy. Please talk about that conference. Will another conference be planned? [End Page 891]
I think there are a lot of people who share your disappointment that there was not a publication to follow that historic event. No record of the presentations or the proceedings. Not just by people who attended or heard about it, but also none by some of those of us who were involved in the planning as well. That’s part of the reason. Rather than bemoan what did not happen, you’ll see that there is another conference coming up next week, Black Women in The Academy II, at the historically black university Howard in Washington, DC. So there is a sense of “let’s move on.” At that conference we will see much more of the kind of thing you are talking about. What I am so proud of about the first conference is that it had such an impact and that the historical nature has not been lost. Deborah Gray White writes about it in her book Too Heavy a Load, which looks at black women’s organizing history from 1894–1994. And certainly there was the important selection of essays published by Callaloo immediately following. I am certain things will be documented even more so out of the upcoming conference. I think the challenge that will confront the conference and its planners and attendees is where do we go from here. Will this become a movement or a professional association? Again, it is a question of the kind of institution building I talked about earlier—the creation of an infrastructure that is not bound to the academy, that is a space for intellectual work that is about something other than professionalism, work that is related to the circumstances and the lives of large numbers of a more and more diverse black population.