Insights on Black Women Scholars & Black Cultural Production

Monday, Jul 8, 2019

In this Graduate Series Interview, Misty De Berry (moderator) and Ajanet S. Rountree sit down with Professor Soyica Colbert during the Black Impossible Conference. Professor Colbert shares her insights on the relationship between Black Women Scholars and Black cultural production.

Misty De Berry is a Ph.D. candidate and performance artist in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her works emerges at the intersection of performance studies, Black Feminist thought, Marxist theory, and art history. De Berry’s academic and artistic work are committed to studying the relationship between black women, durational performance, and everyday practices in late capitalism.

Ajanet Rountree is pursuing a Master’s degree in the Anthropology of Peace and Human at the Univesity of Alabama in Birmingham. She studies cultural anthropology because it combines the dreams of the individual with the world of the collective and discovers the interconnections to bring awareness to their interdependence. Her goal is to become an expert in civil rights as it relates to women, social change, and globalization from an anthropological perspective with a focus on human rights and peace

Soyica Colbert is the Chair of the Department of Performing Arts, Director of Theater and Performance Studies and a Professor of African American Studies and Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance and the Stage (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Black Movements: Performance and Cultural Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2017). Colbert edited the Black Performance special issue of African American Review (2012) and co-edited The Psychic Hold of Slavery (Rutgers University Press, 2016). She is currently working on two book projects, Lorraine Hansberry: an Intellectual Biography and I See You: Blackness in Visual Culture and Performance Theory. Colbert has published articles in American Theatre, African American Review, Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, Boundary 2South Atlantic Quarterly, Scholar and Feminist Online, and Theatre Topics and in the collections: Black Performance Theory, Contemporary African American Women Playwrights, and August Wilson: Completing the Cycle. She is the recipient of the Schomburg Scholars-in-Residence Fellowship, Woodrow Wilson Foundation Career Enhancement Fellowship, Stanford Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship, Mellon Summer Research Grant, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library Fellowship. Her research interests span the 19th-21st centuries, from Harriet Tubman to Beyoncé, and from poetics to performance.


Interview Transcript

(0:00) Misty De Berry: Okay hello, I am Misty De Berry. I'm visiting scholar at MIT and I'm here with Ajanet Rountree and Professor Soyica Colbert. We're here at the black impossible conference and we're having a conversation, just an opportunity to archive conversations between junior scholars and our senior scholars just to share general thoughts and ideas that may pertain to black studies, black cultural production and arts in general. So we're just going to jump in uh Ajanet and I have prepared some questions and Professor Colbert is going to share her insights on them and away we go. You know, one general question I have that seems to be something that comes up especially in conference spaces, particularly as young black thinkers and women are what are some of your thoughts, strategies, and experiences in general on surviving the academy?

Professor Colbert: So I would say that one of the best survival techniques is um forming collectives and so this conference is one of those opportunities to form collectives across generations. I think that your generation of scholars is really good at creating alliances, and particularly social media seems to be a great facilitator of that. I remember when I was in graduate school, I went to Rutgers. And at the time that I came to the graduate program. Cheryl Law was the chair of English and Deborah Gray White was the chair of the history and it was only upon retrospection that I realized that what a gift that was, and how much my graduate school the experience was having with informed by having two black women at the head of two very large departments and so they act with other faculty and the units, curated spaces for blacks graduate students, or people studying black guy sport histories and literature to gather and have a conversation, but then also for us to mingle and to get to know one another and so my last year at Rutgers, I intentionally thought about trying to create (2:00) a space for black collectivity when I moved to New Hampshire for my first time at Dartmouth and so after, I think in the second or third year there, I created a collective with groups of other black women, scholars called the Black scholars collective and it was this great space of all junior faculty where we would meet in exchange work, and then commiserate over our shared experiences in the academy. And it really helped to save us because one of the things that we realized is that when we were in graduate school, there's a spate of black women who died, who were professors, including Claudia Tate, who was here at Princeton and so we were trying to figure out how to survive in this hostile context and certainly, for many of my colleagues and friends, they were the only ones in their apartments who were doing the work they were doing. Whereas at Dartmouth, there was a whole group of black folks in the English department at that time, which was really a blessing and so I guess the other piece in terms of survival is really a senior scholars figuring out ways to higher groups of cohorts of black folks, so that there's not this pressure on junior scholars where they're trying to do their work to also have done this other work of community building.

Misty De Berry: That's really lovely too and what I hear you saying is it provides an opportunity to build collective spaces, potentially across institutions too. Because we run into each other so often on the conference circuit. So it's really helpful to have something on a specific campus, but being able to move around from institution to institution also provides that space as well. I would think.

Ajanet Rountree : Yeah, for sure. That's great. Um, when we think of, we think of community building, how important is the role of understanding our, our individual value to the community, right? If that makes sense?

Professor Colbert: Well, I think that our values, we're more valuable (4:00) than what we might anticipate because we... I used to struggle with the idea around representational value, particularly the classroom because we know that representation doesn't always map to politics. But I realized subsequently, that what was at stake for students is the legibility of certain people in certain roles and so it was more about and for my self too. It was more about the possibility of seeing one self in a certain role, rather than how that might manifest as someone being a change agent. But the other piece that I think is really important, particularly in our contemporary context, is thinking about not only creating collectives and spaces, but also creating actual physical spaces and claiming physical space as a part of the work that's necessary to survive and there, you know some great models of this. I've been thinking a lot about the work that the [inaudible] Gates is doing at the University of Chicago as an example of someone who's physically claiming space for the work that he wants to do and relationship to the institution. And so I think that those are models that we really need to look closely at in terms of black studies as a way to move forward as a field.

Misty De Berry: That's great. Appreciate you appreciate you bringing up the [inaudible] Gates because part of his work is so meaningful to me because it seems to provide also this kind of conceptual and active space to think about the relationship between theory and practice, which is something I'd really love to hear your thoughts on today and so one thing I'd love to know is how do you understand that relationship between theory and practice and how do you navigate that often perceived rift between the two? And lastly, what do you think the role of the academy can play in either fortifying or demystifying that rift?

Professor Colbert: So the split between theory and practice is really based in enlightenment ideals about the mind and body split and I think that late 20th century black feminist scholars have troubled those divisions and really claim the importance of inviting knowledge as a function of how we might think about any modes of scholarship that we produce. (6:00) But I also think that the practice of writing I learned this and I'm studying Lorraine Hansberry. That the practice of writing can also be in the service of creating theory and so the perpetual commitment to writing for her she was constantly writing, even though she's misunderstood is someone who had a very small body of work. She was constantly writing and so part of what we see as her using her writing to figure things out, to figure the world out. And to theorize and that figuring out process that how is essential to what the theory that we get at the end. So I don't think that the process should be de-linked from the product, which is of course essential to, you know black feminist thought and I also think that is essential for how we are navigating the world. I mean, the other part of this or the flip side of this coin. I guess is the distinction between theory and political practice, which is to say that often, they're theories about democracy or theories about our relationship to the world that have to be compromised quite frankly. When we are in the negotiation or pragmatic situation in real time. But I, once again, I think this is where the academy can lead because of one of the things that we often spend a lot of time doing in the Academy is thinking about history and thinking about um how we might apply knowledge. And so one of the things that history can teach us is prior moments where people had to make pragmatic decisions, how did that affect the ultimate outcome? And when we see that moment again historically, how can we make a different type of choice and of course the civil rights movement is a great example of that for us. Which is to say that there are a lot of gains that were made by the civil rights movement, but there are also things, there's still work that needs to be done and so as we are endeavoring to do that work. How can we learn from the ideals that drove the movement? How they played out in pragmatic ways, whether that be the law or other modes of ideas and then how can we now push forward and new directions? So you know, that's [inaudible] I mean a lot of different ways both in terms of (8:00) body knowledge as someone who works on performance theory, but then also in terms of political practices and so for Hansberry, those two things were interrelated, right? So the physical practice of me an artists was related to political practice and that were all drawn from the theory that I'm [inaudible] in her, in her writing.

Misty De Berry: Oh it's too lovely response.

Ajanet Rountree : Wow, that's great. I'm just I'm trying to think through how to ask the next the question, particularly when I think about the role of black women in movement. So particularly in the civil rights movement, which is what I study and the rise of, of black women now coming to the political forefront and how seemingly it... we have this, this turn of events where it's like, oh now black women are stepping into the public space and how do we as black America reconcile this. The failure to acknowledge our presence in say, the 1960s during the civil rights movement with how we are being presented and portrayed now. Particularly as black women and the possibility of Kamala Harris running for president in 2020. So has the, has the value of, of black people change within our own community?

Professor Colbert: So I'm going to answer the first part of that question, what I heard was the first part of that question, first. And circle back around to value.


Ajanet Rountree : Sure.

Professor Colbert: So I think one of the reasons, why black women are less often studied in the civil rights movement the period, is because we see them doing the infrastructural work that made the movement. Which is often less glamorous and the big event and so one of the reasons and why I think that's important for us to think about is because in our present moment, although there is more than enough spectacular violence (10:00) against black bodies. There's also this perpetual state of ongoing violence that black people experienced on a daily basis that are argument in black movements and other people have argued, lays the infrastructure for the spectacular bonds that we see. So we see this in the federal government's, the federal government's report on Ferguson, Missouri and all of the conversation around these tickets that they were giving individual people so that they would ultimately get warrants. So they can make money off of people, you know park, having parking violations as a way to criminalize people so they could pay the bills for the city, and that this mode, a relationship between the people and the police, lay the foundation for Michael Brown's murder. And so black feminists are always on the front lines of that incremental violence and thinking about how the daily onslaught of violence against black people needs to be something that's responded to. And because we don't see or often focus on that relationship. I think that under cuts our focus on black woman's work. And the other pieces and I think that this relates to your larger point. There's this shift that happens. Post civil rights movement that, as I said, I've argued and others have argued around how we might understand exceptional blackness, which is always a part of our lexicon from W. E. B. Du Bois to others, but becomes magnified I would say with the election of Barack Obama and so you have this distinction between the super elite, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and the masses of black people who are continued to be disenfranchised and this the narrative around black achievement, Allah Barack Obama as a possibility for anyone because of the Civil Rights progress. And so when it comes to questions of value, I would say that I think there are more narratives around the possibility for black people, but I would trouble once again, what does it mean when we buy into the neo liberal logic of the one. (12:00) Which then it replicates the alienation many of us feel we are the one in our department or are we the one in our university. And ultimately that structure is to serve the institutions longevity rather than ours. And so I really do think that at this turning point our history we have to be thinking about collective enfranchisement and what does it mean to push back against these narratives of exceptionalism, which are framed precisely to alienate us and then to you know, create a toxic situation around... toxic the situation for us ultimately and our relationship to black people more generally.

Ajanet Rountree : Fantastic.

Misty De Berry: You know, listening, just sitting everything you ever listened to you like just having the opportunity to do this podcast is becoming more embodied for me and I'm also curious because listen to you think I'm starting to question in myself, how you navigate thought and questions in terms of your own method and so I notice as a scholar, you sit at these, you're an interdisciplinary thinker, you know you sit between theater and performance studies and you're also someone that's house and African studies, African American Studies Department here at Princeton. And so I'm curious actually, as someone who is a performance scholar and always trying to think about performance does want to shift us a bit. and I wonder if you can talk a bit about your experiences as someone that works in theater and performance and Black Studies. How do you see those two fields speaking to one another, even like conceptually or methodically? And how do you bring that into your work?

Professor Colbert: So I would say that performance is always at the heart of what Black Studies is trying to do, because as a mode of thought, is trying to challenge some of the assumptions around enlightenment thought and giving us a different window into how we might understand knowledge production and how race and colonization is at the heart of western knowledge production and as such we always have to think of the position, the embodied position of black folks. And so you know (14:00) how does this emerge we can think about how visual reality is animated and the social black folk, we can think about, obviously the famous scene with the [inaudible] on the train, right? Where it really is an animation of one's physical being, being recognized hence where has a lovely rendering of this that should also be studied, but it's not. But my point is that, um I do think that it's always there as a fundamental critique within Black Studies. I think one of the things that performance study offers us that might not be as central but certainly I think is important is the emphasis on togetherness, presentness and as a morality. And so one of the other challenges that parts of black thought have tried to render is a critique of capitalism, and certainly performance studies, as a field that separates from theater studies, tries to get us to think about the ephemeral performance as a challenge the commodification of art. And so together I think those two things bringing those two pieces together the ephemerality of performance as a challenge to capitalism and black studies are these parts of its challenge to capitalism and accumulation is a point of intersection that's really powerful, and a way to move forward and I guess the question, our current historical moment is how the circulation of ideas and media might be a piece of this ongoing field of thought for black studies that could animate these questions. Which is to say that there are lots of different modes of disseminating ideas that emerged via the digital age that might help us to push forward the form in which the circulation of ideas can take place outside of the economics of capitalism.

Ajanet Rountree : Performance art movement is something that's foreign to me as a, as a scholar who studies protest, right? Who studies social movement has has form of physical protests and marches in and that sort of thing. (16:00) So from the context of human rights and so I'm taking all this [inaudible]. That's, that's amazing. How then does say, Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize win speak to what you've just said. Why is... why is it so important that we bask in the fantasticness of that moment as opposed to glossing over it, which is something that I feel like we the society as a whole has done, and I think we miss the opportunity to celebrate the victory that that was.

Professor Colbert: So I'll say two things. I'm... there's a chapter in my second book on merging and it thinks about how social protest, and it's claiming of space offer similar to the logic similarly to the logic of performance studies at the intersection of Black Studies. So I do think that there's something important and interesting about embody modes of protest. That take up some of the questions that are being described here and certainly performance studies, um performance art is always interested in thinking about non-traditional spaces for art making, whether that's the street or the gallery, or whatever the case may be, sad to say that. But in terms of Kendrick Lamar, I think that you know, it's complicated because on the one hand, you do have this hyper-commodification of figures like Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce or Jay Z, that render their own problems for Black Studies. But at the same time, I'm deeply invested in thinking about interior spaces of blackness. And to the extent that these artists offer us an opportunity to claim joy, to think about possibility to think about innovation. I think that... those are the spaces that are most useful for Black Studies. (18:00) And so certainly there are parts of Kendrick Lamar's work that resonate differently depending on the subset that's listening and he has worked animates different modes of listening and so tapping into those realities and thinking about how he's curating interracial spaces that create respite that creates possibilities for a joy that create possibilities for imagining the world is something that is, I think, is very useful for Black Studies.

Misty De Berry: Well, this quite reasonably makes me think about the use of creative voice and so that's one thing as a writer, I'm curious about your voice and two things come to mind. I'd love to know how your writing and your written voice has changed from being in grad school as we are in writing. Now from a tenure perspective, what has shifted have you noticed, either in the voice itself on the page, or the process and how you ride and who you write for? And then I'm also curious, a fun question if there's a particular genre that you would love to test drive as a writer, what would it be?

Professor Colbert: So my writing definitely has changed, I hope for the better. But I mean, the constraints are under which we write. At least for me haven't formed my writing practice And so when I got my first job was in an English department, at Ivy League Institution. And so in my mind, I was often writing for that particular group of faculty very locally, but then also sort of the larger field of literary studies and certainly, I was encouraged, which was great by my department to think about how my work intersected with other fields and they were really open to my work emerging and [inaudible] performance studies, the theater studies or black studies. But I knew ultimately that I would be in some ways judged based on how literary my work was and whether or not that was just inside my own head or the reality. (20:00) Because I wasn't sitting in the room when they voted, that was part of was informing my writing and so when I finished the first book, there was a huge weight that was lifted off me because of I kinda felt like I could write anything I wanted. And so it was much writing the second book was a much freer process for me. It was more joyful. It was more about my interest, rather than my perceived interest in my department, which once again, might have just been my own thoughts in my head because of no one ever explicitly told me, You should write about this or that. But it was, you know, my perception of what they wanted from me and so writing the second book was a much freer process. It was filled more joy, it was really writing to really I started writing my second book, to the members of the collective and so some of the early chapters, I workshop with them, and I was like anticipating, oh this person's going to ask this question. So I need to include this or this person's gonna think about this way. And so the second, the collective was filled with scholars from a [inaudible] orientation. And so you see the work the second book having more of that in it as a response to being in that space. And so I think that me wanting to be in conversation with that group of women really informed my second book and my writing. And now as I write, I focus more on storytelling. Because the other piece that I'm more invested in is thinking about how to pull people into the forms of knowledge that I think is important for us to hold on to. And for me as an undergraduate, it was about the story about being lost and the lushness of someone's beautiful prose. And so that's really what I'm working on as a writer now, both in terms of my academic writing, but then and other writing that I might do from our public facing stuff. Oh, and the thing that went one [inaudible]. So I was gonna say that, I wanna work on this Hansberry book, but since that's already in process, I guess I can say that. (22:00) So um my grandmother was one of seven children. She grew up in Virginia. She was born um the second decade of the 20th century. And she and all her siblings went to college. And they owned land and they were black in Virginia. And so I've always been fascinated by how that's possible. And so I've always wanted to do research around who they were, how they came to be. And then the other flip side of that coin is my grandmother's husband was a descendant of um one of his ancestors fought um in the Civil War in the regiment that's depicted in the film Glory.

Misty De Berry: Oh wow.

Professor Colbert: And so I've always been curious about his history too. And so I guess it's some personal archival work. But I think would intersect with larger questions, you know in history in black studies, but have a personal implication for me. And so, in both of those projects, I've been thinking a lot about literary and non-fiction just because, once again, about the story telling of these histories that have been captured at least in the case of Glory and other ways but obviously would be personalized for me, if I were to take up these questions.

Misty De Berry: Mmm. Wonderful. Love to read it.

Misty De Berry: How -- how important to you, do you think oral histories are to, to the collective, right? To the-- the-- the with holding-- the holding on to information, holding on to story and learning from the past in order to inform our future basically?


Professor Colbert: Oral histories are extremely important for Black people in particular and for our nation's state more broadly because they democratize how we might understand events, situations, um people great events, even if we think about, you know, the March on Washington and the perspective of people who were attending the march versus the speakers and what that means or how we might understand that story. And also because we know that many of the (24:00) people who we are interested in writing about, there is not this um mass collection of stories about them and their periods. So oral histories, I think, serve a really vital purpose because they both democratize information but then they also provide answers to fill in the gaps of history because there might not have been an emphasis on the value of that person's voice at that time. The upside of having digital media is that there's all this capturing of people's stories in an everyday type of fashion that wasn't the technology wasn't available for that, in say my grandmother's generation for example. So I do think that it'll be interesting to see how historians approach these mediums a hundred years from now and how they understand them as sources of information. Because the other part that we have to contend with the scholars is thinking about how to-- to what end we're putting the stories. Are we putting them to the end of trying to think about the feeling at that time? To verify a fact? To what end are we putting them to? And then also thinking about once we've come to conclusions on those questions, how we might look at a number of stories or what other... pieces of information we have to make sure that the stories we're sharing are uh scholarly sound.

Ajanet Rountree : Mm-hmm, I mean...

Professor Colbert: But I do think that, you know, the thing about oral histories is if we're after thinking about what did it feel like, this is a question I'm asking on Hansberry's time... what did it feel like to be a Black um woman living in the village in the 1950s? What were people listening to on the radio? What was the visual scene? What was it like walking around with a white men? All of these questions. And so, I could imagine that oral histories will be a great place to get at that type of question because it's not about someone being on pinpoint what happened on this day at this time. (26:00) But rather really being able to capture a cultural context for your reader.

Ajanet Rountree : In just saying that, what is the... is it important then to have an interdisciplinary background in order to capture those things? Because as we sometimes when we read history or archival history, oral histories. It is basically where were you? Tell me about these events? Tell about why you were a part of whatever, fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. Not so much how did you feel? What were you doing? What was your background? So, how do we as scholars who may be focused on this particular field say, anthropology like I am, um bridge the gap between anthropology and history or anthropology and psychology, anthropology and... when those disciplines may not be our, our core field. But we need to grasp at those things in order to tell the big picture.

Professor Colbert: Mm-hmm. Well, I would say that it requires some boldness because there's two things. So the earlier question about who are we writing for, right? We know that the audience that we're writing for wants that texture in our story telling. And we also know that within some disciplines, there might be some resistance to those modes of questions. So how to balance the importance of asking particular types of questions with the assumptions around form in certain disciplines? And that push back that you might receive for while you're asking this question, it doesn't seem to make sense in terms of the protocols and knowledge production within this discipline. I think the other... and so the fix for that is to think about publishing one's work in interdisciplinary journals and making sure that, you know we are department or whatever (28:00) context in which you're working that that is an acceptable mode of production or creating that space for yourself. When I was um tenure track in my mind I always thought I'll publish one thing for them, than being my department, and one thing for me. And that's how I kept balance. One for them, one for me. And so, it helped me to not worry so much about things that I thought they wouldn't value as much because they were important for the scholar I wanted to be in the world.

Misty De Berry: Gotcha.

Professor Colbert: And so that's how I balanced those things so I think there's strategies one can take, but I also think at the end of the day, the work that you do that'll have the most impact is really the work that's doing something different. And so figuring out your own investments and then letting that guide how you approach your work is I think in the long the term, the best strategy. So yes to interdisciplinary.

Ajanet Rountree : Yes.


Misty De Berry: It's such a strange thing being are difficult thing being interdisciplinary scholar at least, you know coming out of the grad school situation 'cause I, you know there's so many fields I feel like you have to able to assert yourself as the "expert."

Ajanet Rountree : Sure.

Misty De Berry: And you know, so just the breadth of work you have to do to answer one question but across several fields and responsibility that brings has certainly been a challenge for me to just kind of hold. Um, but I wanted to bring all of our attention to the fact that we're here for this like 50th year celebration of like studies and so, just listening to you think through that question of during Lorraine Hansberry's time, what was that, what was she feeling, what she's thinking, I was just kind of grateful that we have scholars particularly, Black women scholars who ask those types of questions. And so, that's something for me that feels celebratory and I'd be curious to hear from you, in your time of being in the field. What are some of the things that, that, that this weekend calls to mind to you to celebrate about Black studies.

Professor Colbert: Well, first of all, I'll say um, Imani Perry who's here at Princeton, her book on Hansberry just came out. (30:00) And so, the reason why I think that's pertinent is because there's a, a bunch of work that's happening on Hansberry right now which is super exciting. And the fact that there are all of these people, many of whom are Black women, working on Hansberry in this moment reminds me of, you know earlier generation when a whole bunch of Black women were working on Zora Neale Hurston when she was rediscovered. And the reason why I think that that's useful is because it set a groundwork for certain motive... innovation that then allows the Hansberry scholarship to take a different direction. And so for me, I celebrate... this moment is really exciting because it allows us to think about the women who paved the way and opened doors and sacrificed a lot to be the only one in their department so they could bring in cohorts of Black women or higher cohorts of Black people and form these departments. And so, you know I've been really blessed like I said to go to work 'cause there's a time that Cheryl was chair, which you know, it's not like I planned that, it just happened. And I only after I graduate realized the implications of that. And then, when I was hired at [inaudible], I was hired, someone had retired and they hired two people for one line. And so, one of my mentors said, "You know, they're only gonna give you one of you tenures." As being the black woman. And so, I went into that situation thinking, I'm just gonna work as hard as I can and we're gonna work together. And if it's a Hunger Games situation, it'll be what it is, but I'm not gonna feed into that. And so I guess my point is that, there's ways that black people can be pitted against one another or pitted as competition. But I really think that the groundwork that has been laid is in order for us to fight those impulses which are fundamentally about the perpetuation of capitalism and drawing... trying to exert (32:00) or extract more from Black people's labor. Like that is what is at the base of this hyper investment in productivity. And so, we know how that story ends. So, and we have a history of people who led a foundation for us to do something different. And so for me, the celebration is about paying homage to the people who came before us and gave us the opportunity to be in this space. And then, in terms of practice to then open up more spaces where you can see cohorts of people and not just individuals. And so, drawing from an expanding the legacy that they left for us. But, it's so exciting. I mean, I think that it's just amazing that we're in this space and there's a lot more work that we have to do and so, we should party now because tomorrow we'll be get back to work. I was at a panel yesterday at the Kennedy Center, and the one the things that they um emphasized was that people should vote on the 6th and then get back to work on the 7th. And so, one of the things the panels were saying, the panel's about the presidential conflicts and they were saying that there's a lot of resources that we pour into election campaigns but there's not the same amount of resources that are poured into building infrastructures for the work that has to happen afterwards.

Misty De Berry: Yes.

Professor Colbert: And so, this is, I think, a moment of similar attention where we should be celebrating the 50th anniversary of black studies here at Princeton. And we should then be emboldened to do our work tomorrow as a result of that.

Misty De Berry: Nice.

Ajanet Rountree : Great. Speaking of black studies and women, black women writers, who are some of the black women must reads that maybe top 5? Maybe 6?

Professor Colbert: [laughs] That was hard.

Ajanet Rountree : I mean, history, present, whomever like... Yeah. The spectrum.

Professor Colbert: That's a tough question. Okay so for anyone who's of my generation, then of course Toni Morrison will be on that list. Um she's the (34:00) reason I would say half of the black women who are in literary studies in my generation went to graduate school. So of course, Toni Morrison has to be on that list. Um so I'm gonna say my list is giving shout out to black women playwrights. So which is not to say that there's not other people we should be reading on poetry and prose but from my seat.

Ajanet Rountree : Sure.

Professor Colbert: So, I would say Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morisseau, Katori Hall. All amazing, there's so many more who we should be reading but those are some of my faves right and Dominique Morisseau was really one to watch. She just won a MacArthur Genius Award, her work is so dynamic and brilliant and beautiful, really rooted in the local in many ways. She has a trilogy of plays around Detroit which were really amazing, she's from Detroit. And all of them that I just named, their work is so different, beautiful, fascinating. I mean Lynn Nottage's work is... and her process and as anthropologist, you might be interested in this, because her work is often drawn from ethnography. And so her work is very different from Suzan-Lori Parks the experimental work. And so the fact that we have space for all of these women, all of whom have had plays produced on Broadway, um well Dominique will be having one this, this um coming soon, coming this year. Um all of them having had, you know major productions in New York is an exciting moment for theater and also thinking once again about the doors that Hansberry opened and then August Wilson really pushed all the way open, and these women who stepped through. So, yes. Watch their plays, go to their plays, see their plays, or write about their plays.

Ajanet Rountree : Practice writing.

Professor Colbert: Practice writing. Yes.


Misty De Berry: I'm a playwright, so I can [inaudible] [cross talk]

Professor Colbert: Yes. So, probably your plays, too. Yeah.

Misty De Berry: Oh no, no, no. I just get excited to see you get so excited about Black women playwrights. I'm like, [inaudible]. We have about maybe 8 more minutes and so maybe that's enough time for us each to ask a question and I'm, (36:00) I'm torn because just listening to you speak. I love watching you get animated and excited and part of me wants to hear what brings you joy especially in the academy, and usually when I get around the table with a bunch of other Black women, we're just going through like the misery. So, being here and surviving and I, I think that's telling, giving even the title impossibility, Black impossible and what's possible inside of that, so I'm just curious and just thinking about uh, a theme of the conference, you know in the wake of all the impossibilities of being alive right now at this moment. What -- what are the things that -- that bring you joy and what is even to, perhaps, even sit with that question at this time?

Professor Colbert: Yeah. I mean, it's a hard time in our history. There is no way around that. I remember after the election, I called my mom and I said, "You know, what are we gonna do?" And she was like, "Oh well, you know, it's just like we're going back to 1950s and we survived." And I was like, "Who wants to go back to that? That is not encouraging." And so, I feel like this moment in our history for my lifetime, I haven't felt similarly. However, I don't really remember other's lives during, I don't have like political memories around the Reagan era. Um, so that being said, I think what brings me joy is that... and this might be you know referring to my mom, even in amidst of that, Black people are still out here innovating, making magic, surviving, um creating joy and then that has been... and at the onslaught of anti-blackness is not something that emerged in 2016 and quite to the contrary, it was animated in 2008. (38:00) And so, us contending with the backlash that has been [inaudible] since 2008 is our current challenge, but it certainly isn't something new to black folks. And so, sort of thinking about the other strategies that people have used and really explicit modes of anti-Blackness is something that I think we can draw from. But being in community, listening to music, engaging with cultural production, reading the brilliant scholarship of young scholars and being excited about what the future holds, brings me joy. And talking to my students, I remember the day, um I guess, yeah it was the Wednesday after the election, I had class. And by no strategy we're reading Audre Lorde for that class. And so the students said that they would have not been able to come to class and do the work if we hadn't been reading Audre Lorde because she gave them everything they needed to do to be able to move forward.

Misty De Berry: Wow.

Professor Colbert: Um, and think about how to survive in a context in which the world was trying to destroy you. And so, drawn from the scholarship that we have, the thinkers that we have, they gave us a road map for surviving in brutal context is where I think we can turn. Um in Black Movements, my second book, I talked some about what does it mean to imagine freedom in amidst of slavery. Like, what does it mean to be in that mindset...

Ajanet Rountree : Right. Yeah.

Professor Colbert: What does it mean to...

Ajanet Rountree : Yeah.

Professor Colbert: Yeah. Right. So, so to think about these other modes of how was that possible, how was that possible that you had people thinking... all you ever known is brutality and enslavement. And you deciding, "I'm outta here." And so, that is part of what I think tapping into Black possibility is part of what's at stake there and it's a long history of that.

Misty De Berry: Wow.

Ajanet Rountree : I think, I think that quest for freedom, that decision that... I think that's innate within us, right? I think it, (40:00) I'm, I'm a firm believer that human rights movements started the minute ships rolled into the shores of Africa. Like, I'm, I'm a firm believer in that. And um, we can relabel them however we want to when we get... when black people arrive on the shores of America but human rights movement started the second the slave ships arrive there. And so, when we think of, when we think of freedom, when we think of breaking wills of chains that are physical or structural or institutional, what... why is joy so important? Why is, why is community so important? And not just community where we can talk about our same oppression but a community that says, "Okay, this is the harsh reality but our ancestors have moved forward. Our ancestors strategized, organized, saved money, did X, Y, and Z. And this is.... as the result of that, this is where we are." And so, in order to honor them, we have to begin to do the same thing. What... is that important for us now in 2018, almost 2019, as an, as an honoring of our ancestors that we, that we look at the joy that in a very real sense, will set before them, that pushed them to towards these pursuits of freedom?

Professor Colbert: I think so because I think it's important to emphasize once again, that although the trope of the runaway slave is emblematic of how we might think about freedom, there are all these other moments quotidian, daily moments where people were taking freedom (42:00) whether it was by work slowdowns or whether it was through a song or whether you know in the film 12 Years a Slave, where one of the enslaved, um asked the main character to help her masturbate and there's all of these... on its, on the part of north appease or repulsed by her request, but part of what I think that scene is meant to show, is that taking pleasure in that context is a revolutionary act. That was only would be, you know it's temporarily bound, right? It's only for that moment but that is how people are able to survive. And so joy becomes important even if it is just for a moment...

Ajanet Rountree : Right.

Professor Colbert: Because it allows you to gain a fortitude to move on to the moment where you might have a chance to expand freedom in a more structural way. And so, those moments are necessary and important and essential to our ability to stockpile our resources so then we come to the big event to sort of this spectacular moment of violence, we've already laid that for structure, right? So just as anti-black racism, saying infrastructure on a daily basis raw destruction, black feminists are responding to that on a daily basis for our survival. And so being able to draw from that infrastructure is part of what allows for these big moments of change that seem to sort of explode onto this scene, but actually had been in the works for decades.

Ajanet Rountree : Exactly. Very good. Yeah.

Misty De Berry: It's, it's just so lovely to have this opportunity, um one, because I'm, I'm just full of chills and I'm feeling inspired to think about things differently and to get back to my own writing which we'll see how long that inspiration last.


Misty De Berry: And let's see if anymore comments or lingering thoughts I just wanna thank you both so much for taking some time and just being in conversation together and of course, thank you so much for Professor Colbert for just letting us ask you anything we wanted to just hear you riff on and doing so, so beautifully and generously. I just really appreciate it and I'm very, very grateful.

Ajanet Rountree : Yeah, same.

Professor Colbert: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a joy.

(44:00) Ajanet Rountree : Thank you. Thank you very much.

Misty De Berry: Alright. Over and out.


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