Author: mrm114

Q&A with Jennifer Morgan, author of Reckoning with Slavery

Jennifer L. Morgan is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, author of Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, and coeditor of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in America. In her new book, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, she draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.

You open your book by pointing out the change in attitudes and legal codes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which increasingly sought to fix categories of difference through the concept of race. What significance does this have for our understanding of early American history?

By rooting our understanding of the development of race and racial hierarchy in the sixteenth century, I am arguing that early Americanists must take a longer view on the conceptual landscape that leads to the connection between race, slavery, and colonial settlement, one that precedes the formal entry of the English into the Atlantic world. We have recently been challenged to think about the origins of American History as rooted in 1619 rather than in 1776. I fully support this shift, but also want us to take account of all that precedes 1619. The circulation of people, ideas, and texts about race and what will become hereditary racial slavery begins in Europe in the fifteenth century. Those first Africans sold into North America came from first Portuguese, then English enslavers—the latter carrying authorization from Dutch and Italian merchants. In other words, the ideological and material structures that produce both slavery and race are deeply entangled in the medieval and early modern period. We need to be cognizant of such histories. 

In your attempts to change the way we think about history, you argue against the use of the word “condition” in relation to enslavement, opting instead for the word “predicament.” Can you say more about this stance?

This is an intervention that I learned from the historian Vincent Brown. He argues, and I concur, that the word ‘predicament’ offers us a way to resituate the temporal and agential aspects of enslavement. A condition is fixed. It is a position in which one is settled. A predicament is a problem. It suggests that the person who is caught in the predicament is both aware of its constrictions and actively works against them. There is a crucial shift in imagination and analysis that accompanies the shift in language. When we identify a person as “a slave,” we have characterized their condition—it is timeless and is something that has happened to them. When we identify a person as enslaved, we clarify that someone has done something to them. There is an agent here who has caused the predicament, and in identifying the agent, we can imagine both the intentionality of the enslaver and the probability that the woman or man who has been enslaved both understands who has done this to them and is committed to escaping the confines of that predicament by any means at their disposal.

There is an intentional push, throughout your book, to recognize enslaved Black women and men as thinkers who not only experienced their predicaments but assessed them as well. What significance does this hold for scholars of slavery, the Early Atlantic, and Black Studies more broadly?

It has been at the forefront of scholarship on slavery and the early Black Atlantic for some time to understand Black women and men as historical subjects. To not reduce them to one-dimensional victims or revolutionaries, to understand the complexity of their personhood as we work to construct the processes by which they defined themselves and built new communities. My own effort to name Black women as thinkers, as persons who brought analytic power to the uneven terrain on which they found themselves, is part of that effort. It is a gesture on my part that is rooted in my concern that one-dimensionality is part of the afterlife of slavery, a part of the ongoing problem of racism and racial hierarchies. If we can’t see Black people as complex historical actors from the distance of time, I fear that we will always be mired in the violence of misrecognition, in the structures that reduce Black life and render people discardable.

In the vein of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, you argue for recognizing the simultaneity of racism and capitalism. It seems that the trade in women, too, is central to your project. How do Black women’s bodies figure into the processes of commerce and commodification? What do we learn by centering Black women’s experiences?  

My work has always been organized in part around the problem of reproductive potential. What does it mean when your body can, even if it doesn’t, produce a child? What does it mean when the structure into which that child could be born is one that extracts the child as a commodity, not as a member of a family? By centering women, we get to what I believe is the heart of the system of racial slavery, the claim that the body is a site of commodification and the production of race as a legible sign of provenance. I am committed to thinking through Black women’s experiences of enslavement and freedom in the early Atlantic world both because they were historical subjects who are infinitely worthy of our attention as scholars and readers of history, and also because they enable us to make visible some of the ideological processes by which the entire history of capitalism was subtended by the hereditary mark of enslavability.

One of your major interventions is in examining numeracy and race together. At the same time, you note the presence of emotions—like wrath—hidden underneath the numeric, rationalizing logics of slavery. What do you wish your readers to gain from thinking about both numbers and feelings?

We often turn to numerical data—demographic or economic records—to offer ballast for historical narratives that are about emotions without recognizing that the separation between the two is in fact an artifact of modern knowledge production. In the history of slavery and the slave trade, the compilation of numerical data is an active process of obfuscating the violence of racial slavery. Human beings get situated in the historical archive only as data points, as evidence of economy, in part because racial slavery depends upon the fiction that some people are rationally enslaveable. It is not an accident that writing the history of enslaved people poses profound archival challenges—Black people were not meant to be historical subjects. By examining numbers and feelings in the same frame we move closer to understanding both the violence of such abstractions and the emotions—and liberatory possibilities—that such abstractions obscure.

Read the introduction to Reckoning with Slavery and save 30% on the paperback with the coupon code E21MORGN.

World Oceans Day Reads

World Oceans Day affords us an opportunity to stop and reflect on the impact humans have on the ocean, and how central the ocean is to the sustaining of human life. A number of our recent titles offer new perspectives on our relationship to and responsibility for the ocean.

The contributors to Blue Legalities attend to the seas as a legally and politically conflicted space to analyze the conflicts that emerge where systems of governance interact with complex geophysical, ecological, economic, biological, and technological processes.

In Borderwaters, Brian Russell Roberts dispels continental-centric US national mythologies to advance an alternative image of the United States as an archipelagic nation to better reflect its claims to archipelagoes in the Pacific and Caribbean.

In Wild Blue Media, Melody Jue destabilizes terrestrial-based media theory frameworks and reorients the perception of the world by considering the ocean itself as a media environment—a place where the weight and opacity of seawater transforms how information is created, stored, transmitted, and perceived.

Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey traces how indigenous and postcolonial peoples in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands grapple with the enormity of colonialism and anthropogenic climate change through art, poetry, and literature by using allegorical narratives in Allegories of the Anthropocene.

Collecting texts from all corners of the world that span antiquity to the present, The Ocean Reader charts humans’ relationship to the ocean, treating it as a dynamic site of history, culture, and politics.

In Coral Empire, Ann Elias traces the history of two explorers whose photographs and films of tropical reefs in the 1920s cast corals and the sea as an unexplored territory to be exploited in ways that tied the tropics and reefs to colonialism, racism, and the human domination of nature.

Hester Blum examines the rich, offbeat collection of printed ephemera created by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century polar explorers in The News at the End of the Earth, showing how ship newspapers and other writing shows how explores wrestled with questions of time, space, and community while providing them with habits to survive the extreme polar climate.

New Books in June

Looking for some summer reading? Check out the great new titles we have coming out in June!

Jennifer L. Morgan draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries in Reckoning with Slavery to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.

In Decolonizing Memory, Jill Jarvis examines the crucial role that writers and artists have played in cultivating historical memory and nurturing political resistance in Algeria, showing how literature offers the unique ability to reckon with colonial violence and to render the experiences of those marginalized by the state.

The contributors to Beyond Man, edited by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig, reckon with the colonial and racial implications of the philosophy of religion’s history by staging a conversation between it and Black, Indigenous, and decolonial studies.

In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Martin Savransky draws on the pragmatic pluralism of William James and the ontological turn in anthropology to propose a “pluralistic realism”—an understanding of ontology in which at any given time the world is both one and many, ongoing and unfinished.

In How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, La Marr Jurelle Bruce ponders the presence of “madness” in black literature, music, and performance since the early twentieth century, showing how artist ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill to Nina Simone and Dave Chappelle activate madness as content, form, aesthetic, strategy, philosophy, and energy in an enduring black radical tradition.

Việt Lê examines contemporary art in Cambodia and Việt Nam in Return Engagements to trace the entwinement of militarization, trauma, diaspora, and modernity in Southeast Asian art.

In Images of Beirut, Hatim El-Hibri explores how the creation and circulation of images has shaped the urban spaces and cultural imaginaries of Beirut, showing how images can be used to consolidate or destabilize regimes of power.

Editors Diana Paton and Matthew J. Smith combine more than one hundred classic and lesser-known texts in The Jamaica Reader to present a panoramic history of the country—from its pre-contact Indigenous origins to the present—and provide an unparalleled look at Jamaica’s history, culture, and politics.

In Colonial Debts, Rocío Zambrana uses the current political-economic moment in Puerto Rico to outline how debt functions as both an apparatus that strengthens neoliberalism and the island’s colonial relation to the United States.

Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández challenges the stereotypes of machismo in Archiving Mexican Masculinities in Diaspora with nuanced portraits of Mexican men and masculinities along and across the US-Mexico border.

The contributors to Words and Worlds, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, examine the state of politics and the political imaginary within contemporary societies by taking up the everyday words such as democracy, revolution, and populism that we use to understand the political present.

A concise, easy-to-understand reference book, the revised and updated second edition of the bestselling All about Your Eyes tells you what you need to know to care for your eyes, various eye diseases and treatments, and what to expect from your eye doctor. The editors, Sharon Fekrat, Tanya S. Glaser, and Henry L. Feng are all physicians at the world-renown Duke Eye Center.

In an indispensable guide for all ethnographers, the editors of Experimenting with Ethnography, Andrea Ballestero and Brit Ross Winthereik, collect twenty-one essays that offer concrete suggestions for thinking about and doing ethnographic research and writing.

The contributors to Sound Alignments, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Paola Iovene, and Kaley Mason, explore the myriad forms of popular music in Asia during the Cold War, showing how it took on new meanings and significance as it traveled across the region and forged and challenged alliances, revolutions, and countercultures.

Shaoling Ma examines late Qing China’s political upheavals and modernizing energies through the problem of the dynamics between new media technologies such as the telegraph the discursive representations of them in The Stone and the Wireless.

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Q&A with Lynden Harris, editor of Right Here, Right Now

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, an arts collective that collaborates with underrepresented communities to create performances, exhibits, and media that explore difficult social issues. Her new book Right Here, Right Now , part of the project Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice, collects the powerful, first-person stories of dozens of men on death rows across the country.

Right Here, Right Now is born out of the collective you founded, Hidden Voices, and, more specifically, out of the Hidden Voices project “Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice.” Can you talk about how the “Serving Life” project came to be?

One of the men living on death row read an article about us and gave it to the psychologist who oversaw programs. That psychologist, who was very insightful and therapeutically oriented, emailed me and asked if we would develop a project for the men. At the time we were in the final stages of a statewide project called None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. I said if he could wait six months, we would come develop a project with the men. And I invited him to one of the performances. 

Late that fall we met with six men and together worked through the “Hidden Voices Process,” the stakeholder collaboration model we’ve developed over the years. By the end of two sessions, we had a pretty good idea of the outcomes everyone wanted to see, the outputs we might create together, and the outreach—who needs to speak and who needs to listen?

All these years later, we are still working off that initial visioning. The most important outcome the men identified for the larger community was: “We want them to know we aren’t monsters.” And I think that reality becomes very clear once one reads these stories.

Other “Serving Life” initiatives have taken the form of live performances or visual art exhibitions. What do you hope will be the effect of circulating these stories in book form?

As part of every Hidden Voices project, we create a story cycle: a series of extremely short first-person monologues that bring the listener on a journey through the many perspectives surrounding a pressing social issue. These story cycles can be read aloud by any group of people, sitting in a circle in a classroom or a church or in a breakout at a conference. Each individual story offers a particular insight into the issue at hand; for the Right Here, Right Now story cycle, each story points to a lived experience with what we might label racism, family violence, hunger, failed educational policies, police misconduct, housing instability, and more. But the men who shared these stories don’t look at their experiences through this lens of conceptual labeling; for them, the stories are simply life as it is lived, whether funny or violent, sweet or troubling. 

A most insightful colleague, Jayne Ifekwunigwe, participated in a reading and asked if I’d ever thought of publishing the stories. Gisela Fosado, the Editorial Director at Duke Press, asked if I could find enough stories to fill a book. So, I combed through pieces men had written, recordings of meetups, notes from phone calls, stacks of letters. I planned to choose 100 stories, but then I settled on 99. That was a number that felt unfinished, and I wanted to leave the reader with the sense that there was yet another story waiting to be told. For me, that story is the story the families hope and pray for, the story of the day these men walk through the prison doors and return to their communities.  

By sharing the stories in book form, I hope the voices will reach into classrooms and book clubs, into church classes and civic discussions. I hope the stories will lend momentum to the growing movement toward abolishing the death penalty, ending life in prison without parole, and re-visioning so many of the inhumane policies and practices that prevent families and communities from healing from violence

You write, “Absent a specific image of the speaker, we more easily and viscerally allow the deeper truth of the story to penetrate.” These anonymous stories are particularly heartbreaking because they do become universalizable. In your story selection process what, if anything, had to be left out?

So many poignant, funny, and heart-breaking stories were left on the cutting room floor. I decided the best way to share these stories was to bring the reader on a chronological journey from infancy to execution, so the structure dictated the selection. I wanted to make sure each story was just that: a story, a personal experience, not an intellectual reflection on an issue, however passionately argued. I wanted to retain the original speaker’s “voice,” the feel of their authentic dialogue even if the story was only a few paragraphs excerpted from an hour-long conversation. I wanted the reader to feel this human being, his story, his palpable life.

Each story gives insight into a specific aspect of a much larger system and helps us understand how we create violence in our society, how we can heal the harm already caused by violence, and how we can disrupt the systems that perpetuate harm. Again, you could go back through each story and label it as “about” racism, or addiction, or under-resourced schools, or the lack of mental health facilities, and I did exactly that during the years of working with these stories. But those labels don’t offer the kinds of pathways toward embodied understanding that actual lived experiences do. Lived experience is intimate, authentic, specific. It invites us to enter another world, experience it as our own, and leave with a new, richer understanding. 

You describe both “Serving Life” and the specific narratives in Right Here, Right Now as a kind of call-and-response. The book is the call; the response is up to the reader. Have any responses to the “Serving Life” project stood out to you?

We wanted to create a dialogue between public audiences and these most hidden members of our communities. But at the time, there were no phones on death row; the men were only allowed one 15-minute phone call a year, in December. Family members would drive across the state to be in the room when that call came, just to hear their loved one’s voice. The only means of communication was writing letters. 

So, finding ways to connect was challenging, which is what led to the idea of a call and response. After every performance, every reading of the stories, and at each exhibit installation, we would ask the audience to write a response to the men. We would collect the letters, copy them, and send them back inside.  

Here is one comment that has stayed with me. There are many hundreds of others:

Gentlemen, thank you for your story, your vulnerability, your willingness to remind ignorant and selfish people like me how beautiful each and every life is. You have taught me so much with your words, and your legacy will stay with me for the rest of my life. Your stories transformed my understanding of prison, death row, and life. The power and witness of your stories have resonated in this room. . . . You are not invisible. I feel so honored to know your story, and I will never forget.

Society renders death row inmates invisible. But context provided in the Afterword by Timothy B. Tyson about very visible instances of systemic injustice and anti-racist protest in 2020 connects the lives of the storytellers directly to our moment. Has the shape of the “Serving Life” project changed at all as the contemporary moment casts new light on old problems? 

I don’t think society renders these speakers invisible. I think there’s an intentional misdirection of our attention away from these institutions and those who live there. That’s why outside access is so severely limited and facilities are typically placed far from the public eye. Out of sight and out of mind. It’s better if we don’t question the location and design of these facilities, the use of unpaid labor, the dangerous and overcrowded housing, the systemic injustices, the lack of decent legal representation, the reality of innocent people living inside, the children we’ve sentenced to die.  

It’s a form of misdirection, a pointing away from these unremittingly unhealthy and stressful environments—unhealthy not only for those living there, but for those working there. It’s no surprise that correctional officers have the shortest lifespan of any police. We have managed to create a system that damages the most damaged. As one friend said, “You can’t kill all the wounded people.” And yet, we seem to be trying.

So, this moment—right here, right now. It’s an incredible time for these voices and stories to be published. For the first time, in my life anyway, there is a broad willingness to consider and question our role as the only Western country that kills its own, to wonder whether we need to be #1 in the world in incarceration. The most common response I hear to these stories is, “I’ve never thought about this before.” Even people who drive by a prison every day will say they never wondered who was there and whether there was another, better option. Now, people are starting to wonder. I think the civil rights movements of 2019 and 2020 have been instrumental in forcing us to look directly at some of the realities that shape our justice system. And once we begin to see, we can’t unsee. But we can find our way to a new vision of actual justice and a more humane, compassionate, and healthy society. 

There is a conscious choice in Right Here, Right Now to privilege inmate voices rather than critical or scholarly analysis of the death penalty and the American carceral system. In the Hidden Voices model, building relationships with real people through honoring their stories is the first step. What might the next step entail?

Sharing these stories helps undermine our unhealthy “rush to judgment” as Jason Flom puts it. We seem to have two frameworks at play in our society, one that views these people as inherently broken, flawed and irredeemable—in other words expendable. But there’s also a radically different framework, a more experientially-based view, that understands humans, like all living organisms, can heal and grow. Indeed, must heal and grow to survive. Human beings are complex systems of constant change; change may be what we most fundamentally are. This framework believes we should put that natural flow to work for us.

We are innately creative, curious, and hard-wired to explore. Trying to shut down those innate impulses is an unwinnable strategy. We need to look for ways to increase and strengthen healing and growth by supporting relationships—between families and their loved ones, between those living inside, between those of us on the outside and those currently living behind bars. We need to increase opportunities for emotional healing, for learning and exploration. There are other carceral systems where correctional officers serve as mentors to prisoners; they eat together, recreate together; work on life goals together. There are systems where prisoners (including those who have been convicted of murder) live together in group housing and learn new ways of relating to their environment, their families, their own self-care. Even here in the US, some of the most successful programs for men living inside prison have been programs where the men tend other living creatures, from training service dogs to rehabbing horses to gardening. In other words, we need to ask how our natural tendency toward growth, healing, and change can be allowed to flourish and thereby strengthen all our communities.  

Because, isolating people into prisons doesn’t just affect those who live and work there—it affects their children, parents, grandparents and grandchildren, their neighbors, teachers, faith leaders, the health of community economies, and on and on. Keeping such an unhealthy, stressful, damaging system alive costs us all.

Now through May 7, 2021 you can get 50% off Right Here, Right Now and all our in-stock titles with coupon SPRING21. After May 7, you can save 30% off the paperback with the coupon E21HARRIS.

Earth Day Reads

Since 1970 we have celebrated Earth Day every April 22. Here are some of our new and forthcoming titles that take contemporary approaches to ecological perspectives. 

In Animal Traffic, Rosemary-Claire Collard investigates the multibillion-dollar global exotic pet trade economy and the largely hidden processes through which exotic pets are produced and traded as lively capital.

Mimi Sheller, in Island Futures, delves into the ecological crises and reconstruction challenges affecting the entire Caribbean region, showing how vulnerability to ecological collapse and the quest for a “just recovery” in the Caribbean emerge from specific transnational political, economic, and cultural dynamics.

Bret Gustafson examines the centrality of natural gas and oil to the making of modern Bolivia and the contradictory convergence of fossil-fueled capitalism, Indigenous politics, and revolutionary nationalism in Bolivia in the Age of Gas.

In Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future, Candace Fujikane draws upon Hawaiian legends about the land and water and their impact upon Native Hawai‘ian struggles to argue that Native economies of abundance provide a foundation for collective work against climate change.

Forthcoming in May, Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism models an anticolonial scientific practice aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.

Thea Riofrancos explores the politics of extraction, energy, and infrastructure in contemporary Ecuador in order to understand how resource dependency becomes a dilemma for leftist governments and movements alike in Resource Radicals.

Drawing on ethnographic research with policy makers, politicians, activists, scholars, and the public in Manchester, England, in Thinking Like a Climate  Hannah Knox confronts the challenges climate change poses to knowledge production and modern politics.

In Seeds of Power Amalia Leguizamón reveals how the Argentine state, agribusiness, and their allies in the media and sciences deploy narratives of economic redistribution, scientific expertise, and national identity as a way to gain the public’s consent to grow genetically modified soybeans despite the massive environmental and social costs.

Forthcoming this month, Rafico Ruiz’s Slow Disturbance uses the Grenfell Mission in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to theorize how settler colonialism establishes itself through the building, maintenance, and mediation of site-specific infrastructure.

In the shadow of climate change, it is common to presume that solar energy is the big solution to our energy problems. The contributors to “Solarity,” a special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, investigate whether and how solar energy might avoid, or reproduce, the pathologies of existing capitalist and colonialist petrocultures.

Lastly, Environmental Humanities is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal that publishes outstanding interdisciplinary scholarship drawing humanities disciplines into conversation with each other, and with the natural and social sciences, around significant environmental issues. Start reading here.

Save 50% on all in-stock books and journal issues with the coupon code SPRING21 through May 7.

Q&A with Elizabeth Povinelli, Author of The Inheritance

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University and a founding member of the Karrabing Film Collective. She is the author of five books from Duke University Press, including Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (2016). Her newest book is a graphic memoir called The Inheritance, in which she explores her family’s history and the events, traumas, and social structures that define our individual and collective pasts and futures.

This book is a major departure for you in two ways: it is a memoir, and it is a graphic memoir. How do you see The Inheritance fitting in with or diverging from your body of scholarly work? Do you consider The Inheritance to be a scholarly text?

I think any way I answer this question of whether The Inheritance is a scholarly text will come across as a dodge. On the one hand, my scholarly life cannot be excised from my work in other genres—in this text or the films and installations I do with other members of the Karrabing Film Collective. And, in the case of The Inheritance, several specific scholarly debates animate and influence the text including debates in critical race and indigenous theory, in affect theory and the nature of subjectivity, and, of course, history and memory. On the other hand, I don’t intend it to be a scholarly history, but rather a memoir of accumulated affects and memories as these have hardened and cracked across the infrastructures of a socially formed life. Even as I believe that theory always works best when understood as a drama of thought, I let a certain meandering of being in the world take charge of The Inheritance in a way I wouldn’t in my scholarly work.

The combination of COVID-19 isolation and the increased attention to Black Lives Matter and the racial divide in America made 2020 a year of introspection for many Americans, both in terms of encouraging renewed appreciation for the importance of their communities, and demanding a recognition of their complicity in the racist structures that have shaped our world. The Inheritance feels timely for the way it captures your own process of grappling with these questions. How long have you been working out this story for yourself, and why was it important for you to tell it now?

I began concentrating on this project in 2015. One of the initial impetuses was to respond to the weird way I saw white Americans using DNA testing to give themselves an ethnicity while nevertheless  retaining their racial superiority. I thought, what were these people trying to dodge ethically while they socially maintained their position in an American racial and colonial structure? Having a culture became a way of being something other than just white as white became more marked within anticolonial and antiracism movements. As I fiddled with the form and movement of the story across the years, White Nationalism and White Pride seized this discourse of White Culture. From Proud Boys to many Trump supporters, we hear explicitly what I thought I was hearing in the background of the DNA commercials, “Why can’t white people have pride in their culture?” For me, this is another way of saying, “Europeans are the creators and owners of civilization.”

In other words, The Inheritance is an invitation for readers to reflect on their motivations for looking to the past to find their truth as well as to  understand that the racial and colonial infrastructures that convey us in the present find their roots there. I guess the last bit of text in Act II sums this up for me: “As Mother held her hand to my face and we looked into the mirror, I wondered who I was becoming in the unbridgeable rift between Carisolo and Karezol. I should have been thinking about what was happening to me as this fault line opened up in America.”

If the book feels timely, no matter that it started in 2015, I think this is because the Black Lives Matter protests are building on a problem that is lodged in the origins of the so-called American Experiment. It is part of the American grammar, as Hortense Spillers put it. A large part of the story I tell is located in the deep South but, as James Baldwin noted, racism was never just a Southern problem. I grew up in the racial and colonial grammar of the US, no matter that my family drama was focused on a tiny village across the Atlantic, nestled in the foothills of what are now the Italian Alps. I thought it was important to show that even if you know exactly where you come from—I mean exactly and for hundreds of years—if you are absorbed into the racial and colonial structure of the US, your life is implicated in this structure. It’s for this reason, I end the book with the assertion that inheritance doesn’t merely come from the past, but is a place in the ongoing present in a world structured to care for the existence of some and not of others. The point is to think about how we wish to alter these infrastructures of inheritance.

Maps and schematics feature prominently in your illustrations, as do old family photos. Why was the visual element of this story so important to convey? How, if at all, does your work on film with the Karrabing Collective prepare you to transition to graphic storytelling?

Yes, another impetus for the project was to give a sort of backstory to my long relationship with Indigenous Belyuen families and then with the Karrabing Film Collective. When I arrived at Belyuen in 1984 fresh out of St John’s College, I felt such an uncanny kinship with people living there. I think The Inheritance gives a sense why—our shared love of hunting in the bush/woods; our shared relationship to a nonnational kinship-based mode of belonging to country, and our shared history of personal and social violence. But as I said above, these shared affiliations are located within and apprehended by structures of social discrimination that exist no matter how one’s deep love and regard. These racial and colonial infrastructures are not melted because one loves others, although love can provide a motive force for unworking them.. I use affiliation in the way Edward Said suggested, as distinct from filiation. Filiation for him refers to a set of inherited locations while affiliation refers to networks of relationships that people consciously create. 

My Povinelli family never made a huge distinction between artistic and scholarly practices—science experiments went side-by-side with short story writing, drawing, painting, and song performance. Exuberance and melancholia were always side-kicks in these endeavors. My father had wanted to be an artist, but it was hard enough for him to convince his father to let him become an engineer. He hid his drawings in the bottom drawer of his desk at home—and told us that engineering was at its heart a form of truthful creation. My mother wanted to be a singer but had us instead. I guess, as a kind of compromise formation, she made up songs for us to sing along to. We were that kind of family–everyone assumed that everyone could move across expressive, creative genres and that science, art, and thought were all inventive and all oriented to uncovering truth. This Povinelli attitude toward thought and expression is very much conversant with the Karrabing.

As for the visual element, The Inheritance initially had almost no written text. My first idea was that the reader should feel the force of the images with very little by way of writing in order to simulate the experience of looking at an image (the map) one cannot make sense of as one is hearing it passionately described in a language one does not know. I was curious how much a reader would comprehend, how deeply they might be affected, whether it would suggest to them the inseparable but irreducible difference between affect and sense. 

Has putting together The Inheritance at all changed how you think about writing? Are there more graphic or personal works ahead for you?

I think it has helped hone my writing in this genre—a nonfiction story-telling form. But I remain committed to maintaining, where necessary, thick distinctions between genres of writing. My academic work is doing something different from what I am doing in The Inheritance and what we are doing in our Karrabing films. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which there was only one mode of voicing across all the genres of thought, writing, and image work. For me at least, the way my mind works in my academic books is different to how it works drawing and painting, writing goofy poems and songs, telling tall tales and recounting more serious histories. 

The short answer to whether more graphically oriented works are coming is, yes! How I answer the question of the personal is trickier. All my work is deeply personal. On the one hand, I always tell students that the best intellectual work comes from placing critical thought at the root of a personal passion. I know the personal conditions that drive my academic writing. On the other hand, I don’t think of The Inheritance as personal. I think of it as using me (little Elizabeth) as a case study of the ancestral present. I hope there are other installments, but no one has invented that time expansion/compression machine yet, so it all depends on how much time I can sequester for these and Karrabing projects. 

Read a selection of The Inheritance for free and save 30% on the book using the coupon code E21PVNLI. And stay tuned for Elizabeth Povinellli’s next book, Between Gaia and Ground, out in September 2021.

Honoring Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day! This month we are highlighting some recent titles that honor the central but too-often neglected roles women play across history and around the globe.

In Empire’s Mistress Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur, to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships.

In Revisiting Women’s Cinema Lingzhen Wang examines the work of Chinese women filmmakers of the Mao and post-Mao eras to theorize socialist and postsocialist feminism, mainstream culture, and women’s cinema in modern China.

Chelsea Szendi Schieder examines the campus-based New Left in Japan by exploring the significance of women’s participation in the protest movements of the 1960s in Coed Revolution.

Samantha Pinto’s Infamous Bodies explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.

In Emancipation’s Daughters Riché Richardson examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.

In Relative Races Brigitte Fielder presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.


In Claiming Union Widowhood Brandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War outlines the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation.

In Black Aliveness Kevin Quashie analyzes texts by of Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Evie Shockley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others to argue for a Black aliveness that is disarticulated from antiblackness and which provides the basis for the imagination and creation of a Black world.

In The Wombs of Women Françoise Vergès examines the scandal of white doctors forcefully terminating the pregnancies of thousands of poor women of color on the French island of Réunion during the 1960s, showing how they resulted from the legacies of the racialized violence of slavery and colonialism.

Engaging with the work of Black musicians, writers, and women mystics, in Black Utopias Jayna Brown takes up the concept of utopia as an occasion to explore new states of being, doing, and imagining in Black culture.

In Information Activism Cait McKinney traces how lesbian feminist activists in the United States and Canada between the 1970s and the present developed communication networks, databases, and digital archives to use as a foundation for their feminist, antiracist, and trans-inclusive work.

In A Regarded Self Kaiama L. Glover examines Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean literature whose female protagonists enact practices of freedom that privilege the self, challenge the prioritization of the community over the individual, and refuse masculinist discourses of postcolonial nation building.

The “20th Anniversary Reader” of Meridians, edited by Ginetta E. B. Candelario, features thirty of the journal’s most frequently cited, downloaded, and anthologized works since its first issue was published in fall 2000. The forty authors featured in the special supplement are a virtual who’s who of internationally renowned women-of-color scholar-activists (such as Sara Ahmed, Angela Davis, Sonia Alvarez, Paula Giddings, and Sunera Thobani) and award-winning poets (such as Nikky Finney, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Suheir Hammad).

And check out our Feminist Politics and Women’s Rights Syllabus, one of several staff-curated syllabi focusing on today’s most critical issues.