Zeynep Korkman and Sherene Razack are editors of “Transnational Feminist Approaches to Anti-Muslim Racism,” a new special issue of Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism that traces the global circuits and formations of power through which anti-Muslim racism travels, operates, and shapes local contexts. The full issue is free to read through the end of June; start reading here.
What makes “Transnational Feminist Approaches to Anti-Muslim Racism” unique or essential? What does it do that no other collection has done before?
Transnational feminists begin with the idea that gender is not an abstract system but rather one that emerges in and through global capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism. Attentive not only to the differences in women’s lives but also to the inequalities among women, transnational feminists have long had a preoccupation with global circuits of power. This collection of essays offers insight into how anti-Muslim racism travels along such global circuits. As racism travels and becomes attached to local conflicts, Muslims are installed as a pre-modern, barbaric, racial Other, a racial category that consolidates white supremacy and other civilizational discourses. The collection is the first to discuss how global white supremacy is upheld through anti-Muslim racism.
The transnational feminist analysis that this special issue embraces emphasizes that anti-Muslim racism is a gendered phenomenon. Muslim women are cast as singularly oppressed by Muslim men who in turn are cast as the universal enemy. Meriting extraordinary levels of violence, Muslims are imagined globally as threats to civilization who must be met with force. The global figures of the Muslim as “terrorist,” and the Muslim woman as oppressed and in need of saving, handily obscure the tremendous force that is directed at Muslim communities. Although the discourses of anti-Muslim racism travel globally, there is no singular overbearing structure of oppression. Likewise, Muslims are not any one thing. This special issue attends to the imbrication of the global with the local and to Muslims as complex and dynamically constituted social and political subjects.
What are some topics that readers can expect to find covered in the issue?
How do you imagine the issue could be used in courses, or as a basis for future scholarship?
The special issue will be of interest to scholars who explore how class, gender, and sexuality are central to formations of racial dominance, how these discourses travel globally, and how to resist. Gender studies scholars will find a nuanced consideration of agency and feminist political organizing. All readers will be able to deepen their knowledge of how race, class, gender, and sexuality interlock in women’s lives, in national discourses, and in imperial and colonial systems.
The enduring contribution of the issue is the message that the transnational terrain of anti-Muslim racism demands solidarities across regions. As feminists, we must learn and unlearn as we trace the investments we each bring to a transnational feminist politics. Our scholarship has to bear the weight of these critical reflections on our own praxis.
Sara Ahmed is an independent scholar and author of What’s the Use?, Living a Feminist Life, and other books also published by Duke University Press. Drawing on oral and written testimonies from academics and students who have made complaints about harassment, bullying, and unequal working conditions at universities, in her new book Complaint! she examines what we can learn about power from those who complain about abuses of power.
In the introduction to Complaint! you write about how your resignation created the conditions that made this book possible. Was it essential for you to be outside the institution as you compiled these stories?
I decided to do this research on complaint before I resigned. I did not know I was going to resign until I did! Once I had resigned, it changed how I could do the research. I wouldn’t say it was essential that I was outside the institution to be able to collect the stories but it certainly shaped how I could do it.
That I was outside the institution had an impact on the kinds of stories that were shared with me. The complaints that I talk about in the book (I don’t talk about all complaints!), complaints about abuses of power, complaints that challenge hierarchies, can devastate lives as well as careers. Complaints can be hard to talk about – you can even be prevented from talking about them. Many of the participants in my study got in touch with me because they heard about my resignation. It mattered to them that I had resigned. I had refused to be silent; I had said no. That I was outside the institution probably also meant I could provide a safer space: they were not speaking to someone who was in the same institution they were speaking about.
From my point of view, I do not really feel outside the institution – even if I sometimes call myself post-institutional. The fact that I did the research shows in a way that I am still in it, still on it. Leaving my post and profession was a very painful, bumpy and difficult process – and doing this research helped me to come to terms with what happened and to feel more grounded where I am, doing what I am. I am so grateful for that.
Complaint! is about grievances against institutions of higher education but discrimination is everywhere, as are HR roadblocks to disciplinary procedures. What can non-academic readers learn from the stories you’ve collected?
You could do the kind of research that I have done for this book in many other institutions – and in fact, I have been approached by people about their experiences in other sectors who have shared very similar stories. I spoke to someone in my own neighborhood recently. She asked me what I was working on and when I said I was working on complaint, she shared a story. She told me what happened when she tried to complain about being bullied by her manager at the supermarket where she worked. She said “I knew I was in trouble, when they shut the door.” The experience she had of ending up under scrutiny because she complained, her knowledge of what the closed door meant, how her complaint was going to be managed and contained, was very similar to many of the experiences shared by academics and students.
We learn from what we share.
The book is really about power, how power works to make it hard to challenge how power works. That complaint procedures become techniques for stopping complaints and complainers is telling us something about the mechanics of power. So, I hope the book reaches readers outside the university. I also am planning to write a shorter book, The Complainer’s Handbook, which will follow The Feminist Killjoy Handbook that I am currently drafting, so I can share the stories with less of a focus on the university as a specific site.
You map how complaints can lay groundwork for future change, and can create communities of shared experience between people whom institutional processes would otherwise have kept apart. Complaint activism is not a guarantee of institutional change, but rather “a way of thinking about what we get from complaint even when we do not get through.” Is this hopeful, or exhausting?
It is hopeful and exhausting! I call the hope of complaint, a “weary hope,” we have hope because of what we go through not despite it even when we don’t get very far. This kind of hope gives us a sense of the point, of there being a point, but it keeps us close to the ground. Complaints can take so much out of you. But most of the time, we also get something from them. I was really delighted that Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page and Alice Corble (with support from Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia and others) wrote one of the two conclusions of the book about their experience of making a collective complaint. They took on this work as PhD students – I joined the collective they had already formed. The last sentence of their conclusion is very simple and very powerful and very true. They write: “We moved something.” We have hope, they moved something, even if it took a huge amount of effort to get there. And that effort led us to each other. A weary “we” is still a “we.” That matters.
What does it mean for complaint to be pedagogy?
Complaint as feminist pedagogy became the Twitter hashtag for my project – this wasn’t an intentional decision; it was one of the formulations I was trying out to pull out the significance of complaint and it is the one that stuck! Other formulations in the book are “complaint as diversity work,” and “complaints as a queer method.” Each “as” brings out different aspects of what complaints are about.
Why pedagogy? When we think of pedagogy, we might think of how we teach – the teacher is the subject who uses different methods of instruction (which are also different ways of thinking about learning). By saying complaint is pedagogy, I am putting complaint in the position of the subject/teacher. We learn from complaint about the world. If we hadn’t complained, there is so much we would not know (even could not know) about what goes on. By making complaint my teacher, I position myself as learning from those I have spoken to. In my conclusion I acknowledge that “learning,” is one of the most used words in the book.
Complaint is heavy work. What strategies have you learned for those engaged in complaint to persevere?
Finding other people to support you in your institution is vital. If you can’t find someone inside your institution, go outside. Complaint procedures are designed to keep us apart for a reason. We need to combine our resources and energies. We need our co-complainers. We often lose people when we make complaints. But we also find people.
Working together is also about accepting the limits of what each of us can do. There is only so much we can do. I have in my “Killjoy Survival Kit” from Living a Feminist Life, permissions notes – sometimes, we need to give ourselves permission not to do something if it is too much. We are different and we need different things to keep going. I also think of tactics that might lighten the load – we might laugh, dance, eat, breathe, take walks, hang out with our companions, furry and non-furry.
There are two sentences from my conclusion to Complaint! that are key to my thoughts about working on as well as at institutions. They are slightly modified versions of sentences that appeared in What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, which also made use of data from my research into complaint.
Transforming institutions can be necessary if we are to survive them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.
The heavier the task, and complaint is made heavy, it is no accident that you feel the weight of the institution coming down on you, the more you need to attend to what you need to survive. I am, of course, learning from Audre Lorde here.
Complaint! is learning from Lorde
Read the introduction to Complaint!free online and save 50% on it and all in-stock titles with coupon FALL21 through October 15, 2021. After October 15, save 30% on Complaint!with coupon E21AHMD.
Max Liboiron is Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University. Their new book is Pollution Is Colonialism, which models an anticolonial scientific practice aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.
You incorporate Indigenous theory and first-person ethnography into your multi-genre book; at the same time, you hold that your book is a guide for settler and non-Indigenous scientists and readers as well as Indigenous ones. How did you write your book with both audiences in mind, and why is it important that your book be understood as such?
At first, I didn’t. Many young(ish), Indigenous, and gender minority people in academia will be familiar with a set of interactions characteristic of “general” academic audiences: gas-lighting, being called biased, having work stolen and not cited, grandstanding, and other wild rudeness. That’s the audience the book originally anticipated, so the writing was often defensive. The first draft even ended with a manifesto called a “mani-no-no” that essentially told the audience not to steal or appropriate the content, which is an acute problem I have with my lab’s methodological work.
But Reviewer 2, who is definitely an Indigenous aunty, was like, “Honey, why did you invite me into this book if you were going to tell me to fuck off?” (not her exact words). With her guidance and with insights from other senior colleagues, I started to talk directly to Indigenous and other not-White, not-settler audiences that I wanted to be generous with, share jokes with, think with. The tricky part is that those different audiences share the page.
So, I decided to do two things. First, I explicitly address the issue of multiple, incommensurate audiences in text. For example, there’s a footnote in the introduction that talks about definitions of de/colonization, and how the one I use is oriented towards a general academic audience characterized by many white, settler audiences. Then I say hello, literally (“hello!) to those folks. It’s a stylistic strategy meant to show that some of the decisions in the text are because of specific audiences, and the greeting is a way to invest in those audiences and welcome them into the text.
The second move is to flag moments of refusal, make in-jokes, and use code-switching, code-meshing, and other techniques to signal different things to different audiences using the same words. Some readers will be fluent in those backroom conversations, while others will read things more literally. Some audiences will see where there is a moment of refusal and a direction not taken, while others will appreciate the many signposts. All are correct readings. Now it’s a more generous book without giving everything away. Thank you, Reviewer 2!
Like most scientists, you talk about methodology as an important part of your practice. However, in your case, you stress methodology as an “ethic.” What does that mean to you, exactly?
The argument that methods are always an ethic isn’t my own argument—it’s an ancient concept that I’m just reminding folks of. People like Shawn Wilson and Linda Tuhiwai Smith say it best in their works, Research is Ceremony and Decolonizing Research, respectively. It’s actually odd that some cultures think epistemology (how you know the world), ontology (what the world is like), and axiology (being good in the world) are separated. That takes a lot of work! In one of my all-time favorite articles, “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans,” Vanessa Watts has written wonderfully about the weird method of separating those out in Western knowledge systems, which “removes the how and why out of the what,” leaving the world empty and ready for inscription as if it were born that way. Science and technology studies (STS) thinkers like Lorraine Daston write about objectivity as a key technique that tries to pry these things apart. I pitch in to this existing tradition.
You assert that colonization is about relations to land, and so “decolonization” is about transforming that relation to land. In your view, the appropriation of this term in other contexts, especially in revising university courses and syllabi, is itself colonial. Assuming that some thinkers might be resistant to this point, why is it nevertheless important that you make the point, and that your fellow thinkers be open to it?
Yes and no, but mostly yes. Colonization is a land relation, and land has place-based relations. That means there are many types of colonization, so there are many types of de/anti-colonization. In Canada, Métis are in a different set of colonial relations than Inuit. Indigenous people in Canada are in a different set of colonial relations than people in Africa, or those who were stolen from their lands in Africa and forced to the United States. So, it’s a bit cheeky to think there’s a stable and sorted definition of colonialism (or anti-/decolonization) that works across places.
But I do settle on a working definition that frames the text—that colonialism is about settler access to Indigenous land (which includes Indigenous ideas, cosmologies, and life) for settler goals, including benevolent ones. This definition comes out of the places I work and live, including white, settler-dominated academic spaces. It’s a definition that calls out entitlement to Indigenous lands, and establishes that if land relations aren’t changing then decolonization isn’t happening. Including more Indigenous people in an academic syllabus is a form of inclusion, and perhaps it is lovely on those grounds (or not—see Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins’ “Rethinking collaboration” on this point). But that inclusion leaves colonial land relations in place. I think this is why Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s text, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” is one of the touchstone articles for so many of us. They talk about when all the bad stuff—imperialism, racism, exclusion, sexism, being a jerk—is conflated with colonialism, then all the good stuff—inclusion, anti-racism, taking off your shoes at the front door—is conflated with decolonization. Which means “decolonial” actions rarely involve giving land back or addressing genocide. This, among other reasons, is why specificity is one of the core ethics of the book. It’s why I differentiate between anticolonialism (a whole host of things that don’t reproduce entitlement to Indigenous land and life) and decolonization (giving land back).
Your book offers a critique of some texts on plastic pollution and aligns with others. What are you trying to correct and align with? Why?
Some plastic pollution texts and activism align with anticolonial goals and impacts, and some align with colonial goals and impacts. When I started the book years ago, I assumed there would be lots of scientific case studies I would align against because of inherited colonial methods and values in science, and that I would align with more of the grassroots activism against plastics. I was surprised that the reverse was true.
While the book critiques dominant scientific concepts like assimilative capacity and “mismanaged waste” as reproducing colonial land relations, I also found that endocrinology studies led by white, settler scientists had good land relations that refuted an entitled access to land, bodies, and life. At the same time, I found myself aligning with the #SuckItAbleism movement that argues against banning plastic straws, since they show that universal eradication of any type remakes the world in a single image that never fits everyone and will always dispossess. I talk about how benevolent environmental goals like cleaning plastics off shorelines often assume access to Indigenous land without permission or consent. This work aligns with other Indigenous thinkers like Kyle Powys Whyte and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, among many others, who show that mainstream environmentalism foregrounds access to Indigenous land and its ability to produce value for settler desires and futures.
One of the characteristics of dominant systems, like colonialism, is that what it takes to be true, good, and right becomes so naturalized, so normal, that it is inherited as common sense. One of the reasons I think it’s important to analyze research and activism through the lens of colonialism and land relations is because things that can seem good in one register can still enact a single form of life to the eradication of others.
In addition to your position as an academic researcher, you’ve also been a university administrator, an artist, and an activist. Can you tell our readers more about how these roles relate to your research, if at all?
I’d like to focus on the administrator role. University admin, especially executive admin (what people mean when they say “the university”), is often assumed to be the opposite of activism and anticolonialism; but as someone who has been a professional activist for my entire adult life, I found admin to be the absolute best place to do lasting, systemic, and impactful anticolonial work. One premise of Pollution is Colonialism is that there is no blank slate, no terra nullius, no purity politics from which to do anticolonial work. The book takes up dominant environmental science and plastic pollution activism as its “compromised field,” but it works equally well in university administration. La paperson’s AThird University Is Possible is all about the uneven, not-fully-colonial spaces in universities, and it was one of the most useful activist texts I read as an administrator.
I was the Associate Vice President of Research at Memorial University for two years while I was finishing writing and revising Pollution is Colonialism. The everyday work of that administration not only used the main frameworks in the book, but actually led me to more nuanced understandings of those frameworks, including lessons of accountability, specificity, generalization over universalization, and the idea that all things have land relations (including paperwork). In fact, I would say that the new policy I headed on Indigenous research (which eliminated settler entitlement to do work on Indigenous land/spaces), the creation of the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Agreement (which brought good land relations into data management), and many of the funding priorities, terms of reference, and evaluation frameworks we put in place during that time do the work called for in Pollution is Colonialism far better than any of my science. My admin work was more place-based, more accountable, and more attuned to complex and competing ethics of land relations. As a researcher with academic freedom, I still get to pick through the problems I deal with, even if I opt for hard ones and important ones. As an administrator, things are hurled at you that are impossibly tangled and on fire, and you are accountable to them whether you would choose to deal with them or not. That makes for some acute learning, and some nuanced ethics.
It’s not a coincidence that Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies) is a Vice-Chancellor, or that K. Wayne Yang (“Decolonization is not a Metaphor”) is a Provost, or that Chris Andersen (Métis) is a Dean. There are many critiques from Black and Indigenous thinkers that the work of anticolonialism and antiracism is not the labour of working on yourself, but the work of changing and reimagining systems. Administrative work is systems work.
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.
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Tyler Denmead is author of The Creative Underclass: Youth, Race, and the Gentrifying City (2019). He teaches in the Faculty of Education and Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge. As the pandemic cut short his planned travel to discuss the book with audiences in both the UK and US, Denmead is now planning an online tour. Below he discusses how the book came to be and announces the tour dates.
The Creative Underclass is not the book I planned to write when I returned to New Urban Arts in 2012 as an educational ethnographer. It had been 5 years since I left the studio in Providence, Rhode Island as its founding director. I wanted to return to the studio, however, because I was still puzzled by the studio’s pedagogic conditions, or “the magic” as so many youth participants and artists put it. It was still unclear to me what this magic was, why this magic mattered, or how this magic might be useful to community arts programs elsewhere.
The Center for Public Humanities at Brown University provided me the opportunity to return to New Urban Arts as a post-doctoral fellow to study this magic. Rather than raising money and facilitating committee meetings, I had the the privilege of hanging out with teenagers and the artists that supported them. I could participate in their collective artmaking and the studio’s vibrant social life. I could talk to them about why their artmaking mattered to them and how they interpreted the studio’s pedagogic conditions.
Several unexpected events happened that prevented me from writing that familiar book. First, in my ethnographic encounters, I confronted a double bind reported by some former youth participants. Some noted the transformational power of New Urban Arts in their own lives, while also expressing their concern that the studio functioned as a gentrifying force in their neighborhood. This insight forced me to consider what role educational institutions (and therefore my educational leadership) play in white gentrification.
As I turned my attention to this analysis, anti-gentrification protests erupted across the United States as a prominent feature of Black Lives Matter protests. These protests targeted the threats that whiteness pose to Black life through policing, mass incarceration, neighborhood displacement, and state-led urban renewal projects.
With these protests, as well as constructive criticism of readers and friends, I started to write a reflexive book that begins from my position as the urban problem. I thus situated the magic of New Urban Arts in relation to racializing discourses that positioned me as a good white creative and youth of color as urban problems in need of transformation through creativity. I formulated the concept of the creative underclass to not only illuminate this problematic discourse and its role in mobilising white gentrification, but also how young people contested it through their creative disobedience, through the magic of New Urban Arts.
The concept of the creative underclass is clearly in conversation with Richard Florida’s creative class. Florida’s influential ideas were discussed and critiqued exhaustively in and beyond the academy in the 1990s and 2000s. Not surprisingly, the perspectives, experiences, and practices of young people of color were largely absent from those debates. Since then, attention on this topic have ebbed. After the 2007 financial crisis and Ferguson, vague commitments to creativity as a panacea for social and economic problems can no longer succeed like it used to in mobilizing a political bloc with diverging ideological interests.
Nonetheless, the troubling nexus of urban property development, arts and culture, and educational institutions was not new in the 1990s and it continues today. In the United States, this nexus is central to the expansive and possessive logics of whiteness itself. I hope The Creative Underclass accounts for the creative and critical practices of young people at New Urban Arts in ways that make us better equipped to engage directly with, and potentially transform, ongoing racial and economic injustices in the city.
Read the introduction to The Creative Underclass and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E19DENMD. Denmead has launched a virtual book tour beginning in March 2021, presenting ethnographic snapshots from The Creative Underclass in public lectures and student seminars. If you are interested in hosting a private class talk or public lecture, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
16 April 2021, 11 am EDT Hosted by the Barnett Symposium Virtual Speaker Series at the Department of Arts Education, Administration, and Policy at Ohio State University See www.tylerdenmead.org for registration details.
What guided your interest in editing this special issue? What questions or problems shaped your study?
Jared Sexton wrote of the fated entanglement of anti-Blackness and AIDS in Amalgamation Schemes (U Minn, 2008): “the fate of AIDS and the fate of the Black are fundamentally intertwined.” This entanglement is an extension of what Saidiya Hartman reveals in her work as “the entanglement of slavery and freedom.” Freedom, then, is property, in the sense of the carceral and anti-Black metaphysics of possessive individualism, and property is freedom, in the sense of life as economized by the valuations of racial capitalism and as demonstrated by the politics of AIDS and COVID-19 and big pharma as a technology of racial capitalism. Post-AIDS ideology, which figures AIDS is over and HIV as manageable and livable, performs an anti-Black epistemic erasure of how both HIV and AIDS are necropolitical. The ongoing global criminalization of HIV is a death sentence for Black queer, trans, poor, sex workers and AIDS activists. Black AIDS activism in its “aesthetic sociality,” to take up Laura Harris‘s brilliant formulation, and in its poetic sociality (thinking here of Black AIDS poetics), has always been a struggle against premature death. Gregory Smith, Black gay ACT UP activist who died in a New Jersey prison after being sentenced under HIV criminalization laws; Melvin Dixon, whom we know is somewhere listening for his name; Marsha P. Johnson, and many others who are part of what Cedric Robinson called the “ontological totality” of the Black radical tradition, struggled against what Dixon called the “double cremation” of premature death through genocidal anti-Blackness and—but also as—AIDS. Rather than the foreclosing of AIDS as somehow over, instead we open out onto pressing questions posed by the proximity of and the friction between queerness, Blackness, transness, and disability.
What makes “Trans in a Time of HIV/AIDS” unique or essential? What do you think it does, or can do, that no other collection has done before?
In some ways the answer is simple: there is an urgent and pressing need for the field of trans studies (including the field-defining journal of TSQ) to focus on transwomen, particularly Black transwomen, who are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. The statistics are startling—and ongoing!—and trans studies must ask why and center that problem in their analysis. Even as attention to materiality and ontology in trans studies grows, nowhere is there a sustained engagement with how AIDS has literally made trans subjects, histories, bodies, activisms, and academic discourses. You cannot be seriously interested in trans materiality or embodiment without understanding how AIDS continues to forge the lived realities of trans people and the very metalogics of trans studies itself. This absence is not isolated to trans studies; it continues in what is left of queer studies that attends to race, trans, or debility. There is a presumption that AIDS in the US has gone, that we live in the afterward of AIDS. This is simply wrong. What our special issue fore-places is that AIDS continues to function as a material and political process in administrating ontological and epistemological racial and sexual order in the contemporary. We ask how the emergence of US-centered trans studies in the ’90s—at the height of the AIDS epidemic—was shaped by the trauma of that moment. One theme we consider is how engagements with gender transgression in queer theory—that difficult twin of trans studies—promoted an anti-libidinal structure that turned gender identity into sexuality itself. As much as sexed essentialism seemed the target of gender transgression, the unconscious of that maneuver was sexually repressive—perhaps an effect of the collapsing anti-Black and homophobic violence of the epidemic.
Trans studies, it would seem, only succeeded in territorializing gender transgression. The collapse of identity as sexuality rendered gender a metaphysics that could then circulate in critical discourse as either absence or presence. No gender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or the indeterminate pronoun “they” are as gender-y as the regressive “she” or “he” pronouns. Simply, resistance to gender itself operationalized through abstractions and de-materializations of gender trouble. From this vantage, we begin to ask how the anti-Blackness and homophobia of AIDS shaped and reshape the subtending logics that continue to institutionalize trans studies. In our introduction we frame this argument, and our contributors offer their own, and sometimes differing, approaches to these interlocking problems that define trans studies and AIDS. In our introduction, and in the issue more broadly, we turn to Black transwomen and femme artists who are reimagining and reworking the racial and sexual violence of AIDS; Black artists who are interrogating the ongoing trauma of AIDS, but in ways that fore-place sexuality and Blackness. Trans, in their work, is de-essentialized through commitments to pleasure and the reimagining of memory and archive. Our hope is to invite new questions, to reinvigorate curiosity where “obviousness” has taken control. Reexaminations of structuring logics is not a cancellation, we argue, but an opportunity to recognize that fields like trans studies are worthy of rigorous thinking and deepening investigations of our possessive investments.
Why the turn to art and aesthetics to think together trans and AIDS? How are artists guiding the way?
“I’ve lost the future tense from my vocabulary.”—Melvin Dixon. Dixon’s pandemic poetry is heart-rending, even more so now at the nexus of premature death from AIDS and COVID-19. The work is striking for how it uncovers grief and both echoes the call to “defend the dead,” as the incredible poetics of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan UP, 2008) enjoins, and resonates with the ethical praxis of what Christina Sharpe in In the Wake (Duke UP, 2016) so powerfully calls “wake work.” In his writing Dixon talks about AIDS, anti-Blackness, and disability; about archival erasure and loss and historical responsibility; and about desire and the flesh. What comes into view is not only AIDS as biopolitics, but AIDS as the politics and poetics of the flesh—flesh in the sense imbued the term by Hortense Spillers and also in the sense of Toni Morrison’s ethical call in Beloved to love the flesh in the face of peril. Loving the flesh that is hated is also central to the aesthetic pedagogy of Black queer and trans desire and sociality.
Another important guide in this moment is Marlon Riggs, particularly his short music video, Anthem (1991), which is a musical and visual ensemble of Black queer/trans aesthetic and politics—glimpses of Marsha P. Johnson and Jesse Harris. Our first encounter with Jesse Harris was watching the film Tongues Untied (1989), and this film, like so much of Riggs’s work and the work of those involved in his films, was about loving the flesh and desiring what is hated. Tongues Untied first aired on public broadcasting, amidst Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal anti-Black, anti-gay and HIV/AIDS genocidal regime, and the National Endowment for the Arts was condemned for funding it.
We are so elated to have the artist Kiyan Williams’s work, an image from Reflections(2019), adorn the cover of this issue of the journal. Williams, whose profound work we explore in the issue and whom we interview as well, spent significant time in Riggs’s archive at Stanford and found in the archive an interview with Harris, which was not incorporated in the film. Williams made the interview and Harris the foreground of their own work, which thinks about the liminality and peripherality of Black trans femmes in representation of AIDS and its archives. Reflections was shown at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the exhibit Nobody Promised You Tomorrow, the title of which is a quote from Marsha P. Johnson.
In our introduction we also write about artist, activist, archivist, and filmmaker, as well as author and co-editor of Trap Door (MIT Press, 2017), Tourmaline’s films: Atlantic is a Sea of Bones(2018); Happy Birthday, Marsha (2018) directed with Sasha Wortzel, a visually stunning speculative film and for which Arthur Jaffa was the cinematographer; and Salacia (2019), which was also on view at the Nobody Promised You Tomorrow exhibit and is now a part of the permanent installation at MoMA and the Tate in London, UK. Tourmaline’s radical visual and cinematic theorizing of Blackness, transness, HIV/AIDS, and the afterlives and archive(s) of slavery are indispensable for thinking and teaching about trans in a time of HIV/AIDS. What we have done in this issue that feels special—meaningful and important—is to bring together trans artists and activists outside of and/or in an open relationship with academia to show how trans and AIDS are being taken up through registers of performance, theater, visual art, and cinema.
We interviewed Cecilia Gentili, who wrote a beautiful eulogy in the New York Times, “What Lorena Borjas Did for the Trans Girls of Queens,” that memorializes the radical legacy of Lorena Borjas. Borjas passed away of COVID-19 while the journal issue was being put together. She lived and organized with Latina trans and sex worker communities and for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Queens, which is one of the boroughs most impacted by COVID-19. “We will pick up her work where she left it, work that is essential to the well-being of ‘mis pajaras’ as she called the trans girls of Queens under her wing. Without her we are a motherless brood, but we will thrive nonetheless. In the end, she gave us the greatest gift of all—she taught us how to fend for ourselves.” In our interview Gentili writes about her one woman show, The Knife that Cuts Both Ways (2018); using humor as a weapon; and the problems with redemption narratives, as well as her profound analysis of and work in HIV/AIDS and trans health, and activism against detention, cages, borders, and the protocols of proper citizenship.
How do you imagine the issue could be used in courses or for future scholarship?
We hope that our issue might be used in course designs and future projects that are committed to not already knowing what trans studies is and isn’t. Perhaps our issue would invite students to revisit arguments that seem “already rehearsed” or “over,” to better understand the structuring logics of trans studies—for instance, to ask how trans studies always been the story of AIDS. We wanted our special issue to be in the form of a question—to both question what is understood as settled and to recognize that we might not yet know how to ask good questions about trans and AIDS—and to risk field-forming investitures. In these ways, our issue could support a course that starts with the supposition that trans studies hasn’t happened yet (it isn’t dead or over because it hasn’t quite arrived), and emerging architects of trans studies might walk away from the post-queer politics of queer theory (its obsession with conclusions and temporal certainties).
As 2020 (finally!) comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the most read articles across all our journals. Check out the top 10 articles that made the list, all freely available until the end of January.
At the end of a turbulent year, we are revisiting resources pertaining to the big issues of 2020. In this post, we are re-sharing important Black Lives Matter articles, interviews, and syllabi. This is the second in a two-part series. Check out the first part here.
This staff-curated syllabus offers titles that tackle topics of political protest, resistance, and activism. Subjects include transnational social movements, spatial reclamation, student occupation, protest literature, and more. View a full list of our syllabi here.
This staff-curated syllabus explores and criticizes police violence in both contemporary and historical contexts. Topics include the militancy of policing, Black Lives Matter, carceral technologies, gender, and more. View a full list of our syllabi here.
This special issue of Public Culture (#89) identifies parallels between police and military power to argue that policing is more than merely the practice of the institution of the police but is the violence work of maintaining a specific social order.
This special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly(volume 116, issue 3) draws primarily on the US #BlackLivesMatter movement, coming to terms with the crisis in the meaning of Black politics during the post–civil rights era as evidenced in the unknown trajectories of Black protests.
As Duke University Press welcomed liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies to its publishing program, we asked founding editors Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer to discuss the open-access journal’s radical agenda and its relationship with our current climate.
This article from “Reconsidering Gender, Violence, and the State,” a special issue of Radical History Review (#126), explores the series of responses across the United States to the death of Trayvon Martin, including the birth of grassroots movements, Black Lives Matter, and state-sponsored initiatives, such as My Brother’s Keeper (MBK).
Every year we look forward to meeting authors in person at the NWSA Annual Meeting, and we are sad to be missing out on that this year. We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 50% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues with coupon code NWSA20 until November 23, 2020.
View our Women’s Studies catalog below for a complete list of all our newest titles in women, gender, and sexuality studies and across disciplines. You can also explore all of our books and journals in the field on dukeupress.edu.And although you cannot join us in the booth this year, you can listen to a number of our authors discuss their books through our In Conversation series on our YouTube channel.
Editor Elizabeth Ault has a message for everyone who would have attended NWSA this year, with her recommendations of the latest books in women, gender, and sexuality studies.
I was so looking forward to gathering with you all in the greatest city in the world, Minneapolis, this fall, but it’s not to be. I’m sending solidarity to all the folks who have been doing incredible organizing work there for years before the murder of George Floyd (#justiceforfonglee, #justiceforjamarclarke, #ceceisfree, #cecetaughtme #justiceforphilandocastile) and continue to provide networks of care and support every dang day.
I am so excited to be in conversation with y’all about the feminist work in Black studies, disability studies, geography, trans studies, queer theory, history, and more that has its home at NWSA. Please sign up for office hours to discuss your work with me here.
In the meantime, I know many of you are shopping the sale. Here are some crucial feminist texts that would never have made it to 50% off day in the booth–and you can get them shipped directly to you for 50% off from our website!!! You’ll see important strands of Black feminist thought and queer theory throughout these books, so I’ve tried to organize them more by method and topic to help you find what you’re looking for.
I’m writing this in late October and you’ll be reading it on the other side of whatever happens on November 3. Regardless, I’m confident these books have important wisdom to offer us as we move through this extraordinarily painful year, fortified by the work of organizers in Minneapolis and around the world, and by these thinkers and writers. They’re all helping us to imagine the world we want to live in and work to make it possible.
Jih-Fei Cheng, Alex Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani’s AIDS and the Distribution of Crises comes directly out of that scholarly/activist nexus, bringing together insights from a range of fields and positions about the ongoing viral crises that COVID-19 cratered into this winter. Sima Shakhsari’s book The Politics of Rightful Killing looks at transnational online networks of writers and activists to consider how Iranians in the diaspora and Iran itself thought about reconstituting democracy. Jillian Hernandez’s Aesthetics of Excess is right there too, drawing on her work with Black and Latina girls in Women on The Rise in Miami.
Alongside the amazing art Jillian and her interlocutors at WOTR created, much of which is included in full color in the book, we have some really amazing feminist art books out right now. Lorraine O’Grady’s work was at the center of the mind-blowing, pathbreaking We Wanted a Revolution show at the Brooklyn Museum a few years back, and now she has her own solo show there, accompanied by this new book of her writings about art practice and her vision for a Black feminist art world, Writing in Space. Maya Stovall has been performing and showing Liquor Store Theatre, a Detroit-based art and performance project for several years; her book by the same name considers the project as an ethnographic one reimagining what dispossessed neighborhoods in Detroit might still play host to. Bakirathi Mani’s new book, Unseeing Empire, centers work by South Asian women artists Annu Matthew, Seher Shah, and Gauri Gill to consider how empire continues to haunt South Asian desires for representation and representability.
And Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub is a work of art–no less than an oracle for our times.
Another oracular work newly available is Jose Munoz’s posthumous Sense of Brown. This book is deep and lasting and Jose’s influence and importance is so clear and undeniable. More theoretical work on this list alongside Jose’s is Cressida Heyes’s book Anaesthetics of Existence, which is really speaking to me as this year continues to take and take. It’s a feminist phenomenology for this moment. Other books theorizing embodiment here include Neetu Khanna’s Visceral Logics of Decolonization, and Naked Agency, in which author Naminata Diabate considers women’s naked protests across Africa and the diaspora as a weighty, powerful form of vulnerable resistance.
Diabate’s work is embedded in a long history of such protests–new feminist history work from Brandi Brimmer, Francoise Verges, and Lynn Thomas provides important tools for understanding how we got here, and how things could be different.
Relations, the topic of Strathern’s capacious theorization, are also at the foundation of Brigitte Fielder’s rethinking of kinship and race. Her book is part of a strong list in queer and feminist cultural and literary studies that includes new books from Jack Halberstam (important queer theory, yes, but also important Kate Bush content!), Bo Ruberg (whose new book series is accepting proposals), Gillian Harkins (why are you still watching To Catch a Predator? I mean, you won’t after reading this book), Cait McKinney (the book we fondly refer to as “how lesbians invented the internet”), Erica Fretwell (She’ll make you care about The Yellow Wallpaper again, through centering the role of SMELL of all things), and Sam Pinto (the definitive take on Sarah Baartman and Sally Hemings that you have been waiting for!!).
That’s a lot of books! There’s so much richness and brilliance here. I’m excited to hear what you think about these books and how they’re informing your own work on twitter and in my office hours. In the meantime, keep well.
If you were hoping to connect with Elizabeth Ault or another of our editors about your book project at NWSA, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our online submissions guidelines here.