We are deeply sorry to learn of the death of theorist Lauren Berlant following a long illness. Berlant was the author or editor of six books with us. They were also a founding editor of the series Writing Matters! and Theory Q and a contributor to many edited collections and journal issues.
Berlant was George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, where they taught since 1984. Their first title with us was The Queen of American Goes to Washington City (1997), which Judith Butler called “a keen and disarming book.” They followed it up with The Female Complaint (2008) and then with Cruel Optimism (2011), which became their most popular book, reaching outside the academy and inspiring art and even a punk song. Writing in The Progressive, queer humorist Kate Clinton said, “If you are looking for some new language to use to describe the current crisis of hope, read Cruel Optimism. . . . It is a wild, deeply witty examination of our attachments to food, love, politics, family, and pop culture.”Berlant’s most recent book was Reading Sedgwick (2019), an edited collection on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Cruel Optimism was the winner of the American Comparative Literature Association 2012 Rene Wellek Award. In 2019, Berlant received the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Literature Section of Modern Language Association. They were also a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Berlant especially liked working collaboratively and published two co-written books with us, Sex, or the Unbearable (2013), with Lee Edelman, and The Hundreds (2019), with Kathleen Stewart. In an interview with UChicago News, Berlant said, “Other people’s minds are amazing. Collaboration is like a super-intensified version of teaching, where you and somebody else are working something out, and you’re building on each other—but you’re also just missing each other. There’s the complete joy of the ‘not me.’ Seeing somebody else at work, seeing somebody else’s generativity and seeing how, together, you can compose things that neither of you could have done by yourself.” Stewart says of Berlant, “Lauren held a door in the world open for so many of us. Now we shoulder on, in gratitude. The outpouring of love from everywhere is the biggest testimony to Lauren’s beauty and impact.”
Not long after the publication of The Hundreds, Berlant was profiled by Hua Hsu in The New Yorker, an unusual honor for an academic, and a testament to the huge reach of Berlant’s work. Writing about The Hundreds, Hsu says, “In Berlant and Stewart’s hands, affect theory provides a way of understanding the sensations and resignations of the present, the normalized exhaustion that comes with life in the new economy. It is a way of framing uniquely modern questions.”
Around the Press, those who worked with Berlant are deeply mourning the loss. Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker said, “I’ve known Lauren since shortly after they arrived at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s. Lauren had a singularly brilliant mind, questioning their own thoughts mid-sentence in pursuit of a better account. In book after book Lauren advanced a fully connected project, one with deep political commitments, but one that could never be fully known in advance. One of the greatest theorists of their generation— someone always generously reaching out to smart younger scholars—it was the greatest privilege to be their publisher and friend.”
Design Manager Amy Ruth Buchanan designed many of Berlant’s books, including the now iconic cover for Cruel Optimism. She says, “Lauren Berlant was one of the kindest, smartest, and most appreciative and generous authors a publisher could hope to work with. I am so sad to learn of their passing.”
Executive Editor Courtney Berger says, “Lauren was a fierce intellectual who relentlessly challenged our assumptions about gender, sex, nation, and feeling. Lauren was also an incredibly generous collaborator who sought out opportunities to think alongside and in conversation with others. Even as they dwelled on the structural violence and difficulties of thriving in a world dominated by capitalism, racism, and sexism, Lauren saw the potential for us to radically transform our relationship to the world and to ourselves. Lauren was a wit, who liked to share and hear new jokes. They loved cats, silly cat photos, and elaborate cat furniture. And they could always direct you to the best vegan food in town. Above all, Lauren was a friend and a comrade, and I will miss them terribly.”
Berger has been working with Berlant on their final book, On the Inconvenience of Other People. Berlant turned the manuscript in just a few weeks before their death and we expect to publish it in Fall 2022. In the new book Berlant considers how we might “loosen” our relations to the objects and situations that we are unhappily attached to in a way that might transform our political conditions and create new life worlds.
For three decades, we have been honored to publish the groundbreaking work of Lauren Berlant. We will miss them as a scholar, a collaborator, and a friend. Our condolences go out to all of Lauren’s friends, family, and colleagues, and especially to their partner Ian Horswill.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As you finish up the semester, considering rewarding yourself with new books! Here’s what we have coming out in May.
In Songbooks, veteran music critic and popular music scholar Eric Weisbard offers a critical guide to American popular music writing, from William Billings’s 1770 New-England-Psalm-Singer to Jay-Z’s 2010 memoir Decoded.
In Black Bodies, White Gold, Anna Arabindan-Kesson examines how cotton became a subject for nineteenth-century art by tracing the symbolic and material correlations between cotton and Black people in British and American visual culture.
Max Liboiron models an anticolonial scientific practice in Pollution Is Colonialism, aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.
The Genealogical Imagination by Michael Jackson juxtaposes ethnographic and imaginative writing to explore intergenerational trauma and temporality, showing how genealogy becomes a powerful model for understanding our experience of being in the world.
Editor Lisa Björkman and contributors to Bombay Brokers provide thirty-six character profiles of men and women whose knowledge and labor—which is often seen as morally suspect—are essential for navigating everyday life in Bombay, one of the world’s most complex, dynamic, and populous cities.
Christopher Tounsel investigates the centrality of Christian worldviews to the ideological construction of South Sudan from the early twentieth century to the present in Chosen Peoples.
Brian Russell Roberts dispels continental-centric US national mythologies in Borderwaters 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.
Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited by Kareem Rabie examines how Palestine’s desire to fully integrate its economy into global markets through large-scale investment projects represented a shift away from political state building with the hope that a thriving economy would lead to a free and functioning Palestinian state.
Liz P. Y. Chee complicates understandings of Chinese medicine as timeless and unchanging in Mao’s Bestiary by historicizing the expansion of animal-based medicines in the social and political environment of early Communist China.
Thomas Aiello is Associate Professor of History at Valdosta State University and the author of many books, including Jim Crow’s Last Stand and The Grapevine of the Black South. His new book is The Life and Times of Louis Lomax: The Art of Deliberate Disunity, which traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure Louis Lomax, who became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur.
David L. Chappell has called your book a “thrilling adventure story,” in addition to a “great intellectual biography.” How do you merge these two genres? That is, how do you work to craft a biography that is stylistically enjoyable for the reader?
It certainly helps to have a subject who lived an interesting life. Louis Lomax was a public intellectual, but also a media personality hungry for fame, a criminal, a crusading advocate for civil rights, and someone who lied consistently about his past. His life was itself an adventure, making telling an enjoyable story about it far easier. It is rare that a public intellectual like Lomax would become involved in the kinds of pursuits in which he was engaged. The most interesting part of his story is not evaluating his ideas, though the book certainly does that, but in figuring out why he thought what he thought and did what he did. It is ultimately that “why” question that combines the adventure story with the intellectual biography. Lomax’s thought and his strategy for relaying it to the public was shaped by his experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South, of lying about his college career, of his conviction for car theft and fraud, of his hustling journalism efforts, and of his desire for the limelight. Melding those stories with the ideas such experiences created is what merges the genres and makes the story enjoyable.
Why has Lomax been left out of the civil rights narrative of the 1960s? What are the stakes of incorporating him into that narrative?
Lomax has largely been given short shrift in discussions of civil rights because most of the era’s well-known figures staked out a position and defended it in the public sphere. Lomax’s position, however, was in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to pin down where he stood on various issues at various times without a full-length study like this one. Also, he was never part of a specific rights organization. He was a media personality that sometimes worked behind the scenes to help various causes and at other times worked to publicize them through his writing and his television and radio program.
When he does appear in civil rights narratives, then, he does so tangentially, because without a full understanding of his life, his influence, and his changing positions, it is difficult for most civil rights historians to pin down exactly where he fits. Hopefully this book can change that. Hopefully it demonstrates how important Lomax was to the trajectory of the movement. The stakes of that addition are significant because civil rights groups, whether the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or any other group in between them on the ideological spectrum, could have no substantial influence without the media. Lomax’s access to public platforms gave him the ability to publicize messages he cared about, to give louder voice to those he deemed worthy. In the process, he served as a (sometimes unreliable) gatekeeper for the messages of civil rights advocacy. Both as a thinker who helped develop the messages presented by advocates and as a vehicle to popularize those messages, Lomax was vital to the development of civil rights in the 1960s.
Can you summarize “the art of deliberate disunity,” as Lomax preached it? What might it have to offer our current political moment?
“The art of deliberate disunity” is a phrase coined by Lomax in a 1963 speech. He made the case that “only through diversity of opinion can we establish the basic prerequisite for the democratic process.” He criticized the idea that all civil rights victories were made equal, and that there was one right answer to the problem of Black equality in the United States. He saw as healthy the differences of opinion between, for example, his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Such disputes spurred innovation, which only benefited the movement writ large. If civil rights advocates only thought in a bifurcated way about “what we think” and about “what white people think,” the diversity of Black thought would get reduced to a lowest common denominator. By cultivating good faith debates among Black leaders, the art of deliberate disunity better respected the variety of Black opinions and demonstrated a version of democracy among a group seeking democracy from those in power. If we force everyone into a monolithic way of thinking, he argued, we are no better than white leaders.
It is an idea that does potentially have something to offer our current political moment, wherein warring factions are divided into separate camps, never the twain shall meet. Lomax, were he still around, would argue that the bigotry of the right and the push for ideological orthodoxy on the left create similar problems. The modern civil rights movement, Lomax would argue, needs to foster more internal debates about strategy and about goals. Such is not a weakness, but a democratic benefit that serves as a driver of creative growth.
In your account, Lomax has made a lasting impact both in terms of his contributions to Black journalism and his resistance against global colonialism. How exactly have these two projects benefitted from his influence, and how could they continue to benefit from readers’ increased knowledge of his life?
Lomax was able to move his journalism from his early work with the Black press to a more mainstream profile, publishing with white newspapers and publishers, becoming the first Black host of a news/talk television program, and developing a series of radio shows. His influence in that realm is vital, as so many mainstream journalists, television and radio hosts all benefit from his pioneering work. His success on The Louis Lomax Show, for example, was the country’s first demonstration that a news/talk program hosted by a Black man could be financially viable, removing that potential stigma and opening up that space to more journalists of color.
A similar claim could be made about his anticolonialism advocacy. While Lomax was in no way the first leader to argue against Western hegemony on the global stage, his popular comparisons between colonialism abroad and civil rights abuses at home brought such concerns to a popular audience. Much commentary in that regard came from the far Left, from voices that mainstream (and predominantly white) audiences never heard. But Lomax’s voice was able to make that case to a wider audience. Many others made similar arguments in the years after Lomax’s death, and of course colonialism has not disappeared, but Lomax’s advocacy was the first mainstream comparison of foreign colonialism and domestic racism and among the first public expressions of concern about the tumultuous situations in Africa and Thailand, places often forgotten by American audiences obsessed with Vietnam.
Lomax, as you describe him, is a complicated figure. He was a trailblazing newsman with a sharp political mind; at the same time, he loved to be the center of media attention, and was accused of womanizing and spousal abuse. Is there a Lomax figure living today who matches this combination of laudable attributes and personal flaws?
There is certainly no one today with the same basic profile as Lomax. The background check process would simply eliminate him from consideration for those kinds of jobs. There are, however, many with profiles that retain elements of Lomax’s trailblazing career. The Breakfast Club, for example, have been able to maintain a popular, mainstream radio program that relates news and serves as a hub of racial advocacy. Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy have been able to find a space in the media landscape where they are both media reporters and media creators, chroniclers of advocacy and advocates themselves. On the other side of the political spectrum, pseudo-journalists like Geraldo Rivera, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh have used entertainment platforms to help guide policy and governing theory for their own side, usually in the cause of the very bigotry that people like Lomax sought to eliminate. Then there are broadcasters like Brian Williams, who was caught lying about a variety of stories, but has been able to make a comeback and continue his career despite that scandal. These are approximations, of course. Lomax’s profile simply could not exist today. His infidelity is probably still very common among news reporters and political theorists, but spousal abuse, lying about academic credentials, and his largely hidden prison record are not the kinds of things that could be covered in modern society.
Religion seems to have played a significant role in Lomax’s life and work. He was the son of a Christian preacher, a friend of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and accused by some of antisemitism. What can we learn from this confluence of religious affiliation and political movements?
Lomax saw religion as a means to an end. His upbringing was one of strict religious zeal, raised by preachers in the deepest of the Deep South. But his stories about his childhood emphasize religion’s value to people’s lives rather than its inherent truth. The same could be said about his feelings toward the Nation of Islam. He saw the group’s power not in its religious principles but in its political messaging. The religion itself was simply a vehicle for its larger aims, and when that religion got in the way, as when Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had a falling out, it was ultimately expendable. His supposed antisemitism, too, was less the result of any disagreement with Judaic thinking or belief. It was instead rooted in politics, a concern about the role of high finance in the plight of Black impoverishment. Thus it was that religion was invariably important to Lomax. It was always present in his life. He himself experimented with preaching for a time after he moved to Washington, DC. At the same time, however, religion was a pragmatic presence, there to be marshalled when necessary to make various arguments and influence the proper people.
That confluence of religious affiliation and political movements is also common today. While there are several leaders today whose faith is at the heart of their activism (Reverend William Barber seems to be the most high-profile example), the vast majority of people use their opinions about religion to justify their political beliefs, not the other way around. Lomax wasn’t necessarily allowing his politics to direct his faith, but he was using that faith to selectively influence those to whom he wanted to speak. And he supported that strategy in others like the Nation of Islam.
Check out the great new titles we have coming out in April!
In Right Here, Right Now, Lynden Harris collects the powerful first-person stories of dozens of men who are living on death row in the United States, offering a glimpse into the lives of some of the most marginalized people in America. Watch the trailer.
Rafico Ruiz 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 Slow Disturbance.
Analyzing a range of Chicano/a and Native American novels, films, short stories and other cultural artifacts from the eighteenth century to the present, Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita in Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest examine literary representations of settler colonial land enclosure and dispossession in the US Southwest.
Hentyle Yapp analyzes contemporary Chinese art as it circulates on the global art market to outline the limitations of the predominant narratives that currently frame understandings of non-Western art in Minor China. Join an online book launch for Minor China on April 15.
We are excited to be bringing out two new volumes in the Stuart Hall: Selected Writings series. Selected Writings on Marxism, edited by Gregor McLennan, collects Stuart Hall’s key writings on Marxism surveys the formative questions central to his interpretations of and investments in Marxist theory and practice.
And in Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Paul Gilroy gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora.
The contributors to Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging, edited by Leerom Medovoi and Elizabeth Bentley, examine how the new political worlds that are emerging—from Trump’s America to the post-Arab-Spring Middle East—intersect with locally specific articulations of religion and secularism.
Todne Thomas explores the internal dynamics of community life among black evangelicals and the ways they create spiritual relationships through the practice of Kincraft—the construction of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, partners in prayer, and spiritual mothers, fathers, and children.
Edited and translated by Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz, Operation Valhalla collects eighteen texts by German media theorist Friedrich Kittler on the close connections between war and media technology.
Annmarie Mol reassess notions of human being and becoming by thinking through the activity of eating, showing how eating is a lively practice bound up with our identities, actions, politics, and senses of belonging in the world in Eating in Theory.
Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu examines the legacies of the Vietnam War on contemporary ideas about race and beauty, in Experiments in Skin, showing how US wartime efforts to alleviate the environmental and chemical risks to soldiers’ skin has impacted how contemporary Vietnamese women use pharmaceutical cosmetics to repair the damage from the war’s lingering toxicity.
Rinaldo Walcott posits that Black people globally live in the time of emancipation and that emancipation is definitely not freedom in The Long Emancipation, showing that wherever Black people have been emancipated from slavery and colonization, a potential freedom became thwarted.
Drawing on Black feminism, Afro-pessimism, and critical race theory, the contributors to Antiblackness, Moon-Kie Jung and João H. Costa-Vargas,trace the forms of antiblackness across time and space, showing how the dehumanization of Black people has been foundational to the establishment of modernity.
Thomas Aiello traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure in The Life and Times of Louis Lomax. Lomax became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur.
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 Inheritancefor 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.
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.
If most people know anything about Isabel Rosario Cooper, it’s that she was General Douglas MacArthur’s mistress. In footnotes to most histories, she is portrayed as a tragic figure, “a beautiful woman who died of heartbreak.” What made you want to tell her story more fully?
This kind of feminine figuration has always served as camouflage for complexity, a shorthand that feeds into and is fed by a colonial fantasy of brown women longing for white men, as well as narrative desire for familiar tropes. This version of Isabel Cooper’s story is not in the footnotes: it is front and center because it’s the comfortable and typical characterization of “women like her.” When I started to dig into the footnotes of MacArthur biographies, I discovered a kind of recursive pattern that boiled down to a reliance on repeated citations of sources that had somehow become authoritative evidence for her story. What became clear was that these sources that were more hearsay or even outright inaccurate had circulated enough times that they had hardened into truth—in particular the version that revolved around the General as her object of yearning and heartbreak had become the standard. The work of postcolonial feminist scholars has taught us that of course there’s something more operating beneath the flattened image of dead, beautiful, heartbroken women, something more than “MacArthur’s mistress.” The short interludes that bothered to portray Isabel Cooper in MacArthur biographies and their suspect footnotes that were cited as evidence didn’t match up to this work.
There’s also a way in which stories like hers are dismissed as unworthy in the sense that her biggest known “accomplishment” is sleeping with MacArthur—often read as betrayal at worst, or venal at most—another way to marginalize women’s stories. At the same time, I did not want to dismiss her sexual agency, because to some degree, that was crucial to the kind of power and identity she wielded. From the great work that has been done on the early colonial period in the Philippines, particularly on the “woman question,” we know that the lives of Filipinas were complex, cosmopolitan, and often grappled with the contradictions engendered by the shifts in colonial society. I wanted to tell her story more fully because it deserved to be told with the same kind of effort in terms of research and writing as stories of men like MacArthur, and I felt that it would be a good vehicle to also interweave a parallel account about archives and genres, and the ways in which both open and up and foreclose how we learn to narrate ourselves.
You choose not to structure your book chronologically like a traditional biography. Instead you begin with her relationship with MacArthur and then jump around in time. You also feature documents, pictures and imagined letters and conversations in between your chapters. Why did you choose this structure? How does it help tell Cooper’s story more fully?
It took me a while to figure out how to tell her story. I knew I needed to include elements of biography—because so little of her life is actually known, and the broader historical context of her story is unfamiliar to most readers—so some part of this had to be fleshed out. But I also knew that I didn’t want to present an account that was somehow whole or authoritative or forthright, like an exhumation or an explanation, because I didn’t want to repeat the pattern of how she has been narrated in such an overdetermined way. I did begin with a chronological draft, but this structure felt like it didn’t make room for the ways in which patterns repeated themselves in her life, or how a particular part of her story (the MacArthur interlude) pre-empts others. It felt inert—and so I began with her death, because so much of what is written about her pivots on the suicide of this beautiful woman, and the half-truths or outright lies that adhered to it. I also foregrounded her time with MacArthur in the narrative, a bit perversely, because I wanted to arrest the desire to center MacArthur and frame him as the “reveal” of the story later on in the book. I felt like that the strange enticement of that infamous scandal was not something I wanted the reader to be invested in. The few years of her life during which she associated with MacArthur has come to define her and how she’s narrated: it’s the hook that draws most people to her story, but I didn’t want it operate as the climax of the narrative. It is certainly not the main driving force of her life, even as it is often characterized this way. I try to make the case that this moment is more an effect, rather than a cause.
The overall structure of the book also pulls from the protracted, piecemeal, and interrupted process of my research into her life, and from the sometimes-unexpected and last-minute way that new sources would shift a whole arc I had neatly mapped out. The sparseness and inaccuracy of the existing writing and archival materials on Isabel Cooper resists that neat and orderly biographical narrative: there are so many moments that are lost to history because of lack of documentation, and in her case, contradiction, inconsistency, absence, or outright error in whatever records can be pieced together. So that’s another story in itself: the colonial archive’s promises and secrets. I was struck by how so much of the narrative about her is fictional (in the sense of repeated inaccuracies), and as I dug deeper, how much of this fiction she also perpetrated. It gave me permission to speculate about moments that might not have documentation, or to invent, as she did, stories about herself.
Cooper goes by many different names in her life, from Dimples as a child performer, to Chabing Cooper, Elizabeth Cooper, and Belle Cooper, to a married name of Isabel Kennamer. Why does Cooper constantly rename herself and shift her identity?
To me, this was a strategy that was tied to moments in her life where she was reinventing herself, or starting over. She was someone who had, at a very young age, entered the world of the stage and screen, so taking on roles was a habit she never dropped. It was something she also learned from her mother, to some extent. But she also had really distinct periods in her life: she crossed the Pacific several times, experienced very diverse living conditions, married twice, had affairs, and made big choices about her career. I think renaming herself gave her some modicum of control over conditions that were far beyond her power to manage, and later on, allowed for her to have a clean slate when so much of her past tended to creep up on her unexpectedly due the lingering effects of US imperialism. As a researcher, this made tracking her occasionally tricky: it felt sometimes that these past decisions on her part were also about refusing an easy narration on mine. It forced me to pause and think about what went into her decisions to go by a particular name at different points in her life.
You say that “sex, and lots of it, defined the colonial encounter.” How does focusing on intimate relationships like that of Cooper and MacArthur change the way we view colonial history?
I owe so much of this work to postcolonial feminists who understand the intimate as a site of colonial power, and to work by Philippine Studies and Filipinx diaspora studies scholars in particular who have explored how sex and sexuality operated in the US-Philippine colonial world. My ability to tell Isabel Cooper’s story is built on that foundational research, and my claim is not new. What I try to shed a bit of light on is how the contradictions of American claims to benevolence and discourses of superiority break down when you look at how empire played out through relationships between people. So many of the colonial encounters turned on sex—the archives are filled with both overt confessions, allusions, or outright mentions of sexually transmitted diseases or decisions about the management of sex work. It’s dirty reading at times. I was interested in the messiness of transactions that revolved around sex or were defined through sexual exchange, as well as how the racial carnal desires at the heart of empire shaped relations well after the actual arrangement or encounter occurred. Who had the upper hand in these kinds of arrangements or coercions was not always clear, and that made for a fascinating dynamic to explore. Isabel Cooper operated within this colonial milieu and the ways she understood, navigated, and leveraged it gives us a sense of the push and pull, and the possibilities and limits of human agency and creativity at a more intimate scale of empire.
What can we learn about Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s from Cooper’s story? How does centering the experiences of non-white actors change the way we think about this era and its films?
I don’t know that we learn much more than we already know about how the Hollywood gambit was a story about deep disappointment for non-white actors in the 1940s and 1950s. For all the Anna May Wongs and Philip Ahns who carved out some kind of a career against and alongside the deep racism and sexism that defined Hollywood culture, there were hundreds of aspirants like Isabel Cooper whose willing and strategic self-exoticizations fell far short of any kind of living. It is probably safer to say that Cooper supplemented her income with her film acting roles but supported herself mainly from nightclub work. The casual mention of casting couch culture, or the matter-of-fact ways she tried to position herself for “Oriental” roles or parts for which she could make a racial stretch was evident in the letters that she wrote during that time, as well as in the industry literature itself. In some ways, her experience was more the rule, rather than the exception that gets written about.
How have artists and people of Filipino descent remembered and reimagined Isabel Rosario Cooper? What does her legacy mean to people today?
For most Filipinos, Isabel Cooper first registers as MacArthur’s mistress, with all the titillation and scandal that entails. This is why interest around her endures. In so many ways, this bit of her story feeds into the melodramatic habits that characterizes some of Hollywood/Manila cinema of her time, as well the theater of everyday politics in the Filipino diaspora. She is also known to some extent as a performer on stage and screen. Filipino cinema is just a bit over a century old, so there has been renewed interest in its pioneers—and as a crossover vaudeville star who made a big early impression in the first “modern” Filipino silent films, Isabel Cooper (she went by Elizabeth Cooper in film) is noteworthy.
Over the course of my research and writing, I also encountered visual artists (one of whom I write about), and writers (both fiction and non-fiction) who grapple with the kinds of narratives that adhere to Isabel Cooper. I think she continues to attract this kind of interest because when you dig deep enough, there’s a lot more to her story beyond the superficiality of MacArthur’s mistress that is typically the first draw. I look to these interpretations as retellings that reveal the inadequacy of the “mistress” framework. My purpose in the book is not to supplant or supersede any of these creative encounters with her, but rather to shake up the assumptions that produce a particular narrative account that is a habit of imperial culture, and one that clearly is not enough to contain her.