The Weekly Read for March 4, 2023 is Crip Genealogies edited by Mel Y. Chen, Alison Kafer, Eunjung Kim, and Julie Avril Minich. The contributors to Crip Genealogies reorient the field of disability studies by centering the work of transnational feminism, queer of color critique, and trans scholarship and activism, showing how a white and Western-centric narrative of disability studies enables ableism and racism.
Crip Genealogies is part of the series ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise, edited by Mel Y. Chen, Ezekiel J. Dixon-Román, and Jasbir K. Puar. Books in this series bring together queer theory, postcolonial studies, critical race scholarship, and disability theory to foreground the oft-occluded import of race and sex in the fields of posthumanist theory, new materialisms, vitalism, media theory, animal studies, and object-oriented ontologies. ANIMA emphasizes how life, vitality, and animatedness reside beyond what is conventionally and humanistically known.
Prefer the print version? Buy the book and use coupon code E23CRIPG at checkout for a 30% discount!
The Weekly Read is a weekly feature in which we highlight articles, books, and chapters that are freely available online. You’ll be able to find a link to the selection here on the blog as well as on our social media channels. Enjoy The Weekly Read, and check back next week for something new to read for free.
Black History Month is here! To celebrate, we invite you to check out some of our recent books and journal issues covering African American history.
In Subversive Habits, Shannen Dee Williams provides a comprehensive history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States, tracing how Black sisters’ struggles were central to the long African American freedom movement.
In Emancipation Circuit, Thulani Davis provides a sweeping rethinking of Reconstruction by tracing how the four million people newly freed from bondage created political organizations and connections that mobilized communities across the South.
In Legal Spectatorship, Kelli Moore traces the political origins of the concept of domestic violence through visual culture in the United States, showing how it is rooted in the archive of slavery.
In King’s Vibrato, Maurice O. Wallace explores the sonic character of Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice and how a mixture of architecture, acoustics, sound technology, and gospel influenced it.
In Violent Utopia, Jovan Scott Lewis retells the history and afterlife of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and its century-long legacy of dispossession, placing it in a larger historical and social context of widespread anti-Black racism and segregation in Tulsa and beyond.
In Translating Blackness, drawing from archives and cultural productions from the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe, Lorgia García Peña considers Black Latinidad in a global perspective in order to chart colonialism as an ongoing sociopolitical force.
In Black Disability Politics, drawing on the archives of the Black Panther Party and the National Black Women’s Health Project, Sami Schalk explores how issues of disability have been and continue to be central to Black activism from the 1970s to the present.
In Feels Right, Kemi Adeyemi examines how Black queer women use the queer dance floor to articulate relationships to themselves, the Black queer community, and gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago.
In Breaks in the Air, John Klaess tells the story of rap’s emergence on New York City’s airwaves by examining how artists and broadcasters adapted hip hop’s performance culture to radio.
In New Growth, through close readings of slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as collage, craft, and sculpture, Jasmine Nichole Cobb explores Black hair as a visual material through which to reimagine the sensual experience of Blackness.
When the Smoke Cleared contains poetry written by incarcerated poets in Attica Prison and journal entries and poetry by Celes Tisdale, who led poetry workshops following the uprising there in 1971.
In Black Life Matter, Biko Mandela Gray offers a philosophical eulogy for Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, and Sandra Bland that attests to their irreducible significance in the face of unremitting police brutality.
In Visitation, Jennifer DeClue examines Black feminist avant-garde films from filmmakers including Kara Walker, Tourmaline, and Ja’Tovia Gary that visualize violence suffered by Black women in the United States.
In In and Out of This World, Stephen C. Finley offers a new look at the religious practices and discourses of the Nation of Islam, showing how the group and its leaders used multiple religious and esoteric symbols to locate black bodies as sites of religious meaning.
While researching and writing Lion’s Share, one song had been on my mind from the beginning: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It had featured in the 1994 Disney animated feature film “The Lion King,” followed in 1997 by the Broadway musical stage production, a variety of albums, and, finally, an updated version of the original movie in 2019. A central chapter in the book is about the lawsuit that the children of Solomon Linda, the composer of the song who had first recorded it under the title “Mbube” (Lion) in 1939, had brought against Disney for using the song without their permission.
My first encounter with Linda’s song predates the case by about two decades, to the 1980s when I was living in South Africa and hanging out with migrant workers, performing in the isicathamiya tradition of male a cappella choirs later made famous by Grammy Award winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Mbube” was one of the staples in our repertoire, as in this performance by the Easy Walkers in 1983.
Most of us were not aware of the legal aspects of performing Linda’s song, although there was intense animosity against other choirs who were accused of “stealing” your songs. Least of all did Regina Linda, Solomon’s widow, know her rights when I met her in 1987. What I did know though was that Pete Seeger and the Weavers in 1952 had authored a derivate work of “Mbube” they called “Wimoweh.” To his credit, when Seeger found out that the original to “Wimoweh” was Linda’s work, he arranged for royalties to be transferred to the Linda family. Apart from the downhome banjo strumming, the Weavers also retained a certain level of loyalty to Linda’s call and response structure and falsetto voice.
Same cannot be said of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Penned by industry veterans Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and George Weiss, it quickly rose to the top of the charts in 1961 and again in 1963 when the doo-wop group The Tokens recorded it for RCA. However, in contrast to Seeger, Weiss and Co. had not only put a conventional Tin Pan Alley format over the more improvisatory fabric of Linda’s original, but they also turned Linda’s last phrase into a hook with inane lyrics of a lion alternatively sleeping in the jungle and a village. Worst of all, TRO/Folkways, the label that had acquired the US rights to “Mbube” from Regina for one shilling, for decades failed to fully transfer all royalties due to her or her children. Nor did scores of other publishers and sub-publishers who had used “Mbube” and/or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” such as Abilene Music, the main defendant in the Disney lawsuit.
By way of contrast, my all-time favorite performance of the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” has been and remains that by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Mint Juleps, a British all-female a cappella group who in appeared in Spike Lee’s 1990 TV production and album Do It A Cappella. The way the two groups take turns in singing the lead part without either dominating, as in conventional renderings of the song, speaks to the deep Afrodiasporic connection that has been part and parcel of the isicathamiya tradition from the outset.
Little of the finer musical details of “Mbube’s” journey across the global soundscape mattered for the legal proceedings. The similarity of the derivative version and the original was all too obvious, even to what in US copyright law would be referred as the “ordinary observer.” But apart from having established the lineage that led to “Mbube” having become the most successful song to have originated on the African continent, and having, at least in part, righted a glaring wrong, the case will be relevant for South African music over the coming decades for another reason. For, as a result of the lawsuit, the current South African Copyright Act incorporates termination rights, allowing authors to regain their exclusive rights to their works.
Veit Erlmann is the author of Lion’s Share, a book that examines the role of copyright law in post-apartheid South Africa and its impact on the South African music industry. He is Professor and Endowed Chair of Music History at the University of Texas, author of Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality and Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West, and editor of Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity. Read the introduction to Lion’s Share for free and save 30% on the book with coupon code E22ERLMN.
As the weather cools and the holiday season approaches, treat yourself to one of our great new December titles!
In On Paradox, Elizabeth S. Anker contends that the faith in the logic of paradox has been the watermark of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century, showing how paradox generates the very exclusions it critiques and undercuts theory’s commitment to social justice.
Piro Rexhepi explores the overlapping postsocialist and postcolonial border regimes in the Balkans that are designed to protect whiteness and exclude Muslim, Roma, and migrant communities in White Enclosures.
The contributors to Turning Archival, edited by Daniel Marshall and Zeb Tortorici, trace the rise of “the archive” as an object of historical desire and study within queer studies and examine how it fosters historical imagination and knowledge.
In Feltness, Stephanie Springgay considers socially engaged art as a practice of research-creation that germinates a radical pedagogy she calls feltness—a set of intimate practices of creating art based on touch, affect, relationality, love, and responsibility.
Ain’t But a Few of Us, edited by Willard Jenkins, presents over two dozen candid dialogues with Black jazz critics and journalists who discuss the barriers to access for Black jazz critics and how they contend with the world of jazz writing dominated by white men.
In Poverty and Wealth in East Africa, Rhiannon Stephens offers a conceptual history of how people living in eastern Uganda have sustained and changed their ways of thinking about wealth and poverty over the past two thousand years.
Examining a wide range of photography from across the global South, the contributors to Cold War Camera, edited by Thy Phu, Erina Duganne, and Andrea Noble, explore the visual mediation of the Cold War, illuminating how photography shaped how it was prosecuted and experienced.
Through close readings of slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as collage, craft, and sculpture, Jasmine Nichole Cobb explores Black hair as a visual material through which to reimagine the sensual experience of Blackness in New Growth.
The contributors to New World Orderings, edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas, demonstrate that China’s twenty-first-century rise occurs not only through economics and state politics, but equally through its relationships and interactions with the Global South.
Focusing on his personal day to day experiences of the “shelter-in-place” period during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Alberto Moreiras offers a meditation on intellectual life and the nature of thought under the suspension of time and conditions of isolation in Uncanny Rest.
In Ruderal City, Bettina Stoetzer traces the more-than-human relationships between people, plants, and animals in contemporary Berlin, showing how Berlin’s “urban nature” becomes a key site in which notions of citizenship and belonging as well as racialized, gendered, and classed inequalities become apparent.
Veit Erlmann examines the role of copyright law in post-apartheid South Africa and its impact on the South African music industry in Lion’s Share, showing how copyright is inextricably entwined with race, popular music, postcolonial governance, indigenous rights, and the struggle to create a more equitable society.
Rumya Sree Putcha uses the figure of the Indian classical dancer to explore the complex dynamics of contemporary transnational Indian womanhood in The Dancer′s Voice.
In Feminism in Coalition Liza Taylor examines how U.S. women of color feminists’ coalitional collective politics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is an indispensable resource to contemporary political theory, feminist studies, and intersectional social justice activism.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi in Cooling the Tropics, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses.
The contributors to Siting Postcoloniality, edited by Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hau, reevaluate the notion of the postcolonial by focusing on the Sino-sphere—the region of East and Southeast Asia that has been significantly shaped by relations with China throughout history.
Rupal Oza follows the social life of rape in rural northwest India to reveal how rape is a language through which issues ranging from caste to justice to land are contested in Semiotics of Rape.
Fall is in full swing, so curl up with a hot drink, a cozy sweater, and a new book! Check out our October releases.
Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood is John D’Emilio’s coming-of-age story in which he takes readers from his working-class Bronx neighborhood and Columbia University to New York’s hidden gay male subculture and the political and social upheavals of the late 1960s. You can catch John D’Emilio discussing his book at the Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City later this month.
Exploring her attraction to tininess and the stories of those who share it, Barbara Browning offers a series of charming short essays that plumb what it means to ponder the minuscule in The Miniaturists.
Gavin Butt tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds in No Machos or Pop Stars, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Butt will launch his book at an exciting event in Leeds this month, featuring performances by Scritti Politti and The Mekons77.
In Fragments of Truth, Naomi Angel analyzes the visual culture of reconciliation and memory in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Canada established in 2008 to review the history of the Indian Residential School system, a brutal colonial project that killed and injured many Indigenous children.
Drawing on the archives of the Black Panther Party and the National Black Women’s Health Project, Sami Schalk explores how issues of disability have been and continue to be central to Black activism from the 1970s to the present in Black Disability Politics. Schalk launches her book at an event at the Ford Foundation in New York City on October 26.
In Changing the Subject, Srila Roy traces the impact of neoliberalism on gender and sexuality rights movements in the Global South through queer and feminist activism in India. Roy is speaking about her book at The New School and Columbia University later this month.
Filipe Maia offers a theological reflection on hope and the future in the context of financialized capitalism in Trading Futures, arguing that the Christian vocabulary of hope can provide the means to build a future beyond the strictures of capitalism.
Coming from the worlds of cultural anthropology, geography, philosophy, science fiction, poetry, and fine art, editors Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey and the contributors to this volume of The Promise of Multispecies Justice consider the possibility for multispecies justice and speculate on the forms it would take. The authors have developed a multimedia website where you can learn more about this collection.
In Health in Ruins, César Ernesto Abadía-Barrero assesses neoliberalism’s devastating effects on a public hospital in Colombia and how health care workers resisted defunding.
Jovan Scott Lewis retells the history and afterlife of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and its century-long legacy of dispossession in Violent Utopia, placing it in a larger historical and social context of widespread anti-Black racism and segregation in Tulsa and beyond.
In a new revised and expanded twentieth anniversary edition of his classic book Big Game, Small World, sportswriter Alexander Wolff travels the globe in search of what basketball can tell us about the world, and what the world can tell us about the game.
AnaLouise Keating provides a comprehensive investigation of the foundational theories, methods, and philosophies of Gloria E. Anzaldúa in The Anzaldúan Theory Handbook.
Nomenclature collects eight volumes of Dionne Brand’s poetry published between 1983 and 2010, as well as a new long poem, the titular Nomenclature for the time being.
It’s Peer Review Week, an annual event to celebrate the value of peer review that brings together scholarly communication stakeholders, including academic publishers, associations, institutions, and researchers. This year’s theme is “Research Integrity: Creating and supporting trust in research.” This week we will share excerpts on the topic of peer review and research integrity from some of our books. Today we present an excerpt from We are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales in which they discuss the ethics of doing research with undocumented students and scholars.
This is a unique volume. There is currently no other collection of empirical and theoretical work by undocumented or recently undocumented scholars. As editors of this volume, this was certainly an empirical and analytical matter, but also a methodological one. Each author details their own methodological approach in the chapters, but there are broader methodological interventions that must also be named. These involve explicitly positioning undocumented scholars as theorists of the undocumented experience while being mindful of the ethics involved in doing this work. At the outset of this project, we were clear that we did not want this to be a collection of testimonies, narrative reflections, or first-person essays; this is not to say that there is not value in such endeavors, but rather to be clear that such a project is politically, analytically, and methodologically distinct from our aims here. This volume is an intentional effort to position this work as critical to the field in that it pushes our understanding of undocumented life in the United States at this time. Thus, the positioning of the undocumented immigrant as scholar is a direct departure from the treatment of the undocumented immigrant as subject or object. This positioning is not only pragmatic or practical, it is also methodological.
Part of our politic and analytic around this is that this process of undocumentation (Negrón-Gonzales 2018), while it is discussed in public discourse as a clear-cut matter, is a social, legal, and political construction. There is nothing inherent in people that makes them undocumented. There is nothing unchangeable in society that determines that undocumented people are criminals. On the contrary, people move in and out of undocumenteds status and legal, political, and social treatment of undocumented people changes across different historical moments (Ngai 2004). Methodologically, then, it made sense to us to capture these experiences by including people who have direct experience with being undocumented and scholars, whether they are currently undocumented, daca recipients, or formerly undocumented for a notable part of their lives as students. We feel strongly that the authors in this volume have an important role to play in shaping the field.
The other methodological dimension worth illuminating concerns research ethics. Many theorists of undocumented migration have aimed to be thoughtful in how they approach research ethically (Hernández et al. 2013; Suárez-Orozco and Yoshikawa 2013). Some have written about the ethics of cocreating theory with undocumented students who are the focus of analysis (Pérez Huber 2010), while others provide undocumented students with research training and writing support (Clark-Ibáñez 2015; Mena Robles and Gomberg-Muñoz 2016; Unzueta Carrasco and Seif 2014). There is, however, a persistent disconnection in the field more broadly. Undocumented young people note that there is a pattern of researchers entering spaces of organizing—sometimes without permission—only to gather information for their studies, never to be seen again. Those researchers have failed to reciprocate with undocumented immigrant communities, rarely using their skills to support the advocacy work that they document. And in most of those cases, people who participated in the study were not informed of the findings. Authors in this volume have had conversations about how to address these concerns regarding immigration scholars who are not themselves undocumented. One response, in particular, thoughtfully details the problems and suggests best practices for scholars to follow when conducting research with undocumented communities. Gabrielle Cabrera, one of the authors featured in this volume, along with Ines Garcia and an anonymous student at their undergraduate institution in California, got together shortly after the election of Donald Trump. In an attempt to be proactive in this new political context and rooted in what they saw as the nonreciprocal pattern of engagement described above, they developed a brief guide on research ethics for scholars and researchers who were turning to write about undocumented youth in the midst of heightened political threats.
As is true of many scholars we have worked with, Cabrera, Garcia, and their peers highlight the need to push back on the dreamer narrative, not only identifying its limitations but also highlighting how it reifies and sanctifies a certain kind of “good” immigrant. This pushback is a persistent theme across the chapters in this book, and the analytical contributions of these young scholars remind us that a key part of decolonizing research methodologies involves disrupting the assumed unmovable distinction between the researcher and the researched. Part of that process involves marginalized people theorizing and producing scholarship about the experiences of their communities.
Leisy J. Abrego is Professor of Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love across Borders. Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales is Associate Professor of Education at the University of San Francisco and coauthor of Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World. We Are Not Dreamers is available for 30% off on our site with coupon SAVE30.
We are pleased to share a new annual special section from Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism: “Keywords in Caribbean Studies: A Small Axe Project”, a collaborative effort to examine the genealogy and contemporary lexicon of Caribbean cultural-political terms. The featured section will be published in each July issue of Small Axe, beginning with volume 26, no. 2 (68), which covers the multiplicity of meaning and fraught history of Caribbean discourse terms zwart, negro/a/x, négre, and Black.
“Our keywords project is an exercise in critical vocabulary that is less preoccupied with the production of a singular, authoritative definition for a term than it is with a genealogy of that term’s history and usage,” write the editors about the new special section. “In an effort to synthesize the historical meanings and enduring significance of terms that define our region and guide our study, we seek to trace histories of concepts and speculate imaginatively about their future uses and directions.”
Through this annual published conversation, Small Axe provides a space for readers and scholars to remain attentive to the tension, depth, and complexity of language while invigorating creative new thinking on contemporary and future studies in the Caribbean. Read the introduction to the inaugural collection of essays, made freely available.
In June of 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled to eliminate the right to privacy for American women in choosing when and if to become mothers, a right that has been constitutional since 1973 in the decision Roe vs Wade.
Restricting and removing women’s rights, silencing our voices, controlling our choices and our bodies, is everywhere and throughout history intimately connected to tyranny. American slavery controlled women’s bodies through rape and forced breeding. It was only in 1919 that women were “given” the “right” to vote, and as American tyrannies rise again, the right to vote is being threatened in many states. From European Fascism and Nazism, to various ideologies and religious fundamentalisms around the world, now in the United States—everywhere tyranny is embedded with issues of caste and class – with racism, white supremacy and misogyny. As always, single mothers, women of color, poor women, and many working mothers without wealth or supports will be the most harmed.
Coincidentally, my first memoir, about pregnancy, giving birth and my first years of being a mother, (The Mother Knot) written and published over forty years ago, widely read then, is now being widely read again in a Spanish language edition as feminist movements gather energy in Spain and in South and Central America. Recently, I spoke with Mexican journalists who still feel the book’s relevance. One young woman described the traumatic experience of becoming a mother alone during the pandemic, then the relief she felt in what she called the “radical honesty” of my story of the knots of motherhood. She described horror felt about the decision of our Supreme Court by many women in South and Central America, where feminism is changing political and personal consciousness as the movement did in the United States in the 1970s. Many there are struggling to understand how America — still in some ways viewed as a democratic ideal if not a reality — can have prohibited the voices of women, turning choice into a crime. I was deeply moved by the continued relevance of my work, but also made aware by these courageous young women of how crucial our voices are — the voices of women everywhere. For the voices of mothers in the United States have never been only about women having and caring for children. Biological mothers join other voices across the arts and professions; women who choose not to be, or cannot be, biological mothers; adoptive mothers and step-mothers; women, including mothers, who reject the classic myth of ourselves as perfect givers, always choosing service to others over service to ourselves, angels of love or she-devils of murderous capacity; women and girls who have been raped by family members or strangers; girls and women who choose to reject the identity of woman altogether; the voices of maternal men, especially but not only biological fathers.
Here, then, is the voice of my thirty-year old self writing, a voice that continues to have resonance over forty years later:
Now, the Court has added to these ingrained lies the equivalency of abortion with murder.
This seed of maternal guilt and shame, that we will with the slightest misstep make our children crazy, or criminal, or ill, is the most common fear shared with me by readers over the years, a stream of relief expressed in the possibility that what has been called individual pathology, including chronic conflict about so much of what we do and feel, from pregnancy to giving birth to raising a child — the knot of motherhood — is actually a natural part of one of the most demanding and overwhelming forms of love. When, or if, to continue a pregnancy, to give birth or to choose not to be a mother or not to be a mother again is one of the most complex decisions in life. By criminalizing our choices, the Court has ruled to control our bodies, to silence our thinking and feeling selves.
When I became a mother, I also became something else brand new. Though I did not know it immediately when I held my first newborn child in my arms, that new self would require a complex fabric of learning and awareness that has been transformative. In 1969 and again in 1973 I became the white/Jewish mother of Black sons. As I began the maternal work of raising my children, living in close connection with my husband’s African American family, I listened and studied about how race and racial identity are embedded in all issues of public policy, in all struggles for freedom and against oppression, in decisions about where one lives, or shops, or attends school or work, of what to be proud of as I learned more about freedom movements in American history, what to be deeply ashamed of, and what to fear for the bodies I love: I began to comprehend the social, political and psychological problem of whiteness.
As the great writer James Baldwin put it, writing about American racism and the history of American slavery: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” I hear the words of Adrienne Rich: “[P]olitics was not something out there, but in here, the essence of my condition.” And of the philosopher, Sara Ruddick: “The maternal act of storytelling [is] a politics of remembering.”
When I reread The Mother Knot today, I hear the voice of a young woman trying to learn how to be a mother while she is longing for a mother herself, the voice of a mother with many privileges who nevertheless experiences confusion, loneliness, sometimes debilitating anxieties and anger along with devotion, attention, and passionate love. I imagine young women, in a society that offers few supports, struggling to choose to be mothers, then trying to be good mothers against a tight social fabric of terrible odds; women and girls choosing not to be mothers doomed, as many were in my own youth, to death or the risk of death.
I can think of three times when historical forces, personal experience and new intellectual awareness came together to form a radical challenge to my identity:
When I dispelled the illusion that we are wholly conscious of everything we feel and all the motivations for our actions and choices.
When I understood the cruel and damaging blindness of white perspectives on American history and culture I came to call “the whiteness of whiteness” in my memoir about being the white mother of Black sons.
When I became aware of the dangerous historical and personal distortions in cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity in part through the experience of motherhood.
“How much it takes to be a writer …” Tillie Olsen writes in her essay “Silences,” a meditation on gender and women writing. “We must have much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions.”
Or Audre Lorde, the poet and writer who taught us so much about the courage required and the necessity for true stories, while reminding us of “the fear of being visible, scrutinized, judged, even perhaps the elemental fears of pain and death.”
We may extend these words not only to writers but to all people.
Recently I read words from Vincent Harding, a leader of the American Civil Rights movement, quoted by the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, about how the yearning for freedom flows through history “like a river, sometimes powerful … and rolling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, streaked and running with blood.”
A dangerous winter is emerging in this country. It is felt by progressive people here and in many places across the globe where the ideal of liberty is still a commitment and a hope. One essential piece of holding onto that hope is the courage to write and speak with radical honesty.
Portions of this essay were published by ROOM, A Sketchbook for Analytic Action. Some portions, in somewhat different form, are from A Woman Writer in Time, essays forthcoming by Las Afueras, Barcelona, Spain.
The reality cooking show Top Chef finished its nineteenth season on June 2. Anita Mannur, author of Intimate Eating, is an avid viewer of the show and offers this guest post. Mannur is Associate Professor of English at Miami University, author of Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture, and coeditor of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader.
Late last week, I tuned in to watch the season finale of Top Chef with a little more than the usual nervousness I often feel when watching the finale. I have watched all 19 seasons of Top Chef since it began airing in 2006 and have even taken in some of the spin-offs such as Top Chef Masters, Top Chef: Just Desserts and even Top Chef Family Style. I enjoy watching Top Chef because, even though contestants of color get eliminated more often than not, it seems to be the one cooking show that is interested in showcasing food, and not some gimmick around food that would act like seeing people run around a grocery store to collect items is even vaguely interesting. Top Chef showcases innovative and interesting cuisine, often at the hands of talented chefs across the country. The fact that the show is hosted by an Indian American, Padma Lakshmi—who has become a fierce advocate for marginalized peoples and important social issues—makes it even more meaningful. But my love-hate relationship with the show boils down to one simple fact: I find it incredibly frustrating to root for the contestants of color only to see them sent home much earlier than they should be. It is not that the people who win the contest are not talented; rather it is simply a case of wishing that there were more opportunities for chefs of color, and particularly women of color, to thrive in an industry that is dominated by cishet white male chefs. Whenever a person of color wins the season, I am relieved. When one roots for the person of color on reality TV, one is all too familiar with the feeling that they will not win the big prize. So, when they do win, it feels more like a relief than anything else.
This season I was especially excited because there seemed to be a record number of people of color on the show. About two-thirds of the season’s contestants were people of color. Week after week, I watched in surprise to see many of them remain on the show until, by some miracle, there were six remaining contestants—all of whom were people of color. With apologies to Lauren Berlant, every time I watch Top Chef (or for that matter, any reality TV show), I often feel like I am engaging in a form of cruel optimism. Despite knowing better, I always hope against hope that the people of color will not be eliminated. And yet each week, my optimism fades as I see my favorites get eliminated. While it is certainly the case that there have been several people of color who have won Top Chef (and among them several Asian Americans), rarely do Black or Latinx women ever win. Though some may go on to have success in the culinary field, few—if any—get to hear the words, “you are top chef.” To date, no Black or Latinx women have won the title of Top Chef. And frankly, given the ways that Black and Latinx women have shaped America’s culinary history, that is outrageous.
So, it was with considerable surprise and growing interest that I watched Season 19 unfold until, finally, there were six contestants left and every single one of them was a person of color. This moment felt unprecedented. At that point it seemed that it was inevitable that a person of color was going to win Top Chef—the finale would include three chefs of color. I was elated. And then I was reminded of the Top Chef spin-off, Last Chance Kitchen, a 10- to 15-minute show that airs on Bravo.com after the conclusion of each episode. As its title suggests, it is the last chance for eliminated chefs. Each week an eliminated chef competes against a previously eliminated chef. If they survive, they compete against the next eliminated contestant until finally a winner of Last Chance Kitchen is crowned and re-enters the main competition. I began watching LCK, and that old familiar feeling came back as I watched the contestants of color, one after another, lose their second chance until finally a winner was declared. Sarah Welch, a quirky white woman who had been eliminated early in the contest, re-entered Top Chef. While interesting in spirit, the whole premise of LCK seems to be that it offers a second chance to a deserving person. But in a moment when this country offers few second chances to people of color, and when different kinds of subjectivities are under erasure, it felt egregious to see that the concept of “deserving” is rooted in a narrative of talent. The dishes are purportedly tasted blindly, suggesting that a kind of equity is at play. And yet I cannot help but think that this utilizes the same logic as color blindness. What would it look like, in a country that is most certainly not color blind, to be more intentional about accessing a narrative of equity that extends to racial inclusion in determining who deserves a second chance? What if the idea of the “second chance” was not rooted in an apolitical and decontextualized narrative about who usually ascends to positions of power, but in one that would think about the political and affective resonance of having three incredibly deserving chefs of color make it to the end? Why, in the end, is it so unimaginable to have a major cooking competition decide that all its finalists will be people of color?
When Welch returned to the contest, there were five people of color: three African Americans (Ashleigh Shanti, Nick Wallace and Damarr Brown), one Latina (Evelyn Garcia) and one Asian Australian (Buddha Lo). This was unprecedented. In its 16-year history, there had never been this many African Americans left in the contest at this late stage. But then the old patterns reemerged, and one by one, each black chef was eliminated, and it became apparent that the finale would include a Latina woman, an Asian Australian man, and a white woman. Though I personally liked Welch and her quirky humor (and her deep commitment to showcasing different kinds of miso), I was a little disappointed. And to be honest, the finale was beautiful. All three contestants clearly respected one another and were rooting for one another in ways that felt more reminiscent of The Great British Bake Off than say, The Amazing Race. There is a real and palpable comradery among the contestants, and it was apparent that Garcia, Lo and Welch were invested in each other’s success. The expressions of intimacy and care felt genuine and were a welcome change from the backstabbing and snark that one often comes to expect in US-based reality shows and in several of the early seasons of Top Chef.
However, in the last few weeks of the season, I went from feeling excited about the prospects of a finale including only chefs of color to feeling deflated that it was all for naught and that Top Chef was once again merely pandering and would eliminate the remaining contestants of color for spurious reasons. At the end of each season, viewers are often told that the smallest details can send a person home. For chefs of color, that often takes the form of being sent home for not being “true to their origins or heritage,” a standard that is rarely applied to white chefs who are often praised for having knowledge of diverse cuisines.
In the end, the right person (I think) won. Buddha Lo’s food was inventive, took stock of his racial and ethnic heritage and was beautifully plated. But I was also disappointed not to see Garcia win—not just because she is Latina but because she was an exceptional chef in every way. But of course, only one person can win, even if the runners up do not have to hear the odious phrase, “please pack your knives and go.”
To the show’s credit, they made remarkable strides in showcasing so many talented chefs of color. And my guess is that, despite not winning, many of them will go on to have amazing careers. But it remained disappointing to see that it took 19 seasons for the producers of the show to keep six people of color in the running, only to then get rid of them one by one, all the while conveying to the audience that a deserving white person needed to be at the final judging panel. Groundbreaking as it was to have this many contestants of color in one season, it was disappointing that it didn’t go further. To have the show come so close to doing something truly transformative, only to thwart expectations and desires at the last minute, was disappointing.
While I will not stop watching Top Chef anytime soon, it also does not escape my attention that we may not see a season like this again. At the end of the day, it is not too much to ask to see more chefs of color standing in front of the judge’s table as a small, but important, gesture that would remind us that whiteness does not always have to be at the table.
To read more from Anita Mannur, buy Intimate Eating from our site and save 30% with coupon code E22MANNR.
As we approach the end of the semester, kick off your summer reading with some of our great new titles! Here’s what we have coming out in May.
Shannen Dee Williams provides a comprehensive history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States in Subversive Habits, tracing how Black sisters’ struggles were central to the long African American freedom movement.
The contributors to Re-Understanding Media, edited by Sarah Sharma and Rianka Singh, advance a feminist version of Marshall McLuhan’s key text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, repurposing his insight that “the medium is the message” for feminist ends.
In Queer Companions, Omar Kasmani theorizes the construction of queer social relations at Pakistan’s most important Sufi site by examining the affective and intimate relationship between the site’s pilgrims and its patron saint.
In The Impasse of the Latin American Left, Franck Gaudichaud, Massimo Modonesi, and Jeffery R. Webber explore the Latin American Pink Tide as a political, economic, and cultural phenomenon, showing how it failed to transform the underlying class structures of their societies or challenge the imperial strategies of the United States and China.
In Passionate Work, Renyi Hong theorizes the notion of being “passionate about your work” as an affective project that encourages people to endure economically trying situations like unemployment, job change, repetitive and menial labor, and freelancing.
Allan E. S. Lumba explores how the United States used monetary policy and banking systems to justify racial and class hierarchies, enforce capitalist exploitation, and counter movements for decolonization in the American colonial Philippines in Monetary Authorities.
In The Lives of Jessie Sampter, Sarah Imhoff tells the story of the queer, disabled, Zionist writer Jessie Sampter (1883–1938), whose body and life did not match typical Zionist ideals and serves as an example of the complex relationships between the body, queerness, disability, religion, and nationalism.
Jodi Kim examines how the United States extends its sovereignty across Asia and the Pacific in the post-World War II era through a militarist settler imperialism that is leveraged on debt in Settler Garrison.
In Legal Spectatorship, Kelli Moore traces the political origins of the concept of domestic violence through visual culture in the United States, showing how it is rooted in the archive of slavery.