Conversations in Black: K. Merinda Simmons

Monica Miller & Christopher Driscoll May 12, 2015 0

Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll talk about Post-Blackness with K. Merinda Simmons

 

Conversations in Black Update

This interview series, hosted by Drs Monica R. Miller and Christopher M. Driscoll of Lehigh University, highlights prominent voices, books, and avenues of thought emerging from the study of black culture, religion, politics, and identity, with an eye towards trends in the academy and society.

 

K. Merinda Simmons is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Her areas of interest include the relationship between religious expression and gender identity, Afro-Caribbean and African American Women Writers, Southern Studies, and Feminist Theory and Philosophy.

Her current research examines Afro-Caribbean and African American women’s migration narratives in the 19th and 20th centuries, giving specific focus to how travel across geographical and sociopolitical boundaries constructs notions of “gender” and “labor.” Simmons is currently at work on a book manuscript tentatively entitled The Work of Southern Womanhood: Mapping Feminine “Character” across Gender, Race, and Migration.

In this interview with Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll, Simmons discusses the problem with post-blackness, as well as a number of issues related to discourses of authenticity and identity.

Baker Simmons

Houston A. Baker and K. Merinda Simmons (eds.), The Trouble with Post-Blackness, Columbia University Press, 2015, 288 pp., $30

MM/CD: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your intellectual trajectory and genealogy. You’re a scholar situated within the fields of English as well as Religious Studies, but you’re also an interdisciplinary thinker with an identifiable common thread of interest within and among the domains of identity, difference, theory, and method — all of which require exploring a wide variety of data sets. What sorts of questions emerge in your scholarship and how did you arrive at co-editing The Trouble with Post-Blackness with Professor Houston Baker?

KMS: Trained in literary theory and now working as a professor in religious studies, I do actually remain wary of the quick and casual ways in which something called “interdisciplinarity” is invoked in the academy. Scholars are often called interdisciplinary if they simply have several areas of research or interest. While it certainly holds more political currency than the “generalist” designation we would have avoided just a handful of years ago, the two descriptors share a similar fate in which a scholar’s content areas define her work more than her brand of analysis or critical approach to those very areas. So, while I do indeed work across a variety of data, as you mentioned, I try to keep central the question that guides my research in each of those domains. That question takes different shapes, of course, but it is typically on the order of the following: How does “authenticity” come to be identified and authorized in discourses of or about power? Thus, I am interested in the rhetoric of authenticity as a legitimizing tool that consolidates or contests dominance in one way or another.

This was the lens through which I read Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now. And it is one of the main questions that Houston Baker and I returned to in our conversations about that very book. We found quickly that our shared critiques and frustrations with the text were in keeping with a discussion that we very much felt needed to be had about the state of contemporary popular political discourse about blackness and American society, and we ultimately decided that the post-blackness label provided a perfect occasion to begin that discussion in earnest with a bigger group of thinkers.

MM/CD: You’re also the author of Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora (2014), as well as Race and Displacement: Nation, Migration, and Displacement in the Twenty-first Century with Maha Marouan and also a member of the Culture on the Edge international scholarly collaborative. With all of this in mind, give us a sense of where, when, why, and how The Trouble with Post-Blackness makes both its appearance and intervention within the academic context as well as current social and political context within the US. We’re thinking here of the tension posed between the limited life options emerging from the proliferation of murders of young black teenagers at the hands of police as well as an intense moment of black recognition and exceptionalism by way of President Barack Obama’s ascendency to the White House.

KMS: One of the main interventions that the book makes, to my mind, within the contexts you mention comes in its implicit (and at times explicit) insistence that those doing work in race studies — whether as academics or activists — complicate the notion of “self-determination” that post-blackness proponents hold up as an unproblematic gold standard of racial performance in America. In order to critique appeals to an authentic way to be black, Touré interviews what he calls “105 luminaries.” I am sympathetic to, and would even echo, his starting point — that something called blackness is not reducible to a pure or identifiable state. However, the fluidity and flux that he wants to stack up as worth consideration and even emulation (one of his chapters, after all, is entitled “How to Build More Baracks”) are represented only by people of political and economic access and prestige. Complex, boundary-breaking identity performances are not exclusive to one cohort or another — indeed, I would suggest that what we have come to call identity is necessarily constituted by exactly these moments in which regulatory boundaries come into focus through a subject’s conformity to or contestation of them. That said, the consequences of these very performances that traverse boundaries and enunciate their own fluidity are quite different across various contexts. It is one thing for Oprah to celebrate being “rooted in, but not restricted by” blackness. It is quite another for the (one in every three) black men in America who will be processed through the prison industrial complex.

Thus, where “blackness” is a moniker (with significant heuristic value and political efficacy) around which people might rally in any number of domains, a post-black call to identify that very moniker as a possible restriction — and, what’s more, a restriction that one can simply choose not to be fettered by — strikes me as short-sighted at best. Jelani Cobb’s understanding of Ferguson, MO as a metaphor for America itself (rather than the police there being the simpler metaphor of racial oppression) comes to mind. As long as last year’s events in Ferguson are representative of the systematized, structural ways in which racial identifications are made and acted upon in the US, “what it means to be black now” is decidedly not something determined by prestigious luminaries. Or, at least, if that is the group determining the stakes of Touré’s subtitle, it seems only to add oil to the hegemonic American machine that forwards the interests of elite slices of society in the name of broad-scale democracy. Surely one’s scope is limited by the pragmatic concerns of book length and cohesion, but I do think post-blackness in the way Touré presents it is a byproduct and subsequent offering of privilege.

MM/CD: Moving along to the impetus behind the book — how did you and Professor Baker initially imagine this collection coming together in terms of form, content, and data? The voices that make up this volume are varied, interdisciplinary, and wide-ranging — how does this assortment provide different models, methods, and sources for the topic of study?

Simmons1

K. Merinda Simmons

 

KMS: We thought it might be a good idea to bring a number of different kinds of approaches and perspectives to the table inasmuch as we think there are numerous reasons to trouble or critique the concept of post-blackness. When we began talking about possible contributors, we had in mind a clear intellectual rallying point — the problems with post-blackness as a moniker for the contemporary nexus of American politics, economics, and ideology for African Americans — but wanted the essays in the volume to come at that point from various angles. To that end, there are represented in the collection a variety of disciplinary and analytical starting points. Contributors are specialists in English and literature, African and African American studies, anthropology, classics, journalism, and diaspora studies, just to name some of the discourses included in this book. Readers will also be confronted with several genres of academic and nonfiction writing. Professor Baker and I hoped to present the trouble with the notion of post-blackness as a multi-faceted critique, launched from multiple vantage points.

MM/CD: In light of the above question, and although nicely addressed in the Introduction, we cannot help ourselves from asking what role Touré’s (also a co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle) book plays in the construction of this volume’s thesis, approach and aims/goals? In the Introduction to The Trouble with Post-Blackness, you begin by writing, “I should make one thing clear from the outset: this volume is not about Touré. His recent Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now did give rise to a productive conversation between my co-editor and me, one that sowed the initial seeds toward thinking about a collaborative project addressing this topic.” How does his work play and not play a role in this volume coming together? In using his work as data — did you and Professor Baker see something symptomatic in Touré’s work that speaks to similar and larger moves made in both academia and other publics?

Toure Who's Afraid

Touré, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now, Atria Books, 2012, 251 pp., $16

KMD: Fair enough. It makes good sense to ask and talk about Touré a bit — I’ve already brought up his book a few times just in this interview. What I meant by saying that the book is not about Touré is that the guiding questions for the collection — and certainly my own interests in this discussion — are not so much to do with Touré qua Touré but in what his roles as media personality and cultural critic/commentator say about the state of popular discourse about race and politics. That is, I struggle with the ongoing attempt by so many talking heads on cable news outlets to keep the spotlight on individual success stories within black communities. As I discussed a bit above, this emphasis on the transcendent power of the individual avoids a long, hard look at social structures that keep inequality in place, often in seemingly neutral ways. There is a presumption that if people tap into their inner humanity, without regard to the strictures of race or ethnic background, they will be able to determine their own fates and leave behind the restrictions of sociopolitical identifications. I find deeply problematic, however, this capitalistic brand of social justice speak.

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness does also seem to engage in some of the same shorthand employed by too many academicians engaged in identity studies right now. Namely, similar to how Touré begins with a critique of authenticity, only to proceed to list and describe three “primary dimensions of blackness” and end his discussion with a chapter entitled “We Are Quintessential Americans,” scholars will often make nods to race or gender or sexuality or other identifications as being socially constructed, only to proceed to discuss “Blackness” or “Women” (just for a couple of examples) as unproblematic and clearly identifiable signifiers. So, in a few different arenas, Professor Baker and I find the Touré text to be a constructive entry point for examining larger mechanics of the current discourse on race and performance, within both pop culture and the professoriate.

MM/CD: Let’s discuss for a moment the Introduction to this volume in which you wrote a piece titled, “The Dubious Stage of Post-Blackness — Performing Otherness, Conserving Dominance” — which is, by the way, beautifully written and robustly executed! Give us a sense of what sort of work the title of the Introduction is doing in setting the stage for the ensuing conversation in the volume. You begin with epigraphs by Jean-Francois Bayart on identity (as no such thing, only “operational acts of identification”) coupled with words from Pierre Bourdieu that situate the ambivalence of the “intellectual” as “holders of capital,” even if they are “dominated among the dominant.” Why use these authors and positions to set the stage for the book and unfolding dialogue?

KMS: Thanks for your kind words about the Introduction. What I’m getting at with the title of the essay is that, in a focus on the performed nature of identifications marked “other,” scholars and cultural critics often play into the very system of dominance they purport to deconstruct. They make quick disclaimers, of course, that remind their readers that certainly whiteness or masculinity or heteronormativity or what-have-you is no less performed or manufactured than spaces marked “marginal,” but then go on to refer to those spheres where power is consolidated as obvious or identifiable categories, even if categories all the same. The effect of this scholarly shorthand is the perpetuation of a general claim of whiteness as somehow not-raced, for example. Despite the great work that has been done to disabuse us of that very presumption, it implicitly enters the conversation and remains up and running in claims that present “humanness” as something that transcends racial identification. It is in this way — by treating “human” or “American” as special and outside the signifying spaces of what we identify as race — that proponents of post-blackness use the normative logic of white supremacy.

As I note in my essay, I took the Bourdieu quote from a colleague’s blog post, the ensuing discussion of which I use to frame my own argument. Some may take issue with the scholars I quote at the beginning of the essay in order to talk about the categories of blackness and post-blackness, as they are both white French thinkers. However, I think if we take these epigraphs seriously and consider the implications of these ideas, we cannot help but think about identifications of power on an ever-shifting scale. Too often, a dichotomy between the academy and “the real world” informs how scholars think about the work we do. When this happens, standpoint epistemologies take the place of incisive analysis about the ways in which academic/political/social/intellectual capital informs those very epistemologies when presented in scholarly domains. This myopia is at work in much cultural criticism about identifications understood as marginal, and it is also certainly present in the discourse of post-blackness. In both cases, the privilege that informs these discussions of otherness (at least as played out on the stages of academic institutions and cable news outlets) is ignored.

MM/CD: In our estimation, your new book offers a fascinating theoretical and/or methodological tension posed between the tone, approach, and direction taken in the Introduction in particular, and the perspectives taken by some of the contributors. On one hand, we are reminded by a thinker like Bayart in that there is no such thing as post-blackness (or even blackness itself), only operationalized acts that make such terms and realities possible — and yet this volume takes a position against a certain kind of discourse that seemingly seeks to erase the very term that has become almost metaphysical in many ways (blackness). In this way, many of the pieces in this volume want to make the claim that something like “blackness” matters, cannot be obscured, erased, and reduced, and must remain an explicit part of the conversation. How is the discursive vying for the perspicuous and categorical self-evidence of blackness (in that it’s something we have not gotten beyond, past, and as such, must remain on the table as something real) that takes place and shape in this volume different from, say, our comfort with (almost uncontested) terms and categories such as postmodernism and postcolonial? Scholars don’t — although sometimes they do — seem too worried that we’re not really post in these sorts of ways. What stakes are involved in keeping blackness verses post-blackness on the table of conversation?

KMS: I think I see the tension to which you’re referring — some essays do take a protectionist stance toward “blackness” as an important category of identity, whereas my own emphasis lies in rhetorical turns and their implications. Despite the analytical differences apparent at points in the book, however, there is a consistent insistence on taking stock of context and historical specificities that I find really productive. Whatever one’s particular approach to troubling the concept of post-blackness may be, the challenge to consider how “blackness” has been understood and deployed in various domains is an important one.

For my own part, the point is not about staking a claim in whether there should or should not be the term, as your question seems to imply. I don’t think that’s the point for Touré or others who advocate for post-blackness either, inasmuch as the attempt to rework how we think about blackness is hardly a call to do away with the label. Following Bayart, the term itself has not become metaphysical — people with certain interests utilize it in that way, perhaps, but that is suggestive of the politics surrounding such uses of the term and has little to do with some kind of meaning the term might be thought to possess in its own right. I would also take issue with the idea that to say we’ve not gotten beyond or past something called blackness is to say that it must remain on the table as real.

I would hesitate to pinpoint an “it” that we might get beyond, in fact. I do not see blackness as an entity hovering outside discourse and just waiting for people to recognize it or call it what it is. That very impulse to identify it as such, I think, is what casts the term within conversations about metaphysics. Instead, what happens if we look at blackness as a tool within a rhetorical toolbox, a tool like any other? This tool, when identified or used in certain ways (in the case of Michael Slager’s treatment of Walter Scott, as something inherently dangerous or easily discarded), can have fatal consequences. In the hands of Huey Newton and Angela Davis, the tool consolidates power in otherwise disenfranchised spaces. When used by Touré, the tool accommodates self-definition. The attempt to “get beyond” a label implies that there is a way to get outside of language or discourse, and I find that troublesome.

In a similar sense (if I’m understanding your question correctly), I don’t think that scholars should be worried about what people are or are not “post” (modern, colonial, or otherwise). Our job as scholars, to my mind, is to be interested in how such labels are utilized and what consequences these utilizations entail. Sure, the categories you brought up (postmodernism and postcolonialism) are at times tossed around in the academy a bit too quickly or without enough analytical grounding. But that isn’t because what’s really true is that we’re not actually post-modern or whatever the case may be. Rather, the problems with using such terms in the way I so often hear them invoked in the academy involve the failure to take seriously the methodological demands of these approaches. That is, too many scholars seem to think that they are doing postmodern analysis if they simply talk about “identity” as such at all. The quick nods to social construction, as I mentioned above, give way to traditional and quite conservative discussions of identity as a thing social actors possess or access. They thus fail to press postmodern or postcolonial approaches to identity that present “it” as contingent upon and manufactured by vested interests and identifications. So, I am not more or less compelled by “blackness” versus “post-blackness” as a term or signifier. The stakes in utilizing such terms are not to do with picking the right one — the stakes are to do with treating either as an experiential and evident end in itself.

MM/CD: To the meat of the volume more specifically — how did you and Professor Baker organize this collection of work? In this text, we encounter pieces that touch on themes such as blackness in aesthetics, time, technology, globalization, authorship, and institution. What can readers expect to encounter in these areas of the book? You note at the end of the Introduction that this is just a collaborative start to the conversation on post-blackness but not the end, and you then provide scintillating questions for further pondering and future discussion. In your estimation, where do you see the conversation heading? What sorts of theoretical and methodological turns do such future queries necessitate?

KMS: There are a lot of different ways we could have organized the volume thematically, of course. What finally became our organizational pattern was the result of our thinking through the various approaches and data sets presented by our contributors and incorporating some suggestions made by outside readers when the text was going through the peer-review process. However, the groupings identified in the Introduction are by no means hard and fast divisions within the essays, and they do not appear as sharp lines of demarcation in the structuring of the book. They appear only in the Introduction as a way to think about the myriad contexts for working through the trouble with post-blackness. Readers will, of course, organize the collection differently based on their own interests as they go through the book.

Where I hope the conversation is heading is in a more self-reflexive direction in which cultural critics take stock of the investments that guide their own approaches rather than simply using their own experiences or subject positions to launch uncritical analyses that ignore the assumptions that are necessary to offer these analyses in the first place. Such a direction would potentially look at, for one thing, the possibilities and limits of public intellectualism as the scholarly discourse on race becomes increasingly played out in cable news and online contexts. This impulse is what’s at work, for example, in my asking at end of the Introduction how we might discuss blackness and identity without resorting to experiential authority and race phenomenologies.

MM/CD: Finally, given your work here, and in other publications, some of which are forthcoming (Codes of Conduct: Code Switching and the Everyday Performance of Identity, with Miller), what questions, topics, and themes are you currently at work on? How does (and has) your work at Culture on the Edge around identity/identification inform your current projects and thinking? What can the fields you work in and around expect as you continue to advance critical approaches to a variety of data sets — including but not limited to slave religion, literary studies, gender, diaspora, theory and method in the academic study of religion, and categories such as blackness/post-blackness/whiteness and so on?

KMS: My attempt to work through the implications of a focus on identification rather than identity is definitely evident in my current projects. I’m very happy to be doing the editorial work that you cite with Monica Miller in a volume on the topic of code-switching that looks through a theoretical lens at discourses of power, agency, and performance. She and I are keeping the collaborative work going, too, with some preliminary steps made toward a workshop on the politics of identity and authorship that we hope will materialize this Fall.

I am also writing a few essays specifically within the context of religious studies — one responding to the new Norton Anthology of World Religions, one that will become part of the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History, and one discussing the state of “critical theory” in religious studies scholarship. In different ways, all of these pieces will be taking a look at scholars’ proximity to their objects of study. I am also in the early stages of several book projects: my second single-author monograph, which will be a critical study of the category “slave religion” as employed by ethnohistorians and religionists; a co-authored book (with Craig Martin, St. Thomas Aquinas College) on the intersection of gender theory and religious studies (two scholarly ships passing too often, as far as I’m concerned); and a short co-authored book (with James A. Crank, U of Alabama) that will provide something of a suggestive primer on race and so-called “new modernisms.” Working with scholars who specialize in race studies, religious studies, and literary studies helps me clarify my own terms of engagement with these interlocking points of analysis. My hope, too, is that doing so keeps front and center the work of methodological and theoretical specificity within interdisciplinary scholarship.