Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll engage in impolite conversation with John L. Jackson, Jr.
In the first installment in this new series, Conversations in Black, Miller and Driscoll talk to John L. Jackson, Jr. about his new book with Cora Daniels, Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money, and Religion.
Jackson is Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice and the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Africana Studies, and Anthropology in the Standing Faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication and the Standing Faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences. Before coming to Penn, Jackson taught in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and spent three years as a Junior Fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in Communications (Radio, TV, Film) from Howard University in Washington D.C. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in New York City. As a filmmaker, Jackson has produced a feature-length fiction film, documentaries, and film-shorts that have screened at film festivals internationally. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Harvard University’s Milton Fund, and the Lilly Endowment (during a year at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina). He has published a number of widely celebrated books, including Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness (Basic, 2008). More recently, Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (Harvard 2013) and most recently, Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money, and Religion (Atria 2014). This most recent book also has a website with more interviews and videos.
Jackson is also on Twitter: @johnljacksonjr.
MM/CD: Impolite Conversations is an issues-driven dialogue between you and journalist Cora Daniels, both of you friends since high school. Could you tell us a bit about how the project came together, and how it took specific shape as this series of “impolite conversations?”
JJ: Ever since Cora and I were in high school, Brooklyn Tech in New York City, we’ve been threatening to write something together. Back then, I’m not sure we thought that it would be a bona fide book of any kind, but we knew we wanted to be in critical conversation with one another as thinkers and would-be writers. I went to Howard in DC. She went to Yale in New Haven. I came back to New York to study anthropology at Columbia and to produce 16mm films at just about the same time that she returned to NYC, also set up shop at Columbia (in the Journalism School), and continued to enhance her skills as a news reporter. Jump-cut to a couple of years ago, and we were still fantasizing about some kind of writerly collaboration, threatening to craft something together. We’ve both had the opportunity to write other things. Cora has written some books. I’ve written some. We’d read each other’s work, of course. And we still couldn’t clear space to actually commit to concretizing what some kind of co-written piece might look like. We never got beyond the dinner party mentions, always in passing, ever-wistfully.
So, we finally said either we do this, or we stop talking about it. So we finally brainstormed a bit about the idea, and things just started to come together. I consider our book a kind of soft provocation, a Swiftian spoof on the very notion of “public dialogues.” It is also a commentary on the devolving nature of public discourse today. Some of that devolution is linked to impoverished understandings of political correctness, which I talked about in my book Racial Paranoia. Political Correctness is least effective, I think, when it is imagined as an endgame in and of itself and not merely a potential starting block, a means to an entirely different finish line: creating a safe space for as many people as possible to feel like they have a legitimate and recognized role in a civic discourse that will necessarily be uncomfortable — for everyone. Cora and I thought that we’d use our essays in Impolite Conversations (some of them personal, some of them polemical) to talk about things we knew would be unpopular (and even somewhat controversial or embarrassing), but we wanted to do that with the “good faith” goal of modeling a form of discursive honesty that we hoped could help to reboot popular discussions and debates about the future of American society.
MM/CD: As a well-respected scholar and widely-regarded brilliant ethnographer, could you tell us about the challenges you faced in writing Impolite Conversations? In particular, did your position or academic reputation give you any pauses when writing? If so, could you tell us a couple moments in the book that were dicey? Also, did you find yourself relying on your ethnographic training in a sort of auto-ethnographic way? Much of the project involves personal reflection and even memoir-style recounting of childhood and family. What was it like to turn the ethnographic gaze towards yourself, and were you well or ill-equipped by your training in anthropology?
JJ: First of all, I appreciate your characterization of my work, but I’m not sure how brilliant I am as an ethnographic researcher/writer. In fact, there are tons of anthropologists who would argue that that I don’t really do legitimate ethnographic research at all. Partly because it can be so autobiographically inflected, partly because it can feel very “theory” heavy, partly because I work on urban issues in the United States (the traditional terrain of sociological ethnographers), and partly because I don’t care about some of what are usually deemed central questions in our discipline today. I don’t necessarily think of other anthropologists as my primary audience, which is why I’m often misread or just ignored. In Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, I describe how one of my graduate school professors tried to counsel me against doing ethnographic research in the United States. I wouldn’t get a job, he said. And if it was only up to departments of anthropology in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he might have been right. But American Studies, African American Studies, Sociology, and Ethnic Studies all showed interest in my work long before most would-be anthropological interlocutors even deigned to read any of my work. So, I haven’t been particularly concerned with how the discipline of anthropology treats me. I want to be legible. I want my students to be legible, and I do think that increasingly the Americanist anthropologist has a place in most contemporary Anthropology Departments. That is an accomplishment, but if the field were to turn on us tomorrow, or to get mesmerized and distracted by some other preoccupation, I hope that I would still find the kind of interdisciplinary compatriots that helped build my academic career early on.
Africana scholarship is still considered too provincial and particular by anthropologists not working in that domain.
So, I don’t spend too much time considering my “academic reputation.” I go to so many conferences and listen to scholars talk about things I’ve written about, and unless I know them personally, I can assume they haven’t read my work. But that isn’t just about me and my own relative irrelevance. It is also about the overall undervaluing of Africana scholarship to anyone not working in that domain. It is still too often considered provincial and particular, not the space from which universal theorizing emerges, and that’s even after Jean and John Comaroff have made a compelling argument for the global south’s leading role in contemporary knowledge/theory production. But it is also about the provincialization and invisiblization of certain kinds of minoritized and racialized scholars — and about privileging a flamboyant performance of intellectuality that many scholars, including scholars of color, aren’t particularly interested in reproducing. So, I don’t worry about my reputation because I don’t really have one beyond the network of anthropologists and Africana Studies Scholars who have been my valued interlocutors for a long time — and who find my approach to thinking ethnographically somewhat useful. For that group, I don’t think my contributions to Impolite Conversations feel like that much of a departure from my standard scholarly/writerly voice and register. I have always tried to thematize not just the “cultural other” but also the conceptually and methodologically interesting and inescapable impact that the anthropological investigator has on the rendered ethnographic tableau. I write for the folks who find my approach interesting. And I don’t worry too much about the ones who don’t, except insofar as their ignorance helps to perpetuate troubling versions of anthropological discourse and demean/dehumanize the communities I study.
I know, for instance, that a lot of people don’t get the point or organizational structure of Thin Description. There is so much of that book that is about my attempt to write the ethnographic “inside-out,” to borrow and slightly recast a term from Annelise Riles. I am deeply committed to the ethnographic gambit, but I am also leery of the too-easy ways in which anthropological discourse can become ideological cant. The same conceptual/political points, even specific turns of phrase, deployed again and again. Almost by rote. It is easy to do. We all are guilty. I certainly am. It is exactly what the disciplining of academic disciplines is predicated upon, some of what the philosopher Lewis Gordon aptly called “disciplinary decadence,” a narrowing of vision that comes with only speaking to scholars trained just the way you are, who are reading the same canon you have committed to studying.
So, I realize that actively pushing back against that means purposefully being unintelligible at a certain level. And somewhat ironically, that is the case even though I also have tried to make my work fairly accessible and readable. This is all a longwinded way of saying that I use my writing to experiment, to tell stories, and even if the only ones reading/listening are me and the small crew of scholars who “get it,” I’ll keep trying to write about the stuff I find fascinating, which can sometimes be the things left out of standard ethnographic monographs or theoretical treatises, which is fine by me.
MM/CD: Both you and Cora have a couple of essays talking about religion, prayer, and church life. Can you describe for us what you find of interest in the topic of “religion,” and why does it seem like where black folk are concerned, there’s just no escaping the topic? As you ask in one of the book’s many brilliant essays, “Are Black People Still Over-churched?,” perhaps it is that all of us are also “over-religioned” when we give it more analytic credit or space than maybe the category deserves?
JJ: David Kim, Anne Braude, Michael McNally and I just put together a panel in San Diego at the 2014 American Academy of Religion meetings that was organized around this question. We wanted to ask what might be gained and lost by too-ready deployments of the term “religion” in discussions about the cultural practices and historical phenomena that we each study. I talked about the work I’ve been doing for over a decade now on the Hebrew Israelites. I think that the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem represent one of the most interesting stories in all of American history and culture, but it is a story that too-few people really know. The more I study this group of African Americans that left Chicago in the 1960s, first for Liberia and then for the modern state of Israel, where they’ve been since 1969 (and which they’ve re-geographized as “Northeast Africa”), the more I am blown away by the extent to which their narrative helps to complicate so many of the truths we think we know about African American history and religiosity.
They are an example of what mid-20th century social scientists like Anthony Wallace would have called a “revitalization movement,” meaning that they critique and challenge just about every aspect of their cultural world, actively and purposefully trying to recreate their sociocultural landscape in ways that visually operationalize their beliefs about Biblical history and their claims/predictions about the future of the planet. They have also evolved a very sophisticated commitment to health literacy, which includes mandatory veganism for all community members. In fact, they are probably best known for their international chain of vegan soul food restaurants.
I published my book on them last year, and it was meant as a way of problematizing some traditional scholarly understandings of “religion” as an analytic while also and relatedly critiquing anthropology’s notion of “Thick Description,” which is how our field tends to describe the sort of ethnographic and empirical rigor we hope to find in the best anthropological research and writing. I think that traditional anthropological approaches to many of the communities they studied weren’t as “thick” as they purported to be, and we sometimes propped up a reified and “othering” notion of religiosity despite our best efforts to the contrary.
Some of that is probably inevitable, but the Hebrew Israelites are such good foils for this discussion because they — like many other groups, including Rastafari and Jews, the groups most closely aligned with Hebrew Israelites in some ways — are so adamant about rejecting the very category of religion. For them, even as literalist readers of the Old Testament/Torah and committed advocates for a repaired covenant with “the Most High,” they argue for the inability of traditional religious organizational structures (or the conceptual category of religion itself) to fully contain their own investments in Yah. For them, what gets compartmentalized into “religion” in the West is paltry and insufficient when compared to the more robust and fully embodied commitments to God that they fold into their every cultural practice.
And I also think the Hebrew Israelites help us to ponder the proposition (riffing off work being done in the philosophy of science) that maybe there is something about the everyday and mass-mediated logics of contemporary life that might be better captured through what I call a differently thinned out ethnographic approach. So for a community like the Hebrew Israelites, a group that is on five continents, the traditional model of ethnographic praxis won’t quite work.
MM/CD: Not wanting to give away many details of the book, I do want to offer up one specific quote and ask you to contextualize it. In your “Obama Makes Whites Whiter,” you note that “the beginning of the end of white power and privilege is an invitation. And I would welcome a whiteness that can speak its own name without hateful yelling or the gnashing of teeth.” Can you contextualize this comment, noting how and when we might see this beginning of the end of white power and privilege, and give some thoughts on what sort of whiteness you might welcome in the future?
JJ: Part of the point of that essay is to talk about the backlash against Obama, a backlash that is predicated, in part, on the fact that some detractors would imagine that his racial pedigree disqualifies him from any lawful and authentic ability to hold the highest office of the land. At the same time, I can also appreciate the argument that says much of the animus against and about Obama is little more than the heightened partisan polarization of American electoral politics with only a retroactive and cynical coating of racialism brushed atop its surface for color and contour. But regardless of what you think about the role of race in public debates about the President, it seems clear to me that the browning of our electorate, which is what produced the Obama victory, actually makes it increasingly difficult for white Americans to operate as universal subjects whose whiteness circulates as an unmarked social category.
Obama’s election makes whiteness easier than ever to see, and not just in terms of traditional KKK or skinhead iconography and ideology. If we are lucky, there is a way for whiteness to function in American society without such bigoted and discriminatory logics over-determining commitments. White citizens can increasingly see the demographic writing on the wall, and that has emboldened some of them to invest in their whiteness more unapologetically, which simply means recognizing that they have a cultural and social specificity like everyone else.
Of course, since the 1960s we’ve gotten very good at invoking race without explicitly saying anything racial, at being racist without many of racism’s traditional accessories: white-sheeted, public pronouncements about black animality and inferiority; separate, color-coded toilets, things like that. And even the most seemingly reactionary white pundits have become the heirs of the Civil Rights Movement’s color-blind rhetoric. That’s how you can have Glenn Beck invoking Martin Luther King, Jr., in his attempt to call Barack Obama a racist.
Obama’s election makes whiteness easier than ever to see. If we are lucky, there is a way for whiteness to function in American society without such bigoted and discriminatory logics over-determining commitments.
I was giving a talk at the University of Maryland a few weeks ago, and one of the audience members prefaced his question with that wonderful distillation of the ironies of contemporary racial discourse in contemporary American culture. And just as interesting, the Beck-King-Obama example demonstrates just how much whiteness is forced to see itself through the lenses and frameworks theorized and articulated by erstwhile racialized communities to effectively re-racialize itself in particularizing ways. Even if we think he is insincere or self-serving, which is how many people would read Beck’s aforementioned move, his argument is still predicated on a willingness to practice a parochializing of the universal white subject of yore. There is no guarantee, ultimately, about the political implications of this move, but there is a wonderful way in which it slowly pulls the rug out from under traditional deployments of white universalism. It is rife with potential, even if we can’t presume to know how this new discursive scaffolding will eventually play out in terms of cultural and electoral politics in early 21st century America.
MM/CD: The book makes extensive use of satire, but it’s subtle, in that seemingly satirical exaggerations are elaborated thoroughly and often with a tone that suggests you (and Cora) are so, so, serious, too. I’m thinking specifically about Cora’s “Let’s Pray for Sexually Active Daughters” and your “Nigger, Please!” chapters. Using these or other examples, could you talk about the fine line between satire and cultural criticism. Recently, a news story broke that Jon Stewart (of Comedy Central’s Daily Show) was approached by NBC to possibly host “Meet the Press.” Are cultural and social times so bizarre that we look to the fantastic for guidance, or has that always been the way needles shift and culture changes?
JJ: I hadn’t heard about the Jon Stewart rumor, but I do think that we underestimate the serious social potency of humor. I wrote in Thin Description about the fact that ethnographies should make us laugh. I talked about the fact that anthropologist Carolyn Rouse is the one who reminded me to think more carefully about the ethnographic significance of humor. We were on an American Anthropological Association panel a few years ago, and she spent some of her time talking about ethnographies that made her laugh, even and especially while treating dreadful and tragic subjects. Anthropologists, she said, shouldn’t underestimate how much humanity’s existential difference is constituted, at least in part, by our uncanny ability to find the smallest, incongruous comedic pathways through even the most horrific situations, a capacity hinted at and colloquialized in the vernacular adage about “laughing to keep from crying.”
But this is not just a form of repression and strategic amnesia, although that clearly is part of what the phrase implies. This laughter worth talking about also indicates a kind of vulnerable and vernacular pleasure that ethnographic accounts can document, a pleasure that pivots on people’s stubborn recognition of their own continued worth despite external threats of devaluation and marginalization. These threats surface all the time, and laughter is just one way of registering their bigness without allowing the size of things to obliterate our sense of agency, possibility, and hope. For me, much of the power of satire pivots on its underlying and easy-to-miss hidden architecture of hopefulness. The laughing is a public voicing of such hope that plays some small part in clearing space — even just psychic space — for hope’s full-fledged arrival.
Much of the power of satire pivots on its underlying and easy-to-miss hidden architecture of hopefulness.
MM/CD: Last question: What is the difference between an “impolite” and an “offensive” conversation?
JJ: It must be partially about the rhetoric in question. Have the terms gone too far in demonizing and demeaning the other? Is the tone of the conversation pitched at a level invested in connecting with interlocutors or condemning them?
But the other part of the difference is about the nature of the social relationships themselves. If the conversation is with a stranger, even a stranger who has been an acquaintance on the job or in some other capacity for many years, then it’ll be easy to offend. That’s why part of the point of an “impolite” conversation is about building social relationships in and through honest dialogue with the goal of forging rich and substantive ties across various fault-lines of politicized and hierarchized difference.
The mistake we make is that we think politeness is for strangers, and that, therefore, being impolite is fundamentally a risk with strangers, among people we don’t know well. But actually, those are the people we most profoundly offend. Sometimes saying the very same things to people we know and care about — who know and care about us in return — actually brings us closer to them even as it pushes mere strangers farther and farther away.