Episode 11: Brandon Callender, Part 1
[Joy] Hello! This is the OpenBook English Department Faculty Podcast. I’m Joy, one of the English UDRs at Brandeis.
[Ethan] And I’m Ethan. I’m one of the other English UDRs at Brandeis.
[Joy] And today we are here with Professor Callender. We are very excited to have you! How are you doing today?
[Brandon Callender] I’m doing fantastic, y’all. I’m a little shocked that there might be a little snow coming today, the weather forecast warned. I don’t know if it’s actually going to show up, but that horrified me and upset my day a little bit. But I’m doing good, y’all—good to see you.
[Ethan] We can start off with the first question, which is: could you give an overview of your research, and your interests, and what brought you to Brandeis?
[Brandon Callender] Yeah, absolutely! So, my research is largely based in black queer studies, black sexuality studies, and it’s been taking a very unexpected—but for me, very joyful—turn in horror studies lately, and these two things have been coming together more organically and more beautifully than I thought. Some of the courses I’ve been offering this year have been along those lines, like teaching a Black Queer Studies course that looks at black queer literatures. It’s pretty canonical, pretty traditional texts. And a Black Horror Course—I’m very happy to have Ethan in that class. One of the things that I’ve really loved so far is that Brandeis has given me a lot of freedom to explore these interests of mine, and the students have such a joy and overlap in the kind of courses. So, I’m set to teach a course on Blackness and Vampires and a course on Blackness and Ghosts in the fall and the spring next term. I’ve been playing around a little bit with the idea of teaching a course on erotics of slavery in black men’s literatures. This is my first year at Brandeis. It’s different in that I thought I’d be in person, but it’s been a great source of community just to be able to sit down with y’all each week. I get a little bit unmoored when we have a day off and I don’t know where exactly in time I am.
[Joy] That’s great, thank you so much! Bouncing off of that, what influenced you to pursue research or teaching in black literature and gender and queer studies?
[Brandon Callender] There’s a film I remember coming into when I was in my mid-late undergraduate experience. It was called “Brother to Brother,” and it was about this black queer writer, Richard Bruce Nugent, who’s often called “the black, gay rebel of the Harlem Renaissance.” I had never heard of this figure before, and I just went into this deep dive at my local library and found not just more films, but anthologies, including a whole bunch of black gay men’s texts I’d never encountered before. I remember I started to change my research project to address it, and I went to see Stephen Fullwood, the lead archivist at the Schomburg Center in New York and the black, gay, lesbian archives. I remember there was this kind of urgency and tragedy I felt when almost every book by a black queer man I was reading would end with the news of their very short, abrupt death from AIDS-related complications. There was, I think, a simultaneous discovery: wow, there’s this longer history that my experiences might make sense within. But also, there’s this very deep trauma in thinking of the kinds of worlds these men were navigating that were quite new to me.
My research really began there—I went to that archivist, and I said, you know, “Here’s this book that I really want to study:” Joseph Beams’ In The Life: A Black Gay Anthology, which is the first ever black gay man’s anthology. I remember he said to me: “See, brother, I have a problem with that. If you want to study this, you need to know the tradition.” In exchange for research, he’d give me a whole bunch of anthologies, books that were out of print, and he would invite me to volunteer. I just remember that’s where my project really took root; where I felt quite literally in the material weight of the books he would slap into my hands each day. How are you going to be accountable to all these histories, to all these stories, these names that I didn’t know and many other folks aren’t knowing? That led me directly to my graduate studies. The project changed a little bit, but largely, it’s an engagement with that black queer lineage that I’m still trying to figure out: my own relationship, my own world within it.
[Ethan] Kind of going off that, did you always know that you wanted to go into graduate studies in English and then to go on to teach, or what made you decide to pursue this as a career?
[Brandon Callender] I really wanted to be a high school teacher. I remember being really in love with the joy and humor that my own high school teacher had brought me, and I was like, “I really want to be this man.” I went into my undergraduate experience at Hunter College thinking that was going to be the role. I remember there was actually this moment in my junior year when I realized I did want to pursue a PhD and enter into higher education. I had never taken myself off the education track—they still thought I was set to be a high school teacher.
For me, the experience began in a Black Women Writers course with Professor Ulen Richardson at Hunter College. I had just never seen someone teach anything, perhaps, with such power, commitment, and conviction; and such rigor as she had laid out these worlds to us. One of the experiences I often share with folks is when she was teaching Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I don’t know if folks are familiar with that text, but it’s about a black girl who really runs so deeply up against white supremacist ideologies that she begins to believe she’s not beautiful. As our professor led a really intense analysis of this text, there was this moment in the middle of class when she said, “If y’all don’t get that Pecola is beautiful, then get out of my class. You fail.” We sort of laughed a little bit at this different tone she was taking with us, but she said, “No, I’m serious. You fail. Get out.”
Y’all are used to the side of me where I talk in class—I have to, I’m a professor—but I had never spoken for most of my undergraduate experience until my later years. I remember in that classroom, I felt that I wasn’t yet worthy to be able to speak to the literatures in the way that I felt they deserved, so I wrote her a 2, 3-page letter at the end of the term, trying to convey how deeply her class had moved me. She recommended me to this program, the Mellon Mays Fellowship, which is about trying to get minorities to pursue a PhD. I didn’t pursue it then, but later into my years, I realized this was a clear passion of mine—the scholarship, the ability to think and actually unfold these kinds of texts, and the way that she wanted us to. I could say more, but I’ll say I really credit what I’m doing in this field to her because I think she taught me that yes, there’s an importance to being able to analyze these texts, but she also made it quite clear to us that there was a lived importance to how these things matter in the world outside. That, for me, was a really powerful moment.
[Joy] That’s amazing, to have this kind of experience! I’ve heard about The Bluest Eye—I love Beloved by Toni Morrison, and I really want to read The Bluest Eye. That’s on my bucket list of books I want to read. You mentioned that you wanted to be a high school teacher at first. On the same topic, what were you like as a high schooler?
[Brandon Callender] I was a strange one in high school, I think. I had a lot going on. I was struggling with my sexuality, my being gay, particularly my first, second year of high school. I remember there was this boy I had a really deep crush on, and I would write really bad poetry that was often about this boy. It wasn’t enough to just write it—I would actually write and design my own T-shirts. I’d put a good chunk of the unrequited love poems for this boy on the T-shirts. I would wear them and he would have no clue, whenever we spoke, that these poems were about him. I was in the emo subculture, so they were very dripping with feelings and strange art.
My high school experience was largely spent, I think, trying to figure out who I was in that way. There was a lot of racism that was pretty worn on the surface of our school. I remember very deeply there was someone who was a known skinhead, and he would chant in the cafeteria, “N—, march back to Africa, march back to Africa.” The administration would just tell him, “Keep it quiet, keep it down,” and I remember that there was never any direct engagement with the fact that what he was saying was wrong. I have a deep difficulty rethinking what those years meant to me, because the same teacher who deeply inspired and moved me did not teach me anything about my experience as a black person, or as a queer person. That was not part of his agenda, his curriculum. It’s trying to make sense of how we, in this school district, which made no room for our experiences, somehow were improvising something quite beautiful. The friends of color I had that came together—and largely queer friends of color, too—we still meet, we still chat. They have that same engagement, like, “We never realized how wrong a lot of that was in our high school experiences.” But now, I think, we can name and discuss it.
The one thing I’ll say about my engagement with English literature is that being in the emo subculture—I don’t know if y’all know Bright Eyes, the band—I remember I had sat down with lyrics and deeply started annotating them with one of my best friends at the time. We thought that we had uncovered meanings no one had read in the song before. I showed it to my friend who was a similar fan of this band, and she’s like, “You can’t do that! You’re reading too much into it!” It’s crazy to me, ‘cause that’s essentially what we do now as a job. I think a lot of the ‘bread and butter’ of close reading actually began with those song lyrics, those feelings, that commitment to poetry; even though at that age, I don’t think I was engaging with black literatures the way I do now in my educational experience.
[Ethan] Thank you for that. It’s always interesting to hear where people come from and how they ended up where they are now. Kind of tying into that a little bit, and also moving on from research and more into a fun topic, you are a board game fanatic, as you mentioned in class a few times. What’s your favorite board game to play, and what are your thoughts on the board game genre?
[Brandon Callender] My friends…I’m really glad they love me enough to play board games that take four to five to sometimes six hours. I love games that are really intricate, when it takes time to read the rules and discover that you’ve been playing the game wrong, over and over again. One of the ones I’m playing right now is called Nemesis. It’s almost a shameless knockoff of Alien: The Movie, which is a space survival/horror board game. The thing I love about some of these games—Nemesis is one of them—is actually, now they make board games so you can play with only one player. It’s been my quarantine experience: I’ll put on a movie and just play a board game myself at night. You’re playing against the gaming mechanisms. I’m really into that.
As I’ve mentioned in the Horror course, I love Mansions of Madness. It sort of takes the D&D sense of a player playing against a game master and it puts that in a computer form so that the game master is essentially a computer software. You’re playing on this actual board against this story that takes place on the computer. One of the interesting overlaps with race that I often use to discuss this is that Lovecraft, as we know, is incredibly racist in ways that are not taken up ever in the board game universe. There are more board games than I can think of dedicated to this man and his world, and honestly, I’m grateful—I love playing these games—but part of my interest now that I’m teaching the relationship between race and horror is to think about, what is the experience of the board game player who feels themselves in love with, caught up in this gaming world, that sometimes, you can simultaneously feel like an outsider to?
The two ways I like to make that a little bit more clear: the first one is through that game I mentioned, Mansions of Madness; the second is through Settlers of Catan, which I think more people have played. In Mansions of Madness, I remember playing with my friends—two other folks who are also black—and I drew this card where, in the game, there’s a condition you can get where your character goes mad, and you draw a secret objective and no one else knows about it. You’re no longer playing on the same team—you have a different objective that could potentially screw your friends over. My card said I’d been abducted into the Cult of Shub-Niggurath and I remember being so horrified and interested in this creature I’d never heard about, which seemed to contain within its name a racial slur. In the gaming world, I was on a ship that was moving across water, and I’d been inducted into this cult which seemed to be so deeply racialized. It’s one of those moments where you feel like all of a sudden, the role that the game designers expected you to play—“I’m the bad person, I’m insane, I’m working for this Cult of Shub-Niggurath—all of a sudden, it feels like a different reading of it. Maybe my job is to bring down this ship; maybe I’m not the bad person.
I think that the way gamers interact with race in board games is a fascinating topic. In Settlers of Catan, it doesn’t lend itself on the most immediate level to thinking about race. Have y’all played Settlers of Catan? No. Okay. There’s a piece which is not one of the ones the player can use which starts in the desert, and it’s a game about agriculturally building up your society, building up civilization, building houses and roads and walls and armies and things like that. The piece that starts in the desert is known as “The Thief,” and it’s always black in the original game. It was never a part of this drama of building up civilization or your settlement—it was the “bad thing” you would roll, that would come onto your property and steal your pieces. My friends—a group largely of people of color, largely of black people—would always sort of look askance at that piece and feel like, “Wow, this is a black piece in the desert that’s not part of civilization, that steals from it.” Eventually, Settlers of Catan made the piece, I think, purple, but I think, again, there’s an important conversation that we haven’t yet head about how gaming—particularly through the worlds of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien; particularly through Lovecraft—lend themselves to thinking about race in this way that is never really challenged, never really thought about. That’s kind of where the personal and professional, for me, really come together.
[Joy] That’s so fascinating! I’ve never considered board games through that kind of lens, and it’s just so fascinating to see it through this different perspective. You mentioned this idea of board games and how it responds to this horror genre, and I know that Ethan’s been taking your course on Blackness and Horror. I want to ask: why do you like the horror genre so much, and what has been your favorite horror film or novel?
[Brandon Callender] It’s hard for me to say my favorite. I just love it! I spent most of my life not watching them; I was terrified of them. I remember my neighbors loved Freddy Krueger and all that, and you could not put me in the same room. It wasn’t until, I think, late college that I started to really, deeply love these films. For me, I love really bad films. I love Jordan Peele, but I also love my films that have shamelessly no interest in making meaning, and they’re just scandalously bad—not too gory, but “campy,” I think is the word. I think the position when my friends and I watch a film like The Exorcist is, originally that movie terrified me—I don’t want to pretend to deny. But now I watch it from a sense of glee—watching Regan do all these weird antics on the bed, my friends and I are like, “she’s really putting it on now!” There’s a kind of delight we get in the outrageousness and “over-the-top-ness” of some of these moments.
In terms of my favorite horror movie, I’m kind of torn— there’s three that I watch over and over again. I don’t really watch a lot of new things, a lot of times—it takes a lot of effort for me to watch something new. I love “re-watching.” I’ve watched the original horror movie Halloween well over 70, 80 times. I’ve watched Jeepers Creepers, The Lost Boys—a lot of these old 80s and 90s classics—multiple times, too. I think those films also contain a kind of homoeroticism which I’m interested in teasing out and thinking about.
One thing I could say, too, is that one of the things I’m interested in is what horror makes possible for minority viewers—sexual minorities, racial minorities—is this drama of survival, in certain cases. I think when we think of Carol Clover and her sense of the “final girl,” and the woman who’s left standing alone at the end of all this trauma that piled up around her, it’s felt deeply cathartic to me in the past 2, 3, 4 years. To sit down with something so familiar that allows you to re-encounter that trauma has been very helpful for me.
This is something I’ve talked about, and I won’t flesh out the entire details surrounding this, but one of the moments I’ve really been sitting with during my doctoral program, midway through my career, is when a group of cops busted down my door with a battering ram when I was in the second floor of my house, using the bathroom. I didn’t know it was them—they were looking for someone who, in fact, did not live there, and the whole raid on our house was completely wrongful. But at the time, I went into a kind of shock hearing glass shatter, feeling my whole house rumble. I remember thinking, “Oh my god—I’m gonna die in this house.” I went into this kind of “flight mode” that was completely the horror viewer in me. I’m not kidding when I say that what I became when I did what I did—which is to say, I threw myself out the second story window, I caught a bar on the way down which broke the fall in half, but I didn’t break anything—I went running for the street, thinking, “I’m not going to die in this house,” at gunpoint and put on the floor and whatnot. During that moment, the person who told me to run was actually the horror spectator in me. It was the person who had watched Halloween several times and said, “Jump on that window, get on that roof,” those kinds of things. I kid you not—I became that horror movie heroine I’m always yelling at while watching these films, and next thing I knew, I was out the window.
I think that now, in a different state of mind and place, I think of what it means from within the horror genre to witness and enact that drama of survival as a viewer. I see why so many people are drawn to it: it’s not just a place that lends itself to thinking about the inexplicable tragedies of the world, but I think in certain cases, it also allows you to witness people who find their way out of unimaginable circumstances. There’s something cathartic in it for me, and I found that this is a common core for a lot of how black horror scholars have discussed the relationship to the genre.
[Ethan] You kind of touched on this a little bit with how you’re planning on teaching more classes in the horror genre. This question is: how has horror influenced your research, and do you see yourself continuing to pursue horror academically, or trying to keep it as a hobby, or a little bit of both?
[Brandon Callender] I think it’s starting to converge. It used to be very personal, and I loved that it was outside my research and was not going to be touched by any sort of analysis. That part of me has gone away, and now, I have horror movie studies all around me—a whole bunch of monographs, scholarship, whatnot. I hope my research continues to move in this direction.
I guess where this is most coming to light for me is in a piece I’m trying to draft right now. It’s called, potentially, “The Devil You Know,” which is about James Baldwin’s viewing of The Exorcist. It’s a fantastic moment where Baldwin has a scathing review and disappointment with watching it where he feels like the film pretends or ejects evil into this otherworldly entity of “the devil,” as opposed to seeing it how Baldwin does: evil is right here! The world that you pretend is so innocent, so worth saving—that is where the evil comes from. We don’t need that fictional devil you all pretend to make up. I was just so shocked to see him engage this, but it doesn’t in any way capture my sense of viewing The Exorcist. I completely get where Baldwin is coming from, and it completely aligns, for me, into how he goes about critiquing mass culture, but I think that he speaks in this moment in this essay with a kind of “last-wordedness” about how black viewers experience The Exorcist that I don’t think captures all the receptions of it. That’s kind of where the essay I’m hoping to write—“The Devil You Know”—comes in, which is thinking about the more familiar critique or dismissal of horror. In black horror studies, what this looks like is to say that the horror is never in the supernatural: it’s in the real. And this, Joy, allows you to think about a text like Beloved. The way black scholars who have read that discuss it, which makes total sense to me, in how Morrison wrote this book, is that the horror is not the ghost; it’s slavery. The horror is not Regan being possessed in The Exorcist; it’s the world that she exists in. I think that that pivot to say the thing that’s scary is never actually the supernatural, it’s the real, I get. But it also doesn’t account for how terrified I am watching horror films. I’m looking at a text by another black queer author, G. Winston James’ Shaming the Devil, which is actually taking more of a campy delight in films like The Exorcist, films like The Sixth Sense. Again, black queer studies and horror are coming together for me in ways that I never thought possible.
But I guess to answer, finally, that question from Ethan: I think that this, for me, is going to be a second book project. It’s going to look at some of the reception, or different ways that viewers interact with horror films. If you look at the way that feminist scholarship engages horror, in the way that queer studies engages horror, and in the way that black studies engages horror, they’re almost all on different pages, many times. This is the last example I can give centered around The Exorcist, but when I looked at a lot of feminist scholarship and excitement about it, there was a kind of delight in watching this girl unleash all these fluids, forces, and language, which are deemed “improper” to femininity itself. So rather than experiencing horror in Regan, there was a kind of delight in watching her tear this stuff down. It’s a campy reading of it, right? But that’s also how a lot of queer thought was engaging it, too. There was actually a queer subtext in The Exorcist, the novel. There’s a delight, I think, that is so different from what Baldwin’s seeing when he’s watching the film, and it creates this beautiful opportunity to think, “How are we interacting with these films?” How are we receiving them—are we getting scared? Are we delighted by them? That, for me, is the source of the next project.