Photo Courtesy of Jasmine Johnson.

New Faculty Spotlight

Jasmine Johnson joins the Brandeis faculty this year as one of two new hires in a multiyear academic initiative in African Diaspora studies

Dance is a critical part of Jasmine Johnson's thinking, learning and teaching. “Dance is what I teach and it is also how I teach,” she says. The language and theory of dance, she believes, can unlock an understanding of history, culture, economy and race.

Johnson joins the Brandeis faculty this year as one of two new hires in a multiyear academic initiative in African Diaspora studies. (The other new faculty member is historian Gregory Childs.) She will teach in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, bringing research interests that examine race, class, gender and performance, particularly West African dance. The initiative puts Brandeis in the vanguard of universities broadening their faculty and curriculum to reflect growing interest among professors and students in a deeply interdisciplinary and global approach to scholarship.

Gannit Ankori, professor of art history and theory, and chair of the School of Creative Arts Council, spoke with Johnson.

What excites you about coming to Brandeis?

I am excited by the opportunity to do what I love most: think and teach. That I will be doing both of these things across two intellectual fields in which my work is squarely rooted only decorates my excitement. Brandeis is an institution that values interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. To be joining a community for which my multiple trainings are not merely tolerated but welcomed is enlivening.

Can you tell us about the courses you’ll be teaching this year?

This fall I’ll be teaching “Performance and the Politics of Black Authenticity.” It asks: What is black authenticity? What are the rubrics with which authentic blackness is measured? How is black performance political? The course interrogates the slipperiness of, desire for, and policing of “authentic” blackness in order to trouble conceptions of race as biological essence. In the spring I’m offering a course on black feminist thought and a studio/seminar course on black dance.

All my courses are necessarily interdisciplinary. They speak to a number of different fields because the guiding questions at their center refuse answer from strict disciplinary boundaries. Too often African and Afro-American and women’s, gender and sexuality studies are mistaken for being only subjects. They are not. They are analytics with which we better understand the world. I am excited to offer courses on performance, race and gender to these two departments’ already diverse course profiles.

Your PhD dissertation and forthcoming book examine West African dance, and you are a dancer yourself. Can you elaborate on the role of dance as theory and practice?

My dance practice has taken a number of shapes. Much of my scholarly work concerns dance. My book project is largely an ethnography. To write such a book about the ways racial and gendered identities are designed through dance practice required my own dance practice. I am a scholar-artist and is in West African dance.

Dance as a site of inquiry is a generative intellectual site for me. Most times it is the presumption of dance being apolitical that gives it this deeply political constitution. There is also pleasure politics at work in dance that cannot be discounted. I say: Let’s look at delight, let’s look at embodied strategies for survival, practices of living. Practicing the very thing that I write about is part and parcel of my methodology. Embodied practice is scholarly for me. It is neither extra nor auxiliary but required.

When people think of dance they tend to think of something quite specific. A dance onstage, perhaps. I do indeed consider dance in this way, but I am also after using dance to think about the role of movement for black diasporic folks more broadly. I’m interested in opening dance up and also mining it for theory and language that is applicable outside of formal dance contexts. The history of black people is a history of movement both real and imagined. Dance gives us some incredibly useful frames with which to understand the deep significance of moving within the African Diaspora.

And your next book?

“Rhythm Nation: West African Dance and the Politics of Diaspora” is about the relationship between dance and identity. It explores the relationship between West African dance, race, gender and diaspora belonging in the United States and Guinea. African dance is a giant economy that includes dance classes, retreats, international workshops, clothing lines and spiritual trainings. It spans yoga studios to university campuses. My book charts the commodification of West African dance from the mid-1960s to the present in order to map what I call the contemporary purchase of diaspora. It asks: What can the industry of West African dance tell us about blackness, Africanness and performance in the age of neoliberalism? It looks at African dance workshops and retreats and also at the Broadway stage to raise questions around the ways racial and gendered identities are made through dance and through a proximity to Africanness.

This interview, which was originally published in the fall 2014 State of the Arts magazine, appears here courtesy of the Office of the Arts.