Speaker 1: It's my pleasure to introduce Provost Lisa Lynch.
Lisa Lynch: Thank you. Good afternoon everyone. I bring apologies from President Liebowitz, who continues to be at home as he's been this past week with a very bad case of the flu. He's trying to come for dinner this evening. So just, Purell. Purell.
So this is wonderful, to be able to have an opportunity, I have to say, to be able to present our alumni award. But before I move to our official ceremony, I want to take a page out of Roy DeBerry's book from yesterday and I want to just make a comment about the panels and discussions, the keynote speeches, and everything that we have experienced and learned over the last two days. I want to, as Provost of this university, express my deep gratitude and acknowledge the university's indebtedness to our students of color, who for more than 50 years have been willing to call out this university and demand the changes that are needed when our practice does not match our rhetoric. So I want to applaud everyone here for that.
So, now we have the opportunity of presenting our Alumni Achievement Award. The highest form of university recognition given to alumni and for those of us from Wellesley, alumni, the award honors Brandeis graduates who've made distinguished contributions to their professions or chosen fields of endeavor. The recipients have used their talents to improve their communities and our world. And we're immensely proud of their accomplishments.
Some of our past winners include: Roy DeBerry, class of 1969, civil rights activist, and I had the pleasure of giving that award to Roy in the year that I was serving as interim President. To Thomas Friedman, class of 1975, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. To Deborah Bial, class of 1987, founder of the Posse Foundation, the college access initiative that we have many students here. And Joel Schwartz, class of 1969, and Ph.D. of 1980, a Harvard epidemiologist who played a major role in the phase-out of lead in gasoline.
In a recent interview in Brandeis Now, today's honoree, Professor Spillers, class of 1974, discussed how her trajectory changed dramatically from the time she entered Brandeis to the time she graduated. She explained how she thought she was headed towards William Blake and the English romantics. Yeah, she's laughing. Yet given all that was going on on American campuses at that time, Professor Spillers said, in her own words, and I quote, "I instead turned my wide eyed, big eared attention to the sermon rhetoric of black preachers and specifically Martin Luther King, that had actually changed the country, or had most certainly been a critical factor in changing it. To make a long story short, my plans between the time entering Brandeis and leaving it not only changed, they did somersaults and boomerangs." End of quote.
So it's without question that those gymnastic moves provided the foundation for a most remarkable career that has enriched and educated scores of individuals. And speaking personally, I have to say that I am one of the many, many beneficiaries, as a student, of all of the work of Professor Spillers, because when she left here in 1974 she went to my alma mater, Wellesley College, where I entered in 1974.
As we were talking, Professor Spillers, Tony Martin, and others in Black Studies at Wellesley at that time, we were working on intersectionality without having that language, we were looking at issues of racism and sexism, we were looking at issues of class, and capitalism and we didn't know what the hell we were doing but we were in those difficult conversations. And to see the panels that we've had over the last two day, where we've come over that almost 45 years is extraordinary, and this woman is a big part of where we are today.
So I turn the microphone now over to Professor Faith Smith from our African and African American Studies Department, and our English Department, to do a tribute for Professor Spillers. Thank you.
Professor Smith: It's a pleasure and an honor for me to introduce Professor Hortense Spillers, the Gertrude Conaway Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, on the occasions of her receipt of the Alumni Achievement Award, and of the celebration of the Department of African and African American Studies. In a generous and gorgeous narration of her journey to Brandeis, published in Brandeis Now, she talks about driving to Waltham from Memphis in her Buick Skylark in the summer of 1968. And particularly after yesterday, we have a vivid sense of questions we might want to put to you about arriving here that summer.
How was this former disc jockey for WDIA Radio in Memphis thinking about the airwaves here? Since driving while black is neither metaphorical nor new, we might wonder about that journey in the car. The artist Howardena Pindell, whose work is currently being exhibited here at the Rose, was on campus a week ago and told us a little bit about Boston in the '60s, that restaurants would refuse to serve her, for instance.
What did it mean to arrive here that summer and fall in the wake of Dr. King's murder? In the midst of students calls here for a Black Studies Department? What did the project of Black Studies mean for you in the space of the English Department? Where, as you have said, you came to study William Blake. How did the conceptual project of Black Studies as it was unfolding, national and international, in critical theory, music, art, film, performance, the sciences, disrupt the space of the English department? Or, when and how was it in conversation with it? And how were both of these spaces in conversation with the project of Women's Studies?
Today, we can see clearly how your scholarship has worked on, worked over these tensions and connections, urging us to attend to how each disciplinary space impinges on the other, critiquing both feminist and black studies projects for complacency and myopia. But what was it like to arrive here and to see this unfolding? To be drawn into, or perhaps also beaten back by, these spaces? Perhaps that's for another time. Your 1974 dissertation for the English Department was entitled, "Fabrics of History: Essays on the Black Sermon," and it is interesting to think about the relationship between a dissertation on the rhetoric of black sermons, and the music of your scholarship: its sonorous power, the color and intricacies of your sentences.
Professor Spillers' academic career has included appointments of Chair of the Department of English at Haverford College, and as a Frederick J. White Professor of English at Cornell University before her return to Tennessee. She edited the volume Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text, and co-edited Conjuring Black Women: Fiction and Literary Tradition and the appearance of Black, White, and In Color has allowed us to experience an exquisite body of work. Essays on Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and Jose Marti, the essay Black, White, and In Color, or Learning How to Paint Towards an Intramural Protocol of Reading. Interstices, a vigorous reading of feminist misreadings of black female sexuality, and an essay with a title that signifies [inaudible 00:09:33]: All The Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race.
But it was Professor Spillers' 1987 essay, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book," that has had the widest impact, because each generation and certainly our contemporary moment finds the grim account of the unmaking of the black subject so relevant, and how awful that we should continue to find it so relevant. For those of us who teach this essay, and I tell my students that every year I understand a little bit more of it, it is one of the most powerful accounts of the turning inside out of the flesh that is a consequence of the oceanic catastrophe of the Middle Passage and enslavement, a violent process of our gendering and of the unraveling of personhood that helps to stabilize whiteness. "My country needs me, and if I were not here I would have to be invented," quoting Khari Calloway quoting you. And that is also laid at the door of black people, so that public policy accuses a black woman of the crime of a female headed household structure that she's told is emasculating and that pictures a black community far out of line with the rest of American society, to cite Daniel Moynihan's 1965 report.
Professor Spillers painstakingly shows that this charge of monstrous parenting is ludicrous, since black people were never authorized to parent, but in effect to breed units of labor for capital. But by the end of the essay you ask us what it might mean to claim this so-called monstrosity, for the black man to say yes to the female within, for us to embrace the idea that the black female directed enterprise would be out of line, out of this world, non-normative, queer, and our salvation.
Most recently you have been thinking about intimacy in the 18th century revolutionary context of France, US, North America, and Saint-Domingue Haiti. You are speaking to questions that Danny Bryce and Gilberto Rosa have raised this week about how we theorize desire in the afterlife of the hold. Revisiting flesh in this work you are defining the alien, the unfree, as possessing a body that cannot prevent or ward off another's touch and here you are asking about our national investment in naming relationships, such as that between Hemmings and Jefferson, as romantic.
It is a continuing pleasure to see your work hailed in and by the world, to see you and Arthur Jafa's love as the message, the message is death is everything. We are on an ultralight beam. This is a god dream. Thank you for making us proud to be connected to spaces that have felt so alienating, so unhomely, and congratulations on receiving the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award.
Professor Spill: Oh, my goodness. Oh, I can't ... I don't even know what to say. I thank everybody for everything. These last two days have been incredible. I think I've been on the verge of tears for about 48 hours, right? And I think if I start crying I will be crying for a long time. 50 years later. It's really incredible that we've come this far, right? Come this far by grace and by faith. I looked around yesterday and I saw so many handsome people, of course we're all a little grayer now. And in my case, and there may be some other cases like that, we're in what I call the last days of knees. I'm gonna have to get a new pair soon! You know it's been 50 years when things that you'd never thought about before, right? You start going, "Oh, let me check my old card on that, okay."
I thank Professor Chad Williams and AAAS for extending this invitation to me. I have not been on this campus since 1974. Isn't that incredible? I remember, don't get me started about what I remember. If you used to come up a long road, I lived in Waltham with my housemate, a woman by the name of Karen Ruffin, who was in Anthropology, and we used to, we had a lovely house we were leasing on Barbara Road. And I remember that you used to come up that long driveway. Do people remember the castle? Yeah? Okay. I remember the castle. I remember that the English Department was across the street from the castle. So that when I came up here yesterday, I don't even recognize this. It's like, I went to school here?
I was also disappointed to hear that Ford Hall does not exist anymore? That should have been a commemorative right there. That's what I think. So ... that's right, that should have been a commemorative gesture. Is the building still there, or is the building gone? I just realized that that was Bob Jones. I just figured out cause Vera told me. I said, "Who is that man?" She says, "That's Bob Jones." I said, "What? Get out of here!" I know.
So it's a splendid occasion, and I never did think that ... I don't know what I thought. But I didn't necessarily think we would, oh, I don't know what I thought. But I'm just, it's not exactly shock but it's tremendous surprise that we're here. And that you're here. And the program kept going. And it's continuing to go. That's a genuine blessing and a wonderful thing, a wonderful thing to see. So thank you very much for extending this invitation to me.
What I really wish we could do is just have a conversation over the next hour or so, but I jotted down a few remarks that I want to make because I did not want to leave it to chance that I would stand up here reminiscing and fumbling around and so on. So I made a few notes that I want to go through, and I don't want to keep you too long.
There is this story. Once upon a time, I was 12 years old. That's a long time ago. And recall that a member of the Harding family close to my own family in Memphis, Tennessee, went away to graduate school and returned home one winter. Now, it actually might have been another season, but somehow in my imagination it is winter. And young Miss Harding was telling stories about a place where she was studying for a graduate degree in Physics. This place was far away from Memphis, where the Hardings and the Spillers lived, and fast forward 10 to 12 years later I applied to a school named Brandeis for graduate work in English and American Literature. And one of the reasons why I did that was I loved the sound of that name, and how when you called this number there used to be a woman who answered, "Brandeis?" And I thought, I'll just have to apply at Brandeis for a Ph.D.
So I applied to Brandeis for graduate work in English and American Literature because some years before, without knowing it and without meaning to or meaning not to, someone planted a seed. And you might call that cultivation on the fly simply because no one plans it, nor is it possible to anticipate how or when or to whom it will happen, or what the outcome will be. So this work of planting ideas, of working the ground of the mind, is the vocation of the social. That is not always guaranteed to succeed. But here we are this weekend, and we've even forgotten that it is the height of winter because our hearts are so full. This is the weekend to extend warmest and sustained congratulations to the first AAA protocol that I've ever known and that is the Department of African and African American Studies at Brandeis University.
Listening to yesterday's panel, it occurred to me when it was pointed out that Fred Hamlet, and that's one of the people that I thought I might see this weekend, that Fred Hamlet, and I remember that Fred Hamlet was the head of security in Ford Hall. Is that right? I think that's right, as I remember that. But Fred Hamlet is still alive and well. After hearing that story I decided that there must be as many versions of Ford Hall as there are years since Ford Hall. There are things I'm still learning about Ford Hall just sitting here listening to people talk. So there must be at least 50 stories of the narrative of that celebrated novel. What am I saying?
That's the next sentence. I actually, well, okay. Confession time. I worked on a novel for a long time that was about Ford Hall. It's true. I think the only person here who knew that might have been Roy. Roy DeBerry. Because Roy DeBerry and I are really homies. We're both from the Mississippi Delta. I'm from Memphis, the upper end of the Mississippi Delta, which is the way Faulkner talked about it. And Roy was just right down the road in Holly Springs. So we are really children of the same natal community, as it were. And I think maybe Roy knew about that novel.
But in any case, I've had a novel on the desk since the 1980s, and when I went to Bread Loaf in the 1980s for a summer one of the people who read a novel in the making was Toni Morrison, actually. Okay. So that's something that I still would like to write one of these days, and this story collides with a London aftermath where I spent five years between May and October 1969 following the takeover. So this extraordinarily rich period of my entire life begins with Brandeis and what was for me that year a personal crisis in addition to a national trauma.
I told a graduate seminar with Mrs. Morris Jones in it, and I think she might have mentioned that earlier. And I'm currently teaching as the M.H. Abrams visiting professor at Cornell. I told that graduate seminar that Cornell and Brandeis belong to the same context of resistance and protest. But according to Wikipedia, the Cornell takeover of Willard Straight Hall succeeded the Brandeis Ford occupation by two months. Ford Hall in February of 1969 and Willard Straight on the campus of Cornell University in April 1969.
In any event, both of these occurrences were the mimetic acts before and after it set in motion a repertoire of practices of intellectual technologies that have essentially transformed the study of the human sciences in the United States. When the intellectual history of the last half century is written, and there will likely be several versions of it, my hope is that some of its leading theoreticians will be African American creative intellectuals and that the story they are going to tell looks something like this.
We recognize that Black Studies were not unprecedented. That's one of the things that I want to say to you now. I vividly remember that when my beloved deceased brothers, Curtis Spillers Junior and Ira Spillers, were students at Tennessee State University in Nashville almost 70 years ago, Ira was a history major. Brought home a thick navy blue hard bound book called The History of the Negro by one of his professors at the time, a man by the name of Merle Epps. At the same time that I was discovering the world of textbooks, including Merriam Webster's dictionary that began with Malcolm X's aardvark, I was also reading the Pittsburgh Courier, which newspaper my family subscribed to alongside the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the [inaudible 00:27:01]. And the Pittsburgh Courier, which takes its place in the annals of black newspapers of the African diaspora actually had a centerfold. I found out what a centerfold was from the Pittsburgh Courier centerfold. But it was not the one you think. This was a gorgeous sepia toned print spread across two pages of newspaper of important black Americans.
That's where I found out who, among other people, Mary McLeod Bethune was. Ralph Bunche. Thurgood Marshall. A. Philip Randolph. Philippa Duke Schuyler and her father George Schuyler and his syndicated column that was printed in the Pittsburgh Courier. I also remember discovering in the pages of the Courier the announcement of the wedding of an African political figure whose last name was Appiah, and the daughter of a member of the peerage, Sir Stafford Cripps. The future parents of Anthony Appiah. I told Anthony Appiah that years later, I don't know if it embarrassed him or not, but I thought that was really funny that I met the child that grew out of that wedding. Or that the Glee Clubs of predominantly black institutions had very distinguished directors, like William Dawson at Tuskegee where my sister had gone to college to study dietetics.
And what these random instances of everyday life and textual life would suggest is that the deep structures of the black life world were rich, extensive, definitive, and a matter of record. Some of it captured in the archives initiated and sustained by black people. One other thing. Du Bois's study of aspects of negro life, the Atlanta University studies, and also going back to one of the earliest manifestations of the work of the new social sciences of the late 19th century, early 20th century, the Philadelphia Negro, which interestingly enough to my mind shares a publishing context with Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. All say to me that America's best kept secret, precisely because of America's robust color coding of the social order was its complex black life unfolding in the witness of millions of historical subjects above and below the Mason Dixon.
And for all its precarity and depravation and disappointment and betrayal and travail, black people lived actual lives of considerable value that WEB Du Bois, for example, believed was evident of a vital cultural enterprise. That was spoken about in the earlier panel today. So vital in fact that he attributed to black America the embodiment of the aims of the reconstruction of American democracy, in black reconstruction.
Now, this to my mind is enormous in its implications because it means that what we know today as Black Studies, and I would even informally call it the Black Studies movement, is novel only in the context of predominantly white institutions. Now perhaps we could say that prototypical Black Studies were what was performed at historic black colleges and universities, churches and schools, lodges and pool halls, et cetera, in the post-emancipation period. And if that is so, then the implantation of AAAS was about a century old when the occupation, say, here at Brandeis and at Cornell began.
So that movement in its nodal points needs a name that I would want to call the pre-history of Black Studies that needs to be placed in perspective with its aftermath in order to understand how intellectual movement is choreographed as an organic occurrence and the extent to which the black life world subsisted in an internal coherence and a conceptual and practical integrity that lended a distinct and distinguishing mark. In other words, the name Black Studies, AAAS for instance, where of their moment but their content and aim were not infant.
The moment, then, of Black Studies which I believe constitutes a critical chapter in the history of ideas is inscribed by a couple of crucial elements. And this is something I would like to give sustained attention to, not here today because there would be a lot of stumbling and bumbling and carrying on. But one of those moments is that a moment of protest becomes a curricular object, right? That happened on a dime. I remember sitting in a room and the face that keeps coming back to me is that of Joyce. Joyce Williams's face, and our sitting in a room talking about the creation of this program.
So in a moment, protest becomes a curricular object. And I had never in my life seen anything like that before, and what it signals to my mind is the extent to which, and we too often forget this, the extent to which higher education is not leisurely activity. It is not trivial pursuit. But it is a crisis that it is the name of crisis in that it necessitates choice. Higher education in our world does not engender an ivory tower, nor is it generated from such an unimaginable place. And just as Brandeis itself and all the proud dignity of its eponymous tribute to Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, had been implanted in the urgent aftermath of the second World War as a powerful response to the global future of Jewish community.
Africana Studies emerges in what seemed at the time imminent revolution in the United States and what it pretended for black Africa and the Caribbean in addition to the black United States. So in short, the Black Studies movement appears in a crossroads. Or in an intersectional responsiveness to the very moment in which we were standing, which was, by definition, politically and philosophically the past and the future.
So it is also a matter of curiosity to me that if you investigate or interrogate this period from a trans-Atlantic perspective, Africana Studies is unfolding at the very moment when philosophical and conceptual paradigms themselves are shifting in the very heart of European procedure and disrupting canonical protocols that it held in place, a colonial enslavement order for centuries.
We have yet to systematically trace the simultaneity between left activity across the globe, more generally speaking, Black Studies Movement in particular, and the gulf that opens up fields of radical possibility in the world of thought that will reconfigure higher education in the United States. For instance, the difference between a doctoral dissertation written before 1968 and a doctoral dissertation written after 1968, I don't even want to start talking about the dissertations that are written today and what is possible for people to write. I was able to write the Fabrics of History: The Rhetoric of the Black Sermon here at Brandeis for my doctorate in 1974 under the direction of Allen Grossman, or to ... yeah? To complete it that spring precisely because an epistemic gap had opened in the chain of necessity. And such a thing as an inquiry into Martin Luther King's sermon style, for example, had been made visible to the discursive orders of knowledge production. But this visibility had been enabled precisely by that combination of circumstance that I have attempted to describe.
I was among the occupants of Ford Hall and I have always been happy that I overcame what fear I had. I was actually afraid that the building would be invaded by police power, and I know that police power in the United States is not in love with people who look like me. So I was afraid of that, enough to break out in hives. I've had hives twice in my life. And if you don't know what that is, that's bumps come on this side of your face then they clear up and then they go over here, right? And then they come back over here. That's the kind of fear we had. Because the word was out that National Guard and a few other folk were raring to get in that building.
In any case, I was among the occupants of Ford Hall and shared the moment of protest and the aftermath. So the curricular object that Black Studies became as a repertoire of critical inquiry meant that my generation of black scholars and creative intellectuals had to create a field, or fields, of study and practice those fields at the same time. Not always with happy results. In fact, the opening years of Black Studies creation and practice on many mainstream campuses ... do I need to name one or two? That those years were often characterized by backlash, insult, hostility, and I would go so far as to say that even though the overall picture is much improved we are nevertheless not entirely clear of danger even today.
The forces of race hatred and revengism and their quite astonishing powers of renewal and quite impressive shape shifting capacity have regrouped to answer a new time and place and should like to anticipate the end of Black Studies, the people who practice them, and the demolition of the epistemic transformations that have brought the current academy to stand. But we pledge today and repledge today 50 years later to run on toward the future and all the openness of possibility and potential that future evokes. So, what is to come? Which was the question posed at the end of the last panel.
As Black Studies have taken shape over the last half century, their protocols have been sharpened and clarified. And by that I mean that the textual universe in which Africana is embedded could not have been anticipated. Whether or not texts come directly from the disciplinary formations of Black Studies, and many, many of them do, today's intellectual technologies, especially in the humanistic areas of inquiry, cannot complete their itineraries until they have taken into account the impact of race and critical race theory. It is fair to say that Black Studies in its varied articulations put race on the table as social construction, as an idea whose history can be tracked, as a heuristic device. In short, as a topic that has lost its secrety, its prohibitive and unspeakable character. It has made race visible and accountable to critique.
And I want to end here. I'm not quite sure how to formulate this notion, how to put this idea, but it's something that I've been chewing on for a while. And it goes something like this. As one of the locuses of black culture, Black Studies by centering a particularity takes hold of something larger. And that is to say the concept of culture itself. And perhaps we can talk about this later. Are we bound for the day when Black Studies are everybody's studies?
Thank you. Thank you. Thanks a lot. Thank you. Thanks. Thanks.
How to do this ... Yeah.
Lisa Lynch: So, here's the formal part.
So it's now my honor to present the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award to Professor Hortense Jeanette Spillers, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Professor Spillers' life and career at Wellesley College, at Haverford College, at Emory University, Cornell University, and Vanderbilt University represent the highest values of Brandeis University. Namely, the idea that knowledge can and should be put to work and used to better the world. Her groundbreaking and widely influential scholarship on American literary criticism, black feminist thought, and cultural studies has given the world important insight into race, gender, and their intersection.
The citation of the award goes as follows. Dr. Hortense Spillers, Ph.D., 1974, the 2019 Alumni Achievement Award, pioneering professor, feminist scholar and critic, whose contributions have influenced the landscape of African American literary studies and advanced black feminist theory. Author of the groundbreaking 1987 essay, let's say it together, Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book, please join me in congratulating Professor Spillers on all of her achievements.
And I have to say, we want that book written on Ford Hall. Professor Spillers will now take some questions from the audience. We have microphones that are set up here, if people want to come forward and ask a question to this amazing woman.
Oh, you can't be shy. This is not the moment to be shy.
Professor Spillers: Here they come.
Lisa Lynch: Here they come. Good.
Student 1: Okay. Wow, I'm nervous. So ... as a Ph.D. student in Black Studies right now, struggling with living within interdisciplinarity, sometimes being undisciplined. How do you, as a professor, engage students on Black Studies dissertation projects, especially when you might have to defend them against people in other departments or within the department about what a Black Studies project looks like in the kind of academic, often forced, framework of disciplinarity or just whatever that is. How do you advise students through that? And then also, how do you advocate for students on the faculty end of that?
Professor Spillers:To go back to a response that was given in the previous panel, I just want to reinforce the idea that Black Studies has enough porousness and enough unsettledness that that has to be a part of what is created, right? I mean, we're not talking about something whose boundaries are so rigid that they have to take place within a certain order. So that I think what we're always learning to do in Black Studies and in black life, to go back to a point that Bob Jones made earlier, is that we are always learning to mount a paradox, right? And it is a paradox that is never resolved or settled. And in that sense, ambivalence is a very good word. And I think of double consciousness as ambivalence, right? That it is an ambivalence that I think black people, given their historical circumstance, have learned to ride. Right? You just mount up. And you straddle it. 'Cause you will never solve it. It seems to me. So that it becomes really, an aspect of ones own creativity. So it seems to me that that's really what's at stake with any Black Studies protocol, right? That we are leaving ourselves open to possibility, at the same time that we're bringing our best effort to that particular project or idea, right? So I look at it in that sense. Yes.
Khari: Oh, it's time for me to talk. Okay.
Okay, my name is Khari. My question is, considering how black feminist scholars think about your work specifically Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe, what do you make of the way that it's been manifested and also the way that it's being interpreted? And considering black feminist studies moving forward, how would you like for and also how would you like to be represented? And what would you like for your work to manifest as? Considering, specifically, black women and queer folk doing your work. And considering it.
Professor Spillers: You know, the thing that I have always been very pleased about is that things keep moving. Right? And that if that work has been helpful to people, that's great. But what I expect and what, in fact, has happened is that the world has just moved right past that moment. Right? On and on into the next step. Or the next manifestation. And I think that's great. That's precisely what should happen. And if the work of my generation of black women has any usefulness, I think that will be its usefulness. That it will simply disappear into the stream of what we recognize as our future, right? The next step, the next intellectual movement. I think, this lady ...
Student 3: Hello. Thank you so much. My question is kind of similar to the question that was just asked to us on the panel, but I'm curious to hear what have been some of your formative or impactful or foundational texts? And I mean that broadly, if it's like songs or even sermons or folktales, whatever. I'm curious to hear, what are some of the cornerstones that have stimulated and lubricated the way you've been able to think?
Professor Spillers: Thanks for that. One of the things that I think about quite a lot is where I grew up, when I grew up, and what was happening in my immediate world. There may be people in here who grew up in the Baptist Church of the South. The Black Baptist Church of the South. I'm a kind of lapsed Baptist. But I grew up in the black Baptist church. And the Black Baptist church had, and probably still has, very powerful preaching in it. Aretha Franklin's father, for example, who was one of the chapters of my dissertation. Well, the thing is that I did not realize any of that as a child. Made to go to church several times a week, father was a deacon, mother was in the choir. Church was obligated on Sundays, three times, Sunday school, 11:00 service, BYPU. We were there a lot! And so I remember sitting in the audience as an eight or nine year old, rolling my eyes, you know how you do? Nobody's looking and so you're rolling your eyes going, "Oh, Christ, I'm bored." You know, and your little legs are flopping and you're chewing gum and you're doing whatever it is.
And then one day I got about 19 or 20 years old and heard Martin Luther King speak. And I thought, "What? That's who he is? I hear people like that every Sunday! That's powerful to people? Wow!" And I thought, "Oh, okay. I think I just hit pay dirt. I just understood my culture." It was like, "What?!" And I actually saw the transformation of sermon style transposed into a secular key that was actually moving people to do dangerous things like bark back at dogs. Or little girls, 13 years old walking through white mobs spitting at them, and on them. I actually saw that happen. And saw myself along with classmates at the University of Memphis, where I was in undergraduate school right after desegregation had been declared in that University with the mob howling outside and James Merritt is getting ready to go to the Ole Miss right down the road, having a sit-in and going to jail. I actually saw myself doing stuff like that after hearing this man preach.
It was a part of what inspired actual movement. And commotion. And what John Lewis calls getting in the way. So I decided that if that is so, if what I think I'm seeing now and what I have seen all my life answers a certain question, there's something about this particular cultural form and formation that I need to study. And that's where that came from. It was the first poetry I knew, was the poetry of the King James Bible. The poetry of black preaching and singing. And so, I brought that into the university and it's not so much that the university changed me. I like to think that something a little dialectical happened. That when I walked, when we walked through here, something changed in the university.
And I hope for the next 50th anniversary when I come back ... I won't tell you how old I'll be, I'll be close to 200. When I come back, I hope ... now I just heard this, I stand corrected. If this is incorrect. But I've been told that Brandeis has 1% indigenous black faculty here? Is that right?
One percent. Come on, y'all.
Audience Member: Shout about it! Shout about it!
Professor Spillers: Come on. 50 years later, now.
Audience Member: Come on!
Professor Spillers: We can do a little better than that, yeah?
I don't mean to tell tales on the school and embarrass nobody, but I was shocked to hear that. It was like, "What? Get out of here!" Got black people from other places but not from here. Well, you know what ... yeah. Well, we got to ... okay. Let's work on that. That just kind of came up in the course of answering that question about influence.
So the Baptist church ... and it was always ironical to people that at this university I wrote a dissertation on Protestant tradition and black sermons. In an English department. That's why I know that radical transformation is not only possible, it's likely when the human imagination gets working in a certain kind of way. Yes? Yes.
Student 4: Hello.
Professor Spillers: Hello.
Student 4: So I'm from Knoxville, Tennessee, and a Cornell grad. So, super honored to be here with you.
Professor Spillers: Okay.
Student 4: I'm thinking about the points you made about the interface of black life world and black studies. And I'm thinking about violence, right? I remember the stories that people told about the Willard Straight Hall takeover at Cornell, the first Africana Studies and Research Center was burned. I'm writing a book on contemporary black church arson. And so when I think about black life world and critical black study and violence, it seems like they're pinned between the violence of literal obliteration, that fear of burning down the building, trying to obliterate the institution where this critical life world is housed. And also on the part of the university appropriation, right? Thinking about Roderick Ferguson's work.
How do we resist, right, these two forces of obliteration? Because I've heard what insights of critical Black Studies sound like in administrative terms. Like, now everyone loves to say "intersectionality," right? Like as a buzzword. Like, "All my inter-," like wait. Hold on. What about genealogical specificity, right? Now we all suddenly have intersections. How do we continue to respect the genealogy of that interface in the midst of the violence, like the actual violence of obliteration, of institutions or black bodies that embody that black life world. And the appropriation on the part of a sort of white supremacist institutional structure.
Professor Spillers: Would you stay at the mic?
Student 4: Yes ma'am.
Professor Spill: Yeah. 'Cause ... I want to ... I want you to help me talk through this. You're asking about the two faces of violence, or the two sides of violence?
Student 4: Two sides, or ...
Professor Spill: Okay.
Student 4: Assuming there's just two, I assume there's more than two, but those are the ones that came to my mind.
Professor Spill: Ah, okay. Alright. Well, this is when I think about some of that. And one of the reasons why I became a little interested as a layperson in psychoanalytic theory was that it opened the way for me to ask questions about the mental theater of the African life world. Right?
As we know, Frantz Fanon was one of the systematic thinkers of black consciousness, right? And the mental theater. And the impact of the socionome, or the historical world, on historical subjects and agents. And there are not many intellectuals or scholars who have studied that issue, and I think it is very important to study. So much so that I have tried to imagine what an intramural protocol would look like. In other words, relations black to black. What does that look like in our historical circumstance? Because I've always believed that however far away we are from the point of slavery's origins, as a modern institution or a modern institutional practices, that on the other side of Middle Passage we are still in a kind of crisis. Because we haven't figured out a way to frame certain important questions that are by now symbolic. Now how did we get in the trade in the first place? These are not comfortable questions to ask. And a whole series of questions that relate to the demographics and the politics and the geography and the cultures of that particular question.
So all of that is to say that the intramural violence that I think you're asking about is a question that I think we're going to have to tackle in our various work as scholars and thinkers. And one of the ways that we begin to do that is to let go of certain prohibitions about what questions might be asked. I mean, there are certain things that we fear we can't say, because it is to air dirty laundry in public. We have to give all those up. All of them. Every one of them. All the family secrets, we have to articulate them. And it is not because other people are listening, it's because we are listening. We are the first order of listening.
And so it seems to me that once we reach the point at which secrecy and prohibition are no longer acceptable, that we are going to get on to answering your question. Because I think we are evading your question, and questions like it. That we're simply avoiding it. That we're simply saying, it's somebody else's problem to fix. I think it's ours to fix. And we can start fixing it, I think, by being a little more honest and interrogating what it is that we do.
Student 4: Thank you.
Professor Spillers: Yup. Yeah.
Student 5: Hi.
Professor Spillers: Hi.
Student 5: I'm in a student group on campus called the Brandeis Asian American Task Force, and we are currently fighting for Asian American Studies at Brandeis. And kind of what you were talking about before, Asian American Studies, Black Studies is not an infant thing. It's not a new thing, but it's not at Brandeis yet. And we kind of started this way in 2015, our founding members came in solidarity to Ford Hall 2015 and then we had our own protest for Asian American Studies a month later.
So I'm just wondering in the context of Ford Hall, how can different ethnic studies groups be in support of each other and be informed by each other? And I would also like to know if you think that there are restraints to the institutionalization of ethnic studies, and how do we grapple with those?
Professor Spillers: Say the last part of it again? If there's ...
Student 5: If there's restraints to the institutionalization of ethnic studies, and to studying people of color and ethnic studies in the context of academia and under an institution. Like, how do we grapple with those restraints?
Professor Spillers: Restraints. Right? Yeah.
I wish I knew, or had a magical answer to the restraint question. And I think I believe that the question of restraint is not just a question that haunts the new epistemologies or the new studies. I think it haunts university life in general today, and particularly humanistic study today. I think that one of the things that has happened to the university is that we have given up our ancient mission to prepare citizens, and to prepare literate citizens. People who are literate in their culture and in their history, not just about Black people or about Asian people but about white people, European people. Their own people. We've given up on that task, right?
I mean, my discipline, for instance, a long time ago, I believe, did not say it was giving up the mission of teaching literacy but that is in fact what we did in the name of, what? Producing scholarship and research, right? We gave up on those goals. We eliminated language requirements and so forth. And so if you do that long enough, or in a systematical way enough, what eventually will happen is what happened in this society two years ago. In the presidential election. I mean, a populous that's really too ignorant to recognize, in the majority instance, what's good for it.
I lay some of that at our door. At the door of the university. The university has to rediscover its mission. And stop playing around. Because we've gotten smug and comfortable and we are so rich and affluent. We haven't been able to stand the prosperity, right? We gonna have to rediscover what I was talking about earlier, about education as the sense of crisis. And I think that's where we are in the society, so that we are looking at Black Studies, women's studies, all these new epistemologies and object lessons in relationship to a project that seems to me to be volunteering to fail.
So I think that's what has to be rediscovered. And how do you rediscover that? Well, it's gonna take a while to come upon it again. But it seems to me that that is going to have to happen if we are going to help the society overcome this terrible place where we have landed. This terrible place of what I would call a kleptocratic darkness that's enfolding us. Yes. My dear friend, Randy Bailey.
Randy Bailey: What your work shows me is that the university's ghettoizing of our work and our studies and giving us space to do that becomes a way of keeping the rest of the university from critiquing itself. Such that there is not the understanding that a basic humanities curriculum has to incorporate what we're doing, but instead the university figures that's what those of us as black intellectuals are doing and you can take a course in that. But that Humanities 101 and English Literature 101 has to totally revolutionize itself. And so we in some ways, and what we're doing as black intellectuals, doesn't really impact what the rest of the university is doing. And so I'm wondering whether we become in our pursuit of bringing our knowledge forward and relieving the other faculty from actually re-educating themselves, and rethinking what it was they were trained to do in their disciplines. And so, you know, I'm just wondering, does that make sense to you in terms of ...
Professor Spillers:Yeah, yeah, I kind of ... I kind of get what you're saying. You know, I think, and we can certainly argue about this, but I'm thinking that the introduction of Black Studies or new epistemies change all the disciplines eventually. I think that there is great resistance to that idea, but I cannot think of an institution that I know anything about whose English department is the same as it was 50 years ago precisely because African American literature has been added to its roster. Because it's not just an addition that we're talking about. It requires a new configuration of what it is that literature can do. Of what is the work of literature. I mean, it seems to me that it really isn't possible, unless you're plugging your ears and gauging your eyes out, for transformation like that to take place around you and it doesn't change how you think about the overall, right? So it seems to me that on both sides of an equation an action has taken place. That Black Studies shifts something in English and American literature, and English and American literature shifts something on the other side, too. If you want to see it that way.
Randy Bailey: [inaudible 01:16:46]
Professor Spillers: You want to come back to the mic, Randy, so we can hear you?
Randy Bailey: I'm saying, in theology, they go through all the European theologians and then we'll throw in, in the last couple of chapters, women and African folk and all. So it's like, we're a late development. But it hasn't caused them to rethink what it was that was going on and how these theologies were really inscribing white supremacy over against the background of the faith.
Professor Spillers: Gotcha.
Randy Bailey: And it isn't looking at the way in which women function within the whole thing.
Professor Spillers: Right.
Randy Bailey: Until, so, and I keep thinking this. That we aren't pushing them to say, "You gotta redo what you were gonna do from the beginning."
Professor Spillers: Well, see, yeah. Okay. So, stay tuned. Because, you know what? I'm thinking of texts that are being produced now, two things come to mind right away. One of them is Denise Ferreira da Silva's Toward a Global Idea of Race. That goes into the deep structures and asserts a theoretical position from that space. Or Nahum Chandler's The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought, that does the same thing. So that I think increasingly over the next 30, 40, 50 years, you're gonna see precisely that kind of archeological upturning or upheaval. I think that's coming. So that women and minorities, that those positions are not simply add-ons, right? But that you have to talk about the whole structure in a different way. That's happening. That's coming. And I think we're in the midst of it right now.
And this gentleman here? Yes.
Student 6: Thank you so much.
Student 6: For taking the time to speak with us. My question is, how do I learn to study AAAS and Black Studies for its intrinsic value to myself as a black person, and not as in response to whiteness? Like, how do I not fall into the mental seduction that I often find myself and other black students falling into, of instrumentalizing Black Studies as only a tool for fighting whiteness and white supremacy and white constructions? Thank you.
Professor Spillers Okay, thank you, that's good. And that's exactly what I think I was talking about a little bit when I talked about a kind of intramurality. There are a couple of thinkers and you will know who many of them were, in addition to Fanon, [inaudible 01:21:10], who talked about disalienation. But disalienation as I'm remembering it had two pieces or parts to it. One of them was overcoming the lies of supremacist mythology. Correcting the lies of supremacist mythology. Which was a negative work. And then there was a positive work, and that was building personality in light of the work of disalienation, right? So those are really two different movements.
I think for political purposes, we concentrate on the disalienation part and less on the construction or the building part. And I think that's the part that the young man was asking about a moment ago. And I think that's what we have to work on primarily by recognizing that we are ourselves historical agents. And that things move in a historical way. I mean, we're neither above nor below humanity. White people are not either. No one is. I mean, we're all moving along in human social and historical order. And once you accept that idea, it seems to me that everything else follows. That you can then, as someone was saying earlier today, accept your own contradictions, live with them, ride the paradox, not need to reject anything about yourself, find out who you are and get over it, right?
That's the thing to do. And once you do that, you can bless yourself and others as well. That's the work of building, right? That's the other side of the disalienation complex, as it were. And I think we need to spent a lot more time working on that particular angle of it. Yes? Thank you. Thanks. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks very much.
Great to see you! Let's all go drink some wine now.
Professor Chad Williams: Thank you so very much, Professor Spillers. This was remarkable. I am not going to try and top what she just said, I just want to thank everyone in this room for an incredible two days. We are here. Brandeis, AAAS, we are here. And I think if there's anything that we can ... there's obviously so much we can take away from what we just heard, but the sense of responsibility. The sense of responsibility that's in all of us, to make sure that we are not just celebrating AAAS every 50 years, every 25 years, every 10 years, every 5 years, that we are celebrating and commemorating AAAS and Black Studies every day. Every day in our practice that we take on the responsibility of making sure that this department continues to exist and I promise you, on the behalf of the faculty at this department, we will take on the responsibility of making sure that AAAS remains alive and well. Thank you.