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Terrion Williamson brings her book Scandalize my name: Black feminist practice and the making of Black social life to a close by engaging with Toni Morrison’s reflections about what compelling questions arise from the fact of Black absence from the literary cannon. Instead of asking “why am I absent,” Morrison argues the more interesting question is: “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?” (Morrison). This provocation brings Williamson’s project into crystal clear focus as a series of reflections on the manifestations of what she calls the “structured absences” of black women’s lives even or especially in the spaces and discourses that appear to be precisely concerned with black women. Taking the reader through the common tropes that appear to be “about” black women – anger, teen pregnancy, church life, prostitution – Williamson shows that even as black women are indexed by these tropes, their lives as they are lived in all their messy complexity, ambivalence and banality are seldom present.
Readers will be well aware of the ways in which black women’s representation in popular discourses is deeply caricatured – as angry, as devoutly Christian, as “in the life” of prostitution and drug addiction. Williamson argues that the knee jerk criticism and refusal of stereotypes that sometimes follow from the deployment of these representations can also reproduce structured absences of black women’s sociality. Instead of raising objections to the portrayal of Black women as angry, she argues, black women’s anger ought to be understood as a “critical posture” that comes into relief only in relation to a social structure. She writes “The point here is not to suggest that our anger is always to the good but to query what we might lose if we fail to acknowledge the significance of anger as something more than an errant emotion that must be disavowed or displaced in order for black women to be legible as something other than who we are. In a context in which we have been bought, sold and possessed many times over, black women’s will to self-possession is the ultimate rebellion” (39).
Williamson’s book is not just a meditation on this tendency – it is a praxis of refusal and an exploration of what might be otherwise. Rooted in her own experiences coming of age in the black neighborhoods of Peoria, Illinois and returning as an adult, Williamson explicitly grounds her analysis in the everyday lives of everyday black women. She introduces us to women from Peoria in their full complexity, refusing to makes sense of their lives through the subjectivities that white supremacist heteropatriarchy makes available for black women. In the act of this performative refusal, in the foregrounding of the lives of black women on their own terms, Williamson brings into relief the structures she is critiquing without inadvertently giving them explanatory power or reifying them. Drawing on Hortense Spillers, Williamson describes her method as a concern with the “intramural” of black sociality. While she draws often on the work of Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson, her interest in the intramural experience of black social life rather than the global ordering of blackness offers an epistemological location distinctively different than that of current strands of Afro-pessimist thought.
I talked to Williamson about the book and the themes that emerge and the praxis of writing it. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation, with occasional expository interludes to ground our conversation in the text for those who have not read the book. We started off by talking about the way that the method of writing calls our attention to, without reproducing, the logics that structure our ability to make sense of black sociality.
Kate Derickson (KG): I enjoyed and loved reading the book like I hadn't anything in a while. But one of the things that was really striking to me about it was that the form of the book and the experience of reading it taught me a ton. The act of reading the book and the experience that I had reading it was almost kind of like an object lesson or it felt like an instantiation of what you are arguing in the book. And it reminded me in that way of watching the film Moonlight. One of the things that really struck me when I was watching Moonlight is how much I learned about myself. And how much I learned about my own expectations of particular genres and its refusal to do the thing that you anticipate from the genre, is actually an object lesson in your own presumptions. And that's how I felt watching Moonlight, just waiting for the extreme violation -
Terrion Williamson (TW): The thing that never came.
KG: The thing that never happens. And how ... it just really struck me when I was watching that film and then it felt the same way reading the book - all the things that I expect from this genre, this isn't doing. And so I'm having this other level experience of reading it. But I felt that with its kind of ordinariness, the kind of cases that you talk about. Its ordinariness, its banality is its provocation. And then the reader learns so much about the ways in which those banalities are profoundly absent from our ...
TW: Our discourse. Yes. There was never a point at which I was like, "I am going to write a book that looks like this." I never set out to do that but there's also certain things, certain kinds of academic protocols I wasn't invested in because I felt like they weren't useful to what I was trying to do. So even at the level of explanation and road mapping - I don't do a lot of road mapping, in part intentionally, but in part because of how the stories naturally unfolded. I've had grad students for instance, tell me that the book reads like a novel. And one student even talked about Peoria as a character in my novel. And I think for some academics, that would be annoying for them, but for me it is not. I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write this book so that it feels like you're reading a novel." But it was also like because it was so personal and the storytelling became such a component of the work that I didn't want to say at the outset all the things I was going to do. Like, “I am going to do these four things and the story is going to end here.” That's not the way you write a story and that’s not the way Scandalize My Name unfolded for me. And I wanted it to be something that felt honest to what it was I was trying to grapple with. So I'm really proud of this book, not because I think it's the greatest thing that's ever been written about anything - it's probably the greatest book that's ever been written about the South Side of Peoria because I don't think there are any other such books. But because I feel like I let the work come in the way that the work came, which is how I’ve sometimes heard novelists talk about their work. And I was trying to tell a compelling narrative about the place I come from that is—and it's so right on that you talk about its banality—that is the place so many other people come from too.
But places like the South Side often only seem to get talked about in these kinds of ... often in these kinds of pathologizing discourses. Even when it's the work that's supposed to be on our side! You know, we have to tell you all of the horrible, terrible, miserable things that have happened to put these people in the positions that they're in. There's another story ... there's another way that I've experienced that life. And I wanted that experience to show up in the text. And for that experience to show up, it meant that it might not take the form of your typical academic text. It might not look the way it's “supposed” to, the way we’ve been trained is “correct” academic writing.
KG: It feels as though for some disciplines, for some genres, the banality of everyday black life is just not interesting – it’s not a story worth telling unless it's like Flint or Detroit or extreme and profound suffering or it's everyday lives in some far flung place that's exotic. My discipline, Geography, doesn’t seem to know what to do with a lack of the “exotic” – they seem to wonder, what am I going to do with this? I don't know, make knowledge about life?
TW: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Last year I founded The Black Midwest Initiative and one of the things I was concerned about, part of its origin story, was my concern that the Midwest is a region where folks act like black people aren't until something wicked happens in Flint or Ferguson. Like, until something disastrous happens it's as if there's not something happening in these little towns like Peoria that people can't even pronounce the name of. That there’s no concern about who lives there and what they do. But what’s happening in Peoria is so foundational to what black social life looks like everywhere. But it's like unless we're talking about the most exotic or the most destitute of situations it’s not sexy enough for us to write about. And that says something about who we are as scholars, as the academy, and the things that we're invested in. As if folks think, “If I can't tell a story about all the bad shit that's happened here, I'm not invested in this story.” Or if there's not some kind of strange sort of hero narrative or something like that.
KG: What kinds of knowings does this genre and this approach invite that we might not otherwise know? What are the consequences of that formulation that you just named?
TW: That intellectualism doesn't just happen in the academy and it's not just a function of getting a degree. And that for many of us, the way that we understand the work we do is shaped by all of these places that don't emerge under the rubric of the University. Not only does that shape us, but it's important to the way we think about what it is to do academic work in the first place. And that the idea of “objectivity” is the challenge, the very notion of the idea of objectivity. And that the questioning of the “object” is so essential to what it is for so many of us to do the work. This is the outcome of black feminism and black feminist practice in general and the strength of critical race theory and similar fields that recognize that lived experience is part of the enabling conditions of our work.
What I recognize now is that while I have however many degrees and I've been in the academy for as long as I have, when I go back home or I go to the South where my dad lives and I sit and listen to people, I recognize that they're formulating the same thing that, I don't know, a Patricia Hill Collins is formulating, just in a different dialect. And so what I've also learned is just what a livable life you can have in places like the South Side of Peoria or North Minneapolis. Which isn't to say there aren't really jacked up conditions that mugs are angry about and have something to say about and that people are fighting against. It's not to say people aren't fighting oppression in their various ways and their various places, but that you can live, not only a livable life, but a joyous life. Even under the most constrained conditions. That doesn't excuse the social economic situations that create those constrained conditions, but it is to say there's something to say for what it is to be here. Formalized education eventually helped me to understand how my early experiences were shaped by marginalization and oppression, but I didn’t necessarily always experience my life that way growing up. Which is to say I didn’t grow up feeling bound in by terror, like my life was so terrible because we didn’t have much money or because we didn’t have all of the opportunities that people had in other places.
The academy forces you to hone in on the problems so it's easy to become like, "Oh look how bad. Look how terrible." But when you’re from there, you come to understand what else is there. Take Carmea and Tyrhonda, who I talk about in the last chapter of the book. I remember them talking to me about growing up in the projects in Peoria, and naming all these people who lived in this one little apartment. They said that part of the excuse their mother gave for why she did drugs was because she felt so bad about what they didn't have and how they lived. But they said if they could tell her now, they would tell her they loved their lives. They didn't recognize there was anything wrong with living 10-deep in a two-bedroom apartment, because they loved being together in that space. But there's a kind of rhetoric of deprivation that can be applied to a place like the projects that doesn't get at what it means to be together there. So yes, we're recognizing there's something profoundly jacked up about people having to live under the conditions that are typically produced in low-income, subsidized housing, and we can recognize that and name those things and call them out and we can theorize what it is to live in those spaces, but what our theories so often miss is what it is to be in community together. And when I talk about intramural black social life, I’m talking about that form of life that often goes missing in academic literature.
Okay so why I am I telling the story of these black women who were murdered? It is a terrible, hard, difficult story to tell. And even more difficult to live. Yet and still, women like Brenda Erving who are no longer here can teach us something about how black people live in the world in ways that are beyond the neglect and dereliction of black life.
KG: On the one hand, we're talking about like the really important way that academic knowledge is shaped by where we come from and really you're refusing that break that we make by saying everything you want to talk about is like routed through Peoria. That is a beautiful, instantiation of what we learn from Black feminism is the refusal to kind of make that disconnect. As well as I what I take to be an increasingly shared understanding that only focusing on the ways people are oppressed is itself epistemic violence and we have to find other ways of integrating those lives and livelihoods and socialities into our knowledge production that provides possibilities of otherwise being. It feels to me that, that argument is like being made and kind of taking root and really getting traction as a provocation in a variety of different areas.
TW: I think there's certainly a lot of work by black feminist writers in particular who are doing that. The folks who are talking about sex positivity, for instance, I think you see it emerging in those kinds of discourses. I think black feminism does that better than most academic fields I can think of. Because sort of at the heart of the work we do is thinking about precisely what you're saying – how our knowledge production is shaped by the places we come from and we recognize that it can't all be terrible.
That's one of the advantages of bringing that to bear in the work is that it helps us to look at things differently. For instance, I think about the work I’ve been doing that touches on drug addiction - this narrative around despair and despondency, and self-hate and escapism around drug addiction. Part of what I'm trying to suggest in the way I talk about that is to consider drug addiction as a mechanism for trying to live a life that's more livable. If we can take that, if we can understand people where they are and try to intellectualize that within our work, that maybe helps us think differently about things like pathology and drug use or sexual violence or whatever the things are, which is not saying we can't work on these issues and that we shouldn't be pushing and trying to find resources and answers and all of that. But it is to say that we need to incorporate these broader stories into our work, make them a central component of our methodologies.
In the late 1980s, when Williamson was an adolescent, Peoria, Illinois led the nation in births to unmarried black women and girls by some measures. In her chapter “Baby Mama,” Williamson considers the coverage of this “epidemic” by the local newspaper, as well as the community reaction to the coverage. The series included photographs of young black women pregnant, giving birth, and caring for young babies, a depiction that some members of the black community in Peoria felt was negative and demeaning in its unyielding, intimate depiction. Williamson directs our attention away from the back and forth over whether or not the photographs were unflattering or reinforced problematic narratives, instead about the way in which the photos “became the scapegoat for the real offense, which was not simply the image of a black teenage girl deep in the throes of labor, but the corporeal imagining of an alternative (read: abnormal) sociality rooted in and sustained by blackness” (95).
This provocation is sublimely illustrated by a letter to the editor that Williamson quotes at length, in which one of the young women named Chia featured in the newspaper coverage writes: “I am one of the unwed mothers interviewed for the ‘Unwed Parents’ article. I recall reading in Monday’s newspaper about one particular man’s comments referring to my interview. First of all, some of these ‘deadbeats who are sucking the welfare system dry’ are students. I, myself, am a high school student and I also receive welfare assistance. But I also worked a part time job for four or five months in which I had to go directly from school and not return home until after 10 pm. This started interfering with my school work and my relationship with my 15-month old son. So, being the intelligent person I am, I decided that my school work and my son were more important.” This is, Williamson writes, an instantiation of what Lindon Barret calls “bla(n)ckness,” which refuses the dichotomy of whiteness and blackness and exposes the structures of violence that undergird “normative” relationships (107).
This is further illustrated in Williamson’s final chapter “In the Life” in which she looks head on at the lived experiences of black women close to other black women murdered in spate of killings in Peoria. Here again she shows us the way in which “unequivocal disavowal” – of a stereotype, of a profession, of a subjectivity – functions as a way of buying in to that which it purports to disavow. Instead, we ought to look to how black women make and narrate their own lives. In so doing, Williamson makes use of the phrase “in the life” to describe making ends meet through prostitution: “As a term of art, ‘in the life’ is of no small consequences because there is, in my view, something profound, instructive even moving about an ideological stance that establishes a space of vitality, a space for living, that is primarily inhabited by those who engage in activities that put them in close proximity to death and whose existence is externally conditioned by their supposed nonexistence” (125).
KG: I love the discussion in the baby mama chapter. The way you wrote the chapter and where you placed the photo was so interesting to me because we get the description of the reaction to the photo before we see it. I was not sure what to expect when I saw it. And then, it was so strikingly discordant with the description and the reaction. Because what you see is like this mom giving birth and her sister and her best friend and they're happy and it's beautiful. There's nothing shameful about the photo and it's composition at all. It really helped, I thought, hammer home that point that what's grotesque about this is actually the provocations that this is joy.
TW: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Part of what's happening there is also recognizing that some of the same things that I'm trying to write against, some of the same sort of intellectual positionalities that I'm trying to project against in the book, show up in the community as well. I often wonder—and I haven't spoken to any of them—what do the people in the photo think about what's happening there?
On the one hand it's like I understand the provocation, I understand why there was this sort of upheaval. What does it mean to put that kind of image of someone in the paper? It was problematic not because of the image per se, it was problematic because the narrative around it was clearly a pathologizing of black mothers. That was the issue, but that's not what came out in the upheaval around it. In all this conversation, all of this upheaval, nobody is even recognizing or able to talk about what's happening in these young girls' lives and what they're facing and the experience of being put on display.
This is why it was like gold when finding that letter. I'm like, see this is why it’s important to allow people to speak to their own experiences. Because even as folks in the community are participating in that same pathologizing discourse, here is this young girl who is able to say very clearly something that everybody else seemed to be missing in the conversation. It's like, yo, see what she's saying rubs right against what the newspaper is saying in a very different kind of language and a very different kind of space. She’s articulating her experience in a much more robust and rigorous way.
Reading that letter helped me to understand. A letter from this young girl who I've never met, who I don't know where in the world she is now, helped me understand something vital about the experience of motherhood for young black women. That's what it means for me to try to pull together folks who don't show up in the university alongside the kind of theoretical work that I'm also trying to work with.
Williamson engages the intellectual tradition of Afro-Pessimism throughout the book, but it is clear that the political commitments are importantly distinct from that tradition. I asked her how she situated herself in that conversation.
TW: Yeah, for me the question around anti-blackness becomes who or what is the anti? There is this necessary and abiding concern about the structures of the world and the way the world order treats black folks in the discourse. Thus the work of Wilderson and Sexton and some of those folks has really helped me understand some things about the way blackness functions. But for me, my primary investment is not in “the world” so much as it is what happens in the space of the intramural? How do we live together? How do we find joy? What’s livable about these lives that are sort of always at risk of death – that are lived right on the line? How can one be a drug addicted person who has sex for drugs, how can you be that person and still have a life that's worth grieving and still have a life that's worth living?
Because we're not always thinking about what the white folks think. We just aren't. Particularly in those really intimate spaces. This is why chapter three starts in a basement at a bachelorette party, because there’s certain things that can happen in those spaces that are just about, even if it's just for a very small period time that aren't about this sort of concern about other folks. It's just about what are doing right here together in this moment? My experience in my black life has been that that happens. And so my departure from Afo-pessimism is more about a point of entry than a fundamental disagreement.
What does it mean to theorize power from the South Side of Peoria as opposed to from, you know, “the world”? What does it mean to theorize from the position of the single black mother? What does it mean to theorize upward from there and the conditions of that life, while still recognizing all the circumstances that lead to it?
KG: I don't know if this is right, but I saw the departure as not an ontological one. You seem to be both working with the same ontology, but if you theorize that ontology as a social formation, you're just at different locations in that social formation. The way I read it was different vantage points from which to see.
KG: I think the juxtaposition is really generative in terms of like showing kind of the fullness of the ontology of Afro-pessimism by having different epistemological locations from which to know - knowing from a basement bachelorette party rather than (or in addition to) knowing from the slave trade.
TW: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
KG: You respond to the possibility at the end of the book that you could be accused of romanticizing the lives of poor people – was that a prediction or a response to things people said to you?
TW: I was venting about this to my advisor, and I started to think, actually he helped me to think, that maybe “romance” is a word we need. I think people have been looking for a reprieve from Afro-pessimism, at least some articulations of it. Like anti-blackness all the time, you know? I've been witnessing folks looking for another way into thinking about that stuff. And so, I'm sure the critiques will come and I'm sure there are folks who have their critiques, but what has come directly to me has been more of like okay, here's another way to think about this. My own experiences inform another way of thinking about the work that Afro-pessimism is doing.
KG: I wondered about this other tension though, as much as your book recuperates some the experiences or recuperate may be the wrong word, but integrates- It also pushes back on some kind of like ways the community responds to different things. How has that conversation gone? You know, when you say you have these really amazing moments of ambivalence, as the community is getting really mad about something, you stay ambivalent and you can feel it in the writing. I wondered about the embodied experience and the communicative experience of that ambivalence and how that gets met in Peoria?
TW: It's interesting that you say ambivalence because I think that's totally right because part of it is at the time same that there's a kind of academic posture and discourse I want to push back against, there's this thing that's happening with community that is as troubling to me. Part of what I'm also really invested in trying to say something about is like the way black folks would pathologize other black folks, even from within the same sort of space. [Saying things like] “These black people might just make us all look bad. I don't want to be around those certain kind of black folks” and the word that used to be used to describe this was “ghetto.” The word I hear getting used more often now is “ratchet” and so I struggle because on the one hand, it's like ... I'm on the side of community folks who are pushing back, for instance, against the local newspaper about their jacked up narrative around young black mothers, but I can't go to the place where the community is going either. Because the argument takes a turn that I'm not willing to take. And so, it becomes about how I can both recognize something that I see as dangerous in certain kinds of academic discourses at the same time that I recognize that there are some discourses happening in the community that are equally dangerous. I'm always trying to bear both of those out at the same time that I'm also not invested in tearing anybody down. That, to me, is not useful.
KG: You show over and over again really well how the virulent rejection, the unequivocal disavowal, which is also a form of buying in. I think you do such a beautiful job with Brenda in particular in introducing her and telling us these amazing stories about like what a great grandma she was and how important she was to the fabric of that life. I just thought maybe Brenda wasn't a drug addict. Maybe Brenda wasn't in the life because of the way, she's like grandma who makes the sweet bread and can handle the grandkid and then you just go like oh, yeah. Well, she did drugs and some other stuff. It's just like, you just do such a great job of refusing that single part of her being her defining characteristic.
TW: Right. To be able to read that way comes not from me, it comes from having the conversation with her daughters, who can tell you so much more about who the figure of the drug addict is in real life. You know, their mother Brenda Erving was unique and special to them and she was a drug-addicted person who lived a full life. Like when I went to sit down with Carmea and Tyrhonda, they felt like there were ways in which amongst even a very marginalized group, they felt marginalized. Folks in the community just disappeared, that all of the stuff that was supposed to happen, all of the stuff that leaders were saying about drug programs that were going to be implemented and all of that, just all went away into nothing. Once the killer was caught, the media and the attention, all of that went away. There was a hierarchy even amongst the families who were dealing with these dead women. There were people in the community who had daughters or sisters or family members who were victims, who were tied in a different kind of way to the community such that their voices had more weight than the voices of Carmea and Tyrhonda and their family.
You're always sort of wrestling with, you know, there is no sort of monolithic community. What it means is that even as you’re working in community in order to get a more complex representation of who the drug-addicted black woman is, you're often bumping up against these same kinds of tension and contradictions, even in the community. There's no straight narrative.
This, for me, is what it means to talk about black sociality—the sort of complex nature that gets commodified in the form of certain kinds of caricatures. Part of what I'm trying to do in the first chapter, for example, is think about the relationship, the corollary, between black women and anger, which is a different way into talking about the notion of the angry black woman. I recognize the angry black woman as a particular kind of trope, but I'm also trying to say that it’s function as trope informs, and is informed by, black sociality.
If we think about the correlation between black women and anger as more than just, “let's push back against this representation we don't like,” there might be something useful for us there. The image of the angry black woman can't do the work. Arguing about whether or not the “angry black woman” is a good or bad representation won’t really move the dial. Even the language around representation doesn't let us get at the sort of complexities of what it is to live these kinds of lives. But, like James Baldwin said In Notes of a Native Son and I cite in the book, narratives like the “angry black woman” can tell us something important about the world in which we live.
KG: It seemed like there were two different kinds of anger in the book. There's like the anger that you describe and break down and use as a provocation around angry black women, but then there's this other kind of like outrage. It's interesting to me to juxtapose those two because it further instantiated your point where the angry black woman is like and the anger that she articulates and performs and the way that it expresses, is actually irreconcilable with like legitimate discourse. But the outrage, which is another way this anger is articulated is entirely legible and that's the kind of problem with it is that it keeps the legibility in place. It was interesting to me to see those two different kinds of anger working in these two really different ways that are not disconnected because like the angry black woman's anger, it seems to me, is partially outrage. It is partly that, right? But it's not only that.
TW: Yeah, yeah. It’s that what we see show up in a lot of popular media is actually a caricature of something else, something that is important to understand. So the angry black woman becomes, in the words of Fred Moten, the thing that is not what it is, but is irreducible to what it is used for. So, you know, the angry black woman comes from a real place, but that figure cannot replicate, as I talk about in the book, black women’s anger as a critical posture toward the conditions of their lives. It can only sort of commodify that posture in particular kinds of ways that folks often find more or less reprehensible, but to just sort of disavow it altogether also doesn't do the work. Just totally disavowing it seems to cede the floor.
But to actually have to reckon with it, not so much within particular media representations, although we can do that too, but to have to reckon with what it means to think about the correlation that gets made between black women and anger, that's a different kind of project. That forces us to do a different kind of work. We can argue about whether or not we like particular representations, but in terms of why this corollary shows up, the conditions under which it shows up, that takes grappling with it in a different way and it might take grappling with the very folks whose lives are seemingly most aligned with those representations.