This is our fiftieth and final episode! Thank you everyone for your support over the past three years, we could not have done this without you. In this episode, you will hear our incredible conversation with Professors Ryan Jobson and Jennifer Freeman Marshall, PhD Candidate Delande Justinvil, and poet and ritual worker Destiny Hemphill from Wednesday, May 3rd.
We spent an hour and a half thinking together on tending to the past and honoring our ancestors as we imagine new futures. As you listen, consider: What will you leave behind for your descendants? What gifts will you choose to share with the world with the knowledge that they are yours for that reason? What will you give, particularly at this moment where we must fight for our liberation by any means necessary? And how can you call on your ancestors to meet you there and “order your steps”?
Thank you for listening to Season 3 of the podcast!
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Three, Episode 14 (Final Episode)
Co-Hosts: Brendane A. Tynes and Alyssa A. James
Title: Reimagining Zora: A Roundtable
Total Length: 1:46:53
Dr. Jennifer Freeman Marshall
Dr. Ryan Cecil Jobson
[00:00:00] [MUSIC STARTS]
[00:00:28] BT: Hey y’all! Welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we share Black feminist perspectives and close read pop culture and other social topics that affect Black folks. I’m Brendane, and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:00:41] AJ: Hi everyone! This is Alyssa, and I use she/her/hers pronouns. Brendane was tripping over her words, it’s been so long since we’ve done the intro [laughter].
[00:00:49] BT: I know. Oh my God [laughter].
[00:00:52] AJ: But also, we have been doing this intro for fifty episodes. This is our fiftieth episode! This is three years of putting out this content and we’re so proud to have made it this far. There are so many people with ideas who never bring them to fruition, and I really want to take the time to acknowledge that we made a thing!
[00:01:16] BT: We did the thing!
[00:01:17] AJ: We did a thing! Right. Like, I don’t think I gave us enough credit for that because it was like, “well duh, isn’t that what you do? You have an idea and then you do it [laughter]. But a lot of people actually don’t so we deserve all the flowers and here we are, fifty episodes!
[00:01:35] BT: Well, I mean, you are a manifesting generator, right. So, you have ideas and you do them, but be like me and have ideas all day and don’t be having energy to do ‘em as a projector. So, I feel like that’s—it’s a gift. That’s a gift that you have, so yeah. This is also our last episode y’all. And we are so grateful for all of you who rode with us these last three years. All the ride or dies, the OGs, we love you dearly. But everyone knows that every good thing has an end. And I am so thankful for this space to think, space to laugh, and to share all the things. We love y’all, so much, and want you to know that the decision to end here was not an easy one. Alyssa and I had to consider how we must take care of ourselves and each other—just like we say at the end of the podcast, right—as we wrap up our PhDs, and we want to leave room for just more. Like, ZD was great, but there’s more. And, you know, just like Boyz II Men said, “it’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday…” but we have to do it. We have to.
[00:02:54] AJ: We have to. I mean, if I could sing, I would start singing it’s “Hard to Say Goodbye” from Dreamgirls, but I’m gonna spare everyone who can hear [laughter]. We are truly grateful for every listen, every share, every DM, every email, every donation, every shoutout, every person who came up to us and said, “oh my gosh, we listen to your podcast,” you know. We just never thought that it would even get this big. We’re just two grad students shooting the shit on a podcast [laughter]. But you know, it’s not goodbye goodbye, right. We’re not going our separate ways [singing].
[00:03:37] BT: Mm mhm.
[00:03:38] AJ: Was I on key? No? Okay.
[00:03:39] BT: [Laughter] Wait, what key? [Laughter]
[00:03:43] AJ: Dammmnnn. Savage. Damn, you’re a menace.
[00:03:50] BT: [Laughter] Lowkey, I am. I am a menace.
[00:03:53] AJ: You’re a menace. Um, I know I can’t sing. That’s okay. I couldn’t get everything, you know, I would just be too—
[00:04:02] BT: [Laughter] That’s how I feel about talent. Like if one person could do it all, then what is left for everyone else? I’m just kidding.
[00:04:10] AJ: Exactly. Yeah, I couldn’t get everything, you know. But yeah, this isn’t goodbye, right. Brendane and I, we’re still friends, we’re still doing workshops, we’re still giving talks. Feel free to send us an email if you want us to come and chat to your class, you know. You’ll see us at AAAs in Toronto this year—we might even do an episode here and there, you never know. Keep your eyes and ears peeled. But we’ve gotta grow, we’ve got to try something different, and make space for new blessings, which is something that this podcast absolutely has been. We also hope that it’s been an inspiration to people who do have ideas. You know, get out there, write that book, finish that script, record that vlog. You have something special to share with the world and someone needs it, so create it.
[00:04:57] BT: And do it because you wouldn’t have the idea if you weren’t equipped to make it happen, right. But I’m saying that with the caveat, right, that you don’t have to assume you have to do it alone. We would not be here without the community of people who’ve loved us, who’ve helped us take that idea that started in Alyssa’s mind and produced 50 episodes of a podcast three years later. So, thank you to everyone who has donated, who’s shared, and who has supported us. Thank you to those of us who gave us grants and fellowships—the list is long. Y’all kept the lights on for us, okay. The lights is on because of you. The zoom is working because of you, so thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. All of that being said, we wanna see all of you who are able to make it at our final discussion section which will be May 22nd. So, if you’d like one last opportunity to hang with the Daughters, sign up! Pull up on us, we’re gonna go out in style, okay. We got some fun things planned.
[00:06:03] AJ: You know. You know how we do. but to get to today’s episode. This is the recording of the roundtable that we organized, put together last week. It was—honestly, we were so excited for it. We were like, we have some incredible scholars, we had great questions, we loved our abstract and, you know, what we were going to have everyone think through. And so, we’re just so grateful to Ryan, Jennifer, Delande, and Destiny for coming, agreeing to join us in conversation about tending to the past and honoring our ancestors as we imagine new futures. So, thank you all for coming and I hope that you all enjoy this episode that we’ve put together.
[00:06:51] BT: Yes, I really appreciated how everyone’s work spoke to each other. Like every panelist spoke from their art, their academic work, and their personal life. And we left the roundtable with a charge to think about our own legacy. So, as you listen, I want you to consider: what will you—yes you, listening to us on these little blue mics right now—leave behind for your descendants? What gifts will you choose to share with the world with the knowledge that they are yours just for that reason? What will you give, particularly at this moment where we must fight for our liberation by any means necessary? And how can you call on your ancestors to meet you there and “order your steps”? Anyway, that being said, I’m not gonna hold y’all too much longer. Without further ado, here’s our final episode, Reimagining Zora: A Roundtable
[00:07:54] AJ: Thanks, y’all!
[00:07:54] [MUSIC STARTS]
[00:07:57] BT: Welcome everyone, I wanna thank you all for joining us. I’m Brendane Tynes, I’m a PhD candidate at Columbia University in Anthropology and co-host of Zora’s Daughters. And we are so delighted that you all are here with us this evening.
[00:08:12] AJ: Yes, yes. Good afternoon, good evening to everyone wherever you’re joining us from. My name is Alyssa James, I’m a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University and co-host of Zora’s Daughters podcast. This is our second roundtable, and this event will serve as our fiftieth episode of the podcast!
[00:08:35] BT: Aye, aye, aye [laughter]. Like, as the folks say, we truly did the thing. And I’ve been saying this really everyday about everything I do. Like oops, I did it. But we have had fifty episodes in just under three years. And for those of us—those of you who’ve been rocking with us from the beginning just thank you. We feel so proud, and we feel so blessed to have your support. And so, today we’re here to talk about and draw inspiration from our foremother, Zora Neale Hurston. Zora Neale Hurston was a writer, thinker, artist, and anthropologist. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and later studied at Columbia towards a PhD. However, facing the same kinds of institutional and structural barriers that many of us still face today, she left the program after two years. And so, it is for this reason she is the namesake of our podcast and this event. Being Black women in the same department that pushed her out, we make kin, we honor the doors she opened for us, and we take her with us as we walk out of them with the degree that she deserved.
[00:09:50] AJ: Aye, aye [laughter]. Brendane is closer than I am [laughter]. Closer to that door. But this event, titled Reimagining Zora, takes inspiration from Lucille Clifton’s poem I Am Accused of Tending to the Past to think about how we invoke, recontextualize, and recuperate the past to serve the needs of the present and our visions of the future. The way we tend to the past and those who are of it can illuminate the social, political, and ideological concerns of the moment. To interrogate this conjuncture, we have brought together four incredible scholars who use different toolkits to understand our worlds and make ways through them. So, first we would just like to say thank you to the Heyman Center and the Arts & Science Graduate Council for contributing the funds to make this event happen. We also want to shout-out Mia, who is our wonderful social media assistant. She’ll be moderating the chat and the Q&A. As we’ve been saying this whole year, we’ve been like there are some people who make the world go ‘round, and for us that has been Mia this past year. So, if you’ve liked any of our social media posts this last season, have liked her work. So, we just wanna congratulate her as well because she’ll be starting her PhD in English at Emory University in the fall. So, watch out for her, watch out for her work and, you know, a huge thank you, Mia! [Pause] [Laughter]
[00:11:17] BT: So, please feel free to give Mia some props in the chat. She is truly a delight and we are honestly so proud and so happy for her. An you know, like I feel me little tears bubbling up cause I’m like, oh my gosh. So, we’re gonna start with some bios and then we’ll allow you all to introduce yourselves before we get started with this conversation. So, I’ll start with Dr. Jennifer Freeman Marshall. Jennifer Freeman Marshall holds academic appointments at Purdue University as an associate professor in English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and she is an affiliated faculty member in African American studies and American studies. She received her B.A. in English from Spelman College—whoop, whoop—an M.A. in Applied Anthropology—medical anthropology—from Georgia State University, and Ph.D. in women’s studies from Emory University. Freeman Marshall—and there’s no hyphen—is the author of the recently released Ain’t I an Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston Beyond the Literary Icon from the University of Illinois Press. Ain’t I an Anthropologist reassesses Zora Neale Hurston’s place in American cultural and intellectual life and establishes Hurston’s conceptual contributions to the discipline of American Anthropology beyond her experimental mode of writing culture. Thank you for joining us today.
[00:12:50] AJ: Next we have Destiny Hemphill. Destiny Hemphill is a chronically ill ritual worker and poet, living on the unceded territory of the Eno-Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation [Durham, NC]. A recipient of fellowships from Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, Callaloo, Tin House, and Kenyon Review’s Writers Workshop, she is the author of the poetry chapbook Oracle: a Cosmology published in 2008  with Honeysuckle Press, and the collection motherworld: a devotional for the alter-life published this year by Action Books, which was a two-time finalist of the National Poetry Series. She is currently serving as the 2022-2023 Kenan Visiting Writer in Poetry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Thank you for being here with us.
[00:13:46] BT: And we’re also joined today by Dr. Ryan Cecil Jobson who is an anthropologist and social critic of the Caribbean and the Americas. His research and teaching engage issues of energy and extractivism, states and sovereignty, climate and crisis, race, and capital. Jobson holds faculty appointments in the Committee on Environment, Geography, and Urbanization (CEGU), the Center for Latin American Studies, and the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity. He is Associate Editor of the journal Transforming Anthropology and sits on the editorial boards of Current Anthropology and Small Axe. Thank you, Ryan, for joining us today.
[00:14:29] AJ: Finally, we have Delande Justinvil who is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology program at American University. His research brings together cultural history and critical geography with biocultural anthropology to study the erasures of Black cemeteries in the US, with a particular focus on the 19th and 20th century Mid-Atlantic region. His dissertation project focuses on the discovery of historic graves underneath multi-million-dollar homes in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC, and how these discoveries reflect the ways that racism persists not just across life, but into death as well. Delande’s work has been published in Nature, The Conversation, and SAPIENS Magazine. Thank you for being here with us.
[00:15:22] BT: We’ll go ahead and get started with Destiny performing a selection from her latest book, Motherworld: “We ask mama-n-em, ‘where is the motherworld?’” as well as some other poems. And as you listen, we’d like you to think about who are your ancestors, intellectual and otherwise? Who are you calling into the room with you and with us today? And be sure to let us know in the chat! So, Destiny we’re gonna turn it over to you.
[00:15:52] DH: Thank you. Also, thank you so much Brendane, Alyssa, for the invitation. I’m really excited to share space with you all, especially during this mercury retrograde eclipse season which has me going through. So, I’ll start actually with “We ask mama-n-em, why do you study astrology” which feels really appropriate. We ask mama-n-em, why do you study astrology, an oracle study.
Before I was here,
I was there, you see?
in my refusal to be
enshrined in flesh. & once
I was even a moon, withholding
my countenance from planets
unworthy of facing me. I mean,
they couldn’t even phase
me. I have many lives/cracked/
from & scattered across the cosmos
I hear them echoing through
the aether. I’m just tryna echo back.
I mean, haven’t you yearned for another
language/searched for another language
because the first one you were forced
to learn cannot name everything you
need, everything you need to decipher
twinkling glyphs signed across your flesh? do you follow me?
it’s not that I study the stars, but I listen for the night to speak & it’s always speaking.
consider: moonbeams riddling the water of your body
venus & jupiter dancing in trine as though intertwined upon your arrival. consider: you knowing what it is to seek refuge in retrograde, the tender shadows of your own casting, of your own
body, that others call terrifying. consider: the generosity of some star gesturing
towards another star, guiding fugitive earthlings in furtive escapes towards freedoms.
consider harrier gazing at those same constellations, gourds spilling possibilities
of holding without possession. consider: you knowing what it is to collapse
after offering radiance. consider: turner turning to the sky & reading planets’
revolutions as signal to turn to prepare for our own. consider: you
knowing what it is to charge forth, accumulating in collision. consider:
eclipse, that ring of fire with Blackness at its center. consider
how our conspiracies might configure. consider: us as testaments
of the cosmic & telluric. consider: consider, an invitation,
meaning to go with your star. consider: the cosmic
& the telluric as our accomplice & witness
[00:18:57] DH: And so, the next poem I’ll read is The Portal Appears. [Pause] When the Portal appears, before proceeding, an invocation and to be read aloud [pause].
scarlet sky/ fissured earth/ cotton-mouthed/ your hands clasped/ across your
splitting belly/ in your craw/ is the historical entanglement/ the half
millennium long/ planetary ecocide-genocide knot/ known as ”since 1492”/
you were born into it/ & it into you/ churning, burning, bulging/ within
you/ your ears ring/ soften your craggy breath/ now a hum/ soften your
craggy breath/ now a song/ now a song?/ yes, a cicada song/ burrow
ing into your skull/ go to the edge/ not the bleached pit of the center/ but the
edge/ the song says/ go to the edge/ no, not the hemorrhaged/ mottling
borders of empire. but beyond/ elsewhere/ go to the edge/ look
down/ slivers of moonrind so thin/ they look like/ they could slice/ the souls
of your feet/ illumine your path/ you follow them/ sometimes you walk,
slither, hop/ along the slivers of moonrind/ to the edge/ sometimes the
knot makes it that you are writhing/ convulsing/ revolting/ to the edge/
to the edge, nonetheless/ the edge be a liminal space/ & you know liminal
marginal/ (&if you don’t know, now you know)/ but rather, liminal be a
ritual/ space/ & a ritual space be for summoning/ & transformation/ when
you arrive/ the fragrance/ of mulberry trees/ washes over you/ it is dusk/
you are not alone here/ others surround you with red threads/ hanging from
their mouths/ you feel the knot/ entangled within you/ unravel/ you all
kneel/ sink into the edge/ pull the threads/ from each of your own
mouths/ not always gently/ not always gingerly/ as you pull, unravel,
disentangle/ you swoon & sway in somnolence/ a summoning hum then
howl/ comes from your throats/ & as you summon other worlds, may other
worlds summon you & as you summon another world, may another
world summon you & as you summon motherworld, may motherworld
summon summon summon
[00:22:03] DH: And the final poem is Apocalypso Number 33, a prophecy of air.
Here we got you, we look out for you, we always looking out
We see you cause we be feeling you, cause you touch our hearts
You move us and when you be gone, we notice and we be missing you
You ain’t even gotta worry, you ain’t even gotta worry, we indebted to each other indubitably
I’ll take care of it we say, we say I’ll take care of you
We be holding you, we behold you
This is our bond to each other, we bonded to each other
we bound up with one another and unbounded by each other
made boundless and bountiful with each other, made abundant through each other
we’ll look for you but they tell us to go, we’ll stay, we’ll look out for you
we ain’t afraid to turn back and reach out for you, we’ll turn to salt for you
you are kin you are bond, you are covenant, this our coven you feel how our reverbs
this ours, this right here, this here be ours
we gathering together to usher something altogether anew
but we ain’t new to this, no, we true to this
we been knew this neutrality, we’ve always been taught how to do this you remember
you remember how your mama and my mama would be playing that game
where they would see who could pay first for the check
or my mama would be buying just a few things for the house
but then your mama would already have her cash out beside it in the cashier’s hands
while my mama was still looking through her bag
and it was never about paying back, they could never pay each other back
it was just about giving cause the giving felt good so they were gonna keep on giving
and what about my grandpa who had chickens but would still trade grains and the soap he made for your auntie’s chickens’ eggs
see how we’re already learning, already given, already giving what we needed to be with each other anew
listen baby, this you can believe, this you can believe in me still hope, in me’s the world, the whole damn world, me sharing another one with you
[00:24:23] AJ: Thank you so much Destiny. Wow [laughter] I have, like my hairs are standing up. That was just such a beautiful—beautiful pieces to bring us into a ritual space to think and talk about our ancestors. So, we appreciate you bringing that into the room, and I hope that, you know, everyone has gotten a little bit of inspiration from that and we’re ready to begin the discussion. So, we wanna bring things around to anthropology which, like many disciplines, owes its existence to a lineage of prominent figures, a cadre of ancestors if you will. So those whose work have contributed to shaping the discipline as it’s known today and in some cases it’s a blessing, in most others it’s a curse. Especially when we have to invoke or cite these predecessors to be seen as authorities of anthropological or other kinds of knowledge or methods. So, in that regard, what duties or commitments have those in your discipline or craft inherited from its ancestors and what should we do with them if anything at all? And we want to start with Ryan.
[00:25:52] RJ: I feel a little put on the spot, but I just wanted to say thank you for having me. I’ve been a fan of the podcast ever since it débuted. It seems like it’s been a lot longer than three years because I don’t really remember what life was like before Zora’s Daughters [unclear] but it’s an honor to be here. And I guess I also want to say that it’s really an honor to be in the presence of both of you because you’re responsible for opening up so many of these conversations within our discipline. I think the way that you frame this question forced me to think about what I’ve been doing ever since I was introduced to anthropology as, actually, a 17-year-old, freshman undergrad in a course with Debra Thomas at University of Pennsylvania called Anthropology in the African Diaspora. So, that was my introduction to anthropology. But I think even in that course I felt like there was a tension between anthropology’s ancestors and our ancestors. And actually, all of the students, and Deb, were all sorta people of African descent and that was one of the few times I had that experience in my entire school. That everyone in that room sort of had this shared lineage.
And that’s to say we were introduced to the African Diaspora as an anthropological object through figures like Melville Herskovits. And of course, Herskovits looms large as another one of Franz Boas’ students so alongside Zora he’s also moving through Columbia University in that sort of formative moment of anthropology. And he’s the one that basically says, you know, we can look to all the new world negroes as an object of study, particularly to trace the continuities of African cultural survivals through to the new world, right, through to the Caribbean, to South America, to the US South and even to New York. And this was really profound. And of course, Herskovits was actually sort of celebrated, he was on the Black Panther’s required reading list [unclear] and one of the founders of negritude. But there’s also something about Herskovits against Zora that I’ve been grappling with for years. Which is to say that he is welcomed in as one of the ancestors of anthropology where, despite many efforts to sort of bring Zora back into the cannon, it’s been much more difficult to get back work that she did right alongside him—they both conducted research in Haiti for instance—to be one of the forefathers or foremothers of the discipline.
I wanna tell just a very brief story about Herskovits, which is to say that when he went to Trinidad in 1939, this was two years after there were sort of massive strikes in the oil fields spread all over the island including to sort of telephone workers, domestics, sugar workers. And when Herskovits arrived in 39 it’s still sort of this hotbed of colonial workers resurgency happening in the southern part of the island. To which he responds that this was not the purview of anthropology, rather he went to a very small village in the northeast part of the island called Toco where he said he would find evidence of Africanisms in their greatest intensity. So, he intentionally sort of brackets out what can be considered anthropological. And I think this is part of the inheritance that we’re struggling with, again, the fact that anthropology’s ancestors have one commitment, an object that actually excludes many of our own ancestors, the way they made lives, the way they drew on Africanisms not just as cultural artifacts but in order to rebel against colonial order. So, in some ways I think that I’m always thinking about how do we reinsert our own ancestors to the stories that we tell. And oftentimes when you say telling stories is a kind of lost ethnographic method, that what we do is to tell stories, what I always want to add to that is that is telling stories to whom, at what moments, in what conditions. Because again Herskovits and Boas and many others were telling certain kinds of stories. They were very different from the ones that Zora chose to tell.
So, I think that we have to think about how we best do justice too and honor our ancestors in our process. The last thing I’ll say on this, and I’d love to hear Jennifer’s thoughts on this too, is that Zora Neale Hurston in particular is this kind of model of storytelling that unsettles both the reader and her broader audience that are signifying between different kinds of ethnographic registers. I think about that sort of preface to Mules and Men where she said—is articulating her debt to Boas. She’s saying, you know, Boas gave me the spyglass of anthropology. But we can also think about to what extent is she doing that as a gesture that allows her to remain legitimate in the eyes of her funders and mentors but then go on to do something quite different from what Boas or Herskovits was doing. So I guess I wanna challenge whether the spyglass of anthropology is a genuine one or whether it’s just another form of sort of Zora’s own signifying in this long trickster tradition and that we can look to that as an entirely grammar of both Blackness as well as a way of honoring our ancestors. So that would just be my opening complication but the way you framed the question has me thinking particularly about that moment at Columbia—again, why Herskovits becomes a forefather and Zora doesn’t at that same moment.
[00:31:55] JM: So, I will begin by, I guess, answering the first question, which is the duties or commitments have those in your discipline or craft inherited from its ancestors, and what should we do with them, if anything at all? And as an interdisciplinary scholar, I move between so many different spaces. I mean, I think. You know, I am reading fundamentally as a Black feminist scholar that’s very much interested in politics, of the exclusion of Black women, thinkers from spaces, from scholarly spaces. And the problem of Hurston, for me, was always a problem of recognizing that in all of the classroom spaces that I moved in early on when I first began to imagine this project—that I was, it’s very much a—there were all sorts of boundaries that were put in, in my way from being able to do the kind of work that I wanted to do on Zora Neale Hurston. But I was emboldened, I think, by Black feminists and other thinkers who fall outside, I think, of a kind—of the Black feminist framework, but are certainly still rooted in that sort of tradition of resistance.
There’s Mari Evans for me. There’s certainly the work of Dr. Johnnetta Cole, who I know was here. Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall coming through the women’s center. You know, even of course, Irma McLaren—I was aware of her interesting work with Zora Neale Hurston. And so, to whatever extent that sort of framework allows me the freedom—there’s poets, there’re musicians, you know, thinking very broadly about having the freedom to follow the questions and to sort of trust that if I make my toolkit as big and as broad as it can possibly be, that I can sort of trust that process and the process of revising questions, constantly assessing and adjusting those questions and thinking about what information do I need to be able to answer these kinds of questions about Hurston’s exclusion. That, you know, that that’s—I fundamentally understood that as a duty of Black feminist research, and that the commitment was one of a Black feminist praxis. Understanding that, you know, in doing that work, I’d be making a way for others in much the same way that those who came before me were, you know, committed to creating intellectual spaces and real spaces for us to do the work that we do.
So, then the second question I suppose about Hurston as trickster and her place within the discipline of anthropology and her use of the spyglass of anthropology in terms of the, I suppose the, you know. I see it as simply maybe all of the things that you’ve said. And also, maybe just simply giving credit to her teachers for, you know, introducing her to the field in the ways that they did. But then also being Zora Neale Hurston, being her own individual self, very much aware that there were some limitations to that framework. And so, you know, as a scholar I could only sit and imagine and sort of think about the—what those limitations might look like. You know, we have biographies of course from Hemingway and we have biographies—we have the biography from Valerie Boyd, which certainly was informative in helping all of us sort of understand those kinds of—the kinds of constraints that she was working under. There’s also the collection of letters by Kaplan that help, you know, give us a kind of, you know, insight. You can sort of read the exchanges between herself and others to get a sense of you know, the politics around Hurston’s place within the field.
But then I would say, yeah, it’s all possible that she was signifying [laughter] you know and then moving forward in much the same way that we find ourselves, as scholars, having to signify and move forward with the work when we are faced with obstacles that seem unreasonable. And we know we just want to get the work done. We want to answer the questions that are before us. We want to do good work, and we want to do work that makes room for others to do good work. So that’s the short answer.
[00:37:25] BT: Yeah. Just from listening to you two talk about this kind of—this complex relationship that Black scholars have to these disciplines, right? There’s an inherent—betrayal might be a strong word—but there there’s an inherent kind of tension between the work that we tend to do and the way that we’re actually called into the work from the disciplines that we face. And what you just said, Jennifer, about kind of this signifying and moving forward, it gave me an image of going, doing rituals in the cemetery and having to lay pennies at the gate, right. This kind of acknowledgement of our ancestors, right, the ones that we choose to call into the room before we go about and do our work. And I know that, I mean, I’m not laying any pennies at no graves of Herskovits or any other, any other white person. I would choose to keep my money real or spiritual to myself in that regard. But I think about that. The taxes that we that we have to pay as scholars to be seen as legitimate, right. The kind of signifying that we have to do to be seen as someone who’s read the work and is able to speak with some kind of authority. And how that in and of itself is kind of steeped in a certain kind of white supremacist understanding of what it means to be knowledgeable. Well, one thing that I kept, one line from your poem, Destiny, that keeps coming back to me is the line that says we’ll turn to salt for you. And in that moment, I just, I’m looking at my ancestral altar here. And it’s like that rant that rung in my head. It’s something to think about. Not just the cost that we have to pay as people here on this side, right? But also what others have done for us in the spiritual realm. And so, I wanted to ask you, Destiny, just what are your—what do you think about the duties and commitments that you have in the craft in the work that you do as a scholar, as a poet, as a healer, as a herbalist, right? Where are the folks that you’re drawing from? What are the duties to you pay to them? But also, how does that allow you to do the work that you do with us?
[00:39:58] DH: I’m muted. Yeah, as Ryan and Jennifer were talking, I was thinking about poetry as a craft having like this different type of like lineage and genealogy than that—than what we associate with like academic disciplines in terms of there’s, you know, certain movements and, or tendencies, or gestures. And also, like poetry, as really an oral practice before it, you know, even gets written down and transliterated in that manner. But for me—so that’s to say that the lineages that I identify with first come really out of familial level and so in particular the Black sermonic tradition. And so, my mom’s a minister and so that experience of being in church, even though I’m not a church girl anymore, but that experience of being in church and like learning chiasmus or like learning anaphora, that repetition of like clause at the beginning. Or like, you know, epistrophe, like the repetition of a clause at the end. That was like my first, you know, ancestral ground. And also really attuning to the way that you can draw spirit down, not as a way to transcend material conditions but as a way to call spirit in as a coconspirator and intervening in material conditions. So, like laying of hands and, or like love offerings, those sort of practices I think really inform my poetry, align my poetics.
And then there are folks like Zora Neale Hurston, like the conversation she was having with Langston Hughes during the New Negro movement. Or, and also all the backlash that she got for writing in, you know, what the academy more recently might call it Black English or, you know African American Vernacular English. So, there is a really interesting conversation on Twitter happening about reclaiming again Ebonics as like a transnational way of thinking about, you know, the way that Black folks transmute language globally. But yeah, all the backlash that she faced, all the all the people who are feeling all like all this shame like, “Oh no Zora,” like “No, stop Zora.” So, but that like audacity and also rootedness has been a model for me. Also the way that Zora Neale Hurston like, really tucks away like spiritual knowledge and medicine, even her fictional work. And so, like Moses, Man [of the] Mountain, there’s like all this like hoodoo just in it, just interwoven. And I’ve—that’s been, you know, really supportive of my work.
And then I think of people like Toni Cade Bambara, who says, you know, the role of an artist is to make revolution irresistible. And I feel like in this moment where we’re, you know, in especially neo-liberalized moment where like identities become markets versus like—and kind of obscure the way that identities actually point to material structures and the way that those material structures interlock into systems of domination. Like I have been thinking about a lot, well, what is the artist role truly? With, you know, like credit card companies and Wells Fargo saying like you know Black lives matter. Like what? Like just thinking really intentionally like in terms of at the level of integrity and like ethics and after like Toni Cade Bombara has a lot of answers for that. But yeah, I think those are kind of the lineages that I hold and the way that I then understand my own poetics is, you know, offering a way of echolocation. And so, I’m not somebody who believes that poetry or art is inherently radical just because you do it. I think it’s very dangerous to believe that. And I think there’s a lot of evidence that art and poetry and language in general can be used for very reactionary and devastating ends. We’re living in that moment and in the afterlife of so many moments as well.
But I do think that one thing that art can do, and poetry can do, is that it can signal to other people a, I’m thinking about this, I’m ready to throw down in this way. Are you ready to throw down in this way? Like, are you ready to, you know, like fuck some shit up? And then it’s like, “Oh yeah, I am,” oh, you’ve been thinking about this too. You’ve been doing this too. And then you can, you know, call people together and then y’all can do something radical. And so, I think that constellation that I just mapped out of these various lineages from church to Toni Cade Bombara, to Zora Neale Hurston and also names of ancestors that I haven’t spoken, or you know, who have been hidden from me but still impact and shape my life. They’ve influenced that me and my poetics, so that I feel like my responsibility now is like echolocation, being able to signal to people like where we might find each other in order to do the radical work that we’re called to do.
[00:47:05] BT: And I think that is—that’s something that is really important especially as you noted right, are pointing to the moment in time that we’re in, right. Where we can no longer just sit on the sidelines and decide to watch these kind of violence happen and hope that those of us in the academy, particularly those of us who are Black, right, that it will never touch us. And so, one of the reasons why we thought it was so important to think with our ancestors in this moment is to draw on those knowledges and those, and to think about those lives that preceded, those afterlives, as you named, Destiny, to draw on that wisdom and that knowledge. As we think about the future of the work that we do, and as Black people, we understand that the recovery of our ancestors, this important work, is something that does not only happen symbolically or even methodologically, right? Like it’s not just showing up at the archive and reading everything that you can read. There’s also a material recovery that happens.
So, these gaps of knowledge that we might find around our ancestors are very much so purposeful, right? The way that we don’t know the things that we don’t know until we get connected to our ancestors is a large part of an epistemic violence that is inherent in white supremacy, right? And it not only severs how we approach our intellectual spaces, but also create certain bodies as objects of knowledge. And so, one of the things that we wanted to discuss today is thinking about that material recovery of ancestors. And one which the ancestors that were recently discovered from the MOVE bombing. And so, the parties involved—which we won’t name because there’s a lawsuit and I’m not trying to be in it [laughed]—involved in the capture and study of these remains have erased that history, right? So, though the bones of children are being used as teaching objects and they have shown a complete and extreme lack of regard for the Africa family. And so, this case exemplifies the horrors of the afterlife of slavery, where Black people can remain property even in death. But because we as Black people, as scholars, find our ancestors sacred and their body sacred as well, right? We each have our own methods of being, and doing, and thinking with our ancestors. So, we wanted to ask you, how you do it, right? Each of you. And how does your work trouble the idea of ancestors being people to learn from rather than learning along with, right? And how can the practice of being, thinking, and doing with those who’ve left this realm be a practice of resistance in the academy where white supremacist and settler colonialist orientation toward the dead—which is like to disappear them, right—how do we resist that through our reclamation practice? And Delande as a biological anthropologist doing all the things, we thought we would start with you because you do that material recovery as well as a kind of spiritual, intellectual recovery as well.
[00:50:24] DJ: Oh. Okay, all right. Powerful lead up. Thank you. Firstly, it’s an honor to be in this conversation with such distinguished, brilliant thinkers, doers, artists, practitioners, and also as a self-identified Zora’s Daughters stan, to be in this space, to have an introduction to the 50th episode is really special to me and I’m grateful for that opportunity as well. Whew. So, you know, thinking. Having been trained in biological and archaeological anthropology, you know, there’s this real, as you’ve you have mentioned, as it, and has—and what has come up so far is this investment in the material, right. And it’s thinking of these ancestral remains whether both like biological or the sort of like material goods that you find at an excavation or in museum collections as an objective study. As a sort of like scientific thing, you know, thingification, if you will. And what comes up for me here is what it means to sort of, you know, sit with or at least wrestle with the ideas what is, what it, of what is considered possible or impossible from, you know, working with these—working with remains.
And, you know, I think back to actually, you know, on the flyer for this event, the very last sentence. I should have, I should have had it pulled up. You, I noticed that you all, that history is capitalized, right. And this kind of brought me back. Not to go off on too much of a tangent, I’ll try to make it quick. But it immediately made it, immediately made me think of Trio’s [sp?] work and, you know, past and pastness, and what does it mean to actualize capital ‘H’ history as opposed to, you know, the past that is always present with us. And I thought of this idea of like the unnamable, the impossible, the unthinkable, and, you know, what that kind of means for Hurston’s work and legacy. And it brought me, it made me think, it brought me to this Spillers piece and—forewarning, I know that I bring up a lot of pieces that I cite quickly and when I’m done speaking, I’ll be sure to put everything I’ve mentioned in the chat. It’s her piece on sort of, it’s her piece on Hurston. It’s Hortense Spiller’s piece on Hurston, and she refers to her and her work as sphinxlike. There’s so much, there’s so much riddle. There’s so many faces, there are juxtapositions, there are comparisons. She’s a writer, yeah, anthropologist.
And what I found, what I found really interesting was also she’s yet a comic. And it’s making me think back to the framing of Hurston as trickster. And what brings me here is what we do with impossibility, or with or how we operate with instability. With remains, you know, we are taught that—it’s also thinking with Spiller’s—how we’re taught to read bodies. How we’re taught to understand, you know, physical form so often reinscribe just sort of markings or hieroglyphics of the flesh, as she would say. And to reinforce these sorts of like standards of like what colonialism, capitalism, racism has pushed us to believe bodies to represent. And there is this quote in a Saidiya Hartman Art Forum interview—will post as well—where she asks, “what does it mean for persons whose bodies are most often subjected to the will, desire, and violence of others to imagine embodiment in a way that’s not yet yoked to servitude or to violence.”
And so, when I’m thinking with remains, when I’m thinking with ancestors, I’m thinking of not just what, you know, the anthropological sciences have trained me to be able to read, assess, or analyze, but also in what ways might have these bodies when they were living, when they were living people, when they were making ways out of no way, how could they, how might have they thought of their own individual beings in relation to one another or in service or support of one another to continue, you know, this commitment to surviving. Whether over a long period of life, whether brief. You know there are these ways that we’re taught to read these traumas and these violences, these pathologies on these bodies that completely lapse how these individuals held themselves. And how they, you know, mobile as their bodies, as ways of being—being, thinking, doing that, you know, supported themselves, their communities, their loved ones.
And I think about the ways that you know this sort of unthinkability, this sort of—trying to make sure I word this correctly. We inherit these sorts of methods and techniques from our—from the discipline, right? And therein for me lies the question, okay, this is what we’ve inherited. What else can I do? You know, it’s very often framed as these are the only ways to read a body, these are the only ways to understand a body. But when I think about how, you know, even my own advisor, you know Dr. Rachel Watkins, how—and her mentor Dr. Blakey—how they had a particular approach to studying the African burial ground, studying remains and collections that honor the sorts of archival traces that the records attached to these bodies, into that, what they inform us, what they teach us, or how we can understand, you know, a study of a site from the perspective of a body. Starting from those most—rendered most vulnerable, as opposed to how we can understand this site from state power.
There’ve even been, you know, within both of these fields, biological and archaeological anthropology, sorts of resistances and pushbacks against, well, you know, there are these sciences where we get data, we get these facts, we get these productivities from and trying to map alternative ways of reading bodies that aren’t verifiable or, you know, aren’t empirically provable, you know, are sort of fictive or, you know, we can’t give them some kind of truth. And I think towards a sort of sort of like Black poetic practice or sort of a tradition that exceeds what is empirical. And even thinking back to an interview with Hartman, I believe this was her completion with Alfa Jaffa at the Hearing Museum, where he posed this question to her about, you know, fact and fiction. And her response was, “Facts are only fictions endorsed by [state] power.” And it’s that sort of, you know, reproach that I really hold on to.
And I feel as though Zora Neale Hurston’s kind of the overall arc of her career kind of represents this in a way that these different faces, these different—as I think about Spiller’s again—these different faces, these different identities, these, this sort of a commitment to taking on whatever sort of method, whatever sort of like presentation got the work that she needed done. Right? This sort of, even in the face of these unnamable and awful institutional violences that she experienced, even in the face of being given out this sort of like spyglass or particular toolkit. That being the launching point for what else you could do as opposed to just recommitting to the same sorts of like institutional violences that would have gotten her, maybe would have gotten her the degree, maybe would have gotten her sort of like the disciplinary acceptance earlier on and then now.
And while there’s a sort of cost to that, it doesn’t—while there is a cost to that, for me it really honors the sort of thinking back, what is possible, what is impossible? This sort of way of experiencing what is and knowing what was, without forsaking or foreclosing what could be. Amid all of these sorts of like impediments, violences, or pressures to follow a certain sort of like script within your discipline or within a certain like methodological practice. I believe that you know ancestors like Zora, what we can learn from, especially what we can learn from Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston, focusing on her career and what she has done. Not focusing on her in service to a different sort of anthropology, but specifically honoring her in and of herself can, you know, really push us towards investing in a wrestling and wrestling with what else is possible amid the unthinkable.
What else is possible amid what is considered impossible? How else can we, how can we think differently amid the unthinkable? How can, you know, amid these disastrous violences that have Black individuals or Black communities, Black populations remains destroyed at the site of capitalist violence or erased in the annals of history in museum collections—when we are confronted with articulating their stories and honoring them and offering them the respect that they deserve—how else can we approach this without following the same like scripts that we are given? How can we think differently? How can we take a moment to sit with the consideration of what else can be done, what else is possible, even though we’re—even though it’s communicated to us that a different sort of practice is impossible? That was kinda rambling, kind of all over the place, but—
[01:00:31] AJ: [Crosstalk] That was that was actually great. I think you’ve given us a lot to work with and draw on particularly around thinking differently about the impossible and the possible, the impossibilities and possibilities of the kinds of things that we project on to our ancestors. And I think you really did a great job of like invoking these elders and ancestors. And you know, of course I work with Trio’s [sp?] work, so you calling him in was definitely recognizing what we were kind of getting at with the abstract. And to invoke another elder, I’m thinking through like David Scott’s work and thinking about what makes us ask these questions of the past, what is happening today to make us ask these questions about the past. And so that was what I thought when Ryan brought in, you know, his provocation about the spyglass. What’s happening today that’s pushing you to wonder is, was Zora being a trickster in that moment? And then it also got me thinking about, you know Jennifer’s book and the kinds of projections that we make onto Zora and other ancestors that we have to excavate, right? We, when we need to look through the archive and add to the Black feminist literary cannon, you know what’s happening in in those moments to send us back, so to speak. So you know, I’d open up the floor to either of you.
[01:02:18] JM: Well, I think the thing that was helpful for me in my project was to try to bring as many people in the room as I possibly could, because—and by that, I mean the community that surrounded Hurston. Because I understood. I’ll just say initially the project was one where I just saw myself as writing about Hurston as an anthropologist and really trying to knock down what I thought was a really a big barrier. You know, sort of notwithstanding the critical literature that was paying attention to Hurston and defining Hurston as an anthropologist saying, yes, she’s an anthropologist, she’s a folklorist. Being aware of that, but also being aware that in classroom spaces that I was entering in, you know, and I imagined that the community that was sort of like me but also not like me, we’re also encountering those same kinds of barriers. So that was one sort of, you know, framework if you will. One very particular and personal kind of experience that was motivating. And then, you know, having these experiences happen all along the way.
And I could, I could share some, you know, being told, for example, I wanted to write a paper on Hurston in an anthropological theory course when I was working on my masters, and because Hurston wasn’t included in [R. Jon] McGee and [Richard L.] Warms, I was told no. You know you need to choose someone from within the—that’s the project. You know, the project is choose someone from our anthology and write, you know, about her—write about that person. So, having that resistance and I’m asking, “well why, you know, why can’t I?” You know, this is—why can’t I bring someone else in? She’s not in the cannon, and we sort of understand why she’s not in that anthology as cannon, right? Well, she doesn’t have a doctorate in anthropology. There was just one excuse after the other until I, you know, I shared this conversation with a professor of mine, Dr. Carol Hill, who was an anthropologist that did work on a rural folk health beliefs, who then said, you know, why don’t you just do an independent study you know for me. But it was this extra work, extra labor outside of class. I embraced it but I recognized that was a barrier. And that if I was having that experience that probably lots of other students, graduate students were having, you know, having that experience.
Another anecdote, I’m TA-ing in a class, a history course. So, this speaks to the interdisciplinarity of it, right? TA-ing a wonderful professor—whose name is going to escape me right now—who said, you know, “I like what you’re doing on Hurston, and this is a history course, can you bring in something and let’s do something that’s sort of archival?” And so, I chose Sweat by Hurston and thought that I could do a presentation that sort of teased out the historical context of that and also raised some questions about the role of anthropology in Hurston’s writing this short story. And so there was a really, you know, a student that was really keen on writing her paper on Hurston as a result of that presentation. I’ll just say the student was a white young woman and I—and this is important, I think, because when we think about who might be attracted to do the work, I want to open it up for like all sorts of people are attracted to do the work but can face certain kinds of barriers. So, she approached me and said, you know, “I’m wanting to do this project, but everything I read about Hurston as an anthropologist is negative.” And I said, what do you mean negative? Like her initial search, she was encountering certain, you know, essays that were literally acting as sort of gatekeepers to the kinds of conversations that we could have about Hurston’s intellectual contributions to the field.
So, you know, you add that to a few other experiences and I, you know, could really see more clearly that the call from Gwendolyn Michael, the call from Irma McLaren, and others. Bolles as well. B-O-L-L-E-S, I’m sorry. That they were, they were raising this call for more work to be done in that context, you know, of these kinds of everyday experiences of, you know, of keeping people from really taking seriously the contributions of Hurston’s work. And that meant that, you know, I understood that this was a project that was going [laughter] was going to take quite a bit of time. But the other piece of this is Hurston’s iconography, understanding that there was, you know quite a bit of excitement and celebration about Hurston on the literary side. I even overheard someone say, “Oh, the literary people have ruined what anthropologists might do in terms of Hurston studies.” That, you know, I that was a sort of, a statement that I heard at a conference, and I thought, this is really interesting.
And then of course, another colleague of mine, I’ll mention her because she’s a poet and I’ve mentioned poetry before. Opal Moore, said to me in Spellman, when she was aware that I was doing this project, “Have you heard, have you read [Ann] duCille’s book on Hurstonism?” You know, so as much as the process was one of being in, you know, the archives, or being, you know, doing the literature reviews that we all do, it was also about paying attention to our own cultural context. For understanding, right, the receptions of Hurston, both in literature and anthropology. And I feel like I’ve gone off on a little tangent here, so somebody bring me back [laughter]. I think the point for me is the barriers were real and they were—and they’re the barriers that one could say, you know, scholars should just, you know, sort of what we all work through, those barriers.
But for me it was just this understanding that there’s this broader community of readers, even beyond the academy, right, Because this is a bounded sort of space that does a certain kind of work, that we’re also being denied access to Hurston in these terms. And that to me was really, really disturbing. It’s. And so, for me, the project on Hurston is about Hurston, but it’s also about all of these sort of moments that I think happened in our classroom spaces in the critical literature that’s done, that can that that that make it more difficult—can make it more difficult to do the work. Or can make it more exciting to do the work. You know it’s like the challenge that one has to overcome, it’s the puzzle that one has to figure out, you know to be able to answer the questions, as I mentioned very early on, that I was committed to answering. So.
[01:09:54] RJ: I’d love to jump in here too, inspired by Jennifer’s comments and inspired by Alyssa’s provocation to think about what is happening today. And then of course, Alyssa, you referenced this effort that’s underway to award Hurston a posthumous doctorate at Columbia. And I think that it’s both exciting and we should regard it with a certain amount of skepticism, right. That there’s also this effort to strategically incorporate certain figures into these genealogies. I think this is something that you’ve been referencing throughout this conversation. Also remember on the 150th anniversary of Dubois’s birth, there was a conference and then a ceremony where he was awarded a posthumous professorship at the University of Pennsylvania by one of my undergrad mentors, Tukufu Zuberi. And I think also we should think—regard that with skepticism.
The corollary to this, and I want to sort of invoke Destiny’s words. I think she put it so well. We’re in a moment where we risk having identities become markets. And I mean that in all different ways. There’s a market for these kinds of gestures and apologies, there’s a market for ourselves actually as a certain sort of racialized scholars and figures and the way that we are incorporated into these institutions. So, we should regard that with skepticism in much the same way that we would regard a posthumous doctorate being awarded to Zora Neale Hurston. And in part, the reason I say this is that when identities become markets, when there becomes a sort of a market or commoditized image of someone like Zora or someone like DuBois, I think it’s easy to lose sight of what the substance of their genius actually was.
And Zora was incredible. She was exceptional, but her genius was that she recognized the inherent genius of ordinary Black people and was able to communicate that. And actually, insisted upon the fact that she was not going to sort of render their words, their image, in a way that would satisfy the market. We see this even in her papers. Again, her refusal to sort of translate her language or render it in terms that would be acceptable to publishers. I think we can see this also in why she sort of ends her life penniless, both because of, you know, racism and misogyny, but also because she made this deliberate choice actually stand with the inherent genius of Black people. So, I think all of this is saying that I think the way that we can remedy this—not fully but attempt to—is to always insist upon the fact that the appearance of genius in the form of, you know, doctorates and professorships, is not exceptional.
In fact, our genius is fundamentally derivative, which is like the worst word you can call a scholar is to say that their derivatives of something else. Whereas I think that we should be championing this. The fact that we are derivative of our ancestors, we are derivative of Black thought, not something that circulates through the academy or sort of bourgeois publications, but again, ordinary knowledges of cultivation, of survival. This is what Trio [sp?] called the miracle of creolization, right? And we can ask why is that a miracle? And pair it against, sort of what he describes as the unthinkable event of the Haitian Revolution. It wasn’t unthinkable for folks in Haiti who were waging the revolution. It was unthinkable for history with a capital H, the people who were supposed to be the geniuses, and the political theorists, the greatest scholars of Europe couldn’t conceive of this as something that could actually happen. So, it’s actually that essay is all about the limits of history and the limits of thought. Meanwhile, you know, people of African descent, enslaved people were embarking on these miracles, right? That they were making worlds out of the world that supposedly were unthinkable or impossible as [unclear] was saying.
So, I think that this is where I think we have to think about what is the premise on which we conduct our work? What is the premise on which we venerate ancestors? You know that we venerate Zora, we venerate Trio because they were derivative. I think that’s the point. And I think that our greatest aspiration should be to be derivative right and we have to do that against the market, against the market that tries to again, sort of claim us as unique or exceptional figures of genius separate from the lineages that we claim, right. So, I think that it’s not, there’s no sort of simple maneuver here especially as we are incorporated in these institutions. So, I think that again if, you know, this conversation is helping me understand what my entire intellectual project has been, is about actually indulging that tension rather than running away from it to the bourgeois comforts of, you know, jobs and professorships and you know graduate degrees. And I think again that’s what we have to question. What is that work when they want to award posthumously a doctorate that person other than to discipline us back as well. So that would just be my provocation, but the other folks thought too.
[01:15:27] AJ: Yeah, I mean to that, that liberal recapture of anything that that kind of questions or challenges the status quo. I mean the result of this is actually that Columbia University refused to give Zora Neale Hurston a posthumous doctorate. They said they don’t do that. Although they most certainly have and—
[01:15:50] JM: This is my first hearing of this.
[01:15:53] AJ: Yeah, well, it was. It was some faculty in our department and elsewhere. But I yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And you know one of—the idea of our work being derivative is, I feel like people would take that really hard. But I like that description. And Vanessa Edgar Jones, who is a professor at Columbia as well, you know, the way that I heard her talk about anthropology and why she practices it is because it does allow her to take people seriously as theorists of their lives. And I think that that’s something that we’ve tried to do with this podcast as well is not just drawing on published scholars, but also drawing on medium scholars and Twitter scholars [laughter] and you know Instagram theoreticians and demonstrating that those ideas are just as important. What I—we’re going to wrap up, this our last question, so folks do have questions, you know, please put them in the Q&A.
But what I think that we’ve tried to do is trace this history and tend to the past and to material. And so now we want to look forward, right. You know. And although that kind of spatialization of time is like in lockstep with dominant Western epistemologies that posit time is this linear progression was passed, with the past behind us and the and the future ahead. You know one thing that we are seeing in the popular sphere and in the sociopolitical sphere is this recuperation of the past. You know, attempts to reinstate traditional values because something is missing and must be restored for future generations and all of these kinds of things? And so we want to think about what it—how it would look to challenge that idea of our ancestors and the past being behind us and instead thinking of them as with us. I think I love that that line of Destiny’s poem that asks us to think of Harriet gazing at the same constellation as we are. I think it speaks to the idea that what we seek or are trying to make real already exists in the present and that disrupts that linear temporality. And so, ancestors also exist in the here and the now. So, we wanted to ask, especially starting with Destiny, how do you practice ancestral veneration as method? How can communing with our ancestors as with us in the present reconfigure how we imagine the future.
[01:18:44] DH: A lot of my compositional strategies for my poetry is actually being with my ancestors, their stories, writing a note and like tucking it beneath my pillow at night asking them to, you know, give me a dream. Or, you know, tarot card readings where I’m asking them questions and—or you know, making offerings at the river and so. Yeah, that like every day I’m, I am with them and thinking of them and practicing my life as part of, you know, their own life. Instead of, and yeah, so just assigning them as something behind me. Or also like we were talking about projecting onto ancestors, and I think that’s sometimes, particularly when people are beginning certain types of spiritual practices, there’s a way that there’s a projection on the ancestors. And that’s really just our own hopes and desires and wills and that we think that because there are ancestors like they must uphold that. And instead like something that I try to practice is like being really curious about what were their desires and like be really honest about the fact that some of their desires probably would not include me. Like if they got to live the most expansive versions of their lives I might not emerge. But that’s really okay because I don’t feel really beholden to this, to the [unclear] this round.
But yeah, like. You know, being curious about that. And I think that the project of Mother World was really thinking about what is already available in the present to us as glimmers that we can amplify, augment, and can like help us usher in structures of care that really, really sustain Black life. And so that, that the future isn’t about—because it’s part of the spatialization of time and modernity and modernization and also the work of dominant speculative like literature and films is really abandoning Black people and Black life like that. Because for every moment of modernity and like futurity it required the devastation of Black life. And so when people are like, okay, well what are we going to do in the future? Is the reproduction of that is like okay, well we can abandon Black life in order to get to the future and live this other way.
And so like really refusing that. Really refusing that sort of abandonment and understanding that the way that they’re all like nested into each other. And I feel like there’s more discourses that are pointing to that whether it’s like epigenetics or transgenerational haunts [unclear] or you know things like that. But even at the level of like, I have a poem title that’s called “DNA is just another theory for reincarnation.” And so that even at the cellular level, that like they are literally still with me. They’re like in my body, like I have somebody’s eyes, I have somebody’s very weak ankles—whoever you are, you know. I have like—they’re with me. That it’s not—there’s no sort of dissolution or like any easy—and that’s not an easy thing either. It’s not like a. Immediately romantic or glamorous thing, that they’re with us like in this present moment. But yeah, I think even at the level of how we take in breaths every day is a reminder of just the ever-present quality of that withness.
[01:23:55] JM: So, I will go next. This, the question is, the question is such a good question. It was a surprising question. You know. I didn’t know what questions you all would raise for this conversation, and it got me to thinking about, you know, things that I do, that my family knows that I do. Conversations that I’ve had and then being asked I think in a—in this space, which is a public space, right, but we are all here together having this conversation. Like okay, am I gonna really go there and talk about the things that I do that are very private and personal? And but, you know, and precious in that way, right? But I think, yeah, I will. And so, I welcome it and I embrace it. And let me also say, I didn’t say at the very beginning that I’m also very thankful to be here. And so, thank you for the invitation. I don’t know if I preempted that. So let me just say that, for me, I practice it through the stories that are, have been passed down to me within my family. That’s the probably the first level of it. What stories I can pull together, you know? And these are all stories that are themselves in the making, [laughter] you know. In the sense that, you know, you never know if the story you’re receiving is the exact story as it was, as it, as it happened, right. And so, I am kind of playing off of Hurston’s Negro folklore is still in the making. This idea that there is always a process of storytelling that’s the whole idea of fact and fiction, and you know what makes something true or not. But it almost doesn’t matter, because what matters is that moment and what I’m able to get vibrationally from those exchanges that, you know, that I need to do the work.
So for me, most recently I was—my mother told me a story about her father and I’ve heard the story many times but most recently it was really helpful to sort of order my steps. That he attended college in Durham, NC, but didn’t finish. He stopped because he wanted to make sure that he was able to provide for his siblings. And this is, you know, I’m trying to think maybe this was in the 1920s. And when she was about to embark and go to college in Atlanta, he told her, you know, your education is not for you, it is for your people. And she said that this was a very heavy burden in some ways, but that she also found that it was also completely freeing and liberating to be, to have her steps ordered, you know, in a way that moved beyond the individual. And this goes to Ryan’s earlier statement, this idea of individual gain. Or the way that you know, we, you know, everything is marketed and commodified, that it was a way of understanding how she could, you know, order, how she could make choices that would move her in the direction of doing something that’s ultimately beneficial for herself. You know, because if she’s working to do work in social work, as she did for many years before working in other ways in Atlanta. That that idea of supporting community was going to be vital to how she moved through the world, and it’s something that she passed on to me.
So, I’m going back to the statement I made about community and thinking about Hurston’s commitment to community, to featuring and foregrounding all of those conversations, all of those individual personalities in her literature and in her anthropology. You know, and it is a model for resisting the single story, the, you know, the iconic Hurston that is, that sits apart from the larger community of Black women writers, of African American writers, you know, across the board. That imagines her apart from her family members, which is something I talk a little bit about ways of understanding persons approach perhaps to the way that she treats. Kudu in the second half Of Mules and Men. If we understand a little bit more about her family history and the fact that she had all these folks in medicine, that might help us see Hurston doing something in [Of] Mules and Men that we haven’t imagined before. But that there’s room to, you know, to imagine her in that way. Community, community. Community.
So to get back to this is for my people. I believe that that was fundamentally Hurston’s orientation and that she was going to get that work done by any means necessary. And that it was a radical act at every at every turn, I think, to insist on the kinds of stories that she told about Black people and the kinds of, the kind of research that she was committed to. So I don’t know the ancestral veneration is, that’s one example for me. And there are others that I could that I could share.
I think one thing that I have to say is that as I was completing this project, there were so many losses just in terms of, you know, [pause] literary folks, folks that do the work. So Valerie Boyd passed away. Cheryl Wall passed away, Toni Morrison, you know, passed away. And at each of those moments, I would stop and sit, and I would grieve. And I would think, and I would return to the work, and I would understand the commitment that they made to the work that they did. And I, you know, I don’t think that they—I don’t, you know, none of those people were interested in fame or fortune. I think they just wanted to do the work and to do it really well. And I, you know. And, you know, and they too were all obviously committed to community in their approach. So, there’s an element of veneration, you know, when those moments happen and you know, you imagine what a vacuum there is. But then you also know what was left for us to take our time with.
So, another version of veneration is to go back and to read things more than once, you know, to be clear that we know what you know. If we’re citing something, are we citing it in its proper context? Or have we borrowed something in this derivative way? Which is really easy to do. I mean, that’s one of the things that I try to unpack a little bit about Hurston’s reception in terms of, you know, the way that we read. We were reading Hurston through Walker’s celebrity. And this doesn’t take anything away from the work, the real important work that Alice Walker did, but to read Hurston through Walker’s celebrity was to do a certain kind of reading that then takes up space on the page and keeps us from maybe doing other kinds of readings that are going to add to our understanding, right. So, it’s resisting that. But that veneration is about, you know, the just sort of careful, careful reading and knowing that you know, there’s always room for—there’s always room to revise. And here’s, I just have to say this other thing, and you know and revision is even beyond the publication of something.
I listened to, when I mentioned Dr. Cole, I listened to your podcast with her, and I think you all asked her you know the question. It was a wonderful question, and I loved her answer. It was like, are there any books that you want to, that you wish you could go back and rewrite or redo? And I think she said all of them. You know, what a liberating answer to give to scholars to know that like you’re working and there is no expectation for perfection. It’s the work that you’re doing and if it’s guided—if that work is being guided by a vocation, a commitment, then you can kind of trust in the moment and know that you know you’ve contributed something, and hopefully trust that others will read your work in the right, proper, historical context right. And so that when they receive it, they are, you know, that they are receiving it in a way that allows for it to move forward. You know so, yeah. I mean I think that’s veneration, you know. That to me is—it’s about being careful and doing close readings and taking one’s time.
And I do think that in the culture that we live in, and this is back to Ryan’s statement earlier. With so much focus on moving quickly and, you know, the celebrity of it all, that we’re not often encouraged to take our time. You know, there’s always a pressing next thing. And so we, you know, maybe we cut corners in ways that you know, that don’t actually benefit the project that we’re doing. So, so for me, veneration is being careful and listening to that deep inner voice that hopefully guides us, you know, in the direction of answering the questions again very carefully, so.
[01:34:24] RJ: I would love to pick up on this quickly, which is to say that, you know ,I think that veneration is also about insisting upon a right to ordinariness. And by ordinariness I don’t mean the absence of talent or genius I think more so, actually, this is a question of how many of us in the present were denied the right to an ordinary life. So, I was thinking about what Destiny was saying that we might project certain desires or dreams on to our ancestors that actually more about our own desires for ourselves. And I think again this is—I might be sort of a broken record about being skeptical. I think we should be skeptical of our own desires, and I think we should sort of question whether the positions and places that we occupy are actually what sort of our ancestors would have desired for us. So that’s to say that I think many of us have been compelled into extraordinary lives against our own will and against the desires of our ancestors.
I think about, you know, both my paternal lineage in West Jamaica. But I think about, you know, my grandfather who was, you know, what they called a pen keeper or cattle rancher and came from many generations, you know, of other ranchers in West Jamaica and the fact that that lineage has been severed. I do have an uncle that continues this, but this industry has been in decline because of structural adjustment, because of other sort of economic currents in the hemisphere. That’s what places me where I am today, and I think that that’s actually more tragic than it is something to celebrate. Similarly, I think you know my maternal line goes to sort of Eastern North Carolina, Halifax. And I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling with my Auntie Florence who now lives in Buffalo, who has written sort of the history of that side of the family that continues to be surrounded by objects from all of these sort of foremothers. Just to, you know, shout out some of their names Orlee Drummonds [sp?], Midi Joyner [sp?], Landonia Epps [sp?]. And we call her living room affectionately the museum, right. And I think being able to dwell in the ordinariness of their lives, the objects they were surrounded by, the things that they wanted for their children. And the sort of iconic line that Landonia Epps told her daughter, One of my second or third great grandmother was, daughter be somebody.
So what does it mean to be somebody? Does that mean to be a professor at the University of Chicago? Does it mean to be able to sort of care for your family and cultivate a life out of ordinary conditions? For instance, where you get to choose where you live rather than being guided by the dictates of the market Again, so I think in that way, you know, the way that I venerate is both by dwelling with these stories, by continuing to commune with elders who carry this knowledge. With like Midi Joyner was my closest ancestor who was born into slavery. My Auntie Florence knew her. She had met her when Midi was in her in her late 90s and again in Halifax. So those are the ways that I think about and actually create this sort of contours of what they actually desire, rather than what I’m projecting is as Destiny said. So, I think it’s so important for us to be sort of skeptical of that and to think about then how do we do justice to that. So, I would say again the intellectual work I do is all about trying to trace how I and many of us were denied this right to an ordinary life. That we’re forced to be extraordinary, as Zora was, and then what was foreclosed, as many of us, I think, feel compelled to do today.
[01:38:25] JM: May I ask, Ryan, is that Joyner how is that spelled? I’ve got to know [laughter].
[01:38:31] RJ: J-O-Y-N-E-R.
[01:38:33] JM: Okay, so we could be related.
[01:38:35] RJ: I’m sure we are. I’m probably related to Alyssa too on the Jamaican side.
[01:38:38] AJ: I say that too. Yeah, I made that joke because our parents are from the same parish in Jamaica [laughter].
[01:38:44] JM: Yeah, I’m Joyner, my mother, that I just invoked. That’s her father. Her father was a Joyner from North Carolina. So.
[01:38:55] RJ: Mmhmm. That’s right.
[01:38:55] JM: Okay [laughter].
[01:38:59] AJ: Always out here making fam. Delande, did you want to have the last word on this question.
[01:39:05] DJ: Oh, last one, oh. I’ll try to make it quick and also sound. Actually wanted to very much inspired by what was offered thus far in response to this question. I wanted to touch back on something Destiny had said earlier in referencing the work that you do and sort of like this poetry as method. And I’ve been sitting with this ever since you mentioned it. How your work pulls from you know oral traditions, sermonic traditions, and also very much like, very like the technical poetic traditions. And then it’s making, it makes me think about—if I could be so bold—sort of like Black poetics. Not just in, you know, the construction of poetry, but really thinking about like poesies and this sort of like you like bringing together these various elements from which the creation is always greater than the sum of its parts. And not to be that anthropologist, but even back to I think it was Levi Strauss. So, the Brickler versus the Engineer [laughter]. Sorry, excuse me, but the brick, you know, the engineer, the scientific mind, the one who invents. Versus the regular. The engineer invents, whereas the Brickler makes do, makes something new out of what they have.
Like it’s pulling from what they know, from what they experience, from what they’re, from what’s around them, to create an entirely new thing. And that for me, makes me, is so reflective of what is lost when these ancestors, their careers, their works, their [unclear] become kind of—not they become you know accession by the academy and giving this kind of like one track mind. As opposed to their work reflects the sort of like dynamism of Black life that they are speaking to. Zora Neale Hurston’s work echoes from essays, articles, plays, musicals, letters and thinking back to Spiller’s piece on Hurston references that in Hurston’s interviews she’s funny. She’s a comic. She’s a trickster. She’s, she loves to make jokes. And I’m thinking and you’re thinking beyond. I’m thinking about I’m thinking about Trio. I’m thinking about Morrison, their work and how they go about their commitments to the multifaceted nature. Again, the dynamism that is Blackness, Black from Black culture. It’s so reflective of all these different ways that they tackled it.
Whether it’s, but I think so, I read back to Morris’s speeches, right—Morrison’s, excuse me, speeches very often. I actually recently reread [The] Slavebody versus [and] the Blackbody.” And I just get so much from rereading the sort of like, maybe not, not to say not mainstream, but I get so much from rereading these other avenues of artistic and intellectual commitments that they’ve produced. That really inspired me to—whether or not I know what, how I’m imagining a future in the work that I do. But what I do know is that when I approach it inspired by these ancestors, by these thinkers, by these greats, I’m so committed to finding what else is there beyond what the discipline or otherwise has told me is there. That I feel as though I’m bringing a sort of like a Black poetic. Not that I myself am a poet. I would never be so bold to claim that, but the sort of like edge of Black poetics in my work, that I attempt to bring to my work, that I feel as though is a way of bringing that sort of ancestral power into the work I do and how I do it. And I also feel as though it helps to, you know, take apart or, and it helps to break open just how, you know, multifaceted these individuals were. And just how much their work and you know, and their legacies have to offer the work that we do and the work that is yet to come.
[01:43:19] BT: Ashani, may the altar be blessed by the ancestors. I have so many things to say and unfortunately none of the time to say them. But one thing that I wanted to add as a contribution to this kind of line of thinking and something that you had mentioned Ryan about Zora at the end of her life being penniless. And that kind of, the choice that she made and one of the things that—I revisited Dust Tracks on a Road because I was having a conversation with some undergraduates about Zora Neale Hurston. And one of the things that strikes me, besides Zora to me reading very obviously is like a queer figure, right, is that she always knew in some ways—she had these visions as a child, and she always knew that she would be alone in the work that she did. And so, she sees herself as being called not just to anthropology, but also to shape a world and make a contribution that she knew would outlive her.
And I think about your comment, Jennifer, or just the phrase that you were saying of knowing those stories and seeing them as keys or maps or ways to order your own steps. And it has me thinking about the fact that Zora as our ancestor, right, knew that her work would outlive her. And that was the importance of it, right? Was that it wouldn’t just sit with her and give her the acclaim that maybe her peers had, but that it would outlive her. And she saw that, and she envisioned that, right? And it makes me think about how my own ancestors, those that immigrated from the Bahamas to the US and those that grew up in the US South, right, who knew that death would meet them before they realize their dreams and desires. And how their legacy in some ways is to call me and to call their all their descendants, to “be somebody.” So, I think as we wrap up today, the call that I have for all of us, right, is how do we sit with our own calling? With the fact that the work that we do must necessarily outlive us. Who do we choose to honor? Who do we choose to uplift and who do we choose to carry with us? And who do we choose to make away for? And I just want to thank all of you for being in conversation with us today. I’m just really like I’m like sitting here thinking about this and shaking a little bit. So I’m wrap it up before the sermon comes. But that’s what I’m sitting with today is. If we knew that our work was not about us, that it would necessarily, and have to, and ultimately outlive us, what would we do? And how would we order our steps? And who would we carry with us, whether they be on this side or the other?
[01:46:36] AJ: Thank you so much for joining us everyone. Thank you to the wonderful, wonderful panelists. Thank you, Brendane. Thank you, Mia. And of course, thank you to the to the interpreters, Cheyenne and Dreu. Thank you.