My main point in going to Florence was to attend the Black Portraitures conference, curated by colleagues at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. My excitement was two-fold. First, this had the serious, serious line-up of Black Studies scholars. In my world, that means that people were going to show up intellectually and bring the intellectual ruckus. Second, though I am not a performance studies scholar, I am a Black Studies scholar whose work pushes up against performance studies. You can’t be a fashion designer without going to Fashion Week. By that logic, I went to Italy.
Let me tell you what you’re NOT going to do. You will not outdo Black people. Not now. Not ever. Folks were dressed! (and I want to know where they shop). The performance studies scholars always show up looking like they step off of runways. This to me is not about the performance of being an academic, but about living your research. The live and breathe a kind of scholarly and sartorial creativity that inspires me. I was here for it.
Let me also remind you what you’re NOT going to do. You will not outdo Black scholars. I went to the ‘pleasure politics’ panel. There is so much to talk about, but I’ll focus on Treva Lindsey and Brittney Cooper’s papers. Lindsey’s paper (I know her, but in academic spaces we use folks’ last names as a sign of respect) welcomed us into the “black feminist playground” where she says (and I paraphrase) “we reserve the right to be cute, crunk, on fleek, etc.” What galvanized me about her paper is that it melded so seamlessly with Joan Morgan’s assertion that “trauma and pleasure” are simultaneously appropriate lenses through which to view Black women’s experiences. Lindsey’s invitation to a playground disrupts the always alreadiness (yes, I invoked Derrida) of trauma and hardship as the only politically and intellectually appropriate viewpoint for Black women. If we are to understand that pleasure is possible and politically necessary, we are better full stop. I was going to say “better able to…” but that then re-establishes the very theoretical ground that Lindsey puts under erasure (yes, more Derrida). Pleasure can exist for its own sake. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake is politically expedient as an end and a means.
Cooper, whose academic work lies in late 19th century/early 20th century Black women’s intellectual history, did what fierceness requires. She gave us an anecdote, and told us how to read it. Cooper told a story about Mary Church Terrell playfully passing as white for a hostile audience who could not believe that Black women could speak German, hold conversation, have manners, travel abroad, et cetera and Terrell’s big reveal at a banquet dinner in front of said hostile audience much to their chagrin. Cooper’s reading emphasized Terrell’s pleasure in disrupting white audience expectations about Blackness for the purpose of crafting a new set of possibilities regarding their understanding of Black people. Her point – among others – was that we often misread Terrell as a staid, quiet, unassuming woman who was against outward displays of pleasure of any kind. Yet, what her diaries reveal – kudos to Cooper for her labor in the archive – is that pleasure was at the crux of how Terrell understood her life and her work. Again, pleasure matters. In my words, wrong-headed interpretations of respectability politics elide pleasure and instead offer us a milquetoast politics in the name of a beleaguered Blackness. I can’t live or work under those conditions. I won’t. And, if that’s my place, I refuse to know it – epistemically, ontologically.
Hot damn. I can’t wait til these books drop.