We tell our students that there is no such thing as a stupid question. On the one hand, that’s true. For that context, there are truly few questions that shouldn’t be asked. In an environment where you’re trying to cultivate intellectual trust and spur students on to think more deeply, most questions should be asked (except those whose answers are on the syllabus). On the other hand, some of us make fun of the idea in other non-classroom spaces because the level of rigor gets raised. We also make fun of the idea because sometimes academic questions do very little to sustain or increase the intellectual level of the conversation.
In a conference like Black Portraitures, you have an audience made up of Black studies scholars. That does not mean that all of us have the same body of knowledge. In fact, there were few intellectual backgrounds that we could take for granted. During Q&A, that meant that we all had to be prepared to receive questions that might be basic for some fields but entry-points for others.
One question kept pushing my limits on this idea though. Uri McMillan, whose book Embodied Avatars drops in October 2015, received a question about the intent behind Nicki Minaj’s self-fashioning. (His paper thought through Minaj’s aesthetic reconfiguration of the putatively grotesque.) At first, I was irritated. Why do we keep ascribing a lack of intent to Black women artists’ self-fashioning? Do we ever question men (generally) or Black men (in particular) in the same ways? What is it about Black women’s art that compels accusations of puppetry? My questioning of the question should give some indication that I think the question itself has its premise in a race and gender bias that eschews Black women’s creativity.
While I still think that is true, I did have to push myself to think through the other parts of the ideas embedded in the question. Someone asked a different form of the same question later. The other facets that I think are well worth considering are the following: What are the various constituencies profiting off of, creatively collaborating, or marking a framework around Black women’s creativity? Who else might be contributing to Minaj’s self-fashioning? This mode of thinking through the question does not detract from whatever agency and decision making power Minaj has. Instead, it tries to sort through the details of profit and power that allow those images to have critical purchase.
Unfortunately, the Twitter undercurrent of this question was “Why should we study Nicki Minaj at all?” I read this as a discursive torpedo, implying that popular culture generally has no place in Black Studies or the academy, and that Minaj for whatever reasons (this interlocutor did not say) is not worthy of our intellectual labor. Whereas, Black forms of cultural expression are studied as part and parcel of Black history regardless of their popular form. Whereas, Black women’s intellectual labor has not always taken the forms people recognize as such. Whereas, time has the effect of turning what was once popular art into a codified object of study. Whereas, Barbara Christian was right: we theorize from the everyday in various forms that suit our liking. To wit, Nicki Minaj is not only worth our intellectual labor, but her own intellectual labor requires serious consideration.