Through writing, many Black queer people are creating the world we all deserve to live in.
“I hope that activists and community organizers will take away the importance of literacy as an integral part of their work.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Eric Darnell Pritchard. Pritchard is Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo. His book is Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Eric Pritchard: As the book contributes a theory of literacy -- what I define as a socially situated practice in which people generate meaning -- that emerges from in-depth life stories with 60 Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, Fashioning Lives would help provide a lens on the social, political, and cultural climate in which we live that is centered in that worldview. As Black queer folks are still marginalized by so much in this world, and yet also find moments all the time to live lives of love, joy, serenity, and community, this would be a valuable set of insights for people to have for now. Doing research for the book taught me so much about what it means to be fully conscious of and come face-to-face with structures, systems, institutions and their progenitors who are conspicuous and inconspicuous in taking actions that do whole communities harm, and at the same time to gather the tools art your disposal -- literacy and language being one -- and to persist not only in resisting, but in flourishing, telling the truth, and making beauty. I think we all need that encouragement now. I also think, that the book would especially resonate with many of the issues facing major institutions that seem to be perpetually at the crossroads of status quo or a much needed reimagining and redefinition -- schools, religion, education, and the family, to name only a few.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Activists and organizers are always in my heart and mind when I am writing, and especially with this book. Many of the people interviewed for the book were activists and community organizers, and even more shared stories wherein they witnessed how their everyday lives benefited from the lifegiving activism and organizing of people who center Black queer feminist knowledges, values, and ways of being in their transformative work. I hope that activists and community organizers will, if they aren’t already doing so, take away the importance of literacy -- and here I do want to emphasize writing -- as an integral part of their work that connects them in deep and lasting ways with others. Toni Cade Bambara says “The work of the writer is to make revolution irresistible.” And I think the work of an activist is the same, and the two are linked in ways that I think activists and organizers would feel affirmed and encouraged by.
A truth that cuts across every chapter of this book is that, through writing, many Black queer people are creating the world we all deserve to live in, and activists and organizers -- whether it’s a memo, manifesto, or memoir -- do writing that makes a world of difference. There is a Black gay man who, in chapter 2, talks about a national organization for Black queer writers that gave him all the space he felt he ever needed to be able to express himself as a whole human being, a space that literally saved his life. In that same chapter, a Black lesbian talks about how reading the writings of Black lesbian activists helped her not to feel isolated as a college student at a university where she could find no community in any of either the Black or LGBTQ spaces on her campus because of the monolithic ways in which those spaces were structurally and ideologically organized to not even recognize her very insistence. And then there are all the people in Chapter 4, who talk about how they find ways to love and affirm themselves through writing in Black queer digital spaces they create of community for Black queer fat and femme people who feel maligned in other Black queer digital spaces. In some, I would say I hope activists take away how much their work matters -- but especially -- how much their writing matters.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
It is hard to find a shorthand for the primary thing I hope people will “un-learn.” I can only describe it as any ideology that allows a researcher, activist, organizer, artist, or just any human to stand on the landscape of this world and think they already know all there is to know, is one I want reading this book to dismantle. I choose this because so much of the pain, harm, sadness, and violence experienced by my research participants came from people not having the humility or courage to admit what they do not know or to do better when the pain caused -- be it historical erasure, bullying in schools, religious condemnation, oppressive beauty and body politics -- was so palpable and addressed by them simply sitting with their own vulnerabilities and not wanting that for someone else. I also hope people will un-learn definitions of literacy that are so restrictive and traditional that they overlook the countless ways that literacy -- as defined across many other experiences and communities -- is so dynamic, rich, exciting, and offering much more for us to pay attention to when we think of how people are making meaning out of everyday life, not just what we read or write, but other modes of expression in which meaning is being made and worlds are being engaged and altered, hopefully for the good.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Oh my, so many people. In broad strokes I would say all of my Black feminist ancestors and elders. The self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde is central within this chorus of ancestors and elders. She once wrote “I am who I am, doing what I came to do.” I live by that quote, and meditate on its wisdom all the time. I tell friends, colleagues, and students that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I am a forever student in Audre Lorde University (I even gifted myself a t-shirt that says Audre Lorde University on it!) and I would add the university of all of my Black feminist ancestors and elders. My five nieces and nephews especially inspire me. Everything I write, every classroom I step into, every time I give a talk, I am mindful to say something that will work toward making the world better than it was when I entered into it, and to be persistent in making the world better so that they and their generation have an infinitely more peaceful and humane life. Others who inspire me are Sojourner Truth, Phyllis Wheatley, June Jordan, and my MA thesis advisor, Nellie Y. McKay. I have collages of Truth, Wheatley, and Jordan that were made by Alexis Pauline Gumbs on the walls of my office, and a sculpture from mcKay’s collection that was gifted to me, to remind me to be courageous, celebrate Black language and letters unapologetically, and to live “wholehearted,” as is written on the Jordan collage. Fellow writers and teachers such as Jacqueline Jones Royster, Deborah Brandt, Craig Werner, Beverly Moss, Roderick Ferguson, Carmen Kynard, April Baker-Bell, Ruth Nicole Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Gwendolyn D. Pough who have been huge inspirations and so supportive of my work and my life. Lastly, I am inspired always by my partner, David Glisch-Sanchez, who writes about the sociology of emotions and queer of color critique, and is really one of the kindest and smartest people on earth. I live in an incredible queer of color feminist village no matter how much geographic distance may be between us all.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
That will have to be up to the reader to ultimately decide if the book does or not, but I am a Black queer feminist utopian and alchemist, and with that in mind what I hope is that Fashioning Lives helps people to imagine new worlds by insisting on and affirming the truth that a new world is not only necessary, but also possible. I think that given how exhausted, wary, cynical, and pessimistic many of us have become given the state of things, it is a message that I do not think we can take for granted. In addition, it was my intention to help people imagine new worlds by modeling -- in my research topic, my research methods and methodology, theory, and analysis -- some iteration of what Cathy Cohen calls “radical empathy.” I heard her give a lecture in 2012 where she described radical empathy as “an imaginative experience of other people’s feelings.” I remember hearing that and thinking that it sounded like exactly the kind of chisel we needed to clear away all the excess debris and energetic blocks so that we can excavate the sculpture of the more justice, more kind, more loving, more peaceful, and more truthful world we all deserve to live in each day and to rest comfortably knowing will be there for us when we wake up from resting at night. I hope the stories shared by my research participants and the theory generated from my codifying and analysis of those stories, will give people space to do their own imaginative work that will draw them closer to each other and to goodness.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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