In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Matthieu Chapman. Chapman is an Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz and the Literary Director of NY Classical Theatre. His book is Shattered: Fragments of a Black Life.
Description of book, from the publisher, West Virginia University Press:
From a distance, Matthieu Chapman’s life and accomplishments serve as an example of racial progress in America: the first in his family to go to college, he earns two master’s degrees and a doctorate and then becomes a professor of theater. Despite his personal and academic success, however, the specter of antiblackness continues to haunt his every moment and interaction.
Told through fragments, facets, shards, slivers, splinters, and absences, Shattered places Chapman’s own story in dialogue with US history and structural analysis of race to relay the experience of being very alive in a demonstrably antiblack society—laying bare the impact of the American way on black bodies, black psyches, and black lives. From the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the offices of higher education, from a Loyal White Knights flyer on his windshield to a play with black students written by a black playwright, Chapman’s life story embodies the resistance that occurs, the shattering, collapsing, and reconfiguring of being that happens in the collisions between conceptions of blackness. Shattered is a heartrending and thought-provoking challenge to narratives of racial progress and postracial America—an important reminder that systemic antiblack racism affects every black person regardless of what they achieve in spite of it.
Roberto Sirvent: In the book’s opening pages, you write: “This book is about the tension between wholes and pieces in a world whose whole is built on my pieces.” Can you please share how this statement connects to the title of the book, as well as how it informed your decision to write a memoir instead of a traditional academic text?
Matthieu Chapman: When I wrote this book, I didn’t set out to write a memoir. The first iteration of this book was something completely different. There’s a line from Saidiya Hartman, from an old interview with Frank Wilderson, where she says “I have yet to see the Slave inserted into narrative in a way that did not immediate result in his or her obliteration.” And that line stuck with me—our methods for conveying narrative relies so much on the human that the very grammar of storytelling is incompatible with the Slave. So I set out to write an autoethnography of sorts—a book that used my own life and own experience to put this obliteration on display. I started with a story from my life, and then offered multiple, often conflicting, frames to interpret that story—having a white mother and a black father, for example—and then tell a separate story from history to add the context that makes that story possible—the recency of Loving v Virginia. Then I would tell about specific histories of where they are from—West Virginia trying to remain in the Union and keep their slaves. And then I would theorize how these various aspects are both necessary to read the story in a way that makes sense, but by all of this being necessary, my individual story is rendered unreadable. The frame—the narrative—cannot allow my life and the contexts of anti-blackness that govern my life to exist simultaneously and remain coherent. There were too many disparate pieces necessary for the story to function, and once they were all assembled, they occluded the whole rather than revealing it.
I wrote the whole book this way. I think it was five sections at the time, each with four or five chapters to create the whole. And I sent it out to a few academic presses, and got some interest. Then one day, I got an email from someone who was asked to review it for a press. I won’t say who, because some folks would call doing so “unethical,” but this reviewer reached out and said basically, “Hey, I was asked to review this book for a press, but I was wondering if I could talk to you about your manuscript.” I found this odd, but said sure, and we set up a phone call.
This reviewer was a Godsend. He told me, “This book is publishable as is…but this isn’t the book you want to publish.” And he went on to explain that if I could show how this obliteration works instead of telling and describing, I would reach so many more people with what he thought was immensely important work. And he recommended some books on memoir to help me figure out how to get closer to this new vision.
After this, I spent a year completely rewriting the book, and after dozens of submissions and rejections, WVU Press jumped on it, and they wanted it as a trade book, not an academic title. I accepted the contract, and they sent it out for review. One reviewer hated it. HATED IT. And from their review, I think a lot of dealt with how I was discussing blackness and its relation to violence in this world. But the other reviewer loved it, and offered an amazing, thorough, thoughtful critique. But one comment they wrote lingered for me—the reviewer said it felt too complete. It was too clean. Too neat.
I brought this up with my editor, Sarah Munroe, and I told her the story about where this book came from and its evolution from academic text to memoir. And she asked me “Is this the book you wanted to write?” And I told her, honestly, no. This linear, beginning to end story of my life is not something I ever intended to write, but I kept hearing from presses and editors that it needed to be more memoir. “Memoirs have a certain shape—” “Memoirs do this—” “Memoirs do that—” More memoir, more memoir. And it had ceased being the book I wanted to write and over the couple of years submitted and revising had slowly morphed into the book I thought I could sell.
And Sarah brought me back to the book I wanted to write. We talked about how to bring back the fragmented nature and multiple perspectives from the academic text, and incorporate into the storytelling—to use the form and structure to show the obliteration. And that’s ultimately what this book is about…it’s about being obliterated, shattered. Not because of any deficiency in me, mind you, but because in every experience, every interaction, people see my skin before they see me, if they ever see me. And even those who see me only see the pieces that aren’t obscured by history, culture, and society.
A lot of books in Black Studies focus on themes of resistance, resilience, and “changing the world,” yet you’re quite explicit that your book is not about that. Why is it so important for you to deviate in this way from what is commonly expected, rewarded, and celebrated of Black Studies scholars?
The first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions black resilience or black resistance is a line from Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. Camae, the maid/angel who visits Martin Luther King in his hotel room the night before his assassination, tells King, “[Black folks] go out and march. Then they get their press ‘n’ curls ruined by firehoses. Folks done got tired though, Preacher King. Like I say, walkin’ will only get us so far—.” And that’s how I feel about resistance and resilience. They just preclude so much possibility. Why do we have to resist? Why do we have to be resilient? Why are these passive responses the only acceptable modes of (in)action for blackness? Why should black folx care about what a world built on their un-life care what is acceptable? Proper? Appealing?
We live in a nation that pathologizes pacifism—“violence is NEVER the answer!” Well, yes. It is. It always has been. America didn’t become a nation by writing King George a bunch of letters. It was through war. Slavery wasn’t abolished at the polls. It was a war. Both of these wars have slavery as a central theme—violence towards blacks is more American than Mom’s apple pie and all that other bullshit. So instead of pointing to historical actions that have proven to be effective, we continue to produce narratives of resistance. We continue to be the rock straining to hold fast against the river’s rushing current. And like that rock, we wear down in the face of the unrelenting flow, and eventually, we lose hold and begin to slip and slide further downstream.
So when I think of resistance and resilience, I immediately ask, “what have these gotten us other than exhausted?” My mind turns to Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which reveals how any actions that result in actual black progress is met with swift, intense violence from white people. But because this violence is not spectacular, but rather legislative and bureaucratic, the impact is more insidious. At a surface level, people can go “see how much progress we’ve made! Slavery is abolished! We had a black president!” without ever recognizing that every step forward comes with two steps backwards. Yes, slavery is abolished—unless you’re in prison. So the field slave became the prison slave. Yes, we had a black president—and the Supreme Court rolled back the Voting Rights Act, removing the disproportionate impact clause and declaring that for a law to be discriminatory, it must have been written and passed with discriminatory intent. Do you know how hard it is to prove intent? It’s borderline impossible. So since black voters organized en masse to put a black person in the White House, state legislatures removed their right to vote, and the Supreme Court ruled these laws legal.
Now we’re left here to resist and slowly wear away, because to fight back, to break the pacifism pathology, will give whiteness an excuse to spectacularize white rage. To unleash the full violence of the state. To show us that violence is the answer, and that their violence is bigger than our violence.
Relatedly, you argue that “Black joy is [the world’s] new minstrelsy.” Can you elaborate on this, especially in light of how professionals in your field have rejected your work because you don’t talk about joy?
I knew this line would cause some backlash, but it you really understand minstrelsy, the connections are too much to ignore. To unpack this, we have to start off by asking, “What is minstrelsy?” Most of us know what it was: white actors putting on blackface to perform denigrating sketches of negro life. But how many of us know its purpose and function in society? It wasn’t just about ridicule and denigration—for a group that is not even recognized as human, this type of punching down would be completely unnecessary.
In Behind the Minstrel Mask, Eric Lott defines minstrelsy as “an arena in which the efficient expropriation of the cultural commodity ‘blackness” occurred, or, as Frederick Douglass more aggressively (and accurately) described it ‘the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens.’” So minstrelsy was about commodifying blackness—presenting a sanitized version of blackness that was palatable and consumable to white people. This commodified blackness had no interest in the nuances and particularities of black life and black culture, but rather held its interest in producing a version of blackness that white people could spectate blackness on their terms—specifically terms that allowed them to distance themselves as white people from their role in maintaining anti-blackness. So what type of blackness was packaged and commodified through the minstrel show? Let’s look at the characters, who are typically happy go lucky buffoons who suffer comic violence with no harm or consequence.
But minstrelsy wasn’t the only example of commodifying blackness in this way. The desire for sanitized, commodified blackness extended to the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY. It contained an exhibit that purported to show an accurate portrayal of plantation life during slavery. However, the black performers, some of whom were freed slaves themselves, were not allowed to re-enact black life, but rather were trained by a white man, Fred McClellan, on how to act black. As such, they presented a version of plantation life where being a slave wasn’t so bad.
So now when I think of Black Joy, I immediately ask: Why does our joy need a qualifier? Whom does that qualifier serve? I've never been laughing and joking with black folx and been like “man, I love all this black joy.” Never been to a concert, a card game, night club...never anywhere with black folx just livin’ their lives and been like “this black joy is great!” Because I’ve never thought about my joy as black joy…I’m just living.
So Black Joy isn't for black people. Black joy is a sanitized, commodified, packaged version of black life and black experience to appeal to white people and assuage white guilt. It’s no coincidence that the two primary narratives of blackness in mainstream media and press are black resistance and black joy. Black Resistance lets white people off the hook for their inaction: “Wow, they’re so strong, they don't need my help.” Black Joy lets white people off the hook for their feelings: “I don't need to feel guilty, look how happy they are!”
So this packaging and distributing of Black Joy and Black Resistance serves the same purpose as minstrelsy—to present a sanitized version of blackness that is palatable to white people. And this constant positioning of joy and resistance as the only acceptable narratives has real consequences for black people. Why does it seem like the white people are always shocked when riots occur after the police murder a black man? Because when all they’ve been fed is joy and resistance, when they don’t get to engage with black pain, and black suffering, and black violence, and black love, and the infinite other manifestations and possibilities of blackness, they can’t reconcile what they are seeing in real time with the stories they’ve been fed. So when black people in real time take action beyond these two narratives, white people go “well, these aren't the black people I read about and see in movies! These are some kind of animals!” and “well, I support their cause, I just don’t support the way their going about it,” and other things that reveal that most white people think they should only have to accept blackness on their terms, because they’ve only ever had to engage blackness on their terms.
So when I say Black Joy is the new minstrelsy, it has nothing to do with black people nor their experiences or feelings. It is describing how one aspect of our experience has been cherry picked, commercialized, and exploited to appease white folks with damaging consequences for black people.
Referring to your intellectual journey, you talk about the realization you made that: “The problem was not my blackness. The problem was the world—the world that had pathologized my blackness as an illness, a defect, an abject humanity.” In your memoir, you spend a considerable amount of time talking about your childhood. What will readers learn from you in terms of the way your Blackness was pathologized at home and how it led you to the conclusion that as a Black boy, you weren’t allowed to have a family?
One of the most enduring myths about racial reconciliation is that “if we just spent enough time with each other, racism would go away.” Well, my parents were married for twenty years. They had three kids together. How could someone marry a black man and have three kids with him and be racist?
The fact is, anti-blackness is so much a part of the human project that even if every single person on the Earth ceased to be racist, it wouldn’t alter how that world constitutes itself through anti-blackness. Because while anti-blackness is partially about what we as individuals think and feel, it is also the mechanism that governs what we think and feel. This has long been a part of Black Studies—Saidiya Hartman wrote about the incapacity for empathy to exist between whites and slaves; Jared Sexton wrote about how libidinal economy—the economy of desires that produces thought—is anti-black; Frank Wilderson argued that the Symbolic Order itself is anti-black—hell, I wrote about how blackness disrupts the communication and interpretation of affect.
So hopefully readers will begin to question what exactly family means, how it functions, and how modern conceptions of family gain coherence through the obliteration of black filiation.
You write about many instances of blatant racism perpetrated against you in academic settings – whether it involves being bullied as a kid or being verbally assaulted by an anti-Black scholar at an academic conference. Can you explain how anti-Blackness structures disciplines like Early Modern English, and why language of “decolonizing” an academic field (or the university) is quite problematic?
Whenever notions of “Decolonial” come up in academia, my first thought is “damn…white folks done colonized decolonial.” I think back to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney wrote in The Undercommons: “The University is the social site for the reproduction of conquest denial.” Like Hartman’s argument that abolition actually made freedom into a burden by shifting the blame for the slave’s social standing onto the slave, the university now fulfills that role for capitalism and empire—it reinforces myths of meritocracy, liberalism, and equality at the expense of the racialized and colonized bodies upon whose land the universities currently stand. In other words, the university continues the colonial mission of epistemic violence by reinforcing colonizer ways of knowing and obliterating all others.
So a field like Early Modern English or Shakespeare Studies can’t be decolonized because they aren’t colonized. They are the colonizer. Why else do we continue to force Shakespeare onto every high school student? As a test, a scale, to measure who will assimilate to the colonizer’s culture. Because we don’t force high school students to prove they can read and respond to Toni Morrison or Adrienne Kennedy or Amiri Baraka. We don’t force white students to read and perform August Wilson. But every Black and Brown student has to do Shakespeare. All of us have to prove ourselves to them on their terms when white people never have to read anything by black people if they don’t want to. I have so many students who have never read a play by a Black playwright until they take my classes. And by that point, most of them have been trained that this doesn’t matter to them.
You’re critical of the discourse around “black excellence.” Zakiyyah Iman Jackson has said that “Black excellence is the answer to a racist question.” What makes “black excellence” so seductive yet so dangerous? And what do you mean when you write, “I wallowed in this liminal space – this treacherous sea – between black excellence and absolute excellence”?
Every spring, I see news stories of Black high school students who get accepted to every Ivy League school and win millions in scholarships. At least one a year. These stories bother me for two reasons:
1. I never see these stories about white students
2. I never see follow ups to see how these excellence Black students are doing at their Ivy League school
And I begin to think that much like Black Joy, Black Excellence is a discourse that is packaged and marketed to appease white liberal guilt. We don’t see these stories for white students because for them, it’s not news—it’s expected. And they don’t do follow ups because when they find out that these excellent black students dropped out because of racism or had the cops called on them while sleeping in their own dorm, then white people have to start asking questions that may make them uncomfortable.
So the media puts out these stories for one reason: so white people can feel better about racism. For the liberal whites, they can go, “I’m so glad we’re past race.” For the more Conservative whites, they can go, “see, the problem isn’t racism. This person did it, the rest of them must just be lazy and want handouts.” So Black Excellence, when packaged and sold for whiteness, isn’t just the answer to a racist question, it is actively anti-black—a cudgel to browbeat the Black people who don’t overcome the immense violence we face every day.
And god forbid to transcend this packaged Black excellence and become just excellent. More than one Black person has caught a bullet or a sentence for that.
So when I say I wallowed in this liminal space between black excellence and absolute excellence, it was me doing a cost-benefit analysis of my own life. What are the benefits of me pushing to be as great as I can? What are the costs? Because at some point, if you achieve enough, the costs will be greater than the benefits.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.