The author examines the lives of five Black female historical figures and challenges some deeply-held ideas about Black women in politics
“This book is for the bold, and those who want to rethink the limits of our current political imagination.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Samantha Pinto. Pinto is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book is Infamous Bodies: Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Samantha Pinto: Infamous Bodies really digs into what celebrity means to black political thought—and I hope challenges some deeply-held ideas of what Black women should or shouldn’t do (or who they should be) in politics. It considers some of the most difficult black women figures in the modern world—Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta-- and insists that we view them, and continue to represent them, beyond (but still including) lack, injury, and what I call “corrective histories” that attempt to bring them into stories of redemption and resistance. Instead, I argue for remaking our politics in their images, with all of their vulnerabilities. Rather than fight ridiculous “post-fact” certainty with more assertions of what’s right, my book sits with the uncertainty these figures produce, and wonders what a politics based on a recognition of mutual need and uneven vulnerability might look like.
In my first book, I put so much emphasis on the possibility of the text, and hence the figure of the author. But I consider that book, too, at its core, as a call to rethink our reception and reading practices— what happens when we don’t mark experimental lit as the outside but the center of the field— what happens to the ways we read race, gender, and national boundaries. With Infamous Bodies, I wanted to move away from the author as much as possible, and away from the fetishization of non-normativity as much as possible— which sounds weird, then, to focus on exceptional celebrities but it’s the fact that these exceptions have been used to stand as examples— tragic or heroic— of the perils of normative blackness that interests me. And it is artists’ and others’ efforts to situate these five figures within the normative that interests me as a critic, rather than seeking to make resistance as we already recognize it out of the deeply complicated lives of these usually public black women figures. It’s their repetition where the meaning happens, repeats, changes, keeps our politics mutable and uncertain, points us to something else to claim as the subject of politics and our political goals.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope it sits alongside the work of contemporary organizers and activists who are often so creative and innovative in their adoption of new platforms and new strategies of politics only to be cut down for not doing things in recognizable or perfect ways. This book is for the imperfect, the bold, and those who want to rethink the limits of our current political imagination. It’s very much about how there’s room for more and different work under the banner of “the political” and political art and organizing, and within Black and feminist studies—really, the book is about the amazing range of not just Black art and culture but black political thought, especially black feminist thought. It’s also about how there’s room for contradiction, failure, impurity, ambition, beauty, the feminine, the popular, and difficulty in anti-racist political thought and organizing. Though I don’t pretend that I can really say anything important to activists, who have their own important work and models and idioms to consider, I do hope this book engages the perils of what the kids call “virtue signaling” as the base or limit of political action. I don’t mean this dismissively—I think there is so much pressure on activists and organizers (and academics) to publicly perform perfect and perfectly consistent politics. My book thinks through other possibilities for political performance and investment, and it refuses to see the difficult figures within as stuck between the poles of resistance and false consciousness.
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?
Absolutely—it’s challenging a sometimes unconscious but pervasive view that feminine embodiment and vulnerability are defined by lack, or the absence of the political, and that they need to be fixed or circumvented or routed so that everyone’s politics looks like what we already know. We see this—and this is my opening example in the book, and the subject of a separate article I published this summer in Theory & Event—in the reception of Beyonce as an “evolving” feminist, rather than working out different forms of feminism in all of her career iterations. I want the reader to take seriously feelings of frailty, pleasure, desire, vanity, ambition—ugly feelings that don’t necessarily produce the kinds of black feminist politics one wants to show to the world that are embodied in celebrity culture and its reception. What can we produce with those feelings in Black Studies, especially in Black Feminist Studies? Infamous Bodies is trying to answer that in one form, by tracing a genealogy of black women’s embodied performance that centers on this complex nexus of personhood and politics. I try to do that with compassion and with full-knowledge that there is so much that I have to unlearn, and that I will keep doing so for the rest of my career.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I’m going to name two scholars whose work underwrites this book and pretty much everything I do: Ann duCille and Claudia Tate. Their groundbreaking work stretched and stretches not just black literary studies but Black studies. We could all learn so much from their diagnoses and critiques of “reading protocols” that overdetermine how African American texts and contexts are read. The world lost Prof. Tate’s brilliant mind too soon. Prof. duCille continues to grace us with her amazing work—no one more acutely and sensitively reads cultural and critical structures than she does. My citing of these two scholars is a way to honor the intellectual legacy of—and my intellectual formation through reading—the first “wave” (and 1.5 wave) of black feminist literary theorists in the academy. These critics—so many taken from us too soon—continue to challenge and inspire me: Karla FC Holloway. Deborah McDowell. Mary Helen Washington. Hortense Spillers. Hazel Carby. Valerie Smith. Nellie McKay. Barbara Christian. Cheryl Wall was a mentor and a gift of a human being, as well as a wonderful, tireless thinker. I still can’t believe she is gone. Reread them. Read their new work, too. They have so much to say that we haven’t learned yet. They have so much to say that is being repeated or dismissed now, without citation. They have so much to say including and beyond literary criticism. You don’t have to cite them to make them saints or sages—read them because they are whip-smart, complex thinkers who articulated nuanced critiques of the field as it was forming and as it still stands. And then go (re)read Adrienne Kennedy, Fran Ross, and Patricia J. Williams, for good measure.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I hope that by foregrounding new ways to see the past, and the way we are constantly remaking our public, Infamous Bodies helps us to see our current world differently—as a place where black women and black feminism are at the center of our ways of living, being, loving, failing, hurting, and getting political even when it seems these actions and texts and people are not occupying these spheres as we currently know them. I hope we can imagine ourselves occupying a Left politics differently, allowing for other imaginaries to come through to rescale, recalibrate, and remake the political. I hope we can see how vulnerable our interpretations of history are, and approach our critical and political work with the humility that we, too, have attachments and protocols that we can’t identify and that will inevitable change, fail, and expose themselves. I hope Infamous Bodies helps to imagine a world, and an academy, that exhibits more tenderness and grace, and that is able to embrace uncertainty. I doubt it will perform any of these lofty goals, but it’s the space the book is written from nonetheless!
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the 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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