Eric Darnell Pritchard on Black Queer Literacies and Activism
Eric Darnell Pritchard is Associate Professor at the Univerity of Buffalo. His work in Fashion Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy helps us consider everyday tactics that Black LGBTQ people develop to work with, through, and around literacy normativity.
In this interview, Eric describes how Fashoning Lives came into being, elaborates on his research process, addresses concepts from the book, and connects his research to activism. We spoke with Eric over Google Hangouts in August 2017. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. - Liz & Don
Liz & Don: We'd like to start with some questions on your recent book, Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, and then move toward a discussion of what writing scholars and students might do to organize in our communities against the current wave of bigoted policies sweeping the US.
How did the project get started?
Eric Darnell Pritchard: The original idea for what became Fashioning Lives started with an assignment that I was given in a methodology class with David Fleming when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Every few weeks we tried a different methodology, including quantitative, which was interesting because I hate math. We got to ethnography week, and I didn't know what to do. I had no idea where I wanted to go with it. A friend of mine, who was a couple of years ahead in the program, Rhea Lathan, said that I should go to a place where I want to be and that I want to learn about. I kept really weird hours at the writing center in Madison, so one of the places I was never able to be on Wednesday nights was with my friends, who were primarily Black queer men and allies in Madison. Often times, they would hang out at my home watching Project Runway. Since I couldn't hang out because I had to be at the writing center, I chose that space. We had three weeks in which we had to be in that space and report back to the class. I went to that space; two times it was my own home. Then one time, I went out. I was paying attention to language practices, which is what I was really interested in, documenting Black queer men's talk in some way and considering what was meaningful about it.
After presenting my work in class, I saw my colleagues' and mentors' enthusiasm and interest, but I still didn't think there was enough to do a rhetoric and composition or a literacy project because no one in the field had written a book about queer people of color. I began to think that if I didn't do it, then maybe no one would address the ingenuous, complex, politically engaged, and historically informed language and literacy practices of Black queer people. I felt a kind of accountability. That's something that really drives a lot of my work, specifically my activism–the idea of community accountability, as opposed to community engagement. The idea comes from friend and colleague Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who has founded what she calls a Black feminist university in Durham, North Carolina. [For more information, see the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind: https://blackfeministmind.wordpress.com/about/.] She talks about community accountability. I felt accountable to my ancestors, to those Black queer friends of mine who let me come to what was their space to do my homework, and I felt accountable to myself to do that work, to tell that story, and to tell it as well as I could.
L&D: How did it grow into a project involving interviews and oral histories, archival research, and literary and film criticism?
EDP: The class project made me think more about Black queer literacy, history, and theory generally. That experience said, "you're looking at these language practices, but what about the history that is out there." Then, I took a graduate seminar in the history department where I began learning more about conducting interviews, oral histories, and archival research. From that class project I created a pilot study, and I began hanging out in archives that collected Black queer things. There weren't that many of them at the time. I started doing Black queer history interviews with elders in Wisconsin, Chicago, and New York. I co-facilitated a writing workshop for Black queer men. At that time, a friend of mine worked at the Urban League in Madison, and he had a weekly group for Black gay men, so I did writing workshops in that group. I basically made it a Black queer book club and writing group. That initial project helped me move from doing my homework for a class to immersing myself in Black queer things.
All these experiences informed what became my methodology—from the texts I eventually chose, to the things that I would consider data, and to the intervention that I would ultimately make in Fashioning Lives. But as I began doing the first set of interviews for the book, people who I interviewed would reference particular queer and Black books, Black queer films, the names of Black queer activists, and activist collectives. It was all a part of one story, so working with grounded theory, I treated all those references as another layer of interview data. I collected those references in their own file. I coded them based on what they referred to, so I had codes like "Art and Self Definition," "Film and Activism," or "Literacy and Community Building," and I began to take those codes into archives with me. I used those codes as a concept to close read a book—a novel, a book of poetry, or a Black gay anthology—to look at films, and to pursue oral histories with activists who were named in the interviews that I was doing with Black queer people. For example, I interviewed Barbara Smith, who is one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective, because she kept coming up in interviews. I didn't treat her interview the way that I treated other people's interviews in the sense that it wasn't a confidential interview using the same interview script as the others, but I interviewed her to inform my understanding of how other people were talking about their identity development or their activism. In many ways, a lot of it was print culture history that addressed questions of when people started writing about Black queer life and Black feminism.
All of that deepened my understanding of the interviews, and the interviews deepened my understanding of Black queer cultural production and archival work. That is how I see those interventions connecting. As someone who works interdisciplinarily, those things come together to shape how I look at the everyday as well as how I engage methodologically with people's stories, their language and learning, and their identity development. I thought that intervention would be useful for people working in Black queer studies, in performance, in literature, in sociology, in anthropology, and in history, which is really growing in terms of Black gay history. I thought that literacy, composition, and rhetoric had something to offer that would give those disciplines and fields a way to see things that they cannot see. It also works the other way around. Through the engagement with Black queer cultural production and Black queer archives in my attempt to tell a story about Black queer literacy both historically and contemporarily, some of the concepts from Black queer performance, from literary studies, and from historical studies were very useful. Some of the things that they considered archives were very useful to me in developing a holistic understanding of the interview data that I had been collecting.
L&D: For readers who don't know what all went into the research, could you talk a bit about the interview process and your archival work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture?
EDP: Part of how I located the interview participants had to do with how I was given access to archives that are maybe not as well known as the Schomburg. To find interviewees, I created fliers, I went to discussion groups for Black queer folks, and I told friends to tell friends that I was interested in interviewing people all over the country. It basically became what researchers call—and here I will expose myself as a closet sociologist—a snowball sample of research participants. Essentially, that's how I found interviewees. Then, every 12-15 interviews I paused, looked at what I had, and said to myself, "who don't I have and who have I not talked to? This sounds so simplistic; there has to be another narrative." That helped me decide how I would pursue further interviews, who I would talk to next, and how I could find stories that might push back on or further confirm what I thought I already knew. The Schomburg was a big part of that process.
Steven Fullwood, who until very recently was a curator at the Schomburg, began what was then called the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive. It is now called the In the Life Archive, borrowing from the title of Joseph Beam's anthology In The Life: A Black Gay Anthology (1986), the first anthology of writing about Black gay men. It was the first or one of the first places to start collecting Black LGBT history, specifically Black gay and lesbian history. Being in that space and in Harlem, there were some people that I knew there, but there were some people who I didn't know, who I was introduced to because the Schomburg functions in many ways as a community center. It's a research repository, but it is also a community center. If you want to meet Black queer folks or know what people are organizing around—where is this rally and that rally—and collaborate with people, then it is a place you can go to build those connections. As a researcher saying that I'm coming to the Schomburg and I am doing this work about Black gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender history and literacy, I got tons of connections to people in Harlem and all over the country who all hover around the Schomburg and similar centers in other cities.
The Schomburg is always looming in my mind as a researcher; it's the archive and library that I take with me wherever I go. I grew up in New York City, and it was my Black queer nerd boy hangout. It was one of the places that I would go to look for myself, to learn history, to be amongst other Black folks. As the epicenter of Black queer life in New York City at the time—and some might say it still is that, Harlem was where I could see Black queer folks engaged in community and activism who were making art, politically engaged, loving one another, and joy-filled. I love going to the Schomburg for that purpose. Little did I know growing up that it would continue to figure prominently in my life in the same way later as a researcher, and that is largely because of Steven Fullwood deciding that he was going to collect Black LGBT history and start the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive. The archive gave me access to papers by Joseph Beam, who I talk about in Fashioning Lives. In addition to editing In The Life, Beam was the editor of Black Out, which was the periodical published by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. The archive gave me access to the collection of Patrick Kelly, who was a fashion designer that I have written an article about and am doing biographical work on now. In many ways, the Schomburg has served as both the repository I went to for my research and also the thing that connected me to people outside the center who would be a part of the interviews and the network of people who are now getting my book out into the hands of others—for which I am very grateful.
L&D: Early in Fashioning Lives you address the overlaps and distinctions between the terms Black queer people and Black LGBTQ people.
Could you talk a bit about that and how your approach shaped the book?
EDP: For clarification, the major distinctions that I make in the book are between Black queer literacies and Black queer LGBTQ literacies. For me, that distinction begins with political scientist Cathy Cohen's "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" Cohen was trying to think about queer in a way that pushes it beyond a static concept or praxis, specifically in relation to the intersections of race and queerness. Based on her work, queer not only refers to a Black gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person, it refers to the intersection between race or class and the single mother, the sex worker, or anybody whose sexuality or gender identity and expression run counter to the norm. Queer refers to those folks who experience state sanctions as a constraining force in their lives because those experiences position them as non-normative.
I thought it was important to make the distinction between Black queer literacies and Black queer LGBTQ literacies in my work because I always imagine the intervention that I am making as being bigger than how I think of what I am doing. I was interested in Black LGBTQ people and their literacy and language. Everybody I interviewed identified as one of those things. But at the same time, the intervention, a Black queer intervention, or even more broadly, a queer of color intervention for rhetoric and composition would include but not be exclusive to Black LGBTQ people in the conversations around gender and sexuality and its intersections with race, ethnicity, class, and so on. I really wanted to make that distinction because it is a provocation. I am calling to people who I know are out there and doing this work and I am saying, "here is the conversation that I think we can have; when I talk about race, gender, and sexuality in this way, what is reflected back to you?" In the book, I drew those connections by speaking to things that I had seen before Fashioning Lives. I am speaking to things that I recognized for the impact they make on Black queer conversations. For example, I talk about Elaine Richardson's African-American Literacies. Richardson talks about sex workers standing on a corner by a women's shelter. This corner where people were engaging in illicit economies was located right next to a shelter named for this very traditionally respectable Black lady from the 1920s. It's a moment for a Black queer conversation or at least a Black queer analysis of these supposed irreconcilable experiences.
The same is true when we think about mothering and the way people write about it in rhetoric and literacy. I was raised by a single mother, and part of what Cathy Cohen argues has to do with understanding the single mother as a Black queer. When we talk about Black queer theory within rhetoric and composition, I hope that people see the importance of extending that—not in a way that erases the heterosexuality of an individual and the privileges of heteronormativity, but in a way that employs Black queer in a complex way, as both a theory and a praxis.
L&D: In Fashioning Lives, you talk about how the concepts that you developed to describe and contextualize Black queer literacies emerged from your research, particularly through analyzing information from interviews with your research participants.
Could you briefly talk about that process and lay out those terms (viz., literacy normativity and restorative literacies)?
EDP: In part, they refer back to Malea Powell's 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication Chair's Address "Stories Take Place: A Performance in One Act" and her argument that the stories are theory. These concepts emerged from looking deeply at my interviews. In terms of how I arrived at literacy normativity and restorative literacies, I wanted to make certain things about literacy legible: when we look at histories of literacy learning and development, specifically African-American literacy history, we see that there is a complex relationship where, on the one hand, literacy has been used a powerful tool through which Black people have sought and achieved social change, and on the other hand, it has been used for violence and various forms of social harm. People have been harmed for the pursuit of literacy or specific literacy practices. This has been said and well documented, but I wanted to make an intervention into the historical impact of literacy through Fashioning Lives. I wanted to give a historiography that would allow me to situate Black LGBTQ people as part of that history without having that intervention swallowed up or flattened into irrelevance with over-simplicity by saying it's the exact same thing that happens in the exact same ways because it doesn't.
As with all things that I do, I go back to the data. I always go back to the interview, and I go back to the archive. It told me what in the larger narrative around African- American literacy history was relevant or not relevant for the Black LGBTQ people that I interviewed about their literacy learning and development. In those interviews, the messiness that I saw folks grappling with stems from the tension between normativity and anti-normativity or non-normativity. I saw that tension as something that Blackness or race, queer, and literacy all have in common.
This tension with normativity, which has been visible as a keyword for queer theory, can also be operationalized as a keyword for Blackness and critical race studies as well as for literacy studies. I began to call it literacy normativity after looking at various versions of this phenomenon in interviews, and the concept refers to uses of literacy that inflict harm. It became a way for me to talk about that. Restorative literacies consist of the literacy practices that Black queers employ as a form of self- and communal-love, self-care, and self-determination. Those are the three ways I would categorize restorative literacies. I began to write about that for similar reasons as literacy normativity. I wanted to have a concept, a kind of legibility that could hold the notion that not all literacies that my research participants were doing could be simplified as just being about resistance. But at the same time, I wanted it to speak to the implications of their literacies that were resistance or disruptive regardless of the intention of the person that I interviewed. The ways they were taking up space through what they pursued for their own reasons still had impact beyond that. It still did a kind of work that we might think of as activist or advocacy. It still queered something. Maybe that wasn't their intention, but it still had that effect. Restorative literacies became a way for me to make it both about the individual and to make it about pleasure, joy, love, laughter, and maybe resistance and advocacy and all those things, but not necessarily in a way that someone was consciously thinking about how this oppressive thing happened to them and now they're doing this to restore the collective. This is what they do to take care of themselves, and by extension, it also does this other kind of thing that I demonstrate through theory.
L&D: In the introduction to Fashioning Lives, you refer to love as a force for justice and argue that love is a "centerpiece of restorative literacies," what do you mean by love (38)?
EDP: In the book and in the interviews, love means accountability. When I say that love is a force for justice and I argue that love is a centerpiece of restorative literacies, love is accountability. It is a way of being accountable to oneself. In her book All About Love: New Visions (2000), bell hooks lists what she sees as specific characteristics of love, such as kindness, compassion, honesty, and empathy. I find that when we extend those things to ourselves–not any one thing but the totality of those things, it is an expression of love. As you see many times in Fashioning Lives, when people extend that to other people or when they withhold it from themselves or other people, we see the presence and absence of love. When people call someone out about certain kinds of problematic ways in which a person's politics negatively affects or impacts another community, or when we're not thinking intersectionally or ethically, holding people accountable in that way is a form of love for oneself. You're saying "your foot is on my neck." It is also a form of love for the other person by saying, "you're better than this. We are better than this." Holding people accountable to that, to not behaving in ways that are anti-human regardless of intention, is also a form and expression of love as a force for justice. Restorative literacies do just that. There's a way in which love has a lot to do with the individual. Literacy normativity tries to steal emotional resources from people. It wounds people through texts. Restorative literacies are those things that make those emotional resources that people need for living, especially love, available to them. It returns emotional resources to them so that they can do work in their best interest and on behalf of others. At the same time, it also says to people here is where you could be opening up in your own life; here is this way in which you don't see me; here is this way in which you erase my history; here is this way in which you create these false senses of what is and is not beautiful; and here is this way in which it is not just painful for me but for my community. There is a kind of benevolence and grace in those restorative literacy practices because the people being called out don't necessarily earn it, but it is extended to them anyway when someone says, "See me, and do better."
L&D: In later chapters of Fashioning Lives you address how Black queer people experience and challenge literacy normativity and develop restorative literacies in different arenas of life, e.g. with elders, through spiritual practices, and in online spaces. As these chapters build on one another, the reader sees many dimensions to how Black queer people develop a sense of self- and communal love and how love is a practice. One question we had for you had to do with how you define activism. You use the term in your book, but don't spend as much time with it.
Do you see restorative literacies as activist, the pursuit of self- and communal love as activism? Why, or why not?
EDP: It's challenging for me because, as a theorist of what my research participants were doing, I see what they are doing as activist. I can literally point to particular things that people said in their interviews and say that is how this person contributed toward making this particular issue better, that is how this person talked about beauty, that is how they did some semantic work to reclaim ugly in ways that feel empowering for me, and that is how this person took up space in a way that I or other black queer people and allies will be able to occupy space and get or be free. I look at it, and I see the ways in which activism is very present in my analysis of these interviews. Having said that and thinking about how to define activism through that, I would say that activism is anything that a person does for themselves but especially for others that contributes to a morally, ethically just and humane world. In my writing, my short hand for activism is that it is the things we do to create the world that we all deserve. I don't call it activism unless they call it that.
That's another part of my ethical responsibility to my research participants and why restorative literacies became a useful concept–so I don't put words into the mouths of my research participants. There are activist implications as I've described. There are ways in which my research participants are advocates for themselves and others that have an activist impact, but I don't think I necessarily need to call it something that they don't call it in order to make it meaningful and to highlight what they're doing and the impact that it has. In that respect, I am also in contact with people who have done micro-histories and read historical studies that are micro- histories of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, and there's a way in which we define activism through the Civil Rights Movement or the Black Power Movement that they definitely see, "ah, here's activism, here's this thing happening and that thing happening." However, the reason historians continue to go back to those same stories and see different things is because people were doing the kinds of things the researcher is interested in, but it just wasn't called that at the time, or it wasn't legible in those particular ways in previous histories. The interviews I address in Fashioning Lives became a way to document self- and communal-love, which are not necessarily things that are ever going to be visible to people unless a literacy researcher says, "I'm going to interview people about how they have self- and communal-love and what literacy has to do with that." That's how it becomes visible.
L&D: How do you see your own research as activism?
EDP: This is more important to me than anything else about Fashioning Lives or anything else I do as a researcher: I see my research as activism because I create space and not space that I want to occupy on my own. If I am the only person who ever writes a Black queer anything in rhetoric and composition, that means I failed in an activist intervention. I will still have created the space through Fashioning Lives, but it was not my intention to be the only one, and thank goodness I am not. I see articles, wonderful articles all the time, such as Collin Craig's article in College English ("Courting the Abject: A Taxonomy of Black Queer Rhetoric" in vol. 79 no. 6), and Latrice P. Johnson's in Research in the Teaching of English ("Writing the Self: Black Queer Youth Challenge Heteronormative Ways of lack Youth" in vol. 51 no. 5), both of which either cited my earlier work on Black LGBTQ literacies and/or Fashioning Lives. Also, I am on dissertation committees for people who are doing Black queer work.
The intervention that I am trying to make and how I see my research as activism is in making space and collaborating with other people to make space. I also see my research as activism because I am not invested in a particular outcome. I like being open to wide range of interventions my work can make well beyond my intentions. That is possibility, and I like possibility.
In the second chapter of Fashioning Lives on ancestors and elder, I get at the idea that research as activism should or could be about how we plant a seed that grows a tree under whose shade we never sit. For me, that seed could be concepts, or it could literally mean existing as a Black queer person in this field. If we're lucky, we get to see how the concepts we create and work we produces emerges and get applied in exciting ways we do not anticipate, and we get to converse with other people around this shared thing, but maybe we don't ever see it. That doesn't mean that we don't do it anyway. Sometimes, research as activism means foregoing the payoff or the perceived payoff that you will ever get to see the totality of the intervention. If Audre Lorde or James Baldwin or Essex Hemphill decided that they would never write the things that they wanted to write because it didn't seem like things were going to shift in any way in their lifetime, I never would have had anything to go to as a resource for myself and the work that I do. In this discipline, people have written about the intersectionality of race and sexuality, and I say this in my book, Harriet Malinowitz wrote about it in Textual Orientations. She talked about a Black queer male youth and a Latina lesbian. How did we not do more to talk about intersectionality in that same meaningful way for the rest of the queer life of rhetoric and composition until recent years? The very first book in the field about LGBT students did that. That became an interesting thing for me to think about. How do I do my work in a way that whatever people didn't pick up or missed for whatever reason also gets amplified today in building our collective future? I'm going to remind them that Harriet Malinowitz said this, and I'm going to say it in a way that is relevant for my research participants and for my original social, political, cultural interventions that need to be made. That is another activist impact that happens through my research.
The last thing I would say has to do with policy. Because I am in rhetoric and composition, the work that I do focuses on language. The ways in which I talk about intersectionality, Black queer identity, queer of color critique, all of these things are an octopus in a way. It has eight different tentacles, and they are all reaching out. In other words, there are very different ways in which that can play out in the various concurrent conversations occurring, and some of that impact could affect policy. There are pedagogical implications. There are interdisciplinary ones. There are conversations that we have in rhetoric and composition that are relevant to helping other disciplines grow, and they won't ever get that if we don't reach out and pull them in. That's a really important aspect of my research as activism: coalition building. It is a form of coalition building as well as form of consciousness raising.
L&D: In your conclusion you address a number of directions in which work at the intersection of race, queerness, and literacy studies might move forward. Among them, you address the real- time erasure of Black women—including Black queer women—who created Black Lives Matter. You also address the need for literacy, composition, and rhetoric scholars to "further explore the language and literacy practices of these activists, organizations, and everyday resisters historically and contemporarily, and apply them as models to construct radically intersectional methodologies, theories, and pedagogies that emerge from or grow the coalitions that build and sustain these movements" (251). It's a wonderful idea and passage. We believe that it also describes at least some of your previous scholarship, e.g., "As Proud of Our Gayness, as We are of Our Blackness: Race-ing Sexual Rhetorics in the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays." We wonder if you are moving into the work you describe here.
With that, what are you currently working on?
EDP: My new work is explicitly activism in the sense of how people have traditionally defined that within activist literacy or activist rhetoric scholarship. It's a book, and the working title is Making Themselves from Scratch: Literacy and Social Change through Black Queer Activist Organizations from 1974-1990. Essentially, it's a literacy story addressing the literacy work of Black queer collectives in the 70s and 80s. I wrote a chapter for the Sexual Rhetorics anthology edited by Jackie Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander about one of those organizations, the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, which was the first national mainstream organization for Black LGBTQ people. People in that organization include June Jordan; Audre Lorde, who was on the Executive Board; Barbara Smith; Jewell Gomez, who wrote The Gilda Stories and 43 Septembers; and Joseph Beam. They were all both literary lights and activist lights of this then nascent Black LGBTQ movement while part of that organization and, as activists are often, in other organizations.
The book looks at five specific organizations and the rhetorical activism and literacy work that occurred in them. I look at what happened in their everyday lives as well as the periodicals and the writing collectives they developed. For example, one organization I examined developed writing workshops and collectives that would help people write memoirs because the organizations were concerned that there would not be enough Black lesbian memoirs for people to know that Black lesbians existed if people didn't write autobiographies.
The more I do the work, the more I realize that it's less about organizations and more about individuals. Many of the people I look at who took the lead on literacy and rhetorical activism in those organizations were also teachers, usually teachers of writing. Both June Jordan and Audre Lorde taught in Mina Shaughnessey's SEEK Program (originally called the "Pre-Baccalaureate Program") at the City University of New York (CUNY). Melvin Dixon is another person I look at who was affiliated with one of these organizations. He was also an African-American Literature professor at Queens College.
I started off writing an organizational history, trying to address the literacy work and rhetorical activism within them. Now, it's changing into thinking of each of these people as queer of color pedagogues contributing to activist, rhetorical education.