This fall I’m giving three talks, and I’m curious and
interested in each one for different reasons.
The PublicsLab at The Graduate Center invited me to share my thinking about what it means to participate in national discussions about equity and diversity. I’ve been thinking about what’s missing in the conversations sparked whenever a white professor faces criticism for using racist language for pedagogical reasons. I’ve been thinking about this so much that I had to stop writing on the book (THE BOOK) one morning and open a new screen. I know I’m on to something because I banged out about 1,000 pretty good words on it in about an hour, and then went right back to THE BOOK. My talk (September 27th) is titled: “Whiteness as an Institution: Publics and Pedagogies” and is based on those 1,000 words. I will also lead a workshop with the Mellon Humanities Public Fellows: “Public Writing and the Early Career Scholar.”
I’ll give a lecture (open to the public) from THE BOOK as part of the University of Georgia’s Colloquium in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Literature. The sugar will be there (always), but I’m also ready to make more explicit connections using eighteenth-century texts and their connection to material culture. The first part of the talk’s title “for dead weight” comes from a pamphlet I read about tariffs, slavery, and East India vs. West India sugar.
The Aphra Behn/Frances Burney society is meeting at Auburn University for its biennial conference, and I’ve been asked to deliver a keynote address. The conference theme is Public Good(s), and I’m curious to see how my thoughts about this coalesce for this particular group of scholars. I’ve been working at the talk (this is different than working on the talk) since Emily Friedman’s intriguing invitation, and I know how I want the conferees to feel during my address (as already part of the various notions of publics) and what I would like for them to see (I mean this quite literally). It’s a huge responsibility to take up such a theme, and I’ve been thinking of Saree Makdisi’s keynote at the “Resistance in the Spirit of Romanticism” conference I attended last year. He pushed us to examine the role we think our work plays in our politics and where that politics can and cannot be located. So, while my talk will be based on the work I’m doing for THE BOOK, it’s also aiming to think more broadly about the politics of my work and what the attention paid to work like mine suggests about the field and cultural landscapes.
I was away for a month, and it was good. I’m back in the classroom in a few weeks after a spring term sabbatical. Before I left I took every single postcard and note off my door and left a sticky note with “see you in September” on it (it was a whole mood). My friend designed a lovely poster listing for my office hours I’ll keep on my door as much for me as for my students. Devoney Looser and I spent wonderful time together at the International Conference on Romanticism and she gave me a bit of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy I’ll also put that up as a reminder of what matters and how:
like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”
Here’s a list of primary texts I’ve taught (in whole or excerpted) in my British abolitionist literature courses. I’ve also included a list of lectures (I’ll add to this over time) and a bibliography.* I’ll be updating this over time, I’m sure. I hope it’s useful!
Adams-Campbell, Melissa M. New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Companionate Marriage. Dartmouth College Press, 2015.
Barnett-Woods, Victoria. “Models of Morality: The Bildungsroman and Social Reform in The Female American and The Woman of Colour.” Women’s Studies 45.7 (2016): 613–23.
*Baumgartner, Barbara. “The Body as Evidence: Resistance, Collaboration, and Appropriation in “the History of Mary Prince””. Callaloo 24.1 (2001): 253–275.
*Boulukos, George E. “The Politics of Silence: “Mansfield Park” and the Amelioration of Slavery” Novel: A Forum on Fiction39.3 (Summer, 2006): 361-383.
Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture. Duke UP, 1998.
Chander, Manu. Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2017.
Dominique, Lyndon Janson. Imoinda’s Shade: Marriage and the African Woman in Eighteenth-Century British Literature, 1759–1808. Ohio State UP, 2012.
Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire:
Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640-1940. Duke UP,
Echeverri, Marcela. “‘Enraged to
the limit of despair’: Infanticide and Slave Judicial Strategies in Barbados,
1788-98.” Slavery and Abolition 30.3 (2009): 403-426.
Ferguson, Moira. Colonialism and Gender from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jamaica Kincaid. Columbia University Press, New York 1993.
to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834. Routledge
*Fielder, Brigitte. “The Woman of Colour and Black Atlantic Movement.” Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire, edited by Mary McAleer Balkun and Susan C. Imbarrato, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 171-85.
Freedgood, Elaine. The Ideas in
Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. U of Chicago P, 2010.
Fuentes, Marisa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women,
Violence, and the Archive. U of Pennsylvania, P, 2016.
*Gikandi, Simon. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton: U of Princeton, P, 2011.
Green, Katherine Soba. The
Courtship Novel, 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre. Kentucky UP, 1991.
Guyatt, Mary. “The Wedgewood Slave
Medallion: Values in Eighteenth-Century Design.” Journal of Design History
13. 2 (2000): 93-105.
Hall, Kim. Things of Darkness:
Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, Cornell UP, 1995.
Hartman, Saidiya. Lose
Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: MacMillan,
*Holcomb, Julie. Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy. Cornell UP, 2016.
Kaplan, Amy, “Manifest
Domesticity.” American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581-606.
Kitson, Peter J. “‘Bales of Living
Anguish’: Representations of Race and the Slave in Romantic Writing.” ELH
67. 2 (2000): 515-37.
Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth. “Women,
China, and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth-Century
Kriz, Dian Kay. Slavery, Sugar,
and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies 1700-1840.
Yale UP, 2008.
*Lee, Debbie. Slavery and the Romantic Imagination. U of Pennsylvania P, 2002.
Malchow, Howard L. Gothic Images
of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Stanford UP, 1996.
Mintz, Sydney. Sweetness and
Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
Murray, Julie. “The Country and
the City and the Colony in The Woman of Colour.” Lumen: Selected Proceedings
from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (2014) 87-99.
Nussbaum, Felicity A. The Limits of the Human Fictions of Anomaly, Race and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge UP, 2003.
*Pethers, Matthew J. “Talking Books, Selling Selves: Rereading the Politics of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative” American Studies 48. 1(2007):101-34.
*Ross, Marlon. “The Race of/in Romanticism: Notes Towards a Critical Race Theory.” Race, Romanticism, and the Atlantic. Ed. Paul Youngquist. London: Routledge, 2013.
*Salih, Sara. “Review of The Woman of Colour. A Tale.” Eighteenth Century Fiction 21.3 (2009): 448-50.
*Schneider, Robert “’He says he is free’: Narrative Fragments and Self-Emancipation in West Indian Runaway Advertisements.” European Romantic Review. 29:4, 435-447.
*Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.
Sinanan, Kerry. “The Feelings of
an Officer: John Stedman in Suriname.” The British Abroad Since the
Eighteenth Century, Volume 2, edited by Martin Farr and Xavier Guégan,
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
–“Too Good to Be True?
Hannah More, Authenticity, Sincerity and Evangelical Abolitionism.” Romanticism,
Sincerity and Authenticity, edited by Tim Milnes and Kerry Sinanan,
Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. Racial
Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. New York UP, 2012.
Sasha. Contesting Bodies: Pregnancy,
Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. U of Pennsylvania P, 2017.
Walvin, James. Slavery in Small
Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits. Oxford, Johny Wiley and Sons,
Youngquist, Paul. Monstrosities:
Bodies and British Romanticism. U of Minnesota P, 2003.
I’m going to leave that sentence on its own because it’s just so pretty. It’s one of my favorite sentences, somewhere between “turns out you were right” and “here are your pancakes.”
My last sabbatical was in 2011, and I was working primarily on Written/Unwritten. This time around I’ll be working on a book about anti-slavery/abolitionist literature in romantic/regency-era literature. I’m nervous about it. I stopped working on a different book because this one felt more urgent. My gut tells me it was the right decision, but I won’t really feel solid about it until I have some of the usual signs that a book will be a book. Some of the pressure is because while this is my second book, it’s the first book I’m writing in my primary field, and that feels a bit odd. I know I’m kind of out of order with my publications, but then maybe if the academy wasn’t so persistently hostile to black academics, particularly women…anyway. It’s not exactly “Imposter Syndrome” that I feel, but I’ll feel better when it goes from “in progress” to “under review.” I’m also eager to write more fully about what I reflected on in my Jane Austen piece for The Atlantic and wrote about for Lapham’s Quarterly.
In the spring I’ll be giving two talks from book chapters. P19 has invited me to give a talk on February 28th in Philadelphia.
I’ll be sharing work from my chapter on The Woman of Colour, A Tale, Mansfield Park, and “Belle.” The talk (and maybe the book chapter) is titled: “I yield up my independence”: Marriage and Shades of Mansfield. This chapter is based on work I did for two British Women Writers Conference papers (one quite good, the other quite meh). It’s taken me a few times through the Woman of Colour to work out why I think it matters to this discussion, and I’m glad to write about Austen in this context. In my early drafting, I’m struck by how much I’ve missed in “Belle” because, like so many of us, I’m still processing what it means to see women of color featured at the center of stories about nineteenth-century England. The fact that John Davinier doesn’t seem to have lips is also distracting.
After a pretty good blog post, a hot mess of a creative non-fiction essay (unpublished), and two conference papers I’m quite proud of, I’m finally working out how Kara Walker’s sugar projects fit into how I read abolitionist discourse and material culture.
I wrestled with this in a lecture I gave last fall where I felt more wobbly about the implications of the work than I realized. So, I’m incredibly excited to keynote April 6th at St. John’s University Graduate English Conference: “Forms of Justice: Reflections on Writing, Creativity and Social Change.” The title of the talk is ‘a violent effervescence will ensue’: Sugar, Gender, and Power. Last spring, I spent time in the Historical Medical Library in Philly and read eighteenth-century books about sugar production. That’s where I think I’ll start. The juxtaposition between how we get sugar and what it’s used for, materially and linguistically, is central to the book.
Emily Rohrbach is the principal organizer for the 2019 International Conference on Romanticism in Manchester, UK, and I’ll be there. The seminars look intriguing, and I hope folks will participate in mine. If you spend time with me in real life, you know I’m obsessed with Wollstonecraft’s complicated politics around race, slavery, and abolition. I’m hoping for papers that push us (and me in particular) to think in very nuanced ways about the interplay between white women’s political ambition and representations of race in the nineteenth-century.
Written/Unwritten is still out there doing its thing. I’ll give two talks related to my diversity and inclusion work, both in March. My 2019 resolution is to expunge “on” from all of my titles:
Check back for more info about times and locations for these talks.
I’ve decided that I’ll feel better about writing this book if I thank folks publicly along the way. So, I’m thankful to those who have gently but firmly pushed me to think through the book I actually want to write, in the way that feels best for how I see the possible impact of my work: Kim Hall, Matt McAdam, Manu Chander, Devoney Looser, Matt Sandler, and Tina Iemma. They’ve read the proposal and a lot of the pre-writing drafting that goes into my writing. Someone recently described me as the “happiest academic in the world.” That’s not true—partly because I’m not that naïve and partly because I’m a Black woman. What is true is that I spent almost all of my pre-tenure years feeling isolated and marginalized in ways that I never imagined. To find myself post-tenure in the company of brilliant people who take time to support my writing means more than I can say. More than happy, I’m just extremely thankful.
Hope to see you in 2019. Come through, as the kids say.
Broadview Cover Woman of Colour, A Tale
Kara Walker “Afterword” 21 November 2014—17 January 2015
Sikkema Jenkins & Co New York, New York Photo: Patricia A. Matthew
The Network for Responsible Policy invited me to join a panel to talk about “gender.” Their goal is to bring experts together to talk to their community about politics, policy, and culture. Last night’s event was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters. I was the only humanities person on the panel, so I decided to talk about poetry. And since this was a panel on gender, and I will take any excuse to discuss Lucille Clifton, I did. She always gives me a spot of hope. After the talk, audience members wanted to read my prepared comments so here they are…
Remembering, Memory, and Intersectional Feminism in the Long Age of Trump:
The African-American poet Lucille Clifton has a very short poem titled “why some people be mad at me sometimes.” Here it is:
they ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and i keep on remembering mine
Clifton is the favored poet of almost every black feminist thinker I know. She captures our triumphs, challenges, and bodies. In one of her poems called “wishes for sons,” she imagines a world where a man finds himself in a strange city, with an unexpected period, a single tampon, and no idea where to find a convenience store. She writes about the material precarity of black women in poem’s like “miss Rosie, and she celebrates our bodies in poems like “homage to my hips” with the line, “these hips are big hips/they need space to move around in.” And my favorite line “they don’t fit into little/petty places.” For so many, her poem “won’t you celebrate with me” is an invitation and an anthem. I teach nineteenth-century British literature, but I still share it with students all the time. Here it is:
won’t you celebrate with me what i have shaped into a kind of life? i had no model. born in babylon both nonwhite and woman what did i see to be except myself? i made it up here on this bridge between starshine and clay, my one hand holding tight my other hand; come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.
It’s a lovely poem, unflinching, clear, and celebratory. Clifton is like that, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this short poem, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” as we wrestle with memories, memory making, making history and whose history matters when. I’ve been thinking about what it means to remember and how memory has a particular valence in this current moment. This is a moment when men are forced to remember past encounters from a different position, and when politicians conveniently forget what the president said a day after they heard it.
This memory tug of war is not new, and sometimes it feels rather benign—the little-known fact about a memorial moment we take for granted. These are usually reminders of why we have Labor Day or why Memorial Day is in May. Sometimes, however, the push to shape memory feels more radical.
Every year, for example, when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., someone steps forward to remind us that the King most people remember today is different than the King who was vilified, demonized, hounded, and unpopular during his lifetime, particularly in the 1960s when he started organizing for integrated housing in the north and was publicly opposed to the Vietnam War. Someone always asks us to remember which of the senators still serving today voted against making his birthday a federal holiday. And whenever anyone associated with the FBI tries to honor his memory (this year it was James Comey), someone else pops up and reminds the FBI of the letter sent to King encouraging him to kill himself. The pushback is to point out that celebrating one thing (King) does not erase a troubling past. This might seem self-righteous or pedantic (maybe those are the same thing) or like some empty exercise, but what we remember and what we choose to forget or not record is a political act.
The speaker in the Clifton poem explains what “they” want (without describing who that might be) and explains why they “be mad”– Here’s the poem again:
they ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and i keep on remembering mine
It’s worth noting here the declarative tone at the end “and I keep on remembering mine.” The speaker doesn’t try—just does. And it makes folks angry. It’s easy to imagine how that push back expresses itself. It comes in different forms. Sometimes it is incredibly simple “why don’t we have white history month” (and then someone explains how many basic facts about black history are missing from the curriculum and then a black person, usually me, jokes that we only get 28 days so everyone should just relax). Sometime it masks itself by pretending that the act of remembering is neutral “and is labeled politically correct” or, in the humanities, especially in the field of literary study it gets dismissed as “identity politics.” We say this one someone asks why we canonize some authors (almost all white, mostly male) and ignore others. I’m a specialist in nineteenth-century literature, specifically the history of the novel. I’m interested in the novels and novelists we don’t read (you can think of them as Jane Austen’s forgotten literary sisters). I do this work, in part, because I want to help people remember the cultural past as it looked to the many instead of to the few. It means reading novels we’ve forgotten and spotlighting cultural conversations many don’t know exist. For example, did you know that when Austen was writing the debate to end England’s participation in the slave trade was actually fashionable? In fact, it’s one of the first public causes middle and upper class middle women organized themselves around. That kind of remembering ruffles some feathers, but it doesn’t invite the kind of outrage that is sparked when other memories and histories are brought to the forefront.
In other words, the tension between the “they” and “I” shifts depending on where we are in the hierarchy.
A woman stands up in congress and tells an inconvenient history that she wants on the record, parliamentary rules are put in force, and she is silenced (at least in one arena). In this case, a woman stands up to men who want to silence her. And that old phrase, “well behaved women rarely make history” is akin to the political act of remembering what one wants that Clifton refers to in the poem. That’s one kind of push and pull—between women and patriarchy.
The tension can shift when it’s black women (or latinx women or Asian-american women, or Muslim women) who want a different history than white women. Then they, then we, are reminded that we are all sisters and told that we are threatening and angry if we don’t comply. These differences, these memories might be considered minor by some (we’re stronger together fighting the same fight), but that approach can obscure some harsh economic truths. Every year, for example, we remember the wage gap and women’s organizations show what it means that women make 78 cents to every man’s dollar by explaining that, in actually, women start working for free in October. But that’s only for white women. Black women start working for free in August*. Hispanic women start working for free in July. Those months matters, that wage gap matters, and money shapes memories:
• Single black and Hispanic women have a median wealth of $100 and $120 respectively; the median for single white women is $41,500.
• While white women in the prime working years of ages 36-49 have a median wealth of $42,600, the median wealth for women of color is $5.
• Nearly half of all single black and Hispanic women have zero or negative wealth.
Here’s another fact from the study (called Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future).
I think the stakes are clearer, but here’s how that translates to the place where so many memories are made and: When it comes to home ownership, one of the major markers of financial stability and cultural maturity, here are the numbers about home ownership:
• 57% of single white women
• 33% of single black women
• 28% of single Hispanic women
Of course you can make memories without home ownership, but those memories feel different in the face of economic precarity.
Here are those lines from Clifton again:
they ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and i keep on remembering mine
In this instance, let’s make the “they” in the poem those who record our history in real time, journalists, writers, pundits, and bloggers. Think of the language we use when we want to point out that something significant has happened. We say “this is unprecedented.” Inevitably, in the age of Google, someone, usually on Twitter says, “well, actually this happened before.” “They” just don’t remember or, probably, never new in the first place. This happened in the #MeToo moment if you remember. Alyssa Milano used the hashtag MeToo and because of who she is (beautiful, famous, heterosexual, and white), she was credited with “founding” it. That was in 2017, but Tarana Burke started that hashtag in 2006 and because of who she is and, more precisely, who she isn’t, it didn’t get the attention it should have. In fact, even when news outlets picked up on this fact, Burke was still a sidenote in the history. Time magazine names the women of the “me too” movement (the silence breakers they called them) their person of the year and left Burke off the cover. (I’ll note here that Alyssa Milano Milano was very quick to honor what Burke had done and wasn’t on the cover), and this is how the TIME story begins:
“Movie stars are supposedly nothing like you and me. They’re svelte, glamorous, self-possessed. They wear dresses we can’t afford and live in houses we can only dream of. Yet it turns out that—in the most painful and personal ways—movie stars are more like you and me than we ever knew.” Now, you could argue that this is news BECAUSE we pay more attention to famous and infamous people than your everyday woman or your everyday man. And that would make sense. As Rebecca Traister points out, it’s depressing to note but the attention to sexual harassment is as much because we pay attention to the powerful, rich, and famous as it is about what too many people, most of whom are women, have to endure.
But here’s where it’s important to pay attention to Tarana Burke. Partly it’s respect for the person who got there first. It’s no small thing to coin a phrase, to put it in the atmosphere. Partly it’s because too often the contributions of everyday people who actually are pushing change forward is erased. It’s important for young people (girls, boys, and others who may not identify with a specific gender) to know that one needn’t look like Gwenyth Paltrow to make change. All of that is important but just on a practical matter it’s important to remember the memory that puts Burke at the start. She started working for social justice in this particular area in 2006. I’m imagining that she has a wealth of hard-earned lessons that would benefit everyone.
There’s a hashtag that always makes me chuckle, even though I think it’s not widely circulated, #ListenToBlackWomen. That might come off as arrogant, and I worry that it makes black women seem supernatural, but it makes sense because all too often it’s black women and women of color who have to learn to:
Make do with less
Develop strategies to succeed around oppressive structures
Build community to thrive
Develop the muscle of caring for everyone around them
That old adage that necessity is the mother of invention means that those who have less (like black women and women of color often) have to be creative and inventive. They have to be strategic. Their memories, what they remember, shouldn’t only matter to them but to everyone. We can actually be stronger together but only if we have a shared sense of what we all remember.
Things are bleak, I know. I have a lot of mixed feelings about how we are making memories, how quickly we are moving, especially around MeToo. I think these are difficult and confusing times, but I’m also hopeful because I see a multiplicity of voices in this particular movement. Intersectional feminism means that we don’t limit our focus. When Kimberely Crenshaw coined the term it was about how analyzing and discussing how oppression often intersects, creating unique and varied experiences of discrimination. In other words, it’s not just being a woman that matters—one’s class, sexual orientation, and physical abilities should matter too. I’m seeing intersectionality in the movement after #MeToo blew up. Those svelte, famous, beautiful, rich women bonded together to focus their energy on helping invisible workers—women in service industries who can’t hashtag their way to justice. That movement is evolving with everyone’s memories there to shape it. There’s always going to be a gap between the “they” and the “I” of Clifton’s poem, but it doesn’t have to mean there’s no progress.
I guess it’s the hope I hang my heart on—that honoring memories is the first step towards meaningful change.
*There are different rhetorical moves to show this gap. The months I noted in the talk were in Tweets a few years ago. Here is one source for that data.
One of my versions of hell is being stuck with 4,000 people listening to muzak versions of Adele (or just Adele, if I’m being honest). The buffet culture doesn’t interest me, and being near large bodies of water gives me an oddly unmoored feeling, one of physical and emotional dizziness. I also love the time between Christmas and the new semester. I have since grad school when I discovered that it’s a good time to get a lot of work done. I have a whole stay-in-the-house winter wardrobe that’s quite lovely and nicely coordinated. So cruises. No. Cruises during winter break. No, no, no. The thing is I adore my father, and as we have grieved the loss of my mother these last months I could see that going on cruises not only makes him happy but also actually changes him physically. He walks more and more briskly when he returns from one, he smiles more. He wears the Batman shirt I bought him (and my mom and myself) one Christmas. So he asked me to go with him on a cruise. And I said yes.
Here’s the thing. We didn’t think it would actually happen.
We both set a lot of rules for it. We could only go when I was not teaching. He likes to go in April (when I am teaching). He would only go some other time of year if the cruise was to the Panama Canal. He knew it would never happen because of things like weather and schedules and when boats actually go to the Panama Canal. I was secretly relieved. To say yes something I didn’t particularly want to do and then to not have to do it. WINNING!
I went on a cruise.
During what would normally be my winter break, I packed up summer clothes, formal evening wear, and a really good pair of flip flops and got on a boat the size of Staten Island. Thankfully, Bill Matthew travels in style. He promised me a life of ease with very few decisions to make. “You won’t have to make you bed” (it’s sweet how he thinks I do that at home). “You can send your laundry out” (oh yeah). “You won’t have to cook or wash dishes” (sold!). “They’ll make eggs just the way you like” (that’s harder than you’d think). And, finally, “the juice is really freshly squeezed.” We had a spacious suite with a balcony large enough for deck chairs and a table for two. We could bypass most lines, and, most important to me, we could eat in dining rooms with table service the way god intended.
My dad understands what my writing work means to me. Whereas well-meaning friends kind of cringed when I said I was taking work with me on vacation, he understood. He even told me the best place to have a quiet breakfast, so I could write in the mornings. So I did. I also opted out of spending a small fortune for very slow, spotty internet and disconnected from social media.
My brain really, really needed that kind of break.
Listen, I respect people who take social media breaks. I get that. That’s not me. I enjoy the companionship of the chatter in the background as I write. I use Twitter breaks as my treat for a good work session, and tweeting helps me from killing people in the real world. A day or so each week I take a breather, but I rarely feel the need to take an actual break.
But, after such a busy fall where I talked more some weeks than I do all year, and where I found myself with the enviable but daunting challenge of talking to multiple editors and publishers about what I want to write next, I found myself being way too performative on Twitter, too aware that people were paying attention to me. I know that for some people that’s the whole point—to make a splash, be a presence, have a brand. I may or may not have those things, but to the degree that I do, they are a byproduct of my time on social media, not the goal.
I read once how Colson Whitehead thinks about Twitter: “I had a cat, the cat died, and now the stuff I used to say to the cat all day, I tweet.” I liked analogy so much that I too tweeted like I was talking to Whitehead’s dead cat.
Then the cat tweeted back.
It was cool and interesting at first, and then a bit unnerving, and then somewhere around November it started distracting me. I was too self-conscious on Twitter, felt I was trying too hard, and was seeking something (I’ve not bothered thinking how to name it) that messed with my brain’s writing rhythms.
I’ve come to know my brain works quite well, how it works at different times of day, what it really needs to produce, the importance of leaving it alone, trusting it to do its job while I do other things. I’ve compared it to a toddler—not just to be funny but because I can tell that sometimes “writer’s block” is really my brain wanting something it can’t articulate. I joked on Twitter about a frustrating morning where every medium I normally use to write (pencil and legal pad, lap top, large sticky notes) didn’t work until I figured out that this brain of my mine simply wanted a blank piece of paper. As soon as I gave it one, it got to work giving me new topics and questions for the abolitionist book. I had to draw my way to a new vision for the book. These days it works spatially and orally rather than through prose. That’s weird for me, but I’m going with it.
And it works best when it feels like no one is actually paying attention to it. That’s the thing I didn’t really understand before this break. When the cat talked back, I developed a sense of an “audience” and ideas about expectations (real or imagined, I don’t know). I started fretting about who might be reading my writing. I convinced myself no one was reading the blog, most people ignore my tweets, and that I was in a little corner just doing my thing, even with evidence that this is not quite true.
Especially about Twitter.
I am a pretty performative person, and social media rewards that. Plus I’ve been excited and felt honor bound to broadcast every little thing about Written/Unwritten because the contributors deserve attention and praise. They trusted me with their stories, put up with my revision requests, held tight to what they wanted to say and HOW they wanted to say it when I lost track of their agency, and when I was afraid the book would feel passé, one of them would invariably drop a note telling me to keep at it. I have gotten so much attention and praise because of the book, and it has given me a platform to say things to people who have the power to change how institutions work, but my chatter about it is more about making sure it does work for everyone, that it is useful, that the contributors’ time was well spent.
Beyond that goal, Twitter and my blogging are really just for me, for my own amusement and reflection. For me and an imaginary cat. I’ve been happy to do it in front of people (and I obviously want people to see what’s going on in my head and to read), but I found myself thinking too much about what other people might want to see and read. Was I saying something “new” and did it all really matter? My brain didn’t like that one bit, and writing that should have come easily wasn’t.
Worse, I couldn’t tell what was SUPPOSED to be hard (planning a new book), so I decided to disconnect bit by bit. I disconnected just enough to remember the real reason I blog is so that I don’t talk my friends to death, to think through how I am feeling about all kinds of things including my writing, and to keep my writing brain limber during reading and research phases. And I disconnected just enough to remember that Twitter only works for me to the degree that it keeps me company during the day.
It was a good break. Being in the middle of the ocean helped a lot. I worked on a few short things I’ll be sending out soon, I reread McPhee’s Draft No 4. I bought copies for Tressie and me and read it quickly in October, but reading it again, I’m reminded a bit of this post I wrote about how much I liked the the structure of The Skies Belongs to Me. I daydreamed about my Frankenstein class. I wrote in the mornings like I like to do. Very nice people brought me eggs cooked properly.
Don’t fret, dear reader/cat, I did plenty of nothing. I read trashy novels and realized that everything I know about regency culture I learned from narratives that include a lot of bosoms heaving above corsets and other throbbing bits. I read a very respectable novel I’m happy not to have a single opinion about. I spent more than an hour dressing for dinner every single night, twice in dresses I’ll happily put back in garment bags. I had massages (more than one). After trying to convince my dad I was hearing dinosaurs in Panama, we worked out a which crisis James Bond would solve while we went through the Panama Canal, and then, I kid you not, sat down to dinner with a man who looked so much like Gold Finger that I hummed the theme song at my dad all evening. I saw dolphins in the wild and flying fish. God bless this cruise for serving a proper tea every afternoon. I spent a lot of time on the balcony by myself, staring at the water and dealing with feeling unmoored.
I returned to a lot of emails including queries about what I want to write next. That feels good. In the midst of what I now recognize is a transition to a different relationship to what I write and for whom, kind and wise people have been helping see what’s possible. I’m feeling very lucky and grateful these days. Publishers and editors want to read what I have to say. What a great way to enter 2018.
So I’m back and am going to keep writing, blogging, and Tweeting like the cat isn’t actually paying attention to me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns fret not” for the last three weeks, usually around 4:30 in the morning (4:38 to be exact). I’ve especially been thinking about “the weight of too much liberty” moment near the end of the poem. I’ve been thinking about weight and liberty in my writing lately—what it means to choose a specific kind of book project and what it could mean to let that go.
This moment is an interesting/unnerving chapter for me. It’s interesting (and exciting) because Written/Unwritten is taking me to places and into conversations that feel so meaningful to the work faculty of color want to do. I really couldn’t have asked for a better first year with it, and I think it will continue to do good working going forward. I know people will want to talk about it more, and I’ve figured out a good way for those conversations to be useful for faculty of color and people who really want to be their allies. But it’s also been unnerving. I’ve felt this (mostly) internal pressure to make sure it doesn’t eclipse my British lit. work. I love nineteenth-century literature, and writing a book about it actually feels quite timely to me as I see the U.S. in a very particular cultural crisis, especially as I follow the tensions between black women and white women who claim to be their allies. It feels to me that the tensions of women’s studies feminism has spilled into national discourse and debates at the same time that black artists are using the tropes unique to eighteenth and nineteenth-century culture to push back against racist structures.
It will sound impossibly earnest and quite yawpish (in the “Dead Poet’s Society” sense of the word), but I feel I MUST write this book, and I can’t wait to write it. I had a conversation about it a few weeks ago, and in the notes I took to prepare for the meeting the first thing I wrote was “I want to write a book that everyone wants to read.” I’ve never felt that way before. I didn’t even feel that way about Written/Unwritten. I did that book for black women and other faculty of color (not a strategy I’d recommend, by the way), and it’s been because of the grace and openness of a lot of people who saw a broader community for it that it’s being read so much beyond the original audience I imagined.
I feel this book differently and babble about it (that’s the only word for it) to my friends and colleagues when it comes to mind (pretty much all the time). When there’s no one else around, I talk to myself.
Then, in the middle of a long week in Texas, I had an invitation to write for a publication I admire and longingly read. I’d given a talk in Denton Wednesday and was sitting in a hotel room in El Paso on Thursday, putting the finishing touches on a conference paper while trying to revise the book proposal, when the invitation showed up. I knew pretty instantly what I wanted to write about but also was sad to realize I will always have to choose between two modes and, as I’ve come to understand, two audiences. The invitation didn’t come from an academic journal, and so I was almost tempted to put it on the back burner. Almost. I decided to fold it into my writing schedule even as it meant I was keeping up this tug-of-war about my voice and some “audience.”
This has me thinking more carefully about the discipline of writing and how academic writing disciplines me. By this I don’t mean the intellectual back -and-forth between peers asking one another good, if sometimes tough, questions about the work we do; I am talking about the discipline that demands a certain performance of an argument.
So in the middle of this process, in this prison I’ve embraced, I’ve been waking up at 4:38 in the morning, wondering about how I write and for whom.
I am a (fairly) disciplined writer. I have also been (fairly) disciplined.
The proposal I ended up with was a disciplined one, but when I was asked if the book in the proposal was the book I really wanted to write I was stunned by the ferocity of my ”no!” And surprised by how little I’d understood my own ambitions for this book. If you’ve met me, you know that lack of confidence is not something I seem to struggle with, but if you know me you know I don’t always trust that what I want to say or write a) actually needs to be said or written and b) that I’m the person to say or write it. This can be a good thing if it keeps me from being strident or glib. But it was getting in the way of my vision for this book.
So I went back to the drawing board. I mean that almost literally. I got out a piece of white paper and drew boxes and then arrows and phrases and then pulled prose out of that. I’m still doing that. It’s been harder to restructure the book, but I think that’s mostly because I’m in such a hurry to write it. I’ve also learned that the Written/Unwritten work is so outward facing that I really need the kind of internal, more quiet work of this book—reading archival notes, thinking about images, figuring out the textual habits of abolitionist writers. After a public talk on Written/Unwritten I really just need to sit in a café with a pencil and paper and notes.
What I thought I needed to work out is what it means to write for my discipline, and then, as I was scratching out notes about why Austen may have been wise not to write more explicitly about the slave trade, that writing 101 command “write what you know” came to me, and I wrote a note to myself: “write how you know.” What I should have written is “write how YOU know.”
It’s a pretty terrifying thought. A whole book writing how I want to write sounds lovely. I’m not even sure what this means or if this is what we all do, and it just feels important to me because my second book will be my first in some key ways. So I don’t know.
I know it’s unnerving.
I am a (fairly) disciplined writer. I have also been (fairly) disciplined.
So we’ll see. I spent the better part of two days just staring at a book cover and jotting down what it shook loose in my brain. I’ll start reading again soon, but I’ve been seeing what comes to me unprompted by the discipline. I’m curious to know what I’ll pull out of these last years of reading, teaching, and talking about British abolitionist lit. I’ve already let go of the disciplinary boundaries of “R”omanticism because they’re not really useful for the trajectory of this book. And I’m less interested in the chapter structures I was raised to emulate. I’m curious to spend time this week looking at the discipline proposal I originally wrote to see what is packed in there that might be buried under the performance of my arguments. I found “brief solace” in this performance, in this discipline proposal, and it is written in a way that I write, but it’s not necessarily written how I write. That’s the turn I’m planning to make.
A new friend asked me this weekend how I keep myself motivated to write. I had some answers that weren’t particularly original. But one thing I advised didn’t really have anything to do with writing—that is, the act of getting words on the page and the work that surrounds writing. I told my new friend to skip a committee meeting that sounded like it wasn’t actually useful, didn’t really require her attendance, and, most importantly, was frustrating her.
It took me a long time to really understand that, for me at least, the work of writing is about how I manage my energy all the time, even when I’m not writing. My goal is to keep myself as calm and focused as possible so that when I sit down to try to concentrate a host of other things don’t pop up to distract me.
I learned this the hard way.
When I was trying to write for tenure (this is different than the writing I’ve done after tenure which has been to: save the world, rescue long-ignored writers, make people laugh, and save my friends from my long rambling theories), I developed a particularly bad habit. I would sit down to write and almost immediately start thinking about some intractable problem, often about some department nonsense or something in my personal life. These problems were real, and they were important, so I’d try to write something but they would be right there nagging at me until I would get so genuinely upset that there was no way I could write. It got so bad that thought of writing made me anxious because my writing sessions were not actually about writing.
I’m pretty sure this habit formed because I was afraid I didn’t have anything useful to offer with my writing. I was also fresh out of graduate school and didn’t really have a sense of how journal submission worked. I knew that you wrote a thing, you submitted it, someone might like it and another someone would not only NOT like it but make that clear in the cruelest way possible (“this person writes like a second-year graduate student”*), you rewrote it, and two years later it might get published.
Intractable problems that made me cry were so much more appealing.
They were the perfect way to avoid the thing I was afraid I couldn’t do. This is all clear now, but it wasn’t for a while. But I figured it out one day, and it has stayed with me for more than a decade. I remember sitting in the Starbucks in Upper Montclair, NJ and kind of feeling good about the writing for the day when this pattern started up again. I tried a few times to push the thoughts away, until I finally made a kind of weird pact with myself. I told myself that if I concentrated for just this small amount of time, I could fret about the intractable for the whole rest of the day. It worked.
The thing I hadn’t learned, especially about departmental problems, was how to keep them from feeling intractable in the first place. That’s a thing I’m still learning, but when I advised my new friend to avoid a meeting that I didn’t think was helping her and that even seemed to be taking away from her, my advice was based on my own experience as I’ve learned to be a lot more judicious about how I spend my time and more mindful about what I actually do in committee meetings. It’s not enough for me not to take on too much committee work, especially since I’m an associate professor who is expected to do this work.
I guess the best way to explain it is that I’ve come to understand that writing is central to how I see what I’m supposed to be doing right now. It is the most rewarding work I do, and so I’ve worked to build a life that makes it the easiest thing for me to do.
I have a ton of ideas and love brainstorming about how to fix problems, so committee meetings can be like catnip for me. I also have strong opinions and am kind of uptight, so committee meetings can also be draining. Then when I get home, the work of unwinding from meetings takes up a lot of time and energy. I replay things, seethe over bad behavior, fret about what’s next. That can bleed into my writing time.
So I cut back—not on my meetings so much but what I do in them. It’s tempting to think I can solve any problem (and maybe I can), but the humbling truth is that a lot of things run along just fine without my input. And if they don’t the sky won’t fall. Now my calculation is always (always, always, always) about figuring out how much time and energy a committee will take away from the writing I want to do. I carry a draft of whatever I’m working on with me into meetings (an actual print draft) to remind myself that while I have obligations to my colleagues and my department, those obligations end when they take away from the energy I need to write.
I spend my social time with people who are happily engaged with their writing, even if we moan, wrestle, and fret over it. One of my favorite memories from the summer was sitting in the park listening to music with friends and then finding myself talking about writing with a friend over dinner.
I don’t get into protracted email exchanges, and if I feel myself wanting to use email to snap at people who piss me off I close my computer and go for a walk. I figure I can either spend time trying to prove my point (like that ever happens in an email exchange) or I can go for a walk and see where things look the next day. I have a say-it-to-my-face rule for students who get upset about class or a grade. I apply that to myself.
There’s a saying that opinions are like assholes; everybody has one. I think rather highly of mine (my opinions, that is). As a result, I don’t share them so much and only when I think people will a) actually listen and b) they’ll do actual good. It was hard at first (I have A LOT of opinions), but I felt so much better after meetings that I had more energy to write.
Writing time is still the time when big things show up that might get in the way of the work. I’ve been grieving for the last year, and often the waves hit while I’m writing. I’ve learned to let them wash over me (I always have tissues with me) and then keep on writing. It is that central to the work I want and need to do.
*I was in my third year as an assistant professor.