Karrieann Soto Vega & Sherri Craig
Eric Darnell Pritchard, PhD, is an award-winning writer, cultural critic, and Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo. Beginning January 2021, he will be Brown Chair in English Literacy at the University of Arkansas. He is also on the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Pritchard is the author of Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, and editor of “Sartorial Politics, Intersectionality, and Queer Worldmaking,” a special issue of QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. He earned his BA in English-Liberal Arts (magna cum laude) from Lincoln University, the nation’s oldest historically Black college. He also earned an MA in Afro-American Studies and a PhD in English (with distinction) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
An audio version of the full interview is offered below, which is followed by a transcript that has been edited for clarity and length. For the full audio transcript, click here.
Karrieann Soto Vega and Sherri Craig (KSV & SC): What does the emergence of Black Studies as a recognized area of study mean for you?
Eric Darnell Pritchard (EDP): This is a complex question because centering “recognition” takes that term as a destination to which Black Studies—or any discipline—has or must arrive. Which may bring one to ask “recognized by whom”? And perhaps also “recognized to what ends”?
Recognition, which I think includes inherently visibility, has always been, for Black folk, women, trans folk, queer folks and others who are historically and contemporarily marginalized, a sword slicing in two opposing directions, yielding positive and negative effects. That is, recognition can be a mode of visibility through which individuals—or in this case, a field or discipline—have achieved a kind of historical, contemporary, intellectual, and educational legibility that it didn’t previously enjoy. In this sense, the emergence of Black Studies, when the seer who recognizes it is one that is invested unequivocally in the freedoms of all Black people, is more likely to reflect a recognition wherein its scholarly, pedagogical, and communal projects are fully committed to Black Studies as an experiment in the possible. This means the work of Black Studies, regardless of recognition, is incomplete and sees that work as critiquing itself and remaking itself from the inside out.
But in another sense, emergence into a recognized area can also mean becoming legible to institutions and individuals who aren’t necessarily invested in the long arch of Black Studies as a freedom project. Rather, this recognition achieves a legibility through a grammar that is announcing its recognition and emergence as it’s simultaneously announcing the work of Black Studies as already complete. That is, the recognition of Black Studies occurs in terms that suggest it is a “mission accomplished”—a job complete and well done—even as white supremacy, poverty, cisnormativity, sexism, misogyny, ableism, and other matters negatively effecting Black folks is as active and crushing as it always has been, and inequalities and institutional violence and social harm run rampant. In such instances, then, being recognized is a form of institutionalizing one’s invisibility and silencing misrecognized disciplines or fields as equity, justice, power, and change.
Put more plainly, Black Studies for me has meant the occasion of recommitting myself to the radical imperative of the project that has always been and will always be found in sharpening established and fashioning new categories of analysis that draw our attention to the most vulnerable among us, illuminating where Black Studies has been useable, but also how it can and must do better. This is a cue and practice I take from queer Black feminisms, and specifically June Jordan (2008), who wrote in her essay “A New Politics of Sexuality,” that “freedom is indivisible or it is nothing at all” and in her essay on “Children’s Literature,” that “Love is lifeforce.”
KSV & SC: How would you define the field of Black Studies, especially in relationship to rhetoric, literacy, and writing studies?
EDP: Within literacy, rhetoric, and writing studies, I define Black Studies as an interdiscipline of scholarship, pedagogies, creative and public works that see the language and communicative practices of people of African ascent—that means for me the entire Black diaspora—as essential to composition and rhetoric achieving its full potential as an intellectual, pedagogical, and civic enterprise. This full potential includes achieving or committing itself unequivocally to the work that language and communicative practices bring to realizing equity, justice, and liberation for all. For example, that would mean literacy, rhetoric, and writing studies being devoted to antiracism, and doing the courageous but difficult work of exorcising the realities and practices of racism – which include antiblackness in all forms—from its scholarly and pedagogical practices, but also, in its departments, programs, professional organizations, publications (e.g. journals, book series, conferences, etc.). And I want to be clear that checking antiblackness, in a Black queer feminist view which informs all of who I am personally and everything I do professionally, sees actions of cisnormativity, transphobia, sexism, (trans)misogyny, ableism, heterosexism, homophobia, and other forms of systemic violence and social harm, as expressions of antiblackness and antithetical to antiracism, since all of those actions also effect Black people. As such, anyone claiming Black Studies that is not committed to that work, in my view, is not doing Black Studies. Rather, they are simply leveraging race and Blackness toward ends that are oppressive, marginalizing, and antihuman. I also define Black Studies in literacy, rhetoric, and writing studies as work that is “community-accountable,” which queer Black feminist community educator Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs defines as the work that we do that reflects the communities we say we love and who make us and everything we do possible (in Talley 2012). This is an energy and practice that, in my view, is central to the definition and practice of Black Studies generally, and in literacy, rhetoric, and writing studies in particular.
KSV & SC: How does your research fit in a Black Studies genealogy?
EDP: My research fits within a Black Studies genealogy by situating itself in the work of Black queer feminist scholars, who each entered the landscape of Black Studies with total gratitude, love, and care for where the conversation was when they entered and what all those earlier dialogues made possible, while at the same time, doing the necessary self-work and scholarly work, pedagogical work, and building of communal connections to then approach that landscape with new questions, with new vocabularies, and thus yielding, new perspectives, though all of it being part of the same original work of Black Studies and its commitment to the liberation of all people and the vanquishing of racism and antiblackness everywhere, and all of the other isms and phobias that affect black people and their lives. That’s something that Black Studies has had to grow into, and continues to grow into, and I believe that queer Black feminist scholars and pedagogues – which includes a wide range of people – including folks in feminist theory, queer theory, disability justice, etc.—has offered the language and concepts that have most helped me to find my way, but also, have left us with some of the most useable language through which Black Studies will be able to operate self-reflexively and check itself and continue to grow for many years to come. That’s a choice that people have to make. I want to stress that. For example, the concept and practice of intersectionality, which I think in many respects is kind of in danger of being oversimplified from the radical intentions that we still need to be held accountable. Crenshaw’s first theorization still offers us so much as self-reflexive practice, as a practice to check ourselves as people who do black studies, but also as a mode of creation —of creating the black studies field, discipline, interdiscipline of our dreams. That’s where I see my work fitting in here as both someone who has emerged and is emerging through that genealogy and still hoping to make my contribution to that work.
KSV & SC: From which Black Studies scholars do you find inspiration? Which Black Studies scholars do you return to repeatedly?
EDP: Put simply, I find inspiration in the work of all Black queer feminist scholars past and present. Full stop. But to be more specific, I consider myself an ancestor-led and community-accountable scholar and teacher, so within Black Studies generally, I most often return to the work of ancestors such as Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, Pat Parker, Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, and Marlon Riggs, as well as elders such as the Combahee River Collective. In terms of contemporary scholars and scholarship, the work of Jacqueline Jones Royster, Beverly Moss, Barbra Smith, Jewelle Gomez, Carmen Kynard, Alexis DeVeaux, Elaine Richardson, Valerie Kinloch, Roderick Ferguson, E. Patrick Johnson, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Ruth Nicole Brown, and Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, are essential to all of my research, and especially my current book project on community-accountable literacies and Black queer feminist pedagogies. Tanisha C. Ford, Carol Tulloch, Monica Miller, Elizabeth Way, Rikki Byrd, and Kimberly Jenkins have been essential to my work on Black fashion and performance. Within literacy, rhetoric, and writing studies, I am also inspired by Gwendolyn Pough, Tamika L. Carey, April Baker-Bell, and LaToya Sawyer, particularly in my thinking about Black feminist rhetorics, literacies, and pedagogies.
KSV & SC: Black Studies is rooted in activist action and the courage of change agents to make space for themselves and for others in academia. How have you tried to honor these origins in your work?
EDP: I have and continue to do my very best to honor this tradition through first and foremost paying forward the mentorship and support I received throughout my graduate studies and early career years. I was very fortunate to have mentors who are grounded in an ethics of care, justice, and self and communal love, but also doing good work and doing it from a place of right action. So, to all the students, junior colleagues, and peers with whom I am fortunate enough to build community and kinship, I try to extend that to them to whatever degree I can, including through the use of social media. Social media is one way I can make myself available to people and to do a kind of spiritual activism because I think that what my mentors did for me was help me to become my best person to do the work that I’m here to do but to also stay well. So, I try to use my presence on Twitter and Instagram to be a source of that light and love in the world because I understand that to be fundamentally important to our own wellness as individuals and as a community. Ultimately healthy people can really bring their best selves to the work and to the purpose they are here to serve in the world.
I have committed to honoring these origins by doing my best to live a courageous existence in my research, scholarship, teaching, service, and ways of being, even when no one is looking. And I commit myself to being courageous because what I know, as Maya Angelou has said, is that courage is the most important of all the virtues because if you do not have courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice them erratically, but not consistently. So that means that kindness, love, forgiveness, and any other virtue can only be fully actualized by my being courageous, and so I choose to step into and recommit myself to that over and over again because I understand those virtues to be essential to any activist or courageous stance I may take for myself and others.
Finally, I have committed to honoring these origins by telling the truth of a matter in as loving and courageous a way as I possibly can, and that’s difficult work. Sometimes it can mean standing for justice by yourself, and also being misunderstood. There’ve been several controversies in
the field in recent years involving professional organizations, disciplinary publications, and programs and departments in literacy, rhetoric, and writing, and how they have addressed (or not addressed) issues of racism, exclusion, tokenism, exploitation, citation politics, and so forth. In each case, some directly involving me and some not, I have done my very best to speak the truth as I see it and to be a voice for justice, even at the risk of any cost to myself personally or professionally, because I know that the perception of what I am risking is all ego and, for me, that is not a place from which to do any work worth anything. My Black queer feminist ancestors and elders knew and know that, and I am thankful every day, every minute for their example so that I may honor them by doing the same and doing the work “in spite of whatever,” as my elder Dr. Hazel Symonette always says.
KSV & SC: What do you hope to see happen with Black Studies in rhetoric, literacy, and/or writing studies?
EDP: I’d like to see more departments and programs in literacy, rhetoric, and composition have experts in Black Studies on their faculty, and what I mean by that is that these programs have more than one such expert on their faculty just as they have more than one expert in other areas. The scholars are there; we only need the departments and programs to do the self-work as a unit and university to prepare the table not only to hire these scholars, but to retain them, to celebrate the brilliant expertise they bring to the faculty, to the classroom, to the committees on which they serve, to the neighborhoods in which they live, and everything they do to make their universities and departments better and better and better. I would like to see more students doing work on Black Studies, and work on antiracism generally, admitted to and successfully completing MA and PhD degrees in literacy, composition, and rhetoric.
Specifically, as a graduate of a historically Black college and university, I would like to see more departments and programs in literacy, rhetoric, and writing studies create pathways for students in HBCUs, students in Latinx serving institutions, Asian-American students, and Indigenous
students. I want to see them study in our graduate programs, to complete them successfully and healthily, to not experience some of the horror stories that we’ve all heard and experienced of what it is to be a person of color either as a professor or in graduate studies regardless of profession or field. I want to see them go into whatever language and communicative work – whether that be in tenure-track life or not—that fulfills them, brings them joy, and brings them success in everything they endeavor to do for the good.
I would like to see more Black Studies scholars editing journals in the field and more Black Studies scholars making up a larger size of the editorial boards of journals and book series, and also the executive committees of professional organizations and chairing departments in our field. Undoubtedly someone will say “But we do have X who edited this journal…or here are these two Black Studies scholars on the board of Y journal or organization,” and what I am saying right now is that this is not enough. That is only reflective of a pendulum that swings back and forth between our tokenization and exploitation. Black Studies scholars need and deserve a more equitable, sustainable, and quite frankly, pleasurable, circumstance in which to serve in these positions. Otherwise, why bother?
Finally, I would like to see Black Studies acknowledged for the ways in which it has always worked to create the field we all deserve. I want to see my ancestors and elders in Black Studies – not the one or two whose names we know, but all of them – celebrated for the ways they have labored to make literacy, rhetoric, and composition better, whether or not the field was courageous enough to do better. They deserve it
Jordan, June. (2008). A new politics of sexuality. In T. D. Dickinsons & R. K. Schaeffer (Eds.), Transformation: Feminist pathways to global change (pp. 133–136). Routledge.
Talley, Heather L. (2012). Brilliance remastered: An interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Feminist Teacher, 22(2), 165–167.