Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is a pioneering black feminist literary scholar who is currently the inaugural Chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University. She is also the William E. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature. She has authored numerous books, including “Who Set You Flowing?”: The African-American Migration Narrative (1995); If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2002); and Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (2013).
Griffin talked to Ms. scholar and columnist Janell Hobson during the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Honolulu in November 2019, the transcription of which is being offered here to highlight black feminism as a legacy for Black History Month.
I want to talk to you about a black feminist legacy. I think now with the passing of literary giants like Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall, we’re starting to see the passing away of a particular generation. What do you think of their legacy?
It’s an interesting time, yet it feels like the end of an era in some ways now that we’re losing so many great thinkers and writers, some of whom never identified themselves as black feminists, but those of us who are black feminists certainly claim them as part of our intellectual genealogy. Those women who were beginning to publish in the 1970s, who really created a space for us, changed the way we thought about ourselves as black women. I think their legacy lives on; there’s a younger generation, not only in the academy but activists, who call themselves black feminists and who use a black feminist analysis in their work. I would imagine it probably lives on in ways that some of that earlier generation couldn’t have even imagined. Maybe we went through a phase in the 1990s when people were accusing black feminists of being essentialist, of being too identitarian. And now to just see this whole blossoming of work in both activism and scholarship is really heartening to me.
How has that particular field, or even movement, changed since the time you entered into academia?
I think of myself as someone who’s very much influenced by what I was reading by people like Barbara Smith and Barbara Christian. And it felt like it was something very new, something kind of burgeoning, at a moment when the field was really defining itself, right? And I think that now it’s changed because even though it’s still very new as far as fields and disciplines go, there’s a literature, there’s a long literature, there’s work across a number of disciplines, so now it can’t really be questioned whether or not this field exists. It just infused its way into so many other more conventional disciplines. I think young scholars still have to fight to do the work, but not in the same way.
How does your own work fit within a black feminist framework?
I think that it fits in two different ways.
One way is that I always try to reimagine or rethink black cultural history through the lens of black feminism. So, my first book was looking at and thinking of a way to talk about black literature and black culture that allowed me to talk about the contributions of men and women, about the paradigms that allowed us to look across gender and sexuality. So, now that we’ve got these insights from black feminism, how do we write a different kind of history, a different kind of cultural analysis?
Another way is through projects that were more obviously black feminist. Like the Billie Holiday project was more explicitly a black feminist project. To think about why she’d been written about and represented in the way that she had been, and thinking about representations around issues of politics, respectability and all the things that have governed our lives. That a black feminist lens could really in some ways free her iconicity from some of the things that held it down. And free it enough so that we could also just engage with her seriousness as an artist, her genius as an artist. So, I think those are the two ways that black feminism informed me. One was rewriting and rethinking black history and culture, and another was calling attention to the specific contributions and works of women artists.
Yes. I’m actually thinking of your book, Harlem Nocturne. Was that your last book?
That was my last book.
What I liked about it is how you really create this trifecta of these different women artists: Ann Petry the writer, Mary Lou Williams the jazz pianist and Pearl Primus the dancer.
Right, right. One of the things that was interesting about that book is that, again, none of those women really could have called themselves black feminists. And yet they were all dealing with the intersections of gender and race, and all three of them had careers that were in some way resurrected because of the emergence of black feminism. I focused on women in the 1940s because I wanted to show that they were really laying a groundwork for future generations. The last chapter looks at how the emergence of black feminism then allows us to go back and find those women who were once lost to us largely because of sexism. They were not getting the attention that they deserved, their work was not getting the attention that it deserved.
What is your next project?
It’s a hybrid book. It’s part memoir and part readings of literary texts. I decided to go back to think about how I became interested in black literature and history, and that it was long before I ever studied it. That it was introduced to me by my father when I was a kid. It had a certain meaning to me, and I learned to read it in a certain way that was very different from the way I learned to read as an academic. And so, I’m trying to return to that way of reading, to explore how it sustained me as a young person and as I became a woman, and how might it sustain us as a community, as a group of people, as a country and as a world now. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been enjoying it. But I find I have to make time to write and think because if I don’t, I’ll resent the administrative stuff.
Absolutely! I completely understand. So, let’s talk about the administrative stuff. So, you are now directing the Inaugural African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University?
Yes. We always had an institute. Well, since 1993 we had an institute. We still have the institute, but now we have the department. It’s about 50 years late but it’s there. And luckily, we didn’t have to start from ground zero because we have a substantial faculty already in the field, and many of us put half of our lines in the new department.
How do you see African American and African Diaspora Studies as a space to allow for the flourishing of black feminist studies?
In our department, black feminism is at the center because I’m there, Mabel Wilson who’s a black feminist architect and architectural historian is there. And so, our idea and our understanding of black studies is one where black feminism sits at the center. That’s not, as you know, always the case, and that hasn’t necessarily been the case historically. But I think that it’s not an add-on for us, right? And so, we work with our colleagues in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. We’ve had long partnerships there, and we do joint programming and maybe we hope to do some joint hiring at some point with them. But our major focus is at that intersection between black feminism and black studies. And that’s where we situate ourselves, I think that’s where we see our own intellectual tradition. Barbara Christian comes out of that. We don’t see a separation between those two; they are inevitably linked for us and that’s our own intellectual formation.
I would like to talk to you about Toni Morrison. You knew her personally, and you were also prominently featured in the documentary about her, The Pieces I Am.
I’m so glad that we have the film. I think it’s the closest thing we’re going to get to an autobiography from her because there she is talking. I’m glad that it came out before she passed away, and I’m honored to be a part of it. I just think that she’s a once in a lifetime genius.
On the one hand I was overwhelmed with my sorrow at losing her, and I’m still in grief. But both my sorrow and my grief, like in a minute, is just overcome by my absolute gratitude. And it’s gratitude for a number of things. It’s gratitude for the work. I mean, the work changed my life long before I ever knew her or knew that I would one day get to know her. I could say the most singular intellectual influence on my own thinking has been Morrison’s work, and then to have had the gift of her friendship as well.
I used to say to her, “How many little girls would grow up and meet their heroines and call them friends?” You know? So, just absolute gratitude for all of it. She’s not here in the flesh, but all that work she gave us is still here.
What is the future of black feminism?
I think the future of black feminism will either help to change the world or how we deal with the end of the world as we know it. And maybe these two things aren’t antithetical. The world as we know it will end if it does not heed the insights of black feminism. Because black feminism has never only been about black women, it’s never been this. It’s been about a more just world. And a planet that said if you listen to the insights of the least of these, which is us, that we can do something transformative.