Black Feminist in Public is a 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.
On September 25, Black feminist scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin and Janell Hobson took part in a public conversation about their respective new books—Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature and When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist imagination—at the fourth annual Albany Book Festival, held at the University at Albany.
Below are parts of the transcript.
Janell Hobson: I loved reading Read Until You Understand. I noticed that you dedicated your book to “TM,” Toni Morrison. You are here at the University at Albany where she used to teach. Her old office is now my office. As a matter of fact, I started writing my book while I was in this office space, so I think there is inspiration, and I absolutely believe that she has inspired both of us.
You knew Toni Morrison, both in terms of her work, as well as knowing her as a person. Could you say more about that?
Griffin: Well, anywhere Toni Morrison spent time, to me, is sacred ground, and so coming here is like a pilgrimage because it was a very important place for her.
I don’t know that I could talk differently about Morrison the person and Morrison the writer. My relationship with her began through her literature, and I write about that. And in person, I would have to remind myself sometimes that I was talking to this literary genius, because she was also just very down to earth and funny. She had a wicked sense of humor, a naughty sense of humor, and it’s her laugh that I miss the most.
I wanted to ask you about the influence of Morrison on your own book. It’s a very beautiful book. It’s an ambitious book. And there are two terms that strike me. You use them in the very beginning, and they sort of travel throughout the book.
One is the term “haunting“—and then there’s the term that’s in the title: the “Black feminist imagination.“
So, I was wondering if you could say more about each of those terms and about how they are related to each other.
Hobson: I have been thinking through both those terms, “haunting” and “imagination.” My introduction gets into this idea of haunting because I’m looking at what I call historical consciousness—and for me, haunting is related to history. Haunting reminds me of the way that the past comes into the present unexpectedly.
Getting back to Toni Morrison, it reminds me of “rememory,” where she talks about the lingering past that is not here but is still here—that’s what a haunting is. You can’t quite get away from the past; you keep bumping up against it, and I saw that as a useful metaphor, as well as literally because I also am coming from an Afro-Caribbean family where we tell stories about jumbies and hauntings all the time. So, we have that sense of spiritual consciousness that gets interwoven into the way we view the world.
Now, when I talk about “Black feminist imagination,” I am thinking of how Black women have been able to articulate the presence of an absence. How do we give voice to silence?
That’s really what the title ‘When God Lost her Tongue‘ is about because I am referencing a history that hasn’t been spoken but that we’ve been trying to articulate over and over.
Now, granted, there is a literal God that I do invoke in in the book. It’s Ezili Dantor, who is a Vodou goddess, a lwa. And specifically, she was invoked in terms of the Haitian slave uprising, so it is believed that it was this lwa who showed up during the Vodou ceremony that led to the uprising that eventually led to Haiti becoming the very first free Black republic in the world, the only successful slave uprising that we had in the Americas.
I find it interesting that it was a goddess who was there, inspiring her children, so to speak, to claim their freedom. But later, during the revolutionary war, the same goddess gets her tongue cut out because she was too strong of a woman. Of course, there are many stories, many myths, of goddesses losing their tongues. What does it mean to cut out, to silence women’s voices, at least in terms of the divine? We have the silencing of the goddess, which seems to me to work well in terms of the silence of women. I saw the Black feminist imagination as being able to recover and reclaim that history and make it our own, and that’s the work I was trying to do in terms of haunting and imagination.
Now, you have made African American literature so intimate and personal in your story. I was struck by the way you called it an “inheritance” and, specifically, an inheritance from your father. Before he died, he left you this treasure trove of books, and I have been thinking about what it means to interpret African American literature as an inheritance.
“When I talk about ‘Black feminist imagination,’ I am thinking of how Black women have been able to articulate the presence of an absence. How do we give voice to silence?”
Griffin: It’s interesting because it relates to your comments about hauntings. The book is driven by a sense of memoir. It’s building on an incident and series of incidents. It’s my father’s death when I was nine years old.
My father was my first teacher—he taught me how to read, he taught me how to write before I started school, and he instilled in me a love of learning, because it was a chance to be with my dad. And then, when my father died, he left a house full of books. I started reading them primarily because they were his. It was a way to get to know him. I had no idea that I would end up being a professor of literature, but I think I became one because of that early grounding.
There were lots of books. Some of them had notes to me in them: “Read this.” The title comes from a note that my father left me in a book: “Read until you understand.” I thought of the books that he left in the house and the albums that he left, as part of my inheritance, like heirlooms basically.
When I first wrote that line, “This was my inheritance, this was my legacy,” I meant literally the books that he left, and I still can remember many of them. Most of them were by Black authors. So that’s what I meant when I said inheritance. Not so much the canon of African American literature, although that becomes part of it, too. My first relationship to those writers was not as an academic with a distanced objectivity, but as a deeply personal relationship to them.
Can you talk about the form of your book? Because it’s a scholarly book, but it’s also a creative book. It’s very creative at the level of form, and when I was reading it, I thought, these are incantations. There are meditations. There’s historical documentation, there’s theoretical analysis. I mean there’s all of this woven in so, can you talk about how you chose the form?
Hobson: I was going for what I call “coloring outside the lines.” Because with my first two books, I realized they were academically oriented. I mean, this still is, but I felt that I had more creativity. It’s a very different thing writing for tenure, writing for promotion—which my first two books were about—versus just writing this one for myself, and with this one I freed myself with the form.
Also, I did much of the writing during our lockdown. And I think that had some bearing also in how I was going to approach the book, so I allowed myself to be inspired, to have muses including Toni Morrison. I mean, one of my first epigraphs is from ‘Beloved,’ a novel she wrote while teaching at Albany, so I know in that office space, she, somehow, that spirit came in.
In addition to Morrison, there is Michelle Cliff, there is Ntozake Shange, all these poets, writers, who gave me a blueprint in terms of how I could write.
Also, the Afro-Canadian Trinidadian writer and poet M. Nourbese Philip influenced my writing with the disruptive way she looks at the past. I’m thinking of her poetry book ‘Zong! ‘as well as her essay “Dis Place—The Space Between,” so those were some really interesting examples that I drew from when I decided to open myself up beyond academic prose.
“It’s a very different thing writing for tenure, writing for promotion—which my first two books were about—versus just writing this one for myself, and with this one I freed myself with the form.”
Griffin: It works beautifully. When I was reading it, I was thinking they’re going to be so many students who want to write like this.
Hobson: Thank you for saying that. I guess we’ll see because, like I said, I had to open myself, to be inspired, which really goes back to hauntings. I have a question for you around the issue of justice. I like the way you talked about how we can learn about justice from African American literature. Could you talk about how you see literature being able to illuminate this issue?
Griffin: I look at what I call the “ideal” and “idea” of America and Black freedom. What are the possibilities for Black freedom under the ideal of America?
I start off by talking about my father who was a military veteran, had been in the Navy during World War II, in a segregated navy, and even though he died young, we knew he did not want the flag on his coffin. Why is that the case for someone who adored the language of the Declaration of Independence? He adored it so much that he made me memorize the words. How do you go from one to the other, or how do you contain both? Most of our writers are willing to be critical, but ultimately willing to see the nation as a work in progress.
James Baldwin famously says, “The innocence is the crime.” And there’s a refusal of innocence, a refusal to be sentimental, to be nostalgic, but to always be historical. If you are true to the history then one would have to see it as an ongoing experiment, a work in progress—two steps forward, three steps backwards.
And I think that’s what most of the writers whom I study claim and feel, that at best, this is a work in progress. At worse, they end up like W.E.B. DuBois who at the end of his life, when he’s almost 100 years old, after struggling for all those years, felt there is no hope here. In 1963, he said, ‘I’m done, I’m going to Ghana.’ Nkrumah just invited him to Ghana, and then he dies, on the eve of the March on Washington! That’s the tension that I saw both in my father’s life and in the writers that I was reading.
“If you are true to the history, then one would have to see it as an ongoing experiment, a work in progress—two steps forward, three steps backwards.”
—Farah Jasmine Griffin
Hobson: Your book is so relevant for our times. We have this urgency in terms of anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, and then you’ve got the backlash with the anti-critical race theory crowd, or as some folks like to call it, the “uncritical race theory” crowd. How does your book shed light on these cultural battles?
Griffin: I started writing the book during the 2016 presidential campaign. And then, I finished the book, on lockdown, same as you. I finished the book as we went into the pandemic, and all my travel stopped. I had time to go back and work on it, and George Floyd happened as I was finishing the book. You can read the book, and the 2016 election doesn’t seem like an anomaly—suddenly it has context. But the book ends on a hopeful note. The book is in conversation with the moment.
Hobson: With African American literature, with Black history in general, our history is so cyclical that it will always be in the moment.