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"You Can't Unknow:" A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and Intellectual Production

"You Can't Unknow:" A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and Intellectual Production comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review,

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"You Can't Unknow:" A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and Intellectual Production

  1. 1. How would you describe yourself in two sentences, one personal and one professional? Ashley Farmer: For the personal, I am a southern girl from Nashville, Tennessee who loves reality TV in all of its problema- tic manifestations. For the professional, I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and I work in both the Black Studies and the History Department. Couldyoutalkabitaboutyourformativeyearsasahisto- rian? Did you always love history as much as reality TV? I didn’t know I could be a historian when I was young. This was not often presented as an option for a Black girl growing up in Nashville, Tennessee. People in my family didn't really consider this an occupation or job. We valued teaching and history in my house, but I ne- ver thought I could make a living doing it. Spelman taught me that I could become a historian. I had great teachers and mentors like Jelani Cobb who helped me through the process of going to graduate INTERVIEW “YOU CAN’T UNKNOW:” A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and Intellectual Production Interview by Henry Jacob, SY ‘21 Transcribed by Jared Brunner, PM ‘22July 21, 2020 his morning I have the privilege to speak with Dr. Ashley D. Farmer, a historian of black women's history, intellectual history, and radical politics. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Departments of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press,2017),is the first comprehensive study of black women's intellectual production and activism in the Black Power era.Farmer's scholarship has appeared in numerous venues including The Black Scholar and The Journal of African American History. Her research has also been featured in several popular outlets including Vibe,NPR, and The Chronicle Review, and The Washington Post. Farmer earned her BA from Spelman College,an MA in History and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University. Welcome, Dr. Farmer. T 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW 1701
  2. 2. school and getting into academia. But oddly enough, I was a French and Spanish major. I went to graduate school to study the history of Black women in the Ca- ribbean. There, I started talking to Black activists about their internationalist work in the Black power move- ment, and shifted to what I study today. Although I am a history major, Spanish has also been central to my college experience. I find that the two complement each other quite well. I am sure that you felt the same way at Spelman. How did you balance your interests in languages and history as an un- dergraduate? I was good at languages in high school, so I continued in college. Because Spelman is a university for Black women, everything in its curriculum comes from that perspective. At Spelman, you don’t just learn French by taking a semester on French history. You learn about the colonized and Black people in the dias- pora that speak French. For instance, you might take a course on Francophone literature of North Africa. This really alters your perspective and shows the importance of history even when studying romance languages. I also studied abroad in Martinique and Costa Rica and stayed with Black families. This experience piqued my interest to understand how women live there. Then in graduate school I took a class called African Ame- rican Intellectual history. Truth be told, this took me in a different direction and toward the subject matter I study today. Your time in Martinique and Costa Rica sparked your transition from studying languages at Spel- man to history at Harvard. Similarly, this graduate seminar inspired you to focus on the U.S. instead of the Caribbean. What did you read or write in that intellectual history course that shifted your career path? I started researching a group called the Third World Women’s Alliance. This group of Black women was based in California and New York, but they theorized about the global solidarity of Black and brown people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As part of this project, I interviewed some of these women. They clued me into two things. First, I was trained as a historian to think of sources in a limited way. They taught me how much rich history hadn’t been uncovered because people didn’t take them se- riously as intellectuals. Second, the activists told me that I needed to start the story of their intellectual and organizational evolution earlier, in the 1940s and 50s, in order to really grasp what they were trying to theorize and organize to do in the 1970s. Eventually, the paper for this course became the last chapter of my dissertation and now my book. Through your conversations with these activists you learned that some of the best sources remain undiscovered. On the topic of repressed perspec- tives, I want to shift our conversation to the ar- chive. In 2018, you wrote an article on this subject. In that essay, you dissect your difficult experiences as a researcher and as a teacher in libraries. That piece, called “Archiving While Black,” sat in my draft folders for many years. I had just come back from Howard University as well as archives in Wisconsin and California. I was struck not only by the diffe- rence in how I was treated, but also by the unfamilia- rity of the archivists with what I wanted to research. At Spelman, you don’t just learn French by taking a semester on French history. You learn about the colonized and Black people in the diaspora that speak French. 2 ASHLEY FARMER Ashley Farmer is the co-editor of New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, an anthology that examines four central themes within the Black intellectual tradition Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin ON THE NEXT PAGE
  3. 3. 3YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW 11/23/2020 Farmer Headshot.jpg https://drive.google.com/drive/u/4/folders/1MPraRxlXvB9h1VY9FlyF0coZWVOxBKXw 1/1
  4. 4. I was also thinking about how often archivists assu- med that I didn’t understand how the archive works as if I were not a trained historian. Also, I always take my students into the library. By vir- tue of who I am, how I identify, and the subjects that I teach, a lot of my students tend to be from marginalized groups. Multiple times and at multiple institutions ar- chivists and librarians have showed their surprise when we entered the space. It registered on their faces. And it implied that neither my students nor I belonged in that space and that we didn’t know how to operate in it. That article focused on the physical space of the archive and my experiences in it. My broader work discusses the privileging of certain kinds of documents, histories, and intellectual production as an extension of biased archival practices. In my scholarship, I emphasize that Black women are theorists and activists in their own right. We must reconsider what constitutes a source to change our understanding of the archive and how we collect their artifacts. In the piece, you write that, “A black body in a space presumed to be white is at best out of place and at worst a threat. This reality extends to less visible spaces, such as the historical archive. The archive, and black marginalization within it, has important implications for both scholarly and popular ideas about history.” Following this excerpt, let’s move from the academic to the general consensus on histo- ry. Because your scholarship focuses on intellectual production, I would like to hear your thoughts on the dissemination of knowledge from K to college. Look at a college catalogue. Most of the courses that I teach weren’t even in existence when I was your age; I’m old, but I’m not that old. Spelman might have offered them, but other institutions did not. Typically, the flow of knowledge trickles down from scholars in higher edu- cation to K-12 curriculums. But again, this goes back to a larger conversation about who we value, about who should be in the room. This point speaks to the larger project of the 1619 issue as well. Often, we fit moments of Black history within a nar- rative that frames America as on a triumphant march toward democracy. Textbooks deem pieces of Black his- tory valuable in instances in which Black people sought inclusion into the American nation state through exis- ting mechanisms such as voting and civil rights. We are so invested in certain kinds of Black history that we lose sight of other valuable events and actors because they don't fit into this narrative. This approach places Black people as knowledge producers only in service of American nationalism, and this narrative pervades our educational system. Your comment on the narrowness of the narrative provides a good transition to the topic of how to frame history. We alluded to it earlier, but now is a good time to discuss Remaking Black Power. I want to touch Gayle Dickson’s 1972 mixed-media image, a piece you use at the beginning of the introduction. Theimageservesastheperfectentrywayintothebook as well as a metaphor for your scholarship. You de- center historiography of the Black Power movement by demonstrating how women activists developed and articulated their ideals in the US and abroad. Throughout the book, you draw upon various archi- val sources often excluded from the seminar room. How and why did you choose that image in particular to frame the book? That image was published in the Black Panther Party newspaper, which is arguably the most lasting impact of the Black Panther Party because it was disseminated worldwide. Even if you weren’t ever engaged with the Panthers’ politics back then, you pro- bably came across their artwork in their newspaper. The image you are asking about depicts an older Black woman in an apron. She is dressed in her regular, eve- ryday clothes, she holds a bag of food, and she wears pa- raphernalia that suggests she supports the party’s pro- grams. Above her is a caption that is meant to convey her message and politics. It reads: Yes, I am against the war in Vietnam, I’m for African Liberation, voter re- gistration, and the people’s survival.” This image encap- sulates my book’s main goal: Black women of all walks of life were thinkers and political advocates during the Black Power movement. Even though traditional ave- nues for intellectual production such as speeches and writing platforms were not always available to them, Black women still expressed their political thought and analysis of the world around them and helped push the movement forward. I’ll give you another example from the book. I talk about the politics of Black women domestic workers. 4 ASHLEY FARMER
  5. 5. “I argue that through these characters, Childress shows us that Black women understand local and global politics, race relations, and formulate thoughts about Black liberation in and through their everyday lives. ” I focused on them because until about 1965, Black wo- men in America were primarily domestic workers. It was the one of the only jobs we were allowed to do be- fore the civil rights movement. A great writer named Alice Childress wrote a column called “Here’s Mildred.” Mildred was a domestic worker. The column follower her as she went out into New York City, cleaned white women’s homes, and attended rallies and community events. The column concludes with her coming home and calling her friend Marge, another domestic worker, and they talk about her experiences and current events. On the surface, this seems like a satire about being a domestic worker that just gave people a chuckle. But I argue that through these characters, Childress shows us that Black women understand local and global politics, race relations, and formulate thoughts about Black libe- ration in and through their everyday lives. I appreciate how you find the aesthetic and political layers of cultural creations. You reveal how these wo- men envisioned their place in the world in relation to others. Please elaborate on the balance between these activists’ local interactions and global aspirations. Since the beginning of time, Black people in America have understood their struggle in the context of the lar- ger diaspora. The form of this struggle looks different in each historical period. Childress wrote in the 50s, the moment of African decolonization, so in her column Mildred considers what it means to support Black libe- ration and African nation building as an African Ame- rican. In the column, Childress often featured Mildred posing questions to Marge, and ostensibly the reader, about their support of African liberation struggles. As the book continues, I talk about how international solidarities and Pan-Africanism shifted and changed over time. For example, global organizing was very po- pular in the 1970s for a couple of reasons. First, desegre- gation allowed Black people to travel more. Second, by the early 1970s, there were many African nations that had decolonized either through peaceful and violent means and a litany of African leaders emerged. From the Black American perspective, activists were seeing Black people leading Black countries and people in real time. It felt like a moment ripe with possibility and many traveled to de-colonized countries in an effort to learn and struggle there. However, they also grappled with their utopian ideas about African and diasporic libera- tion. Many found that their idealized vision of African liberation, Pan-Africanism, and Black Power did not always pan out when they tried to make connections and contributions in Africa. Yes, your time in Martinique and in Costa Rica speaks to this issue of understanding. I want to balance these difficulties with the possibility for global connec- tions. As in the 1970s, technology enables Americans to see events occurring thousands of miles away just by scrolling through a screen. Social media provides a space for meaningful interactions that would have been impossible years ago. But you also implied that these platforms can inhibit nuanced interpretations of other’s experiences. As a historian, how do you re- concile the benefits and drawbacks of our informa- tion age? It has the potential to be an incredibly de- mocratizing force because we are able to connect with somebody and learn about people and events without having to go through some formal medium or have our interactions mediated by institutions or mainstream media. Social Media also allows you to see things hap- 5YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
  6. 6. 6 ASHLEY FARMER pening in real time. This helps people make connec- tions between the community, the local, and the global. For example, seeing what is happening with state forces in Portland right now andhearingfromthosewhohavebeen the victims of this kind of state violence in other countries helps us be better informed and develop more sophisti- cated analyses of racism, imperialism, and violence. However, I have concerns about the role of social me- dia and reliable information. I often see tweets and ask myself, “I like this, it appeals to my politics, but is that necessarily true?” I don’t want to be involved in sprea- ding misinformation and I think we all need to work on our information literacy as we engage in social media. Finally, social media can be a mixed bag when sprea- ding information about protests. We want to alert people to things that are going on, especially when they are not being covered by the news. However, we have to be careful to not put protesters in harm’s way by do- cumenting them. As somebody who studies the Black Power movement, I am very aware of how the state can use images and documents against people. For example, I saw an article that showed how the Philadelphia Po- lice, with the help of the FBI, recently tracked a woman from a protest picture online to the Etsy shop where she bought the shirt she was wearing in the image, to her LinkedIn profile, to her doorstep to arrest her. We have to be careful about how we use our own accounts to put people in harm’s way. There are some great groups such as Documenting the Now and the Blacktivists who are trying to work through how to ethically record protests using social media. You noted how the U.S. has promoted violence abroad for decades. The formula of exporting, experimen- ting, and then bringing the tactics home is an old one. Why do you think Americans are so surprised to see the cycle this time around? I think this collective and willful forgetting takes place on two fronts. First, going back to your earlier question, it's a failure to edu- cate people about the atrocities that have taken place because they don't fit into the narrative of America as a global exemplar of democracy. Also, American excep- tionalism allows us to think that we’re either exempt from justified in these practices. It is only when we see these tactics used on certain US citizens that there is collective outrage. For example, for years Black people have pointed out that the same police force that terro- rizes us here invades other countries and engages in similar tactics. But now in places like Portland where white mothers and activists are being tear gassed or di- sappeared, there is a collective conversation about the full scope of American militarization. American exceptionalism will not protect anyone from violence nor from COVID-19. We have touched upon inequities of the archive and the pre- vailing historical narratives of American progress. Could you speak as well about other entrenched social disparities that have widened over the past few months? Everybody knew this infrastructure of inequality existed; the pandemic has shone a light on them. We see clear racial health disparities, but also the ways in which racial disparities play out in other ways as well. In Maine, for example, reports indicated that Black people accounted for 27.7% of the positive cases, yet they make up only 1.4% of the state’s population. This is one of the starkest dis- parities, but it’s emblematic of what is taking place across the country. Much of this can be attributed to exposure and lack of protection. Having to leave the house to work in essential jobs and a lack of adequate health care and testing. All of this inequity in jobs, class, and healthcare existed before COVID. But the pandemic has exacerbated these inequities. Educational or school pods highlight differences in in- frastructure and access as well. Most people need to send their children back to school for personal or professional reasons. However, some can afford to create a pod — or take their kids out of school and put them in a safe bubble with a few other children and a tutor. The rest have to risk sending their child back to school. This divide dispropor- tionately falls along racial lines. COVID also lays bare the vast utility infrastructure ine- quities in the US. Reliable internet as another example. Students from K through college need the computer lab at school to do their school work because many don't have access to reliable internet at home. If we made education more accessible — because online education isn’t intrin- sically bad — a lot of the infrastructure that we needed to move off campus such as widespread, high-speed internet, would have already been in place. That’s just another way we have perpetuated inequalities in accessibility.
  7. 7. On the subject of higher education, I know you have won various teaching awards. As a scholar and as a mentor, how do you approach learning on Zoom? I love teaching. I know universities are businesses that have their own interests in mind. That being said, I continue to engage in higher education to enact change in the classroom. College presents an extraordinary op- portunity to get out of your comfort zone and interact with different people. A liberal arts education should rock your world. If it’s not, you need your money back, and y’all pay a lot. A key part of that experience depends upon us sitting together in a classroom and hearing each other’s pers- pectives. In my big lecture classes or my small ones, we work on talking together and coming to consensus. Certainly we can go into a breakout room on Zoom, but it doesn’t have the same kind of atmosphere. Also, I love getting to class a couple minutes early and talk shop. I ask my students, “what y’all mad about today? In other words, I’s saying: Let’s talk about what’s upset- ting on campus and in the nation. Then let’s think about how it might relate to our course.” We lose some of those informal interactions on Zoom, which saddens me. Also, glaring inequities amongst my students ap- pears even more with limited access to school, com- puters, internet, etc. How are you supposed to write a research paper without access to the library? Or, if everybody’s home from school and you’re the oldest kid, and your parents need to work, then they may need you may need to help with your siblings. How are you supposed to learn while also trying to make sure their needs are met? What if your family is sick? I’ve had plenty of students whose families have been affected and sometimes had multiple deaths within their families during the pandemic. So to answer your question, I do the best I can given our limitations but try to assert and validate my students’ humanity first and foremost. There’s so much heavy, real-life stuff going on. I am not trying to say that lear- ning is superfluous. But I tell them that I understand that there are things that demand your emotional and mental attention that I think are more important than what we’ve got to talk about on Zoom in a given day because you’re a full human with a complex life. At the end of the day this is a pandemic. And everyone is just trying to survive. But I’m hopeful in other ways. We as professors often lose sight of the problems our students face. We sometimes put too much credence on college being a fun time and don’t always see the challenges our students face. I don’t need to know eve- rything about their lives outside of school, but it’s im- portant to remember that everybody has a life outside of school and they are dealing with it all the best they can. I think this is a moment that can help us center that ethic as we teach and learn together. On a bigger level, the pandemic has foregrounded some hard lessons about accessibility and inequality within the university. As I often tell my students, there is a vested interested in you not knowing about disparities and ine- quities. But once you know, you can’t unknow. I hope that both myself and my colleagues can use what we know to better advocate for accessibility as we go back to whatever college life looks like after the pandemic. That’s a wonderful way to put it, you can’t unknow. What else do you tell your students? I teach a big intro to African American history course. Often this is the first time the students have learned about this material deeply. It’s a troubling and startling experience for them and they want to know how to use this knowledge going forward. I tell them that oppression is part of all parts of life. They should think about which part is the space where they feel like they can make an impact and dig in there. We need all hands on deck. For me, that space is education. I chose education, his- tory, and scholarship. I will spend my life doing this. For somebody else it might be healthcare or housing. The point is to start where you feel like you can make an impact and in an area that you are passionate about. This is what will sustain you cause the fight won’t be over quickly. Thinking at that level makes it more ma- nageable. You’ll gain steam and learn a little more about what you can do, and find like-minded people that are interested in doing this communal work. I think that’s a good way to move forward. 7YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW

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