"You Can't Unknow:" A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and Intellectual Production
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.
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
“YOU CAN’T UNKNOW:”
A Conversation with Ashley Farmer on Inequality and
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.
1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
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
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
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
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.
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
I’ll give you another example from the book. I talk
about the politics of Black women domestic workers.
4 ASHLEY FARMER
“I argue that through
Childress shows us
that Black women
and global politics,
race relations, and
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 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.
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