Imagine Otherwise: Badia Ahad-Legardy on Black Historical Joy and Inspiration

by | Mar 17, 2021

Badia Ahad-Legardy on Black Historical Joy and Inspiration

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 129

About the episode

How can looking to the past enliven the present and inspire the future? And how can we foment that inspiration in our daily practices and habits?

In episode 129 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Badia Ahad-Legardy, whose most recent book, Afro-Nostalgia, is a brilliant and energizing archive of Black historical joy. Badia’s work demonstrates the powerful role pleasure plays in motivating social change and forging communal ties across time and space.

In the conversation, Badia and Cathy discuss the daily practices she uses to encourage intellectual and political inspiration, including the role of white space and refusals. They also discuss building momentum across large writing projects like a book, and why actively cultivating joy for herself and for others is how Badia imagines otherwise.

Guest: Badia Ahad-Legardy

Badia Ahad-Legardy is a professor of English and vice provost for faculty affairs at Loyola University Chicago.

Her most recent book, Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2021), analyzes a multimedia archive of black historical joy and reveals how Black artists engage afro-nostalgia to inspire good feelings even within our darkest moments.

She is also the author of Freud Upside Down: African American Literature and Psychoanalytic Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2010), which explores how twentieth-century Black artists and intellectuals asserted the interior lives of African Americans to achieve social equality and racial justice.

Badia is currently at work on a new project on blackness and leisure, is co-editing a special journal issue of South Atlantic Quarterly on Black time and temporality (forthcoming in spring 2022), and is co-hosting (with Anthony Ocampo) a new podcast, Professor-ing, sponsored by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

Episode themes

  • Cultivating inspiration through everyday life
  • The role of nostalgia in cultural production
  • Engaging the Black historical past
  • Staying motivated to finish long term projects
Badia Ahad-Legardy wearing a blue shirt. Quote reads: At its heart, Afro-Nostalgia is about Black joy. Writing about Black nostalgia was my way of looking toward the past as a way to cope with the present and to inspire a vision of the future.
Badia Ahad-Legardy wearing a blue shirt. Quote reads: I have never believed in the “magic” of inspiration. When inspiration strikes, it’s because I’ve been meditating on an idea for a long time in a really ordinary, mundane way. It’s about paying attention to the idea and not letting it go.

“With Afro-Nostalgia, I set out to create an archive of Black historical joy. I didn’t want to position Afro-nostalgia as something that would erase the pain of the past but rather to demonstrate that that’s not all that was there, that there was more to Black existence and that there is more to Black existence than that trauma.

— Badia Ahad-Legardy, Imagine Otherwise

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:

How can looking to the past enliven the present and inspire the future? And how can we foment that inspiration in our daily practices and habits?

Cathy Hannabach [00:32]:

My guest for today’s episode is Badia Ahad-Legardy, whose most recent book, Afro-Nostalgia, is a brilliant and energizing archive of Black historical joy.

Badia’s work demonstrates the powerful role that pleasure plays in motivating social change, as well as forging communal ties across time and space.

Cathy Hannabach [00:51]:

In our conversation, Badia and I discuss the daily practices that she uses to encourage intellectual and political inspiration, including the role of white space and refusals. We also discuss building momentum across large writing projects like a book and why actively cultivating joy for herself and for others is how Badia imagines otherwise,

Cathy Hannabach [01:14]:

[To Badia] Thank you so much for being with us today.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [01:17]:

Thank you for having me.

Cathy Hannabach [01:19]:

So this month at Ideas on Fire, we’re all about inspiration: how we cultivate it, the role it plays in our work, and how it changes for us over time. So to kick off our conversation today, what’s inspiring you lately?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [01:33]:

This is such a great question and I think it’s one that a lot of folks have been grappling with. I know that inspiration is hard to come by in a regular times, but it is very, very difficult with everything that is happening right now—the pandemic obviously as well as working many, many hours from home.

I’m in Chicago, so we have a pretty harsh winter. We got about 18 inches of snow.

Cathy Hannabach [02:05]:

Oh my God.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [02:06]:

It’s been a little tricky, right? Yeah, I can’t see my little standing mailbox anymore. So we’re not getting any mail in there anytime soon, I don’t think.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [02:16]:

But interestingly enough, I have actually never really believed in the magic of inspiration. I’ve never believed in the muse or anything like that. I always think that when inspiration strikes or when I feel like it strikes, it’s usually because I’ve been meditating on an idea for a long time in a really ordinary, mundane way.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [02:50]:

So it’s just something that I’ve been kind of thinking about. It’s a germ of an idea. It’s an idea that I keep coming back to, and then it develops and grows from there, usually when I’m not actively involved in the writing process or really trying to do something with it.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [03:10]:

For example, I always find that inspiration “strikes” when I am walking, when I am in the shower, when I’m exercising, or when I’m doing something that doesn’t have anything to do with the work itself. It’s really about paying attention to that idea and not letting it go.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [03:38]:

I was thinking a lot about what it means to cultivate inspiration, and I think that that’s it. It’s really just allowing the mind to wander—right now in these times, if you will, creating some space in the day to get lost in your thoughts. I think that that is really key for all of us right now to produce or to cultivate inspiration.

Cathy Hannabach [04:09]:

Do you find that you schedule out specific activities that you know give you that kind of space? Like you mentioned walking…

Badia Ahad-Legardy [04:16]:

Sure.

Cathy Hannabach [04:17]:

Do you schedule walks? Or it’s not so much scheduling like, “Here is when I will think about things,” but more scheduling space that you know feeds you in some way. Whether or not a brilliant idea comes out of it is not really the point. Do you do that kind of thing?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [04:34]:

Well, many people who know me know that I am a daily writer. It’s something that I’ve done for a really long time. I would never be able to keep up that practice if that meant that I was sitting in a chair for multiple hours just trying to grind things out.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [04:55]:

I write for 20, 30 minutes. I get up, I take a break. If I have time, I come back to it. It’s always in those breaks anyway that the idea that I was finding a little problematic or the sentence that I just couldn’t get on the page, or this sense of just feeling stuck. I noticed that whenever I engage in some kind of physical activity like walking, moving, or just stepping away from what I’m doing, that’s usually when I’m able to work things out.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [05:36]:

Like I said, the weather is pretty bad here, so it hasn’t been that great to take these lovely strolls. But when the sidewalks are a little clearer, what I normally do is when I am stuck in an idea or I feel like, “Okay, I’ve been sitting for a little bit longer than I should,” I just go for a walk around the block. And by the time I get back, I’ve worked it out.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [06:06]:

I do think there’s something to be said for creating that space.

It’s funny that you mentioned scheduling because I used to be so good about scheduling and planning and all those things. Obviously the past year has made the things that were once easy to schedule and very predictable a little bit more difficult, but I do think it’s really a useful practice to try to maintain, even if it’s a little bit more imperfect than it was before.

So intense boundary setting, a series of refusals, whatever I need to do in order to center myself to the extent that I can and create that space for myself is what I’ve been trying to do.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [07:02]:

For me, that’s been very useful, not just in cultivating inspiration but also honoring where we are and how we’re feeling, and allowing some space to grapple with that.

Cathy Hannabach [07:21]:

Speaking of inspiration and the complexity of inspiration, I’d love to talk a little bit about your new book, Afro-Nostalgia, because I think it’s a really great example of the politics of inspiration and the power dynamics of inspiration.

One of the things that I really love about this is how you tackle the way that artists and cultural producers draw on the past to create something new or different in the present and the future. So, first of all, for folks who aren’t familiar with the book yet, what is that book all about?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [07:55]:

Sure. Thank you so much. I really appreciate the kind words. With Afro-Nostalgia, I set out to create an archive of Black historical joy. I wanted to write a book and I wanted to collect these images and these stories about Black people and our relationship to the historical past that were not necessarily grounded in a very long and deep history of trauma.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [08:33]:

I didn’t want to position Afro-nostalgia as something that would erase the pain of the past but rather to demonstrate that that’s not all that was there, that there was more to Black existence and that there is more to Black existence than that trauma.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [08:55]:

So that’s really what I wanted to accomplish with Afro-Nostalgia.

When we think about Black people and history, normally what comes to mind is some terrible event: colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow. Rarely do we ever conjure good feelings or positive images of a Black historical past. So that’s something that I set out to both investigate and to actually try to create in this project.

Cathy Hannabach [09:36]:

You point out in the book that nostalgia is one of those really complicated emotions and it can be used as a motivating force for both conservative and radical projects, and you analyze both of those categories. I’m curious what draws you to nostalgia as that complex motivating force for cultural production. Why can it serve both of those political projects at the same time?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [10:03]:

Sure. Well, you’re right. Nostalgia has come under fire in a lot of different spaces. I was actually surprised at how many different areas talk about nostalgia in a really negative sense, especially in the field of sociology and political science, when we think about restoration projects, gentrification, and this idea of trying to return to something or to restore something. That’s usually seen as a nostalgic project, and it’s also seen as a pretty violent erasure.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [10:46]:

Also, there are a lot of folks who believe that nostalgia just doesn’t have any currency. You have this kind of wistful of remembrance of the past, and that’s it. You feel sentimental, and then, so what?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [11:01]:

It’s been critiqued as a sentiment that is really apolitical and unproductive. But what has been really useful for me is to understand the ways that nostalgia has been taken up pretty recently in the field of psychology.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [11:22]:

My work has always been at the intersection of African American cultural literary studies and memory studies, and specifically psychological studies. What was fascinating in those psychological studies is that nostalgia was seen to be a mood enhancer. It was something that actually could help deal with this sense of dissatisfaction in the present. It was something that could help us contend with a sense of grief or sadness. And I think we’ve all experienced that quite a bit over the past year in particular.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [12:09]:

So nostalgia is something that helps with anxiety and with loneliness. It provides a sense of hope and it’s also set to boost creativity.

Going back to your question around my interest in nostalgia as a force for cultural production I’m really thinking about how can nostalgia operate in ways other than this negative sense? In what ways can nostalgia be used for good, because we really only hear about nostalgic projects in the negative?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [12:52]:

That was something that was really interesting for me with this project. Also, I wanted to see why so many Black artists in so many different spaces were referencing the Black historical past in really positive terms. How were they returning to the past not just to point to an extended sense of trauma or cyclical nature of trauma but really returning to the Black historical past as a way to think creatively about the present and about the future. That was really intriguing to me and it was really interesting to see how it was happening in so many different spheres.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [13:42]:

In the book, I talk about literature, music, and food. That spoke to me because it wasn’t just this siloed phenomenon, but it was happening across a range of Black cultural spaces.

Cathy Hannabach [13:59]:

One of the things that I’ve talked with a lot of authors about is keeping motivated or inspired over these long-term projects, like writing a book, especially in a pandemic.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [14:11]:

Yes.

Cathy Hannabach [14:13]:

How did you navigate that? I mean, we talked about your daily cultivation of inspiration, but were there book-specific or project-specific techniques or tactics that you used to stay motivated over the long term while producing this book?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [14:30]:

Yeah. Again, I think it goes back to having a practice. I always say that the motivation to write is generated by the act of writing. I know that that’s counterintuitive for a lot of folks, but it’s really the truth. Whenever you’re starting from scratch, it’s really hard. I always feel like I have a sense of momentum when things are on the page. That’s why creating that daily space is important for a consistent cultivation of inspiration, if you will.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [15:15]:

But I think that that’s a really great question that you ask. I really started putting pen to paper in 2012 with this project in particular. It was in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, which is something that stays with me despite the fact that it’s been almost a decade now—the series of losses that have come even after and those before as well.

In the introduction to the book, I talk a little bit about the loss of my mom to ovarian cancer in 2007, and that being a grief that has been ongoing. I think a lot about Christina Sharpe’s work In the Wake, as well, and having to contend with an ongoing sense of loss and grief at a personal level. But then also just as a Black person living in this country, it’s something that you really have to grapple with on a day-to-day basis.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [16:38]:

So in writing this book, I found myself consciously wanting to cultivate a sense of joy, knowing that I needed to do that just for my own sense of health and wellbeing. And at its heart, this book is so much about Black joy.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [17:01]:

Ultimately nostalgia is a way of coping. I suppose that writing about Black nostalgia or Afro-nostalgia was my way of looking towards the past as a way to cope with the present and to begin to inspire a vision of the future. I hope that the book resonates with other people in that way.

Cathy Hannabach [17:27]:

This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at some of those motivations or those versions of why behind the work that you do. And I think this book reveals that really nicely—a project of Black joy, or as you call it, an archive of Black joy, and the kind of power that that brings to our present and the kind of future that that can bring.

So I will ask you this giant question that I like to close out every interview with because I think it’s an important question that we don’t often get enough chances to answer, particularly when we’re fighting so hard against present violences. What kind of world do you want? What are you working toward?

Badia Ahad-Legardy [18:12]:

Maybe I can address that both as someone who teaches African American literature and also someone who is a parent of Black children.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [18:29]:

I think about my African-American literature classes and how my aim in those classes is to teach the whole of Black life. Obviously the starting point for my field is the narratives of enslaved persons. This is a historical fact. But it’s not the totality of who they were, and despair is not the only emotion that those people experienced. If that was the case, it’s unlikely that they ever would have survived.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [19:11]:

So it’s really just important for me, even in that small space of a classroom, to show the expanse of Black humanity.

The world that I want to see is a world in which that humanity doesn’t have to be at the center of controversy. It doesn’t have to be argued about. It just is. I think that that would be idyllic in so many senses;

Badia Ahad-Legardy [19:47]:

I think about this kind of future world in terms of my own kids, as I imagine that many parents do, and the kind of world that you want them to inhabit. At the risk of sounding vague, I would just like for them to lead uninterrupted lives. This is a world in which they can thrive, they can pursue their dreams, they can fulfill their ambitions, and the only thing standing in their way is them. That would be a beautiful world in my view.

Cathy Hannabach [20:32]:

I agree. Well, thank you so much for being with us and writing this amazing book and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Badia Ahad-Legardy [20:43]:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate this, Cathy.

Cathy Hannabach [20:51]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.

You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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