Reading:
Imagine Otherwise: Imani Perry on Love as an Ethic

Imagine Otherwise: Imani Perry on Love as an Ethic

retro
October 10, 2018

Imani Perry wearing a white shirt and resting her face on her hand

 

What tools does feminism provide for dismantling domination? What might be possible when our work aligns with what nourishes our spirit? How might we build a society where love is at the core of everything that we do?

In episode 73 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews professor Imani Perry about the intimate ways gender, colonialism, and race intertwine in the histories of patriarchy; how Imani draws on the inspiration of both Lorraine Hansberry and Imani’s grandmother to build a life full of meaning and justice; how scholars can follow their divergent interests down windy roads without burning out; and how her fierce commitment to personal and social ethics is key to how Imani imagines and creates otherwise.

Guest: Imani Perry

Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a scholar of African American studies, legal history, and cultural studies.

She is the author of numerous scholarly articles in journals, as well as articles and reviews in Harpers, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books.

She is the author of five books, including Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (Duke University Press, 2018), May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon, 2018), More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York University Press, 2011), and Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004).

We chatted about

  • Imani’s new book Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (01:57)
  • Imani’s other new book Looking for Lorraine: A Life of Lorraine Hansberry (05:27)
  • Writing as soul-feeding versus writing as productivity (09:28)
  • The importance of self-care (11:33)
  • Weaving together intellectual pursuits and social justice commitments (13:45)
  • Imagining otherwise (15:40)

Imani Perry wearing a white shirt and resting her face on her hand. Text reads: I want to get readers to think about feminism as a critique of patriarchy —not simply as a set of positions but as a way of reading through forms of domination, as a way of making sense of the materiality of our lives.

Takeaways

Imani’s new book Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation

At the core of it [Vexy Thing] is my interest in understanding how unjust domination functions because of my larger commitment to doing the work of undoing it. I see patriarchy as the foundational form of inequality and I wanted to get an understanding of it as not simply as an ideology but as a structure of domination. It’s a structure of domination that didn’t just stand alongside race or capitalism or xenophobia, etc., but it was actually intimately connected to them.

The remarkable life of Lorraine Hansberry

She was someone who was constantly trying to bring together readings of various forms of domination, of marginalization, and also trying to do this work of becoming fully as a person who had a critique of capitalism, who was an artist and an intellectual, and who also was an anticolonialist struggling against segregation in the United States. She was a feminist before the feminist movement and was a lesbian before the gay rights movement. All of these identities were not just things that she possessed but means for her to think through the world she lived in. And so for me, she’s this figure who is both an inspiration but also a model for those of us who are trying to seek a life of meaning and trying to pursue justice.

The pursuit of meaningful intellectual work

I am not someone who worships at the altar of productivity. I’m committed to the idea of excellence and committed to the pursuit of that which is good and true in our work—creative work and intellectual work. So I firmly believe that one can write one article that is transformative and that be a career as a scholar or as a writer that is meaningful. I say that because I don’t want to ever give people the impression that because I’ve churned out a lot of stuff that that’s what is valuable to me….The questions that I wanted to answer were about the relationship between the intimate terrain and social forces and structures and how we seek meaning, how we seek justice, and how people use art to struggle against conditions of domination and exploitation. All of these things are always currents that are running inside me and they bring me towards different projects, different destinations. I always say, you got to move when the spirit says move. And I kept feeling moved as I was working on these projects. They called to me every single day. And so here they are.

Caring for oneself and one’s work

The work of tending to one’s work is actually tending to oneself when you have a creative impulse or an intellectual commitment. We talk about self-care but we tend not to talk about caring for that aspect of ourselves. We tend not to recognize that is not either simply being selfish or doing the stuff we have to do, but actually caring for who we are. For me, it’s an enormous privilege to live the life of the mind. So I tend to it….I think it’s important to care for who you are at the core. For me, a big part of that is being a writer and a thinker.

Imagining otherwise

I want to live in a world in which we have a kind of deep witnessing for the “least of these” and the space for the kind of care and love for the “least of these”—not out of charity but out of an understanding that that’s at the core of what it means to be fully human and to aspire to the Beloved Community. I identify myself as a socialist, an anticolonialist, as someone who’s a Marxian. All of those are metaphors for me for moving toward a society and a world that is loving at its core, that sees love as an ethic that is more than just sentimental but is really about relations of power and what kind of social relations we produce and pursue.

More from Imani

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a 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 and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] 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. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 73 and my guest today is Imani Perry.

Imani is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a scholar of African American studies, legal history, and cultural studies. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles in journals, as well as articles and reviews in Harpers, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books.

She is the author of 5 books, including Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (Duke University Press, 2018), May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Looking for Lorraine: A Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon, 2018), More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York University Press, 2011), Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004).

In our interview, Imani and I chat about the intimate ways gender, colonialism, and race intertwine in the histories of patriarchy; how Imani draws on the inspiration of both Lorraine Hansberry and Imani’s grandmother to build a life full of meaning and justice; how scholars can follow their divergent interests down windy roads without burning out; and how her fierce commitment to personal and social ethics is key to how Imani imagines and creates otherwise.

[to Imani] Thank you so much for being with us today.

Imani Perry [01:54]: Thank you for having me.

Cathy [01:56]: So I would love to start by talking about your fabulous two recent books that just came out, Vexy Thing and Looking for Lorraine. I’d like to start with Vexy Thing and then we can go into the other one. Vexy Thing is a really fascinating genealogy of modern patriarchy. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what that book covers and what got you interested in revisiting this classic object of feminist inquiry?

Imani [02:22]: Sure. At the core of it is my interest in understanding how unjust domination functions because of my larger commitment to doing the work of undoing it. I see patriarchy as the foundational form of inequality and I wanted to get an understanding of it as not simply as an ideology but as a structure of domination. It’s a structure of domination that didn’t just stand alongside race or capitalism or xenophobia, etc., but it was actually intimately connected to them.

I begin with the text with the age of conquest and empire to understand patriarchy as a kind of juridical structure. The first half of the book is trying to understand what is the structure of it, and then the subsequent sections of the book are really trying to unearth how it works today now that we have some relatively new structures of political economy like neoliberalism and the hypermedia age.

I want to get readers to think about feminism as a critique of patriarchy—not simply as a set of positions but as a way of reading through forms of unjust domination, as a way of analyzing, of making sense of, the materiality of our lives as we try to move towards a more just world as well as society.

Cathy [03:54]: Is there a particular example from the book that you found really exciting to research or maybe one of your favorite case studies from the project that you could share?

Imani: It’s sort of a book that’s built around examples, using both historical and contemporary examples to read through the layers. There is a nineteenth-century figure, Victoria Welby, who’s this philosopher, a British woman, who I found fascinating because she is marginalized in the history of ideas because of being a woman and yet she is deeply invested in an ideology of European patriarchy, of domination, of global conquest. I really like the example because it demonstrates that patriarchy isn’t just an ideology of men thinking they’re superior—though, of course, that’s a piece of it—but it’s actually these larger global structures of production, knowledge, and who counts legally. So she’s a great example because you see all of this contradiction in her existence, all this investment in domination that actually is part of what makes us not know her name.

Cathy [4:56]: Vexy Thing takes this kind of global approach. You’re looking at how patriarchy emerged over time and in different locations and how those simultaneous overlapping emergences stitch these different locations together. So, global and then into the specific. And that’s stands in contrast to the other book that you just had come out, which is about a single artist and activist: Lorraine Hansberry. You use her as a prism or as a way to explore these broader, often global or transnational structures. I’m curious about the pairing of that and maybe we can get into that in a minute, but before we do, what got you interested in Hansberry?

Imani [05:53]: So my interest in Hansberry is in some ways life long. I first read A Raisin in the Sun when I was in fourth grade. She was one of my late father’s political heroes. I always was aware of her as a figure, as an intellectual as well as a playwright and an artist of various sorts. And so she was always important to me. But there’s something in particular and in some ways this is how these two works connect: she’s what I might call an ancestor of the kind of Black feminist analytic that shapes my life and my thinking.

I mean, she was someone who was constantly trying to bring together readings of various forms of domination, of marginalization, and also trying to do this work of becoming fully as a person who had a critique of capitalism, who was an artist and an intellectual, and who also was an anticolonialist struggling against segregation in the United States.

[06:57] She was a feminist before the feminist movement and was a lesbian before the gay rights movement. All of these identities were not just things that she possessed but means for her to think through the world she lived in. And so for me, she’s this figure who is both an inspiration but also a model for those of us who are trying to seek a life of meaning and trying to pursue justice.

Also, she has really been underrecognized. When you think of her closest friends—James Baldwin, Nina Simone, her teacher W.E.B. DuBois, her mentor Paul Robeson—all of them had so many books and articles and films made about them. And she’s really been underrecognized although she was so key in all of their eyes and to the mid-twentieth-century period.

Cathy: What was most surprising that you came across in the process of doing research about her?

Imani [07:57]: There are so many beautiful surprises. I think one particularly moving surprise was how self-critical and vulnerable she was. She had all of these big dreams and hopes and aspirations and she was so opinionated and critical, but she was also extremely self-critical. She judged her lack of discipline or perceived lack of discipline—although she was so incredibly productive that it’s sort of funny! That was really moving.

[Another surprise] was the amount of unpublished work that she had and that she wrote in so many different styles. She had different literary voices. Particularly the fiction she wrote under a pseudonym that was primarily queer-themed, was so different for her—really lyrical, sensitive to color and light in ways that [isn’t in] her other work, which is also remarkable but just very different. I was really surprised and intrigued

Cathy [08:58]: Is any of that unpublished stuff getting published, do you know?

Imani [09:01]: I don’t know what will happen with the unpublished work. There are some of the pieces that were written under a pseudonym that are actually accessible. Also, I’m hoping to work with another writer, Soyica Colbert, who is also writing on Hansberry. We’re hoping to do a project of some sort to bring more of her unpublished or pseudonymous work to light.

Cathy [09:27]: Well, speaking of astoundingly productive authors, you are one! It’s a really nice pairing here. You have three books that have come out in this year alone, which is just fantastic and staggering.

Imani: It’s a little strange.

Cathy: Do you ever sleep?

Imani [09:50]: I do sleep. So I’ll say a couple of things. I have said, and I really do mean this, that I am not someone who worships at the altar of productivity. I’m committed to the idea of excellence and committed to the pursuit of that which is good and true in our work—creative work and intellectual work.

So I firmly believe that one can write one article that is transformative and that be a career as a scholar or as a writer that is meaningful. I say that because I don’t want to ever give people the impression that because I’ve churned out a lot of stuff that that’s what is valuable to me. I mean, I’m really was not motivated by trying to get all these books out quickly. But all of the projects beckoned me in different ways; they felt like part of my calling.

I never can work on one thing at a time. I’m always working on multiple projects at the same time, throughout my entire life.

[10:49] The questions that I wanted to answer were about the relationship between the intimate terrain and social forces and structures and how we seek meaning, how we seek justice, and how people use art to struggle against conditions of domination and exploitation. All of these things are always currents that are running inside me and they bring me towards different projects, different destinations.

I always say, you got to move when the spirit says move. And I kept feeling moved as I was working on these projects. They called to me every single day. And so here they are.

Cathy [11:34]: Do you have any advice for other scholars or artists or creative producers who want to listen to when the spirit calls them, when they get interested in a new topic, but maybe are worried about stretching themselves a bit too thin?

Imani [11:51]: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard because there are all these pressures now: precarity, the pressure to work constantly. We’re sleep deprived. We have enormous levels of chronic pain; I’m someone who lives with chronic diseases. And we are all stretched too thin.

One of the most important things I did after having children was learn to do work in very short blocks of time. Like if I could write three sentences because I only had fifteen minutes or half an hour, I learned to value that time and not constantly feel like, “Oh, I wish I had the eight hours that I used to have to think all day long.” So that’s one piece.

I also think [it’s important] to understand that the work of tending to one’s work is actually tending to oneself when you have a creative impulse or an intellectual commitment.

[12:49]: We talk about self care but we tend not to talk about caring for that aspect of ourselves. We tend not to recognize that is not either simply being selfish or doing the stuff we have to do, but actually caring for who we are. For me, it’s an enormous privilege to live the life of the mind. So I tend to it. And that means sometimes I don’t do other things that I’m supposed to do. I don’t do everything as well as I would like to do, as my kitchen today might attest (it’s a little crazy). But I think it’s important to care for who you are at the core. For me, a big part of that is being a writer and a thinker.

Cathy [13:34]: In many ways, that’s such a profound way of demonstrating how you bring together your intellectual interests and your activist or social justice interests with your creative interests. I’d love to talk a little bit more about how you see those three things coming together in your career and in your life more broadly.

Imani [13:54  So it’s interesting because I was raised amongst both intellectuals and organizers. I realized fairly early on that I am not an organizer, as in I’m not someone who has devoted my life to social justice organizing work of the sort that I witnessed amongst people who really transformed the world, but who also made the world I occupied possible for me. So I thought about this question. What I do is shaped by the question of, “How do I still live in a way that is consistent with the principles of community, of justice, of being against exploitation, as being supportive of people, being able to live freely and in a loving society?” That moves in every single thing that I do as a parent, as a thinker, as an educator. I don’t allow myself to think of my political commitments as separate from the work I do.

[14:53] I’m constantly asking, “How do you make this present in both your intimate interactions and in your larger place in the world?” It’s a personal ethics that animates my work and for that reason it doesn’t feel like there are separate zones.

Especially as a parent, there’s often this pull when you’re a writer or a scholar and a parent about attending to one or the other. The work is still is also still really intimately bound up with this. I want to write towards a world that is more just for my children. I want to raise my children to think about these things that I think are important for making the world better. So it’s all one set of commitments.

Cathy [15:38]: This really nicely dovetails into my last question, which is absolutely my favorite question that I have to ask guests, which is that big why behind all of the work that you do. It’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards when you write your books, when you parent your kids, when you do your organizing, when you work with other collaborators and creatives. What kind of world do you want?

Imani [16:03]: You know, this is one of those questions that I almost feel as though I could answer in a dozen different ways. I would begin with my grandmother, perhaps the smartest person I ever knew, who worked as a domestic laborer and who was born and raised in the Jim Crow South. From her, I modeled the habit of reading every day. Here is a person who was considered “the least of these” in virtually every way and yet also was someone who I intimately witnessed her dreaming, her hopes, and her intellect.

I want to live in a world in which we have that kind of deep witnessing for the “least of these” and the space for the kind of care and love for the “least of these”—not out of charity but out of an understanding that that’s at the core of what it means to be fully human and to aspire to the Beloved Community.

I identify myself as a socialist, a feminist, an anticolonialist, a Marxian. But for me, all of those are metaphors for moving toward a society and a world that is loving at its core. Love is an ethic that is more than just sentimental. It’s about relations of power and what kind of social relations we produce and pursue.

Cathy [17:38]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you imagine and create otherwise.

Imani [17:44]: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the conversation.

Cathy [17:52]: [upbeat music in background] 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, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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