Imagine Otherwise: Koritha Mitchell on Homemade Citizenship

by | Sep 2, 2020

Koritha Mitchell on Homemade Citizenship

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 117

About the episode

How might the history of Black women’s creative homemaking and citizenship practices help us navigate our current political and cultural moment? What might this history reveal about the racially gendered roots of blurred work and home boundaries?

In episode 117 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews cultural critic, professor, and scholar Koritha Mitchell, whose new book From Slave Cabins to the White House traces the creative ways African American women have forged homemade versions of citizenship and redefined success in the face of racist and misogynist oppression.

In the conversation, Koritha and Cathy talk about the history of Black women’s citizenship and achievement, how this history shapes tenure and academic life, what running and writing have to teach us about self-defined success, and why centering self-love in work and life is how Koritha imagines otherwise.

Guest: Koritha Mitchell

Koritha Mitchell is a literary historian, cultural critic, and associate professor of English at Ohio State University.

Koritha’s most recent book, From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2020)examines Black artists’ strategies for sustaining their communities in a society that responds to Black success with violence. 

She is also the author of Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship (University of Illinois Press, 2012), which won book awards from the American Theatre and Drama Society and the Society for the Study of American Women Writers.

Koritha is the editor of the Broadview Edition of Frances Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, and her articles include “James Baldwin, Performance Theorist, Sings the Blues for Mister Charlie,” published by American Quarterly, and “Love in Action,” which appeared in Callaloo and draws parallels between lynching and violence against LGBTQ+ communities. 

Her commentary has appeared in outlets such as OpenlyBitch MediaCNNGood Morning Americathe Huffington PostNBC NewsPBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Morning Edition

Episode themes

  • Reading African American culture through the lens of succes
  • What COVID-19 can teach us about care work and agricultural work
  • Sustainable writing practices as gifts you give yourself
  • Pursuing success as self-love rather than to prove your self-worth

“If I acknowledge that running and walking help my writing practice, help my reading practice, help all of my intellectual endeavors, then part of what I’ve gotten good at practicing is the idea of accomplishing out of self-love rather than accomplishing to prove my self-worth.”

— Koritha Mitchell, Imagine Otherwise

Learn more

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 might the history of Black women’s creative homemaking and citizenship practices help us navigate our current political and cultural moment? What might this history reveal about the racially gendered roots of blurred work and home boundaries?

My guest today is cultural critic, professor, and scholar Koritha Mitchell, whose new book From Slave Cabins to the White House traces the creative ways that African American women have forged homemade versions of citizenship as well as redefined success in the face of racist and misogynist oppression.

In our conversation, Koritha and I talk about the history of Black women’s citizenship and achievement, how this history shapes tenure and academic life, what running and writing have to teach us about self-defined success, and why centering self-love in both work and life is how Koritha imagines otherwise.

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

Koritha Mitchell [01:15]:

Thank you.

Cathy Hannabach [01:16]:

I would love to kick off our conversation talking about your amazing new book, which was just published by the University of Illinois Press, called From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture. What is that book all about and what got you excited about writing it?

Koritha Mitchell [01:34]:

Yeah, thank you. I’m really proud of the book so thank you for helping me celebrate that it’s in the world. The book is about homemade citizenship, which I define as a deep sense of belonging that doesn’t rely on mainstream recognition and doesn’t even rely on civic inclusion.

This idea of homemade citizenship became really important to me because I learned from writing my first book, Living with Lynching, that the violence African Americans were experiencing was not a result of them doing something wrong. You didn’t become a target of the mob because you were a criminal. You became a target of the mob because you were successful in some way and your white counterparts wanted to put you back in your “proper place.”

Koritha Mitchell [02:29]:

Let’s say you demand a fair price for your crop. Well, “You don’t know your proper place. Let me put you back in your place. Not only that, but let me terrorize your entire family and community with the violence that I’m doing to you so everyone that survives that lynching, your the victim, but those who survive it are grieving the loss and feel the terror.”

Writing Living with Lynching really had me dealing with the fact that as I looked at these plays about lynching that were written at the height of mob violence, they were never unclear about why the lynch victim was targeted.

Koritha Mitchell [03:13]:

They were always clear about the fact that it was because he had been successful in some way. And in the lynching dramas, all of the victims are male. So it was very clear that the playwrights knew that success made you a target, and it was clear that the characters in the plays knew that success made you a target. So when I finished that book, that was my main takeaway: that Black success beckons the mob.

As I approached thinking about a next project, I really wanted to deal with what that meant. If I really understand that success makes you a target, then what does that mean for all of African-American literature and culture?

Koritha Mitchell [04:05]:

The idea for me became, if African Americans know that they will attract violence by being successful, then how is it that they continue to pursue success? What does it mean about the fact that they are determined to pursue success? For me, part of what that meant is that I needed to look at the archive in a very different way.

If white violence was the response to Black success, then did it really make sense to read Black art and literature in terms of protest? No, because they weren’t protesting what was happening to them. What they were doing by succeeding is what drew the violence to them.

Koritha Mitchell [04:56]:

That is what really inspired this book: to really think about what would it mean to read Black literature and art through the lens of success and how Black people convince themselves and each other to continue to pursue success? What would it mean to read their literature and art through that lens?

Homemade citizenship is the result of that. If Black people know that they will be targets because they’re successful, then my question became, were there certain practices that they used to help themselves stay focused on creating success and belonging, and practices that helped them to help each other stay focused on success and belonging?

Koritha Mitchell [05:45]:

I had a theory that they had to have had these kinds of practices, and basically what I found is that…And this was inspired actually by hearing a talk by Evie Shockley, who is both a poet and a scholar. In a presentation I heard her give at the American Studies Association conference, she talked about practices of making oneself at home. So I took inspiration from her idea of making oneself at home in academia and I applied that to my investigation of Black literature and art. I developed my own framework for thinking about practices of making oneself at home.

Koritha Mitchell [06:30]:

I define it as pursuing success while acknowledging that one does so in an environment that answers one’s achievements with violence. So making oneself at home actually requires knowing exactly what the characters in lynching plays knew: that Black success beckons the mob.

Part of what this did for the current book, From Slave Cabins to the White House, is it meant that this book needed to be a model for a new reading practice: basically, to read Black art and literature through the lens of achievement, rather than through the lens of protest.

Koritha Mitchell [07:15]:

And that’s exactly what I do throughout the book, beginning with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs in 1861, and going up to Michelle Obama, reading her public persona as first lady as a performance text. I read all of these texts by Black women for how they define, redefine, and pursue success.

Cathy Hannabach [07:41]:

This book is incredibly smart for a whole host of reasons, but one of the things that I really love about it and I loved working on it with you regarding is the way that you trace the creativity of Black women’s homemaking practices. You go through a whole host of examples of this in literature, culture, and art, but you also pay very close attention to how those domestic practices, those largely home-based practices, those largely women’s practices, have this much broader political, economic, and often social significance. So the home space is never just a home, it also has these broader political implications.

Cathy Hannabach [08:24]:

I would love to talk a little bit more about that both in terms of the research that you did for this book and also given our current moment, where so many of our homes are now our workplaces. Of course, this is a combination that a lot of people have always lived with. Their home spaces have always been their workspaces. But I think other populations are now experiencing that blur of the domestic and the professional.

So I’m curious, how do these histories that you trace in this book and the research that you uncovered in this process about the creative ways that Black women’s homemaking has given tools and models for this, how can that help us grapple with our current blurring of the domestic and the professional?

Koritha Mitchell [09:10]:

I so appreciate the way that you frame that, Cathy, because it’s absolutely the case that Black women’s homemaking practices have larger implications. Part of the reason they have those larger implications is because, throughout the study what I find is that, whenever Black women have any measure of success, then they are attacked.

For example, we can start with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 by Harriet Jacobs. One of the things that becomes so clear is that any amount of success she has in having the kind of home she wants, or getting herself in a position to have the kind of home she wants, brings violence.

Koritha Mitchell [09:55]:

She falls in love with a free man of color who wants to purchase her so that he can marry her. Dr. Flint is very clear that, “If I ever see you talking to him again, I’m going to shoot him like I would shoot a dog.” This becomes a turning point for Jacobs. She calls herself Linda Brent in the novelized autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

So what we see Jacobs narrate is her changing of her definition of domestic success. She goes from wanting to be a wife to deciding that she can simply prevent herself from being raped by Dr. Flint.

Koritha Mitchell [10:44]:

To my mind, that’s what we have to deal with. We have to deal with the violence that Black women encounter any time they have even a measure of success for their definition of domesticity, of a family structure. All of those things invite violence. So part of what this meant for me in terms of your question is the way that…

Let’s say, for example, that we fast forward to the 1970s and 80s. I have a chapter in which I look at Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Those texts were published in the late 1970s and 1980s, and they looked back to the moment of slavery.

Koritha Mitchell [11:36]:

Part of what I’m interested in there is to think about the way that no matter what, in the 1970s and 1980s, no matter how successful you are as a Black woman with a traditional heteronormative nuclear family, with a monogamous marriage, no matter how successful you are at achieving that, the mainstream media and all of American culture is constantly bombarding you with images of Black families as absolutely pathological.

Of course, this begins with that famous Moynihan Report. Well, it doesn’t begin with the Moynihan Report. But certainly, these 1970s and 1980s texts are on the heels of the culture that’s produced by the Moynihan Report and the assumption that Black women are emasculating matriarchs and that’s what’s wrong with Black families.

Koritha Mitchell [12:28]:

There’s the assumption that you just don’t have any good Black families that are led by strong Black men. These women are producing children who are delinquents, all of this. So what I want people to understand as they read the book is that in the 1970s and 1980s, you can be that Black woman in a heteronormative nuclear family, and still the constant portrayal of you is of a welfare queen, a matriarch who emasculates Black men. There’s no way for you to avoid that representation of yourself.

So even as you succeed in what the country claims it will respect, you’re still going to be bombarded with images of yourself in that way. This means that what you’ve done in real life doesn’t actually register in any real way, and I call that discursive violence.

Koritha Mitchell [13:19]:

When no matter what you do, you’re still cast as a welfare queen or an emasculating matriarch, and that seems like an acceptable, normal, and believable representation, that’s discursive violence because it ends up erasing actual, real-life Black women. That is the kind of violence that even successful Black women were facing in the 1970s and 1980s. So to my mind, your question about the larger implications of Black domesticity is that we have to grapple with the violence that it attracts through this erasure of their actual success.

Koritha Mitchell [14:01]:

For our current moment, I think part of what your question has me thinking about is what I hope we can come out of the COVID-19 moment with, which is a greater appreciation for the labor involved in care work. I think this is a complicated question on many, many levels and I won’t claim to understand all of the ways that I plan to move forward as I think about this. But your question has me thinking about something that Alicia Garza is always having us grapple with, which is that this country has always used domestic workers and agricultural workers to create wealth and comfort for everyone else at the same time that we completely denigrate those professions and not care about their life chances.

Koritha Mitchell [14:58]:

What I really hope we come out of this moment with is a new appreciation for that labor, a real commitment to having domestic work and agricultural work valued, and making sure that the people who do that labor have real material support and that we’re all doing something more to make sure that our society makes sure that that happens.

Cathy Hannabach [15:25]:

Writing a book like this, as you’ve pointed out, is quite an ordeal. It’s quite a large project and I think the way that it links to your previous book also gives some really important insight into this. Not all books relate to each other in sequence, but this one very clearly came out of your previous one. I’m curious about the process of that: the actual process of researching, writing, and putting together ideas for what is a multiyear process.

Cathy Hannabach [15:58]:

This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re talking quite a lot about project management and how to set up systems and workflows that fit your unique circumstances to get your projects done—things like writing a multiyear book. So I would love to hear about the process of either writing this book or how you approach your other projects in terms of your favorite practices, tools, or approaches to get these larger projects done.

Koritha Mitchell [16:28]:

That’s a great question. I was really invested in this book at looking at canonical works by Black women. Living with Lynching really focused on these mostly one-act plays that were pretty obscure and people didn’t really take them seriously. I was really proud of the fact that I was able to get scholars in several fields to take them seriously and to understand that they had done important cultural work in their moment that we were missing.

Koritha Mitchell [17:05]:

In this project, then, I really wanted to challenge myself to address canonical works because the question for myself was, “Okay, you’ve convinced several fields that these obscure works are actually important. Can you convince several fields that texts that they believe they already know backward and forward, can you convince them that looking at those texts through the lens of achievement will actually yield very different readings?” And that’s exactly what I think I’ve achieved here.

Koritha Mitchell [17:37]:

When it comes to process and practices, oh my goodness. First of all, I am a very serious believer in the idea of writing every day. I do not play with that concept. I am very serious about writing every day.

I take one day off a week just because I think that makes sense in terms of resting and not working in a way that keeps you exhausted. For me, the whole purpose of writing every day is that you don’t ever burn yourself out. The whole purpose of doing a little every day is so that it can be sustained over time. So, I’m a real believer in writing every day, six days a week.

Koritha Mitchell [18:24]:

What that means for me is usually actual writing, but what I mean by that can mean lots of different things. It can be simply taking some notes, it can mean I’m reading something and then after I’ve read it, synthesizing in some way that’s related to the writing I want to do later. It can be incredibly sloppy writing. It just needs to be the work of thinking through and synthesizing in ways that lead to what it is that I want to produce. That, for me, is a practice that I will do for the rest of my life because I believe it keeps me from burning myself out.

Koritha Mitchell [19:01]:

I’m a big believer in consistency, period. I’m very invested in maximizing the rewards of acknowledging the fact that I have both a body and a mind and they are related. I know that sounds like a unique thing, right?

Academia so often makes us pretend that we’re just intellectuals and that we can somehow float above the implications of being in physical bodies. I have a workshop that I give called Responsible Teaching in a Violent Culture.

Koritha Mitchell [19:47]:

A lot of times I talk about this lie that academics tell in those terms, because we’ve all been taught to think of ourselves as intellectuals. So it doesn’t matter that I walk into the room as a straight white man, for example, I’m just an intellectual. That’s intellectually lazy and really quite…I mean, it’s really quite trifling to operate that in that way.

But anyway, the point for me is that I have a body and a mind and they are related. I can use that to my bed benefit by making sure that I understand basic things like the fact that moving your body will help your mind work better, because they’re related.

Koritha Mitchell [20:19]:

One of the ways this has manifested for me is that a lot of people know me for saying #running helps #writing. That’s a mantra of mine because what I learned from picking up running several years ago is that if I ran regularly, my writing situation always improved. And as time has gone on and I’ve had injuries or different things have happened and I’m not running in the way that I used to…I used to do four half marathons every year. I’m no longer doing that kind of thing. But part of what I realized is that walking gave me the same benefits.

Koritha Mitchell [20:59]:

So I think the answer to your question and the main thing that I would say is that I maximize the fact that I have a body and a mind and they’re linked. If I treat them as linked, then I can really acknowledge the benefits of moving my body to the kind of intellectual work that I want to achieve.

Many years ago I became convinced that a little every day is better than big pushes every once in a while. Part of the way that this has become important to me is that if I acknowledge that running or walking help my writing practice, help my reading practice, help all of my intellectual endeavors, then part of what I’ve gotten good at practicing is the idea of accomplishing out of self-love rather than accomplishing to prove my self-worth.

Koritha Mitchell [21:56]:

I want to emphasize that I see that as a practice. I’m not saying that I’m never motivated to accomplish something because I think it’s going to make me feel worthy in some way. I’m not saying that I’m above that possibility. But what I am saying is that I’m very committed to practicing noticing when I think I need to accomplish something to make myself worthy and then stepping back from that and saying, “Okay, what’s that about? How might I operate from a different place?”

The most concrete way that I can put this is to say that I make a deliberate practice of seeing the things that I do as gifts that I give myself and as gifts that only I can give myself.

Koritha Mitchell [22:45]:

If I see writing every day as a gift that I give myself, that’s operating from a very different space than, “Oh my God, I have to get some writing done or I’m worthless” or whatever. Fill in the blank.

Academia teaches us, well, really American culture more generally teaches us, that unless you do XYZ, you’re worthless. I want to be aware of when that script is running in my own head and I’ve made a practice of thinking, “Okay, how can I give myself a gift today?”

Koritha Mitchell [23:23]:

One gift I can give myself that no one else can give me is to actually put some effort into the goals that I have around writing, to put some effort in the goals that I have about staying mobile and taking a walk. Those are gifts that only I can give myself. How can I make the decision to do that? That is something that I practice because it keeps me from simply running on the energy of proving myself, which is exactly what American culture would want me to do.

Cathy Hannabach [23:54]:

I think that’s a really fantastic reframing of the work that we do because, as you point out, it’s not about not doing the work. You haven’t been describing, “Here’s how I take time off from writing,” which I’m sure you also do and we can certainly talk about if you would like to. But I’m fascinated by this switching of the frame.

So then writing every day becomes something, as you point out, you give to yourself not because it will be rewarded in your career, although it will, and not because it will produce this amazing book in the end, although it will, but because it’s this thing that you give to yourself as part of the process. I think that that would be really helpful for a lot of people. So rather than focusing on the outcome (as pleasurable and delightful as those outcomes can be), focusing on the process instead.

Koritha Mitchell [24:47]:

Exactly, Cathy. I’m so glad that you mentioned this idea of taking time off, because I think so often people set themselves up where taking a day off or several days off from writing is some reward. How can it be a reward if it’s actually a gift you give yourself? So yes, you’re right. It’s a reframing that I’ve done, and I’ve done it very much on purpose.

One of the things that is clear to me is that there is absolutely no achievement you can get that will get rid of the idea that you have more to prove in this society. There is no achievement that will make you say, “Okay, now I’m done.”

Koritha Mitchell [25:35]:

What I wanted to do was deliberately take myself out of a mindset that kept me unsatisfied. In all honesty, it’s related to running again for me. One of the things that became clear to me is that running was such a gift that I gave myself because it taught me how to actually enjoy small achievements and enjoy them because I’m the one who got to say whether it was an achievement or not. Running helped me practice that because, for example, I could say to myself, “Wow, yesterday when I went up that hill I was a lot more winded than I am today. What an achievement.” Running gave me opportunities like that to practice.

Koritha Mitchell [26:24]:

I thought to myself, “Wow. If I can do the same thing in my professional career, how much healthier will I be?” If I wait until, for example, tenure to feel okay, then I’m screwed. So how do I make sure that I’m the one who’s determining my success looks like and I’m the one who’s determining when I get to celebrate?

Writing and running going together became the way that I gave myself lots of different ways to celebrate. So you’re exactly right. The idea of waiting to be happy about something when the book comes along is exactly what I’m working against. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in, how do I allow myself to enjoy what I’m doing because of the reasons that I’ve given myself?

Koritha Mitchell [27:14]:

Here’s another way I can put it. When it came to tenure, I was not very invested in tenure because that decision had to do with the people at my institution, many of whom didn’t actually care about lynching, or the lynching plays, or the lynching victims. I was much more invested in, how do I do justice to the women who wrote these lunching plays and the people who suffered lynching? How do I do justice to them? That meant that tenure was not driving me. As you say, you’re going to do the work anyway, so how do you make sure that you’re motivated by something that is energizing rather than something that is depleting?

Koritha Mitchell [28:05]:

If I allowed myself to be motivated by a tenure decision, that’s a sure way to work and deplete myself. But if I’m motivated by the fact that I want to do justice to me and mine, to my community that has endured this unjust practice and has somehow found a way to survive anyway, if I want to do justice to that, then I’m energized by the work. That is what I have learned over these fifteen-plus years in academia: it is my job and within my power to do the work in a way that is life-giving and isn’t life-depleting. The United States is invested in depleting my life. How can I operate in ways that fuel it?

Koritha Mitchell [28:59]:

One of the things that I’ve been practicing, just like I practice giving myself gifts that no one else can give me, one of the other things I’ve been practicing is simply not doing overwhelm. I just don’t do it. I just don’t get overwhelmed. The way that I practice that is that, okay, I’ve said yes to these tasks, these obligations, these commitments, these responsibilities. I’ve said yes to them, and I’m the one who said yes to them. So, what do I need to feel overwhelmed for? Either I like my reason for saying yes, or I don’t. And if I don’t like my reason, then I say no.

Koritha Mitchell [29:42]:

That is one way that I simply don’t do overwhelm. I get very clear, Cathy, about why I’m doing anything. I get honest with myself about why I’m doing it and I check and see, “Do I like my reason?” Because if I don’t like my reason, it’s a sure way to be resentful and tired. But if I like the reason, then what am I resentful and tired for? I’m simply going to do it. Because here’s the thing, again as you said, in both scenarios, I’m doing the thing. So either I do it and feel overwhelmed and cranky and resentful, or I do it and feel energized.

Koritha Mitchell [30:23]:

It’s my choice because I can decide the energy with which I will do it, and the energy with which I’ll do it has everything to do with my reasons for doing it. So again, to make that clear, if I had done the work that it took to get tenure because of tenure and the structure of tenure, then I would’ve been depleted. But when I did it for my own reasons, reasons that I liked, that’s a whole different ball game.

Cathy Hannabach [30:53]:

This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks about that really gets at the heart of why you do these kinds of projects in the world and what you’re hoping to contribute to the universe in the process. I will ask you this giant question, but I think it’s an important question. What’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

Koritha Mitchell [31:16]:

I love that question. You know I listen to this podcast very regularly, so I knew it was coming and I absolutely love it. That is a very easy question for me to answer, because studying violence has always forced me to be very clear about why I do everything.

The world that I want is a world that is less hostile for more people. One of the things that I’m really clear about is that violence in all of its forms is about sending a message about who belongs and who does not. It’s about policing the borders of who belongs and who does not.

Koritha Mitchell [32:03]:

The reason why studying violence is important to me, then, is because I want people to have the tools they need so that they know that that’s what violence is about. That they didn’t do something wrong and that’s why they’re being attacked, that they did something right and someone is simply trying to put them in their “proper place” for an unjust reason.

Making the world less hostile for more people is the reason why I’ve been so committed to not only studying violence against African Americans but also seeing the way that the violence that I understood through the lens of the violence against African Americans actually made me very clear about violence against LGBT people, made me very clear about Islamophobia, ableism, all of these forms of aggression.

I study violence in every realm because what I want to do is equip us to make this world less hostile for more people.

Cathy Hannabach [33:04]:

Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the amazing and creative ways that you imagine otherwise.

Koritha Mitchell [33:10]:

Thank you so much for letting me come on. I love the podcast, and so it’s definitely an honor to be on it.

Cathy Hannabach [33:23]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, 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 discussed on the show.

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