La Marr Bruce on Renewal, Loss, and Black Creativity
About the episode
As scholars, we often like to think we have everything under control. We work hard to meet deadlines, fulfill our responsibilities, and get everything done.
So what happens when global and personal events throw all of that out the window?
In episode 131 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews La Marr Bruce, whose new book How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity, ended up on a much more complex publication path than expected due to both the global COVID-19 pandemic and La Marr’s devastating loss of his partner, David, this past August.
As La Marr explains in the conversation, this is a book about destabilization and derailment that also became the vehicle through which he traversed that journey, ultimately renewing his commitment to Black and mad studies, mutual care, and collective liberation.
A content note: This episode discusses some difficult topics, including the death of La Marr’s partner, David. If this is a topic you need to not hear about right now, for any reason, we recommend exploring some of our other recent episodes.
Guest: La Marr Bruce
La Marr Jurelle Bruce is an interdisciplinary humanities scholar, Black studies devotee, first-generation college graduate, and associate professor of American atudies at the University of Maryland.
His scholarship centers Black expressive cultures across literature, film, music, theatre, and the art and aesthetics of quotidian Black life.
La Marr’s first book, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity (Duke University Press, 2021) is a study of Black artists who mobilize madness in radical art-making, self-making, and world-making.
Winner of the 2014 Joe Weixlmann Essay Award from African American Review, La Marr has also published in American Quarterly, the Black Scholar, GLQ, and Social Text.
- Black studies as a practice of love and liberation
- Madness as methodology
- Loss, grief, and renewal
- Designing new paradigms of joy
More from La Marr Bruce
La Marr’s UMD faculty website
La Marr’s book How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity
La Marr’s article “Mad Is a Place; or, the Slave Ship Tows the Ship of Fools“
“I’d like to see people get free of the dusty scripts that have been handed down to them for what the good life should be like.
I want to see people design their paradigms of joy, rather than try to squeeze themselves into someone else’s paradigm. “
— La Marr Bruce, Imagine Otherwise
Click to read the transcript
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:03]:
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.
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:19]:
I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:23]:
As scholars, we often like to think we have everything under control. We work hard to meet our deadlines, fulfill our responsibilities, and get everything done.
So what happens when global and personal events throw all of that out the window?
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:38]:
My guest on today’s episode is La Marr Bruce. La Marr’s new book, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity, ended up on a much windier publication path than expected due to both the global COVID-19 pandemic and La Marr’s devastating loss of his partner, David, this past August.
Cathy Hannabach [00:00:58]:
As La Marr explains in our conversation, this is a book about destabilization and derailment that also became the vehicle through which he traversed that journey, ultimately renewing his commitment to Black and mad studies, mutual care, and collective liberation.
Cathy Hannabach [00:01:15]:
Before we jump in, a content note: as you might expect based on this description, this episode discusses some difficult topics, including the death of La Marr’s partner, David. If this is a topic you need to not hear about right now, I completely understand and I encourage you to check out some of our other recent episodes.
Now, on with the show.
Thank you so much for being with us today, La Marr.
La Marr Bruce [00:01:39]:
I am absolutely delighted.
Cathy Hannabach [00:01:41]:
This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re talking all about renewal—the practices that we engage in to recommit to projects, to reevaluate what’s important to us, and to look at things from new perspectives. How are you approaching renewal these days?
La Marr Bruce [00:01:57]:
I want to open with a quote from Nina Simone, a music-maker and world-maker who is immensely important to me. In a 1968 interview with Downbeat magazine, when asked about her artistic trajectory, Simone explained, quote, “I have to constantly re-identify myself to myself, reactivate my own standards, my own convictions about what I’m doing and why.”
La Marr Bruce [00:02:25]:
This beautiful, critical, ethical council is key for me as I think about renewal. It’s crucial that I constantly renew my vows, so to speak, to the people and principles that guide my life professionally, artistically, and personally.
I approach Black studies as a practice of love and liberation. My Black studies is animated by a love for Black people and dedicated to the liberation of Black people and all people.
La Marr Bruce [00:02:58]:
It’s crucial that amid all the rigmarole of the academic industrial complex, all the competition and the bureaucracy, all the fads and trends, all the information overload, all the anti-Blackness and queer antagonism and patriarchy, it’s vital that I constantly renew my vows to that love.
Sometimes I lose track. I get distracted. I grow weary. So I have to regularly check in, take stock, remind myself of why I do this work.
Sometimes the new comes most powerfully after a break. I lost my beloved in August of 2020. It was and is the most devastating grief and stunning sorrow that I’ve ever known.
It smashed me to pieces. And here I am now trying to build someone new from that wreckage.
Cathy Hannabach [00:03:51]:
One of the things that you write about really eloquently and poetically in your new book, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind, are all of those different meanings of breakdown and of madness and of grief: the way that it can be transformed, the way that it is felt without being consciously known, the way that it’s incredibly confusing, and the way that it doesn’t follow any of the rules that we want it to sometimes.
For folks who are curious and want to know more, can you tell us a little bit about what that book is all about?
La Marr Bruce [00:04:27]:
Sure, Cathy. My book, How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical Creativity, is a study of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Black artists who mobilize madness, literature, and performance toward radical art-making, self-making, and world-making.
La Marr Bruce [00:04:45]:
To explore the complexity of madness, I propose a theory that encompasses its four primary meanings in the modern West.
First is what I call phenomenal madness, which is the lived experience of psychic turmoil and unruliness of mind producing fundamental crises of perception, emotion, meaning, and selfhood as experienced in the consciousness of the mad subject.
Second is medicalized madness, psychiatric diagnosis of severe mental illness.
Third is the emotional state of intense and aggressive displeasure—rage—the angry sort of madness.
And fourth is what I call psychosocial madness, psychosocial alterity, any drastic and radical swerve away from psychosocial norms. In truth regarding psychosocial madness, any, person idea or behavior that perplexes and vexes psychosocial norms is liable to be labeled crazy.
La Marr Bruce [00:05:50]:
Both madness and reason were highly racialized in early modernity and continue to be highly racialized today. So launching from these premises about madness and reason, I explore the mad in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Black expressive culture.
The book ponders the writing of Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gayl Jones, Michael Ondaatje, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Richard Wright, madness in the jazz performances and lore around Buddy Bolden, Sun Ra, and Charles Mingus, madness in the comedy and life worlds of Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, and Martin Lawrence, madness in the protest music and public persona of Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, and Kendrick Lamar, among many others.
I suggest that these artists adapt madness as content, form, idiom, metaphor, aesthetic existential posture, energy, strategy, and methodology in an enduring Black radical tradition.
La Marr Bruce [00:06:51]:
The project adapts madness as methodology. Mad methodology historicizes and contextualizes madness as a social construction and social relation. Mad methodology respects and sometimes harnesses mad feelings like obsession and rage as stimulus for radical thought and practice.
Cathy Hannabach [00:07:11]:
I’m curious how this book played out for you during the pandemic. You started writing it several years before, as most of us do who write these kinds of long projects, but of course it came out in the midst of the pandemic and you were involved in the last stages of it when all of our worlds were upended in ways that we’re still grappling with.
How did you navigate this book and your approach to renewal in this pandemic context?
La Marr Bruce [00:07:48]:
So the book was originally scheduled to be published in September 2020. It has been pushed back and is now expected to drop this spring. The combination of the pandemic and David’s departure really threw me into a tailspin at the very tail end of the process, as I was finishing up copyedits and then working on the proofs.
Even though that rupture happened very late in the process, it dramatically transformed the nature of the project.
The pandemic and the loss, the grief that I experienced charges the book with an urgency and an intensity to contribute to the project of liberation, to uphold and honor the lives of mad and Black people.
I want to contribute. I want to help. I want to assist in a radically, otherwise world-making project. I hope that the book can do that.
Cathy Hannabach [00:08:54]:
I think that’s a really nice segue into my final question that I love closing out every interview with, which gets at that big vision that all of your projects are contributing toward.
That’s the version of a better world that you’re working towards when you teach your classes, when you write your books, when you work on interdisciplinary projects. So I will ask you this giant question, but I think it’s an important question: what kind of world do you want?
La Marr Bruce [00:09:23]:
I’m really grateful for this question. So earlier I honed in on my investment in love and liberation in relation to Black studies. The same applies to the world that I like to see more broadly.
I want to see a worldwide way of life animated by love and dedicated to liberation. I want to see a world where a radical range of possibilities are open to people: ways of thinking and writing and identifying and creating and loving and feeling. I want to see radical options available to people.
La Marr Bruce [00:10:03]:
I like to see people get free of the dusty scripts that have been handed down to them for what the good life should be like. I want to see people design their paradigms of joy, rather than try to squeeze themselves into some one else’s paradigm.
I want to see a worldwide way of life dedicated to radical care, radical compassion, radical honesty, radical joy, and radical love. Love, as I understand it here, is a deep and abiding and powerful practice of mutual care and commitment to the wellness and happiness and liberation of those in your community. And here, I’m talking about a worldwide community that extends beyond the human, that extends to all living things.
That’s the world that I would like to see.
Cathy Hannabach [00:11:00]:
I would like to see that world too. Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing about your book and the work that you do to bring that better world into being.
La Marr Bruce [00:11:11]:
Thank you, Cathy.
Cathy Hannabach [00:11:12]:
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.
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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