Imagine Otherwise: Christen A. Smith, Dána-Ain Davis, and Sameena Mulla on Cite Black Women

by | Jun 9, 2021

Christen A. Smith, Dána-Ain Davis, and Sameena Mulla on #CiteBlackWomen

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 135

About the episode

Centuries of Black feminist intellectuals have demonstrated how knowledge production is always deeply political, revealing whose labor and lives we value. Publicly citing and generously engaging with the contributions that others have made to our thinking is a crucial way we remake the world.

In episode 135 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Christen A. Smith, Dána-Ain Davis, and Sameena Mulla, the three co-editors of the recent ground-breaking special issue of Feminist Anthropology, which focuses on the Cite Black Women movement that honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production.

The Ideas on Fire team has been privileged to copyedit the Feminist Anthropology journal from its inception, and the Cite Black Women special issue is a superb illustration of the powerful political and ethical transformations this journal and the Cite Black Women movement bring to academic publishing and everyday life.

In the conversation, Christen, Dána, Sameena, and Cathy discuss the pleasures and challenges of overhauling academic publishing workflows and norms so that they can embody an intersectional, transnational feminist praxis.

They also chat about what it means to honor our intellectual and communal forbearers, which this special issue does in the form of a tribute to the late Dr. Leith Mullings from colleagues, friends, comrades, and former students whose intellectual and personal lives were forever changed through her lifelong commitment to racial, economic, and gender justice.

And finally, they close out the conversation with reflections on why making room for marginalized people to speak, write, and publish is a key way we all think and live knowledge production otherwise.

Guest: Christen A. Smith

Christen A. Smith is a Black feminist anthropologist and the creator of Cite Black Women—a campaign that brings awareness to the race and gender politics of citation and the erasure of Black women’s intellectual contributions in global society.

She is also an associate professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies and director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she researches the immediate and long-term impact of police violence on Black communities in the Americas, particularly on Black families and Black women.

Christen is the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil (University of Illinois Press, 2016), and her research and writing has been featured in Democracy Now!, Al-Jazeera, BBC’s World Have Your Say, Pacifica Radio, the New York Times, the Nation, PBS’s NewsHour, Maclean’s, the Feminist Wire, and Caros Amigos.

Guest: Dána-Ain Davis

Dána-Ain Davis is a professor of urban studies at Queens College director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Dána’s research focuses on Black feminist ethnography and the dynamics of race and racism. She is the author or co-editor of five books, including Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (NYU Press, 2019).

She has served as president of the Association of Black Anthropologists, co-editor of the journal Transforming Anthropology, co-chair of NARAL-NY, coordinator of the Reproductive Rights Education Project at Hunter College, and a member of the New York Governor’s Task Force on Maternal Mortality and Disparate Racial Outcomes.

Currently, Dána is the co-editor (with Sameena Mulla) of Feminist Anthropology, the journal of the Association for Feminist Anthropology.

Dána is also a doula who supports birthing people and their families/partners.

Guest: Sameena Mulla

Sameena Mulla is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University. Her research and teaching focus on the racially gendered hierarchies at work in medical and legal interventions into gender-based violence.

Sameena is the author of The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention (NYU Press, 2014) and co-author (with Heather Hlavka) of Bodies in Evidence: Race, Gender, and Science in Sexual Assault Adjudication (NYU Press, 2021).

Collaborative work is a touchstone of Sameena’s feminist practice and is part of what she relishes in her work as co-editor of the journal Feminist Anthropology with Dána-Ain Davis.

As the founding editors of Feminist Anthropology, Dána and Sameena prioritize an ethical process for authors and reviewers while promoting inclusive and transformative citational practices. Together, they champion a heterogeneous approach to feminist anthropology that generates space for varying genealogical, political, and theoretical modalities of feminist practice.

Episode themes

  • Black feminism’s challenge to traditional academic publishing models
  • The racially gendered politics of citation
  • What a feminist editing practice looks like
  • Honoring intellectual and political forebearers in our scholarship 
"The process for this issue of Feminist Anthropology on Cite Black Women—and for all of them—is rooted in a feminist practice of collectivity: thinking together and really paying attention. Cite Black Women is a material and ideological example of what we believe feminist praxis to be." —Feminist Anthropology co-editor Dána-Ain Davis on Imagine Otherwise
"With Cite Black Women, we push people to think otherwise about knowledge production. This special issue of Feminist Anthropology does that in a great way and it's reflected in everything from the style and the structure to the content and the bibliographies." —Cite Black Women founder Christen A. Smith on Imagine Otherwise⁠
"Thinking about how an academic journal can make more space intentionally was both challenging and exciting. There are a lot of things in academic publishing that squeeze out important voices. It was exciting to make this issue happen in a way that was true to the vision of the Cite Black Women collective." —Feminist Anthropology co-editor Sameena Mulla on Imagine Otherwise.⁠

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach:

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.

[00:00:23]

Centuries of Black feminist intellectuals have demonstrated how knowledge production is always deeply political, revealing whose labor and whose lives we value. Publicly citing and generously engaging with the contributions that others have made to our thinking is a crucial way we remake the world.

[00:00:43]

In this episode, I interview Christen A. Smith. Dána-Ain Davis, and Sameena Mulla, the three co-editors of the recent groundbreaking special issue of the journal Feminist Anthropology. This special issue focuses on the Cite Black Women movement, which honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production.

[00:01:03]

The Ideas on Fire team has been privileged to copyedit Feminist Anthropology from its inception, and the Cite Black Women special issue is a superb illustration of the political and ethical transformations that this journal and the Cite Black Women movement bring to academic publishing and everyday life.

[00:01:22]

In our conversation, Christen, Sameena, Dána, and I discuss the pleasures and challenges of overhauling academic publishing workflows and norms so that they can embody an intersectional transnational, feminist practice.

[00:01:37] We also chat about what it means to honor our intellectual and communal forbearers, which this special issue does in the form of a tribute to the late Dr. Leith Mullings from colleagues, friends, comrades, and former students whose intellectual and personal lives are forever changed because of her lifelong commitment to racial, economic, and gender justice.

[00:02:00]

And finally, we close out our conversation with reflections on why making room for marginalized people to speak, write, and publish is a key way that we all think and live knowledge production otherwise.

[00:02:15]

Thank you all for being here today.

[00:02:18] Sameena Mulla:

Thanks for having us.

[00:02:19] Cathy Hannabach:

The three of you are all part of the fantastic special issue of Feminist Anthropology that focuses on the Cite Black Women movement. This was definitely one of my favorite issues of the journal to come out and definitely one of the favorites that the Ideas on Fire team has copyedited. To kick things off in our conversation today and introduce the issue for our listeners, I’d love to hear your explanation of what is that special issue all about and what were your individual roles in producing it?

[00:02:48] Dána-Ain Davis:

It was such an incredible pleasure to work on the issue with Christen and Sameena. When Sameena and I first became editors of Feminist Anthropology, early on Sameena said, “We’ve got to do a Cite Black Women issue.”

[00:03:05]

We proposed the idea, of course, to Christen, who not surprisingly said yes. The thing that I contributed was really just being a coeditor and just helping to shepherd along the pieces that came in. Really, the issue was completely formulated, envisioned, dreamed up, birthed, if you will, by Christen and her brilliance.

[00:03:34] Christen A. Smith:

When I thought about this question, the first thing that immediately popped in my mind was how grateful I am to you and Sameena for encouraging me to do this. And that’s why I think about the collectivity behind it, because I remember we all did the executive panel at AAA in 2019. And it was right after the panel that finished. Both of you were on that panel because you all have been so supportive of Cite Black Women and just amazing. Both of you were on the panel and you came up to me afterwards and you said, “We want to do a special issue of Feminist Anthropology on this.” I thought it was amazing and fantastic.

[00:04:14]

I was also thinking to myself, “OMG that is a big project.” Every step y’all have been just amazing and supportive in the way that you’ve envisioned this project and worked with me. So I just want to say thank you about that and give homage to the work that you and Sameena did, particularly in us collectively putting together the call for papers and all that early work.

[00:04:40] Dána-Ain Davis:

Well, it was a true honor.

[00:04:42] Sameena Mulla:

I think it’s really interesting to think about Cite Black Women the movement and all of the work Christen and the collective have done to make space for the issue. Thinking about how an academic journal can make more space intentionally was both challenging and exciting because there are a lot of things in academic publishing that squeeze out important voices and squeeze out equitable participation.

[00:05:13]

So for Dána and I, it was really exciting to think about how to make this happen in a way that was true to the vision that the Cite Black Women collective have for the kind of work that they do.

[00:05:28]

And I was also very excited because Feminist Anthropology gets a lot of submissions that cite particular Black women, which is great. But I have been very frustrated with the superficial ways in which Black women are often cited without really engaging and unpacking the ideas that go with that work.

[00:05:52]

I was also really interested to see what we could do if we held authors to a standard of showing us how these scholars’ theories and methods and rich ideas actually transformed their work. So that was what was most exciting to me.

[00:06:10]

Our intellectual spaces are made better and more rich and more meaningful and more rigorous by doing this type of citation practice. I think that the special issue gets us there. There are numerous articles, every single one, that don’t just cite Black women but takes these ideas so seriously and really pushes feminist scholars and anthropologists to do and think in new and exciting ways.

[00:06:43] Dána-Ain Davis:

I just want to add that I think that the issue is canon-building and can serve in and of itself as the foundation for a syllabus for a class. In fact, I’ve been thinking about teaching a class just based on that issue.

[00:07:01] Cathy Hannabach:

I think this is a really good point because, as you point out, this isn’t an issue that’s just about citation politics as an object of study. You allow the politics of citation to shape the ways that the issue itself was put together, almost citation politics as methodology. I’d love to dive a little deeper into that process.

[00:07:20]

How did you actually build the insights of Cite Black Women into the way that you put the issue together—from soliciting contributions, advising authors on their own citation practices (this is something that our team found really cool in the copyediting process as well), to working with peer reviewers and getting word out about the issue once the various articles were published? How did that process actually work on the ground for you?

[00:07:46] Dána-Ain Davis:

The process for that issue and for all of them, I would argue, is really rooted in a feminist practice of collectivity, thinking together and with each other and really paying attention to the pathways of recruiting people to submit. Cite Black Women is a material and ideological example of what we believe feminist praxis to be.

[00:08:16] Christen A. Smith:

We were very intentional about every aspect of this special issue from the call for papers, which was a pleasure to co-write with Dána and Sameena, to the way that we circulated that call for papers, which was open.

[00:08:32]

I just want to emphasize, we circulated on Cite Black Women. We circulated widely on email. It was throughout the academy and it wasn’t just in anthropology circles. That was also very intentional.

[00:08:43]

We have people who are non-anthropologists that are part of this part of the issue. And we were very deliberate about being encouraging to authors, really trying to think about intergenerational representation. That’s also a fundamental aspect of Cite Black Women, and we try to be as inclusive as possible. We try to deconstruct hierarchies of knowledge in every way possible. And I feel like we tried to do that in this special issue as well.

[00:09:14]

We tried to be very deliberate about including artistic contributions, including contributions that are essayist in their nature, including contributions that are more traditional in terms of research articles, and we have a poem that’s fantastic by Zenzele Isoke. We tried our very best to have the issue reflect the politics that we’re hoping to put in the world.

[00:09:40]

With Cite Black Women, that’s one of the things that we try to do. We try to push people to think otherwise about knowledge production. I think that this special issue does that in a great way and that’s reflected in everything from the style to the structure to the content and the bibliographies.

[00:10:00] Sameena Mulla:

Dána and I have been learning as we go with the journal. We’ve tried to be very consistent about the idea of being generous as a peer reviewer. Our peer reviewers are, I would say, exceptionally generous. I can’t take credit for that, but we to try to prompt them to be generous and to take an idea seriously without doing harm.

[00:10:24]

Dána and I wanted our run with the journal to be marked by transnational scholarship. That is also one of the ways in which I would say the US academy is really not an open and welcoming place. We’ve sort of been scratching our heads about how to do this. This is where Christen and the Cite Black Women collective really taught us something about reaching into particular communities of scholars, making a commitment to publish work in languages other than English, which I know some other journals do as well.

[00:10:59]

So it was very exciting for us to be able to include a translation of Lélia Gonzalez’s work. It’s not just that that is a really important text on the Black woman that most people really need to know and read, but it also serves as a kind of symbolically weighty moment for the journal. I would like to do more of that, really thinking about Anglophone dominance in our citation practice and how that just leaves certain scholars completely off the map.

[00:11:31] Cathy Hannabach:

One of the things that I love about this issue is the way that it highlights the politics of community in addition to citation and really ties those things together.

[00:11:43]

This month at Ideas on Fire, community building is our theme for the month. So many of the authors that you feature in this issue, and work that you yourselves do together to put out this amazing journal, demonstrate how community building happens through citation—something that Christen has been emphasizing in our conversation today and across the body of your work as a whole.

[00:12:05]

How did community building shape your approach to the technical stuff we were just talking about: the process, the workflow, the commitment you had to expanding the voices that get represented in US scholarship?

[00:12:18] Sameena Mulla:

As daunting as it is to put every issue together, we have a good team in place. We have our social media coordinator, Alex Johnson. We have an editorial assistant, Erin Hastings. And Dána and I touch every manuscript multiple times as it goes through this process too. Christen touched every single manuscript that came through for this particular issue as well.

[00:12:47]

Putting out this issue was also about involving everybody in every single piece that went through. Dána and I also made it really clear to Christen that we were going to do as much of the scut work, the behind the scenes, nuts and bolts stuff as possible for her and for authors who were overwhelmed.

[00:13:08]

We had copyeditors and we don’t just have copyeditors, we have copyeditors who are equity minded.

I hope that the process of doing this meant that everyone involved knew that have their backs. It’s so important, I think, to come out of this and not feel like you’re ever left standing there alone.

[00:13:26]

We present feedback as choices because ultimately the work belongs to each author even as we’re communally producing it. I think that a lot of us have been scarred, particularly as you come up through academia and it’s a really hierarchical system. Oftentimes you are told things, you are told, “Do this, do that. Conform to this, conform to that.” We like to present things as a set of choices because authors need to make choices about their work. It is ultimately their work. I hope it helps heal some of the wounds that have been incurred over time that take a really long time to heal from.

[00:14:06] Dána-Ain Davis:

I hope I don’t get teary, but it isn’t lost on me that part of what’s included in this issue are the tributes to Leith Mullings, a person who I think is not cited enough, who would have been so proud of how this issue came to be.

[00:14:24]

She’s had a kind of hidden hand in at least in the way that I think. It’s so incredible to have tributes to her in an issue that’s about a kind of love of Black people and Black women. In her physical absence, the concept of community, I think, is manifest in the materiality of the issue.

[00:14:54] Christen A. Smith:

I want to just add something to what Dána just said, because I think it’s so important. It was really touching to me for this issue to be the issue that housed her tribute. That means a lot. The decision meant a lot.

[00:15:09]

I can say, as the person who’s been running Cite Black Women for the past four years, that she set the precedent for this work. She is one of those generations of Black feminist anthropologists that made this work possible. We wouldn’t be able to even think this way if it hadn’t been for the work of Leith Mullings and Lynn Bolles and Irma McClaurin, and all of the women of that first generation, that pathbreaking generation of Black feminist anthropologists that created the space for us to say what we think and feel and also set the precedent for including social justice in the core of whatever we do as Black feminist anthropologists.

And so it’s really an honor to have this be the home for that memorializing space.

[00:16:06] Cathy Hannabach:

I think that’s a really great segue into the question that I like to close out every conversation with, which gets at that version of a better world that you help bring into being when you put together issues like this, when you build bonds like this, when you upend academic publishing like this in the best way possible.

What is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:16:32] Dána-Ain Davis:

I’ve been rereading Freedom Dreams by Robin Kelley and in the introduction, he reminds us about love and the need to imagine new worlds. So in keeping with that kind of perspective, working on being disciplinarily disobedient is really important. That’s a phrase that I heard Katherine McKittrick say recently. And creating both a journal and relationships that move across genres, that lead us toward love and respect. That’s what I imagine. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but we will get there.

[00:17:11] Sameena Mulla:

My life’s passion really is justice and specifically gender justice in the form of living in a world that’s free of violence.

[00:17:19]

That directly means things like no sexual assaults, no sexual violence. My world is a world where we’re free from all of those things. And I think that taking Black women seriously as thinkers, as cultural producers is actually how we get there. Freedom is what’s at stake.

[00:17:41]

From a practical perspective, I just hope for an academic world where there is a kind of generosity, where we don’t view each other as threats. I think that was one of the things that I so appreciated when we were trying to think about what to say in our little editorial letter that opens the issue. We were thinking about who Leith Mullings was and how she climbed the ladder first, oftentimes with very little support, and then she threw a rope down behind her and spotted others on the way up. That’s also the world I want to live in.

[00:18:18] Christen A. Smith:

You know, as I was sitting here and I was reflecting again on this question, the first thing that I thought about was just a kinder world, which is what Sameena was just alluding to.

[00:18:31]

When I imagine a world, it’s a world where people are not afraid to be themselves and to speak. One of my favorite essays of all time is “The Transformation of Silence” by Audre Lorde. I love that essay because to me, as a Black woman, I see how that essay has power for those of us who have experienced any kind of violence and experience it on multiple levels on a regular basis.

[00:19:04]

To speak is to acknowledge that you are alive and that you have lived so that people can’t ignore the contributions that you’ve given to the world.

[00:19:13]

That, to me, is what the Cite Black Women project is all about. It’s about making the space for people to speak, not in the interest of ego but in the interest of survival. If there’s a way that my vision for the world ties to this particular project and the work that we do in the academy it is that I firmly believe that the more we’re able to allow people to speak on their own terms, the more we’re able to amplify life.

[00:19:45]

I see that very tangibly in the work that all of us do on a daily basis working with women of color, nonbinary folk of color, who are at the margins, who have been silenced their whole lives. By just simply giving them the space to speak, you open yourself up to a world of beauty that you may not have known otherwise.

[00:20:08] Cathy Hannabach:

Well, thank you three for being with me today and putting out this amazing issue that we’ll have links to in the show notes and for sharing your incredible visions and your incredible praxis of how you’re bringing about imagining otherwise.

[00:20:25] Christen A. Smith:

Thank you so much.

[00:20:27]

Sameena Mulla: Thanks for having us.

[00:20:28] Cathy Hannabach:

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 guests as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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