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Imagine Otherwise: Tanisha C. Ford on Black Creative Genius

Imagine Otherwise: Tanisha C. Ford on Black Creative Genius

retro
August 9, 2017
Tanisha C. Ford wearing a grey dress and gold earrings

How do Black art and creativity help imagine new worlds? How does fashion help us think about the intersection of power and desire? What can we do to make space for public scholarship and community engagement in our work?

In episode 45 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, Cathy Hannabach interviews Tanisha C. Ford about her research on the cultural and political dimensions of Black fashion, the state of contemporary critical fashion studies and its possible futures, how creative practice and academic work can inform one another, and why Black art and creative genius are key to her mode of imagining otherwise.

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Guest: Tanisha C. Ford

Tanisha C. Ford is an associate professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware.

She is the author of the book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2015), which narrates the powerful intertwining histories of the Black Freedom movement and the rise of the global fashion industry.

Tanisha studies social movement history, feminist issues, material culture, popular culture and entertainment, and fashion, beauty, and body politics. She is also the co-founder of the innovative material culture pop-up lab, TEXTURES.

Her public writing and cultural commentary has been featured in diverse media outlets and publications including the New York Times, the Root, the New YorkerEbonyNPR, and Feministing. 

Tanisha C. Ford wearing a grey dress and gold earrings. Text reads: I've always understood that Black art and creative genius is a way for us to imagine a new world. It is a way to imagine the world we want to live in.

We chatted about

  • Fashion and the dressed body as a site for historical and contemporary cultural analysis (02:35)
  • The state of fashion studies in the academy today and its future directions (04:21)
  • Blending art and activism with scholarly work and being a public intellectual (08:50)
  • Collaborating on the T E X T U R E S Material Culture Pop-Up Lab (12:13)
  • Being bold in one’s work (14:21)
  • Public scholarship and writing for multiple audiences (17:03)
  • Imagining otherwise (24:14)

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Takeaways

The social, cultural, and political dimensions of clothing

Clothes are material objects, they are artifacts that tell us their own narratives about the past. They can lead us in a variety of directions, be it through personal ownership, first and secondhand markets, issues related to the supply chain, or sustainability. All of those things come to life through our clothes. Every day when we make that choice to get dressed, we are making a conscious choice to do so, considering a number of different personal and social factors.

The history and racialization of fashion studies

Africanists have been doing work related to fashion, dress, and power for decades. They offered a really great model for me, in the field of African history, African studies, Asian history, Asian studies, and Asian American studies. These are fields that have long seen the value in this type of critical engagement. It’s a way to talk about governmental politics, geopolitics, and economic concerns. Scholars of North American history and studies are really just starting to engage in these fields in ways that other scholars have long been doing.

Tanisha’s desire to bring creative energy to her writing

This is the work that fuels my soul. How can I use the arts and the written word to get my community free? For me, I look back at other historical moments like the 1990s and being a young Black girl coming of age, or the 1970s and hearing the stories from the 1970s from my parents about the Black Arts movement.

Tanisha’s advice for doing innovative work

My best piece of advice is to be bold. Whether you want to become a professor, an archivist, a public historian, work in museum spaces, or historical societies, I think the key is to be bold. You have to be true to yourself as a thinker and as a creative. Create the project that resonates most in your own spirit, but that also has those sound methods for whatever field you see yourself going into. While you’re doing that, you are also networking with like-minds and those that have institutional power in the spaces that you want to be. It’s that bold thinking that allows you to give the world something new.

Public scholarship

I love writing for public audiences, and not just writing for them, but engaging with them. I find that when I write public pieces, you get this instantaneous response from people. You can even see how your thoughts generate other thoughts among different groups of people who engage with the work, and how then those conversations inspire your thinking. Public writing is a way to really have this instantaneous engagement with our ideas. The ideas don’t necessarily have to be fully formed and ready for peer review before you introduce them to the world.

Imagining otherwise

First and foremost, I want a world where my loved ones can make it home safely at night. Where I don’t have to worry that they will be assaulted, arrested, unfairly jailed, murdered by agents of the state, by vigilantes, by people who have a fear of Black bodies, trans bodies, gender nonconforming bodies, and differently abled bodies. That is my first and foremost goal, we as a global society recognize each other’s humanity, as beings who have loved ones, who are attached to the community, who have dreams and goals and visions and talents. Far too often. that’s not how people on the margins and the margins of the margins are seen. For me, my life’s work is really invested in that so we can be safe to be free. Free to love, free to create, and to imagine the world that we want to live in.

More from Tanisha C. Ford

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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    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 45 and my guest today is Tanisha C. Ford. Tanisha is an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware.

    She is the author of the book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), which narrates the powerful intertwining histories of the Black Freedom movement and the rise of the global fashion industry.

    Tanisha studies social movement history, feminist issues, material culture, popular culture and entertainment, and fashion, beauty, and body politics. Her public writing and cultural commentary has been featured in diverse media outlets and publications including the New York Times, the Root, the New YorkerEbonyNPR, and Feministing.

    She is the co-founder of the innovative material culture pop-up lab, TEXTURES.

    In our interview, Tanisha and I talk about how the global fashion industry is bound up with the global fight for Black freedom, what critical fashion studies can gain from historians of the African and Asian diasporas, how Tanisha is building infrastructures for younger scholars and creators to produce social justice-oriented art and scholarship, and how Tanisha uses Black art and Black creative genius to imagine new worlds.

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

    Tanisha C. Ford: I’m glad to be with you.

    Cathy: So you’re the author of a fantastic book called Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about what that book covers.

    Tanisha [01:49]: Well, thank you for calling it a wonderful read. I’m always honored when people think that about my work. Liberated Threads is a book that looks at the intertwining histories of the global fashion industry and the global fight for Black freedom. In particular, I look at how Black women activists, college students, everyday community women, and famous entertainers incorporated dress and hairstyles into their activist strategies. The book roughly covers the period between 1954 to 1994 and is centered in major cities in the United States, South Africa and England.

    Cathy [02:35]: What do you find so compelling about fashion? Because this is a really interesting approach to social to studying social movements.

    Tanisha [02:42]: So when I was writing the book, one of the main questions that was driving me is how does this choice that we all make every day about what we’re wearing influence or impact society writ large? So just starting off with that.

    Dress allows me to get up every day and for me that offers a window into the past. So we can think of the clothes we wear as material objects and as such they are these artifacts that tell their own narrative about the past. They can lead us in a variety of different directions, be it through personal ownership, first- and second-hand markets, and issues related to the supply chain and sustainability. All those things kind of come to life through our clothes.

    But there’s also this emotional side of our clothes. We carry around so much emotional energy in our clothing, in ways we don’t even realize. So every day, when we make that choice to get dressed, we are making a conscious choice to do so considering a number of different personal and social factors. Because of that, our clothing often carries around our collective social anxieties over things like race, gender, sexuality, religion, and class.

    The dressed body becomes a space where desire and power meet and that for me is a really interesting space of historical but also contemporary analysis.

    Cathy [04:20]: It seems like there’s an increasing, although perhaps still rather small, body of critical work that’s looking at fashion and style from this kind of political or social movement perspective. And it’s really exciting to see that grow. But it’s also still an underdeveloped field—in the academy at least. I’m curious what you want to see out of this critical field. Are there directions you’d like to see scholars take this or ways that you want them to build on your own work or the work of people that you’ve been inspired by?

    Tanisha [04:54]: When I went to go write my first book Liberated Threads, I looked to see what Africanists were doing because I found that African historians have been doing work related to fashion, dress, and power for decades. So they offered a really great model.

    The fields of African history, African studies, Asian history, Asian Studies, and even Asian American studies—these are fields that have long seen the value in this type of critical engagement. It’s a way to talk about governmental politics, geopolitics, and economic concerns. Scholars of North American history and studies are really just starting to engage in these fields in ways that other scholars have long been. I’m excited to see what some of this work looks like because, when I think about the US context in particular, a lot of that scholarship is being conducted by produced by people who have training in apparel, design, textile production, etc.

    [06:16] But in more recent years, I see historians and performance studies scholars ethnographers starting to add their voices to the conversation. So I’m happy to see that—that they are more or less engaging in this work.

    But in addition to finding these new directions in the field, we also have to make the work legible to the academy, to make the academy understand the value of that work. What that means is that we need to build institutional structures in order to support the type of work that we’re doing and that we want to see. In this stage of my career post-tenure, that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve been concerned with: not just what topics I want to produce in my own work but how can I create a space for the scholars who come after me to be able to do this work, gain tenure, and do all the amazing things professionally that they want to do.

    [07:20] So I’ve been working with Fashion Studies, which is a journal, the first open-access fashion studies journal. It’s actually headquartered at Ryerson University in Canada.

    I’ve also worked to establish my own pop-up material culture lab called TEXTURES. Through TEXTURES we’re trying to show a broad audience the importance of cultural studies, fashion being one form of cultural studies, and use the pop-up format as a way to have people think critically about their things. Like why are we obsessed with things, why are we obsessed with smartphones and laptops and, and clothing and shoes and handbags? Why are we obsessed with these things and what can studying the obsession help us understand about ourselves as a people, help us understand about resistance, and so forth?

    I want to create an infrastructure so that younger scholars, cultural producers, and curators can produce the types of work that engage questions related to power, gender, race, sexuality, and class in really interesting and imaginative ways that perhaps weren’t even possible for me when I was in graduate school or in the early stages of my career.

    Cathy [08:56]: I think this is a really good example of how you bring together your scholarly interests with an interest in art and activism. It seems like that’s a natural braid for all of your projects and you also do a really good job of making scholarly inquiry accessible to multiple audiences. You do a lot of public intellectual work, you do a lot of public writing on everything from Black feminisms to the politics of fashion to the prison industrial complex. You do a really good job of demonstrating how these things are all interwoven with each other. What draws you to that intersection of art, activism, and academia?

    Tanisha [09:35]: Well, it’s really my happy space. I mean, that’s the work that most reflects the dimensions of my personality. At my core, I’m a creative soul.

    Since I was a young girl, I’ve been a dancer. I’ve performed with dance companies throughout college and even taught classes as a way to supplement my meager grad student stipend. I was involved in performances and theater and drama. Even still to this day, I dance. I take classes at the Alvin Ailey Studio in New York City and I’ve been studying samba, an Afro-Brazilian dance, for the past couple of years.

    This is the work that fuels my soul. Getting to think creatively and bring that creative energy to my writing is the best part about this job. And post-tenure, I’ve had a chance to do more of this work.

    I’m always thinking about how can I use the arts, how can I use the written word, to get my community free?

    [10:55] I look back at other historical moments—the 1990s, which were a huge influence on me as a young Black girl coming of age, the 1970s, hearing the stories from my parents about the Black arts movement.

    I have long understood that our Black creative genius is a way for us to imagine a new world, imagine the world that we want to live in. I’m constantly trying to think about how I can use my own Black girl creativity to contribute to not only the conversations we’re having but to the ways that we think about enacting social change. So I love partnering with community organizations to think about the connections between the kind of academic or intellectual questions I’m asking and my own creative interests and their own strategies for social justice in the community.

    [12:07] It’s the work, as I said, that I find most fulfilling. That’s why I was happy to collaborate with my really good friend from graduate school, Siobhan Carter-David, who is a history professor at Southern Connecticut State University, and Brandi Thompson Summers, who is a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, to form TEXTURES. For us, TEXTURES is a way to think about those layers. So it’s a way to think about how art and activism and scholarly thinking and engagement come together in a way that just makes sense. Instead of thinking about ways to flatten out those intersections or that braiding that you mentioned, we can think of ways to see how those things build upon one another—how they each have their own texture, their own field, but collectively they do something innovative for us as thinkers, as intellectuals, as creatives, as curators. And so I’m excited to see where we can go with that.

    [13:13] Ss I think about who I want to be in the world —as a scholar, as a mentor, as an activist—I think about the people who offer models for me about what this could look like. One of those people is definitely Deborah Willis at NYU. She offers a great model for what I want my post-tenure life to look like. All the great work she does with Black portraitures. She really helps me imagine what my contributions could look like both to the academy but also in the very important spaces beyond the academy, the spaces that we—as Black folks, as trans folks of color, as gender nonconforming folks of color, as differently abled folks of color—have to engage in every day that are so socially violent and emotionally violent. How we can use culture as a way to think about our engagement and our impact in those spaces as well as the space within the academy?

    Cathy [14:20]: Do you have any words of wisdom for folks who are interested in exploring these intersections or integrating areas of their life that they previously haven’t braided together?

    Tanisha [14:34]: Well, my best piece of advice would be to be bold. That might seem like something that’s irresponsible to say in this job market today, where we see people struggling to gain adequate employment that comes with a living wage and health insurance. The academy is becoming more and more dependent upon contingent labor—labor that it often exploited. But I still think that this is the best way to approach doing any type of work you do, whether you want to become a professor or whether your goal is to be an archivist or to be a curator or to be a public historian and work in museum spaces and historical societies. I think the key really is to be bold.

    [15:40] At the University of Delaware, we have a PhD initiative in African American public humanities. The goal of the initiative is to rethink what graduate education should look like so that we’re not just training graduate students to imagine a career in the academy. All sorts of other careers are related to African American public humanities and this is what I tell the students that I mentor all the time.

    You really have to be bold and be true to yourself as a thinker, as a creative. [You have to] create the project that resonates most in your own spirit, but that has those sound methods that, if  you do see yourself going into that field, people can recognize. While you’re doing that, you’re forming networks with like-minded people and with those who have institutional power in the space that you want to be.

    But it’s that bold thinking that allows you to give the world something new and that’s what we need. We need innovative thinkers, creative thinkers. We need bold thinkers: people who don’t want to have to color in the lines. Those are the types of students that I love working with: the students who already see that vision and really want to move in the direction. I’m really grateful to my mentors at Indiana University who allowed me to do just that. They allowed me to be bold in my work, so I want to inspire other people to be bold.

    Cathy [17:03]: It seems like one of the key ways you do that is to write for multiple audiences. You obviously publish scholarship for scholarly colleagues, for other academics, or folks who are interested in reading academic work. But you also, as I mentioned before, write quite a bit of public writing. How have you have learned to adapt your voice or maybe the tone that you employ for these different audiences who are seeking different things from what they’re reading?

    Tanisha [17:31]: So when I wrote the introduction—no, it wasn’t even an introduction, it was the acknowledgements—to Liberated Threads, I begin by thanking my parents because they gave me this education on Black feminism, on fashion, on Black music, on the 1960s and 1970s, long before I ever went to college. Because of that, I’m always thinking beyond the space of the academy.

    My natural conversation partners aren’t just other people with “PhD” behind their name. It’s the everyday people that I grew up with. It’s the people in the communities that helped to shape me and it’s those communities that shaped me more than I would even say the academic space. Because of that, I’ve always seen myself as wanting to stay connected, grounded in, inspired by, and learning from those communities. So I want to always write things where I can engage with these multiple audiences.

    [18:35] I love thinking with my colleagues. I love going to academic conferences and engaging with people. I love writing books for academic presses, but I also love writing for public audiences as well and not just writing for them but engaging with them.

    I find that when you write public pieces, you get this instantaneous response from people and you can even see how your thoughts generate other thoughts among different groups of people who engage with a work and how then those conversations inspire your thinking. So public writing is a way to have an instantaneous engagement with our ideas. The ideas don’t necessarily have to be fully formed and ready for peer review before you introduced them to the world.

    [19:30] Now, as you mentioned, the challenge of that though is finding the right pitch, first and foremost, for various publications. That means developing relationships with the editors at the publications to know what they’re looking for, what kinds of pieces are they looking to publish in their online magazine or on their blog at that given moment. That helps you figure out how to pitch to them, how to create a story that their readership would want and that they want to publish at that moment.

    Related to that is that you have to understand what kind of language that audience is familiar with and how they’re used to using it. When I say language, I’m not talking about two-syllable words versus five-syllable words. I’m talking about a cultural and political language. If you come introducing ideas like intersectionality or misogynoir, would that audience know those terms? How could you communicate those ideas in a way that’s equally engaging but that is not so caught up in the jargon of it all?

    [20:40] It’s a skill. And to be honest with you, I’m still learning how to develop that skill. It’s one of my personal goals to learn how to write in as many voices as possible. I think the closer I get to doing that, the more I start to see myself as a writer and not just as a scholar.

    Cathy: What are you working on now? It sounds like you got a lot of fun projects cooking.

    Tanisha: Well, you know me, I always have my hands in multiple things. I think it is just part of the way that I’m wired.

    So I’m working on a couple of book projects. The first is one that’s under contract and actually due sooner then I probably am ready for, is a book on fashion and appropriation. So I’m using a Black-Power-to-Black-Lives-Matter temporal framing to talk about why appropriation hurts, why it’s a problem.

    [21:40] Oftentimes when we think about appropriation, we’re using a model of theft and we’re thinking about the response that people have to having something stolen from them. But for book, the aim of it is to help us rethink how we’re defining appropriation by understanding the histories and the relationships, especially the emotional relationships, that people of African descent have had with their clothing and how those relationships have shaped and informed what we have come to understand are some of the most salient political and cultural issues of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. So I’m working on that.

    I’m also doing some archival research for a book on Black women activists, socialites who were the main fundraisers for the Black freedom struggle.

    [22:40] And as I mentioned, I’m doing a lot of work with TEXTURES. Were really trying to get that off the ground. We’ve established a social media presence on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. You can find us at @TexturesMCLab.

    We’re also scheduling different pop-ups where we pop up in spaces where blackness oftentimes isn’t expected, like in museums and in other public forums and events, to speak with the curators  tough questions about how they curated certain things as they relate to blackness or where blackness is absent.

    I’m also on the planning committee for a material culture conference at Dillard university. It’s going to be huge. It’s one of the first conferences of its kind and it’s really great to have that conversation at an HBCU [historically black colleges or university], especially in the unique location of New Orleans, which allows us to have a variety of conversations about Black people and our engagement with the material world and the built environment. A

    I’m also lastly doing some work with Kwame Brathwaite Photography to archive the history and legacy of photographer Kwame Brathwaite, who was part of a collective that coined the phrase “Black is beautiful.” We want to bring his photography and the intellectual and political philosophy of the African Jazz Arts Society to a broader audience,

    Cathy [24:13]: This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, and in many ways your work is exemplary of this, which is that world that you’re working towards when you do all these projects. When you create whatever it is that you create in the universe, when you bring together all of these interests in social justice, work, in art, in scholarly inquiry, it’s that world that you want to bring into being in the present. So this is a big question. Some people find it a scary question. But I think it’s a really important question that we don’t ask each other enough and we don’t get enough chances to answer. So I’ll ask you, what’s that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

    Tanisha [24:53]: Well, first and foremost, I want a world where my loved ones can make it home safely at night, where I don’t have to worry that they will be assaulted, arrested, unfairly jailed, murdered by agents of the state, by vigilantes, by people who have a fear of Black bodies, of trans bodies, of gender nonconforming bodies, of differently abled bodies. That’s my first and foremost goal.

    Embedded in that goal is the idea that we as a global society recognize each other’s humanity, that we see each other as humans, as beings who have loved ones who are attached to communities, who have dreams and goals and visions and talent. Far too often, that’s not how people on the margins of this society are seen.

    My life’s work is really invested in that so we can be safe and be free: free to love, free to create, free to imagine the world that we want to live in. That’s why I believe that this is really an important question that does really get straight to the heart of what motivates me, what drives my work, and I won’t be satisfied until I either see that world or know that I have planted enough good seeds in the earth that those who come after me will see that world.

    Cathy [26:42]: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing your vision of imagining otherwise.

    Tanisha: Thank you for having me, Cathy, it’s definitely been a pleasure.

    Cathy [26:58]: [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, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, Alexandra Sastre, 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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