How can Shambhala Buddhist meditation and other body practices help writers manage stress and express their ideas? How might queer hip hop artists and forms provide models for worldmaking? How can Afro-pessimism and Afro-futurism help us to imagine a more conscious world?
In episode 46 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Shanté Paradigm Smalls about their journey with Shambhala Buddhist meditation; their research on the collision of race, gender, and sexuality in queer hip hop cultures; building a critical practice around embodiment; and how working towards an enlightened society is critical to how they imagine otherwise.
Guest: Shanté Paradigm Smalls
Shanté is a performer and performance studies scholar who works at the intersection of blackness, popular culture, and critical theory.
They are an assistant professor of Black Literature and Culture at St. John’s University in the Department of English.
Shanté is currently writing a book called Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City, which won the prestigious 2016 CLAGS Fellowship Award for Best First Book Project in LGBTQ Studies.
Their writing has appeared in The Black Scholar, GLQ, Lateral, Women & Performance, and the forthcoming volumes The Oxford Handbook of Queerness and Music and The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies.
We chatted about
- An overview of Shambhala Buddhism (1:38)
- Meditation and mindfulness during graduate school (3:40)
- How meditation shapes Shanté’s teaching practice (9:21)
- Shanté’s Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City book project (11:44)
- Difficulty and pain in the writing process (14:09)
- Martin Wong, graffiti, and Afro-Asian relationships in hip hop culture (16:07)
- Shanté’s advice to their younger self (19:00)
- How and why Shanté built a critical practice around bodies (21:16)
- The relationship between art, academic work, and social justice work (25:03)
- Imagining otherwise (29:21)
Meditation and being present
Everyone and anyone can do it. There’s no special skill except being a human being. Meditation is not about clearing your mind, [having] no thoughts or a calm mind. Rather, it’s about seeing what’s happening in your mind. So if my mind is very stormy, then I relax with that storm. If my mind is very thinky or busy, just noticing that and being with it. Not trying to change it or judge it, or wish I had another mind. If my mind is super calm, then just enjoying that too. If it’s all of those things in a session, that’s fine too.
Teaching and working with space
The most visible [usage of mediative practice] to me is really in the classroom, in terms of being able to work with space—both in terms of my own relationship with students and knowing how to work with silence. [It’s about] being comfortable with letting people come to their thoughts. A lot of students, even my graduate students, are so shy and feel such a sense of shame around not knowing things. I feel like I’ve been getting better and better every year, and every semester, about letting there just be space and letting silence do it’s work.
Hip hop’s queer aesthetics
I’m looking at how New York City produces art and artists that are working with gender, race, and sexuality. Even people you might not expect. I have chapters on Jay-Z, Jean Grae, film, and visual art, and queer hip hop artists looking at contemporary artists. [The book] makes an argument that hip hop’s aesthetics are really queer, both in terms of LGBTQI people or sexual minorities, but also the way New York City artists think about the relationship between art, visual art, fashion, embodiment, and racialization.
Shanté’s advice to their younger self
I think in part, one of the things I would say to my younger self is: you can do it. And to be fearless. For a long time I was like ‘Am I an artist or am I an athlete?’…I was a very serious athlete, and I was also a very serious performer and singer. I was acting and writing. And it always felt like those things were incommensurate. I hid a lot of things that I enjoyed because it seemed like they weren’t going to bear fruit. It really wasn’t until I graduated college, and really in graduate school, where I felt like ‘oh I can do all those things.’ I think what I would say to my younger self is to just do it all, enjoy it all, enjoy what you enjoy, and it doesn’t have to have a career attached to it.
Sometimes the body, particularly in terms of Black bodies, Black philosophy, and Black theorization or embodiment, gets kind of a bad rap as if it’s reductionist. But for me, it’s not that the Black body is only a body or that a Black person is only a body, but rather thinking about the ways that our relationships to bodies are complex and often unconscious or uncanny. I am curious about about how embodiment theorizes or refigures theorization. We have these bodies. Bodies are real, as real as anything is. So what do we do in relationship to the limits of the body, the possibilities of the body, or even the dissatisfaction with the body?
One of the things that drew me to Shambhala, the Buddhist practice, was the idea of enlightened society which I had never really heard of. It’s kind of unique in Buddhism. It’s not simply talking about personal liberation or even helping others to wake up. It’s really saying that there’s a fundamental wisdom that we have as human beings and as a society…There’s a fundamental wisdom that’s been obscured by a lot of our patterns. There’s a possibility for us to wake up and not have everything be bliss, but there’s a possibility for us to be much more skillful in how we relate to ourselves and to conflict. I trust that, implicitly….Anything that’s connected to that kind of waking up, that’s connected to that kind of wisdom, that’s what I am for.
More from Shanté Paradigm Smalls
- Shanté’s website
- Shanté at St. Johns University
- Shanté’s publications and other projects
- Shanté’s Twitter
Projects and people discussed
- Shambhala Buddhism
- Chögyam Trungpa
- The Shambhala Center of New York
- Dharma Punx
- Pema Chödrön
- Deconstruction (Literary Theory)
- Downtown Collection at Fales Library @ NYU
- Martin Wong
- Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong
- Martin Wong’s Museum of American Graffiti works
- Martin Wong and Graffiti Art
- Wildstyle (film)
- Last Dragon (film)
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
- Tavia Nyong’o
- GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies
- On the Visceral (Part One): Race, Sex and Other Gut Feelings
- On the Visceral (Part 2)
- Jean Grae
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.
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]
[00:23] This is episode 46, and my guest this week is Shanté Paradigm Smalls. Shanté is a performer and performance study scholar who works at the intersection of blackness, popular culture and critical theory.
Shanté is an assistant professor of Black literature and culture at St John’s University in the Department of English.
Shanté is currently writing a book called Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City, which won the prestigious 2016 CLAGS Fellowship Award for the best first book project in LGBTQ Studies. Shanté’s writing has appeared in The Black Scholar, GLQ, Lateral, Women & Performance, and the forthcoming volumes The Oxford Handbook of Queerness and Music and The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies.
In our conversation, Shanté explains how hip hop is an innately queer aesthetic form, what Shambhala Buddhist meditation can offer to stressed out academics, what writing and running have to do with one another, and how both Afro-pessimism AND Afro-futurism help us imagine otherwise.
[To Shanté] So thank you so much for being with us today.
Shanté Paradigm Smalls [01:30]: Thanks for having me, Cathy.
Cathy [01:32]: I would love to start off not with your scholarship—we will get there in a minute—but with your meditation practice because I think this is something that some folks might not know about you and certainly something that a lot of our listeners could benefit from learning a bit more about, as could all academics, I suppose.
Shanté: Yes, indeed.
Cathy: So what kind of meditation practice do you do and how did you get into that?
Shanté [01:58]: I am a Shambhala Buddhist.Shambhala is a western Tibetan community or a sangha. It involves a meditation practice. It was started by a gentleman named Chögyam Trungpa who fled Tibet in the late 1960s after the Chinese communist invasion and eventually made his way to the States after going to Dharamsala, India, and Scotland. So it’s a Tibetan lineage but with a lot of simplicity and really translated for Westerners.
I originally got interested in Buddhism when I was a teenager, when I was around 16. I was interested in that kind of religious way and kind of intellectual way. Then I met some young punk rockers who were also meditators. They were part of another sangha called Dharma Punx. It kind of revolutionized or changed the way I thought about Buddhism. I think I had very orientalist views of meditation and Buddhism, as many Americans and Westerners do.
[03:04] So I dibbled and dabbled through my teenage years and in my early twenties and then I’m really fell intoShambhala through reading, which maybe isn’t surprising for an academic. Both the books of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön, who a lot of people may have maybe heard of said. She’s a Buddhist nun in the Shambhala tradition.
I was really struck by the way they were talking about Buddhism, which was very simple and it was very clear and also was very sort of dynamic. So I was reading all these books and listening to a bunch of podcasts. I started practicing and eventually realized through Google that there was a Shambhala center in Manhattan. I started going in 2006 and have been practicing ever since.
[03:55] Meditation and yoga really helped me get through survive graduate school. I don’t drink coffee, which a lot of people find crazy. And I’m not a bar person. So after classes, people were like, “Oh, we’re going to the bar.” And I’d be like, “Oh, I’m going to yoga or meditation open house or whatever.” I really found a sense of sanity and self-worth and kind of balancing.
I went to a pretty generous program in terms of some of the kind of competition and eradication of competence that can help in happen in grad school. But even still, the kind of depletion that I felt in graduate school was very real. Having a meditation practice was a counterpoint to all the deconstruction I was doing in part because the Buddhists have done that for 2,500 years!
Buddhist philosophy is incredibly innate and really complex, but there’s also this really simple—not easy but very simple—practice of sitting meditation. It is a part of a whole tradition of meditation, study, and contemplation and I really found that was a compliment to the study-only aspect of graduate school.
Cathy [05:18]: It seems ideal for many communities but for academics in particular because so much of academic work is in your head. It’s in your own head, by yourself. We converse with each other and we are part of broader conversations obviously, but so much of that critical work of trying to figure out what is this argument mean? What am I trying to say? How does this idea relate to this other one? Where did this idea come from and what does that mean? That’s between our ears. So it seems like meditation is a really interesting way to get into your body.
Shanté [05:51]: Yes. In fact, this kind of I would sanity or even competence is really related to this ability to synchronize body and mind. I don’t know about you, but I know for much of my life I had a habit of my body being one place in my mind being in another. That’s part of the sweetness of being a dreamer and a thinker. But sometimes that way of being, I became quite over-reliant on it and I found it difficult to be where I was at.
Some of these things may sound very new age, but it’s actually kind of old age in the sense that this is really just ancient, simple wisdom from regular folks who passed it down to reach me.
[06:43] One of the things I was really nervous about when I started a meditation practice was I felt like, “Am I going to be able to be a scholar and academic?” It wasn’t about me not having thoughts or not being a researcher. In fact, it was more about me being a human. I’m learning about how to be a human being and that really has benefited the work that I do.
Sometimes you see these really great ads for these meditation apps and it’s like “Be like Olympic-level athletes! Meditation has helped me be the best biker or the best runner!” And certainly there’s scientific data that has supported what Buddhist meditation practitioners have been saying for thousands of years. It helps your focus and helps your blood pressure. It helps your attention to your legs. But it also it just helped me to relax into who I was and to not have so many conversations with people who aren’t there that weren’t generative or productive.
[07:40] [It helped] a lot of the anxiety I felt as a graduate student. Very early in my academic career, when I first went on the [academic job] market, it was really helpful to have this alternative worldview or alternative way of working with my life so that I had a network of support and tools rather than just relying on thinking my way out of everything.
Cathy: What do you wish more people knew about meditation?
Shanté: I wish more people knew that everyone and anyone can do it. There’s no special skill except for being a human being. And that meditation isn’t about clearing your mind but it’s rather about seeing what’s happening in your mind. So if my mind is very stormy, it means relaxing with that storm. Or if my mind is very thinky or busy, I’m just noticing that being with it, not trying to change it or judge it or wish I had another mind. And if my mind is super calm, then just enjoying that too. And if it’s all of those things in a a kind of session, that’s fine too.
[08:39] I think a lot of people think, “Oh, I meditation sounds like a good idea, but I can’t do it.” But if you ever thought about yourself, placed your attention on yourself or a project, then you can meditate because it is about this relationship between paying attention to an object and also being aware of your surroundings. We all do that anytime we sit at the computer and hear someone come into the room, we’re practicing mindfulness and awareness. So it’s much more reachable than people imagine it to be.
Cathy [09:19]: You mentioned that meditation was really useful in graduate school and I can certainly see how that would be. Have you found it’s shaped your other roles in academia, maybe scholarship or research or teaching? Have you found it useful in these other academic spaces?
Shanté [09:35]: The most visible one to me is in the classroom in terms of being able to work with space and knowing how to work with space both in terms of my own relationship in the classroom with students and also being very comfortable with silence and being very comfortable with letting people come to their thoughts.
A lot of students, even my graduate students, are so shy and feel such a sense of shame around not knowing things. I feel like I’ve been getting better and better every year, every semester, at letting there be space and letting there be letting silence do its work. It lets thoughts settle and lets people not know and to wonder and to space out or whatever. And not having to be so much activity in that way but letting the wisdom arise from a sense of spaciousness.
Cathy [10:30]: The issue of letting silence happened in the classroom is so hard for so many people. I think a lot of folks would find this a useful tool.
Shanté [10:38]: Yeah. It can be super uncomfortable. It’s like, “Okay, are they spacing out?
Cathy: Am I doing something wrong?
Shanté: Am I an idiot? But it’s learning how to work with that silence as a part of dialogue. Actually, ideas come from that.
There was some study, I don’t remember, it was maybe a decade ago. It was a study on the gap between a question and answer and it was like 0.1 second. It was almost an overlap. Right before their professor even finished the question, there was the answer. I think that kind of like anxiety and learning ability obviously has its place. But it’s highly overused and I think we come to expect that in the classroom and then what happens when there’s a lot of space? People are super shy or there’s one person who talks. Having that person or those people who are always ready to talk learn to work with space is really fascinating.
Cathy [11:43]: I definitely want to come back to your scholarship here and because you have written a really fantastic book that I’m very excited to see out.
Shanté [12:01]: Well, it’s a manuscript. [laughs]
Cathy: It’s a book manuscript—that counts!
Shanté: I’m revising with your tremendous insight and editorial prowess. I’m really looking forward to seeing the revisions, how they turn out.
Cathy [12:12]: So tell us a little bit about that book. What does it cover?
Shanté [12:16]: So, it’s called Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City, [and it is] looking from 1975 to the present how New York City produces art and artists that are working with gender, race, and sexuality, even people you might not suspect. Like, I have a chapter on Jay Z, a chapter on Jean Grae, a chapter on film and on visual art. Actually, I’m revising that chapter. I’m writing a whole new chapter on queer hip hop artists, but that’s looking at contemporary artists rather than the historical chapter that I originally had, an ethnographic, historical chapter.
It’s making this argument that hip hop’s aesthetics are really queer both in terms of LGBTQ or sexual minorities, but also in terms of the way that New York City artists think about the relationship between visual art, fashion, embodiment, race, and racialization. The kinds of content they talk about, the complex ways that these artists think about and construct hip hop’s world that I think has been reduced to a very, very, very narrow or the tippity top confines of popular culture or popular hip hop. The argument I’m making is that hip hop is a deeply aesthetic form that’s highly citational and highly referential. I’m really invested in thinking deeply about worldmaking.
Cathy [13:48]: I think that’s really necessary. You’re bringing together fields that don’t often talk to each other very much. This book has gotten a lot of praise already. It’s not even out yet, and it’s won book prizes. It has a lot of momentum behind it and I think it answers a lot of need in our public conversations today.
Shanté [14:07]: That’s really great to hear. Going back to what you were saying about writing, you know, writing is, for me, still quite painful and very lonely.
Cathy: I think it’s painful for a lot of people.
Shanté: I remember in graduate school, I was reading Haruki Murakami’s book called oh gosh, I think it was called…
Cathy: What I Think about When I Go Running?
Shanté: What I Talk about When I Go Running, or something like that. It was really helpful. At the time, I was running a lot. I was training for a marathon, which never happened by the way. But I would run and then read that and then write. I was experiencing the pain, the physical pain, of when I was finishing my dissertation. I was writing (I can’t do this anymore, but) I was writing for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day.
[14:50]: Now, two hours in I’m like, “Ugh, I gotta go stretch, find my yoga mat.” But the physical pain of both running and writing [were there]. One of the things that happens with writing is, you maybe have an editor or you have a developmental editor or maybe you have readers. I do have a reading group reading and writing group too, and they give you feedback.
When your baby is done and it goes out into the world and then of the whatever 100—or if you’re lucky, 10,000—people that read it, 90 percent of them will be super critical. And I don’t mean critical as in “This is what I found helpful. There were just some theoretical gaps here, but I can do better and I’m going to therefore use your work to build my own work.”
We’re in a very interesting kind of career field where a lot of people produce a lot of writing and there’s a lot of good writing that doesn’t get read. So it’s very nice to hear people say that they’re looking forward to this book. I’m looking forward to finishing it and having it be out in the world and hearing people’s responses.
Hip hop completely changed my life, so much so that I went and got a PhD so I could talk about hip hop. I’m trying to get some of that in this book.
Cathy [16:07]: What was one of the more surprising or interesting things that you found in the process of doing research? I find those stories are always the most fun—those things that we didn’t expect, that we stumbled across, or that surprised us in the process. So I’d love to hear one of yours.
Shanté [16:21]: Totally. So I took a class on archiving with my dissertation director, Tavia Nyong’o. I went to the NYU Performance Studies [Program]. We had our class in the library. And in the very famous Fales Downtown Collection, which is a really amazing performance archive, I came across during one of the assignments, this guy named Martin Wong. At the time, very little was written [on him]. There’s still not enough written about him in terms of the level of work that he did, but there was I think at the time, one book coming out or one book out called Sweet Oblivion, which was a New Museum book.
[17:17] I came across his archive that had his papers. I was like, “Who is this? I’ve never heard this guy.” He had started the American Museum of Graffiti, which only lasted for three months. It’s now on Bond street, 1 Bond Street, where that is.
He was really good friends with Charlie Ahearn, who directed Wild Style, the first mainstream hip hop film. They were two more right before that. He [Wong] really connected the graffiti scene and the downtown art scene. And I was like, “Whoa, why has no one written about this guy?”
In his papers, there’s a beautiful, carved out Styrofoam cutout of Wild Style’s logo in in the wild style that I believe he made. SoI really stumbled upon my archive in the archives and it doesn’t always happen like that in a class. For me, [it started] this relationship that I’ve had with this artist who died in 1989 for the last 12 years or so—because of this class.
[18:20] It really proved or illuminated what I had been trying to write about and think about in terms of Afro-Asian relationships in hip hop culture, specifically thinking about Chinese-Black relationships inside of hip hop culture. I was looking for these different linchpins, of which Martin Wong was one.
[In the book,] also I write about the film The Last Dragon. And so finding that was like, I was like, “Oh my goodness. I was actually right.” I wasn’t just making this up. It wasn’t my own fantasy based on my childhood. They are actually cultural workers who bore this out.
Cathy [18:58]: You mentioned your younger self and one of the things I like to talk about on this podcast. It doesn’t come up in every episode but every once in a while someone will say something like, “Oh, I wish I had known this about my art practice, or I wish I had known this earlier about my approach to the world and I could’ve saved myself all this time and heartache or whatever.” So I’m curious, if you could give advice to your younger self, whatever version of that self, about careers, about activism, about self care, about meditation, about anything, what do you wish you had known?
Shanté [19:37]: Wow, what a great question. It’s sort of unanswerable but let me try. I mean, it’s a total contemplation, but I think one of the things I would say to my younger self is you can do it. And to be fearless.
For a long time, I was like, “Am I an artist or am I an athlete?” That was my big question through college and I found myself splitting my time between a dream of playing Olympic soccer, which I never achieved because I stopped playing. I was a very serious athlete and I was also very serious performer and singer and actor and writer. It always felt like those things were incommensurate. I quit a lot of things that I enjoyed because it seemed like they weren’t going to bear fruit. It really wasn’t until after college and then really in graduate school where I felt like, “Oh, I can do all these things.”
Shanté [20:35]: So I think I would say to my younger self just do it all. Enjoy it all. Enjoy what you enjoy. There doesn’t have to have be a career attached to it. I am glad that I did try to have a career as a musician, for about 10 years. It was great and there were some close calls of seemingly more popularity. That never took off, but I got to have really great experiences and also got to meet a lot of amazing people—people in the music industry and television and film. I think I would say my younger self, do all that and more.
Cathy [21:15]: I think that’s pretty good advice. I’d love to come back to this question of bodies because in many ways you could say that bodies is the unifying theme across all your work. I mean there are other themes that we can get to in a minute, but from your meditation practice to your interest in hip hop, to your almost-performance career, to your experience as an athlete, and your approach to the classroom too, bodies are so central to everything that you do. I’m curious what draws you to bodies or embodiment.
Shanté [21:47]: I think sometimes the body, particularly in terms of Black bodies in Black philosophy and Black theorization, the body or embodiment gets kind of a bad rap as if it’s reductionist. But for me, it’s not that the Black body is only a body or the Black person is only a body. But our relationships with bodies is very complex and often super unconscious and uncanny even and very not deliberate.
I really am curious about not so much kinesthesia but embodiment—how embodiment theorizes or refigures theorization. We have these bodies. Bodies as real as anything is. And so what do we do in relationship to the limits of the body or the possibilities of the body or the dissatisfaction of the body.
[22:56] These are, I think, really tough, complex questions that no one person has an answer to. Trying to create some space where those things can even be discussed or at least brought up, hinted toward, is super important for me.
I’ve always found some solace in the body and as someone who experienced traumatic health at a very young age, I think I became even more interested. [When] I was in graduate school, I became very interested in what the body could and couldn’t do. I had to learn about being in a body that was no longer healthy, that was like a sick body or pathologized body in the medical sense that my body is one that is forevermore connected to pathology, to pathogens.
Shanté [23:50] So I became really interested in what my relationship to my body had been as an athlete and that machine-like quality or machine-like attitude I had towards my body. [First] optimization, watching everything I ate, and a strict relationship to time and workouts and then going into a different kind of relation with my body when I really got serious about meditation and yoga and then getting sick. All those things are a part of my history.
We don’t talk enough about bodies in a real way in academia. It’s very funny. We will theorize about bodies without actually talking about what the body does. [An exception is] the double issue of GLQ that came out last year or the year before on the visceral and thinking about what the body can produce and excess.
Having a relationship to body practices has influenced how I think about the bodies I’m talking about in my work, which has been very interesting. It’s not something that I really expected.
Cathy [25:00]: Does this have a kind of political tinge for you? So much of your work is drawing together these creative fields—art and performance and hip hop music—with a political edge to them or a social justice impetus behind them. How do you see the relationship between art and your work in academia and your social justice activism?
Shanté [25:27]: I definitely feel that art and performance and even entertainment are incredibly viable and vital and very important political tools for me, but also for the world. I think about the kind of life-saving or the vital quality of artmaking and performance and the interventions that art does that sometimes can’t be done in other formats or forms. So I’m very interested in the political.
[26:23] I’m very interested a kind of localization of politics. For instance, I think about someone like Jean Grae, whose career I’ve followed for a long time, whose work I find to be so amazing. [Her work also] personally helped me through a lot. I’ve watched her make choices that were really political around how she was going to be inside of the music industry. In many ways, her refusing a certain kind of construct had consequences for her monetarily and politically and for her career. Look at how she’s shaped her career. She’s like this renaissance person who has a cooking blog and does these amazing live show and things and also has music and is a critic and has an R&B band.
[27:20] I think those are political acts. How do we stay alive and make art inside of anti-Black systems of misogynoir. Staying alive and making music is totally political for Black folks in particular.
For me, being a queer, Black, genderqueer academic feels very political, despite who the president is. It feels always very political in terms of the negotiations I have to do not only to stay sane but also the kinds of erasures you experience to your face all the time and the kind of surprise that students have. Sometimes it’s relief, but sometimes they’re completely disoriented, particularly undergraduates. They don’t know what to do with a Black professor at all. It’s very confusing for them. Or the kind of disorientation that you experience with other academics who really think that they understand, they apprehend, everything you do because they’ve heard something on NPR.
How do I navigate dehumanization? Hip hop, if you think about its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, is the navigation of dehumanization. It’s the production that comes out of antiblackness. I like to say I am not an Afro-pessimist, but I will always agree with basic tenants of Afro-pessimism such as [the reality of] antiblackness and the erasure and constant social death that Black people experience.
[28:33] However, I think that it’s not a question of Afro-pessimism versus Afrofuturism, but it’s like if Afro-pessimism is the condition, for me Afrofuturism or performance art is a tactic or strategy to navigate that. To not circumvent and not erase it, but to actually create something in the midst of it.
I think that it’s so incredibly powerful and so deeply valuable that hip hop literally saves people’s lives—not only by giving them a livelihood but giving some people a reason to live or a way to live. That, for me, cannot be overstated. The more different ways that we can think about hip hop cultural production, the better.
Cathy [29:21]: This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which is what all this adds up for you. Obviously the main theme of this podcast is imagining different worlds, better worlds, and creating them in the present. So my question to you is what kind of world are you working towards when you sit down to write your book, when you are engaged in meditation practice, when you get up in front of students in a classroom, when you’re working with these artists and musicians and creatives? What kind of world do you want?
Shanté [29:53]: This is both a very broad but also deeply personal question. So I really thank you for asking that because I think that there’s something very real about this question.
So honestly, at the risk of sounding like a proselytizer, one of the things that I drew me into Shambhala Buddhist practice was this idea of an enlightened society, which I never really heard of. It’s kind of unique inside of Buddhism. We’re not simply talking about personal liberation or even helping others to wake up. It’s really saying that there’s a fundamental wisdom that we have as human beings and as a society and everything—really, plants and animals. There’s a fundamental wisdom that’s been obscured by a lot of our patterns. But actually there’s a possibility for us all to wake up and and not for everything to be bliss, but for us to be much more skillful in how we relate to ourselves and to conflict.
Shanté [30:52]: I trust that implicitly. Even when things are really crazy, we get a lot of pleasure and a kind of energetic kick out of hating someone who’s doing really horrible things. There’s a lot of writing generated about that. I think it’s much harder and much more counterintuitive in a way to say, “What if we put our energy into waking up?” That means building societies within society that are wakeful.
That’s a different way of relating to academia. For some people, that’s leaving academia totally. For some people, that’s having para-academic or ancillary careers. For some people, that’s a mixture. For some people, that’s working on reform in their department or their school or their university. I think anything that’s about waking up and connecting to our basic and intrinsic wisdom—whatever that looks like—is what I’m for.
[31:52] For me, that’s in terms of my scholarship trying to be as genuine as possible and as ethical as possible. I don’t write about anything I don’t enjoy, which is a very interesting point of view. I’ll have lots of criticisms or things to say about, but I write from a place of enjoyment because writing is so hard for me. It’s also because I like to challenge myself to think very critically about these things that I enjoy—why do I enjoy them and what is there to enjoy about them and what are the limits of these objects or these performances.
[32:39] In terms of teaching, I really try not to get bogged down in the things that really annoy me about students or about teaching. I have these experience at times when I see students’ excitement and it almost brings me to tears. It almost brings me to tears. I remember once, [a student] was like, “Dr. Smalls, are you shedding some thug tears?” I was like, “A little bit.” Watching students put things together and talk to each other, where I can just give them some direction but they’re really having these conversations about things that they didn’t think that they knew—that’s like, oh Jimmy. So amazing. Because no matter what they do with their BA or their MBA or their PhD, they’re in the world thinking about things and relating to things.
So yeah, this kind of enlightened society. It’s not enlightenment in terms of everything is bliss, but like I’m awake to what’s happening, to both a beautiful flower and the dog shit I just stepped in. I’m awake to the whole situation and what am I going to do with that and how am I going to proceed?
Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing your vision of imagining otherwise.
Shanté: Thank you for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
Cathy [33:55]: [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]