What is the negative capacity of art and how does it let us imagine otherwise? What tools does queer of color critique offer for building new worlds? What revolutionary futures become visible when we bring a critical scrutiny to our lives and our work?
In episode 64 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with professor Tavia Nyong’o about the ongoing project of Black abolition, repurposing social media platforms to create monthly political salons and counterpublics, how to live the contradictions inherent in public scholarship, and why centering queer of color joy and pleasure is key to how Tavia imagines otherwise.
Guest: Tavia Nyong’o
Tavia Nyong’o teaches black performance studies at Yale University, where he is a professor of American studies, African-American studies, and theater studies.
He is the author of the book The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance and the Ruses of Memory (2009) and his new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, will be out in Fall 2018 from NYU Press.
Tavia also co-edits the journal Social Text and the Sexual Cultures series from NYU Press.
We chatted about
- Tavia’s first book The Amalgamation Waltz and the history of US racialization (01:26)
- The imbrication of race, gender, sexuality, and nationalism (04:52)
- Queer of color critique and critical utopias (06:31)
- Using social media to create public spheres (07:59)
- Tavia’s forthcoming book Afro-Fabulations and critical imaginaries (13:14)
- Imagining otherwise (17:58)
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The US obsession with race mixing
If we go back to 1993 and the now-notorious TIME magazine cover about “the new face of America,” which was a kind of composite image that was supposed to represent the future American, in which our racial divisions would be resolved through race mixing into a single race, that was really the prompt for the dissertation that became the book The Amalgamation Waltz. I wanted to know why American society was so devoted to this fantasy of race mixing as a solution to racism, given that race mixing has been constitutive to how race came to have meaning in American society, and indeed world society. There’s never not been a time in which the races didn’t mix on the North American continent, but there’s still this fantasy of the New American Eve that would somehow resolve this for us.
Theorizing a queer otherworldly future
In terms of queer and queer of color critique, my own guru is José Esteban Muñoz. In response to a lot of debate in the field about what the meaning of queerness is—is it an identity, is it a social relation of power—he argued that queerness was what he called an “ideality.” It was an idea, and also it was a virtual idea…We were not yet queer. Queerness is something that’s to come, it’s on the horizon….[For Muñoz], queerness was an ideality that would enable us to reject the here and now, the limitations of the present world order.
Hacking social media for to create critical public spheres
Facebook and Google are now the corporate states of our time, right? And so the question is, can we claim some of that space back for our own use?
New critical imaginaries
What I look for now, in this close reading and study of contemporary Black art and performance, is artists who are scrutinizing their lives and our lives…When we ask, “Okay, what do we want? What is social justice?” I think it’s a question, and I think art really excels at getting us to be open and honest and vulnerable about what that world is.
I want a world beyond alienated work. I don’t want to have my work be alienated. I don’t want the value of it to go to Facebook, or Google, or Yale University. But that’s the reality, right? And so this utopian idea—it’s not that it’s too complex to imagine or only the most visionary person can see this world that we want. I think everyone can see it. But there’s a difference between being able to see it and being able to touch it—Muñoz talks about this, that queerness is altogether attainable, and yet somehow just beyond reach.
More from Tavia Nyong’o
- Tavia’s website
- Tavia’s first book The Amalgamation Waltz
- Tavia’s forthcoming book Afro-Fabulations
- Tavia on Twitter
Projects and people discussed
- 1993 TIME Magazine cover, “The New Face of America”
- Public scholarship
- William Lloyd Garrison
- Frederick Douglas
- Queer of color critique
- Rinaldo Walcott on the “national thing” (pdf)
- Sigmund Freud
- James Baldwin
- Hazel Carby
- Saidiya Hartman
- Hortense Spillers
- José Esteban Muñoz
- Heterotopia (Foucauldian)
- Jürgen Habermas
- Terry Eagleton
- Fred Moten
- Stefano Harney
- Fred Moten Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (pdf)
- Social practice (in art)
- Jodi Dean
- Social Text
- New Inquiry
- The Nation
- Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
- Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Art War with the State (chapter)
- Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya
- Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”
- Octavia Butler
- Samuel R. Delaney
- Michel Foucault
- Zora Heale Hurston
- Karl Marx, The German Ideology
- Black Panther (film)
- Black girl magic
- Black boy joy
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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Full episode transcript
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
[00:23] This is episode 64, and my guest today is Tavia Nyong’o. Tavia teaches Black performance studies at Yale University, where he’s a professor of American Studies, African American Studies, and Theater Studies. Tavia’s the author of the book The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory, which came out in 2009, and his new book, called Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, which we chat about quite extensively in the interview, will be out in fall 2018 from NYU Press. Tavia also co-edits the journal Social Text, as well as the Sexual Cultures series from NYU Press. In our interview, Tavia and I talk about the ongoing project of Black freedom, repurposing social media platforms to create monthly political salons and counterpublics, how to live the contradictions inherent in public scholarship, and why centering queer of color joy and pleasure is key to how Tavia imagines otherwise.
Cathy [01:22]: Thank you so much for being with us today.
Tavia Nyong’o [01:24]: Hi, thank you for having me.
Cathy [01:26]: I’d love to start by talking about your book, The Amalgamation Waltz, which came out coming up on 10 years ago now, and came out right on the heels of Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency. I’ve been thinking about this book a lot recently, given our radically changed political situation in many ways, but perhaps not in other ways, and we can talk about that. I’m curious how you see that book maybe giving us some tools or some strategies for understanding or navigating our present moment.
Tavia [02:00]: If we go back to 1993 and the now-notorious TIME magazine cover about “the new face of America,” which was a kind of composite image that was supposed to represent the future American, in which our racial divisions would be resolved through race mixing into a single race, that was really the prompt for the dissertation that became the book The Amalgamation Waltz. I wanted to know why American society was so devoted to this fantasy of race mixing as a solution to racism, given that race mixing has been constitutive to how race came to have meaning in American society, and indeed world society, right? There’s never not been a time in which the races didn’t mix on the North American continent, but there’s still this fantasy of the New American Eve that would somehow resolve this for us.
[03:01] So that’s the ruse of memory, in essence, and my argument was that from the antebellum forward, our culture tends to sort of burden the racially-mixed figure with these dreams of a hybrid future. So I knew when we elected Barack Obama that we were not entering a post-racial era, but I didn’t expect…I can’t claim that I expected the kind of backlash, racial backlash of the Trump era, or indeed the election of Trump. So I would, rather than say how the book gives us tools for thinking about the present, I would, as the author of the book, think about how the present gives me tools for what I would do differently this time, or what I would emphasize. Well, they do say that books are only…They’re not finished, they’re only abandoned, right?
Cathy [03:01]: Very, very true.
Tavia [03:50]: So if I were to take it up again today, I would really want to emphasize how the project of Black abolition, which is quite central to the book, the meanings that Black abolitionists gave to race in America, how that project is really ongoing. In contrast to the, well, many, not all, but many white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who declared at the end of the Civil War, “Well, that’s done, that’s worked, we ended slavery, our job is done,” Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass understood that the abolition of slavery was simply the prelude to an ongoing reconstruction of American society, and so that we are still in the long abolitionist movement. We see this with prison abolition, but we also see this in the ongoing effort to abolish white supremacy. We have a president who’s not really aware of who Frederick Douglass is, right? So that would be a strand of the book that I would emphasize today.
Cathy [04:52]: One of the things that you talk a lot about in that text is the imbrication of race and nationalism with sexuality and gender, and this is something that queer of color critique scholars have heavily emphasized since the invention of that subfield, and that we really see play out in some dramatic ways, both contemporarily, but also historically. I’m curious what draws you to that nexus. What do you find really fruitful for thinking about how race and national identity are produced through gender and sexuality, and vice versa?
Tavia [05:25]: I’m drawn to that nexus because it’s where I live as a…Born in Chicago, raised, I like to say, “deepest, darkest Africa,” and I have this experience of both a Black nationality, Kenya being a predominantly Black nation, and being a racial minority in the US as a Black American. So I’ve just always been very attuned to questions of nationality and nationalism, and what in the book I called…Well, really I was quoting Rinaldo Walcott, who talks about the “national Thing.” I’ve always been interested in that, and it’s quite, as the Freudian allusion might suggest, it’s quite centrally about sexuality and race. This is something that James Baldwin, in one of his late essays on race and the meaning of American manhood, outlined. It’s a core subject of Black feminism: Hazel Carby, Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, the list could go on in terms of the influences in women of color feminism.
[06:31] And in terms of queer and queer of color critique, my own guru is José Esteban Muñoz. In response to a lot of debate in the field about what the meaning of queerness is—is it an identity, is it a social relation of power—he argued that queerness was what he called an “ideality.” It was an idea, and also it was a virtual idea. It was, you know, we were not yet queer, right? Queerness is something that’s to come, it’s on the horizon.
[07:02]: So this is a very kind of utopian cast of thinking, which is not one that I come to quite naturally, but to hear how Muñoz could articulate queerness as an ideality that would enable us to reject the here and now, the limitations of the present world order, this, I would think, is an alternative to the kind of computer-generated future of “the new face of America.” There’s a different kind of futurity in Muñoz’s version of queer of color critique than the sort of dominant yearning for national progress and national exception. Certainly, Muñoz was also migrant, in a manner of speaking, born in Cuba, and brought that kind of gimlet eye to the fallacies of Americanism, and I think that very much shapes his thinking about queerness.
Cathy [07:59]: You’ve been exploring these kinds of questions in a variety of ways across the course of your career, obviously in your scholarship, but I’ve been noticing too, you’ve started doing these really fascinating Facebook salons where you kind of set up a topic for a month, or for the period in which you’re doing them, and basically kind of invite people to have a conversation on your Facebook page around that topic. It’s been really fascinating to watch; I mean, there have been really smart conversations, smart debates, and questions that people are raising. What got you interested in using social media that way?
Tavia [08:35]: My grandfather, who wasn’t a perfect person, but he gave me my first computer in the ’80s, and so I was a computer nerd before it was cool, and unfortunately, that meant that I’ve never been able to sort of, I don’t know, cash in on my digital addiction, because I think of it as a sort of quirky, eccentric, utopian space, or heterotopian space for programming and coding and hacking. I’ve never stopped trying—and I should say, also, I’ve never stopped failing—to hack these big commercial for-profit behemoths like Facebook and Instagram—I guess which is also Facebook now?
Cathy [09:15]: Yeah, they bought it.
Tavia [09:17]: So two or three megacorporations now control our thoughts and feelings, but I believe that there is a way to kind of hack these formats, and it’s always provisional, right? Like, whatever you do, if it succeeds, they’ll just co-opt it and redirect it.
[09:32] Thank you for saying those kind words about the salons. I myself thought that they’re a little hard to get off the ground, because it really is against the nature of Facebook, right? They really don’t want us to use our Facebook pages as a public forum, the salon idea as I understand it, kind of deriving from the history of Jürgen Habermas, and Terry Eagleton is another writer who I’m very influenced by, where he says that criticism…The weapons of criticism were forged against the absolutist state, meaning that the salon form was about people getting together in the here and now, and trying to find out ways to reclaim their own power and autonomy from the state, from the absolutist state. This is before, I guess, the rise of democracy. Facebook and Google are now the corporate states of our time, right? And so the question is, can we claim some of that space back for our own use?
Cathy [10:28]: You bring up this idea of a public sphere, and of having genuine conversations and debates and questions that don’t have easy answers, and don’t have a single authoritating voice saying, “And this is what it all means.” Obviously, you’re doing this in the context of these salons, but you also do this in your writing, you do it in your teaching, you do it in the activist and scholarly and community events and organizations that you’re a part of. I’d love to talk a little bit more about your public writing in particular, because a lot…This is something that’s come up in a lot of episodes on this podcast, people who maybe want to do more public writing in venues. Do you maybe have any advice for folks who want to do more of this kind of public engagement, this kind of public writing, but maybe don’t know where to start?
Tavia [11:15]: Aside from hacker values, I also try to keep a torch alive for punk values, which is the values of DIY and availablism: you work with what’s available. I’m actually most interested in the kind of undercommons public that…To use a phrase from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. My advice to those who would like to engage the public is to start wherever they want, you know, start where they are, on their Facebook page, on their Twitter feed. I actually learn more from young people than I have to teach in terms of how to communicate with podcasting, like we’re doing now, or with YouTube.
Tavia [11:57]: There’s actually a lot of communication going on right now, and a lot of voices. The problem is that the massification of our contribution…And here I sort of follow the political scientist Jodi Dean, who talks a lot about how contemporary capitalism takes and absorbs all our contributions on whatever point of view, left or right, progressive, reactionary, and it just generates profit from it, but also it kind of instrumentalizes it. Now, having said that, Jodi Dean is on Facebook and has a blog, and so it’s not as if we can’t…We have to live these contradictions, we have to engage the public even if it’s a kind of phantom public sphere. And then, maybe more practical advice is to approach media that they respect. Go on YouTube and learn how to write a, craft a pitch email to an editor. Developing that relationship between a writer and editor is your first start into the world of public writing.
Cathy [13:00]: I’m curious how you see your work in all of these different realms bringing together your interest in academia or education with creativity or art, and your commitment to social justice or social change.
Tavia [13:14]: I guess I would say over the…Since The Amalgamation Waltz, my work has become much more centrally focused in the past decade on contemporary art and performance. For an historian by training, it’s quite a shift, right? I think it’s probably why it took me as long as it did to finish this second book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, which is now finished and will be out hopefully by the end of the year.
[13:41] I didn’t want to focus on artistic work that was, in any kind of immediately identifiable way, engaged in activism or in the building of public…There’s a whole area of—as you may know, your listeners may know—of social practice in contemporary art, and…Or in performance, there’s theater for social justice. For whatever set of reasons, I have tremendous respect for work in this field, but that isn’t really my focus, because I happen to have a view of art that is…The protest of art is from the negative capability of art to project a different world than the one that we have.
[14:33] A key thinker for me as a teenager would be the Kenyan playwright and writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who wrote a book in 1986 called Decolonising the Mind. I always thought of this project of decolonizing as about the mind and a spirit and creativity, alongside a kind of political project. And then he also wrote an essay called “Art War with the State,” which is kind of like a pun—we’re at war with the state, but it’s also it’s an art war with the state—and another essay called “Barrel of a Pen.”
[15:08] Now, this is all quite militant, kind of like a militant posture. There’s probably some toxic masculinity in it, as I reflect on it now, so I wouldn’t necessarily use exactly all those terms, but what was important is that writing, thinking, creating is intrinsically revolutionary. You know, Audre Lorde, at around the same time that Ngugi was writing Decolonising the Mind, wrote a very important essay in ’85 called “Poetry is not a Luxury,” and the beginning was something like “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the changes which we hope to bring about.” That’s Audre Lorde.
[15:45] What I look for now, in this close reading and study of contemporary Black art and performance, is artists who are scrutinizing their lives and our lives in such a ways that they…Lorde says “a direct bearing,” I say maybe even indirect bearing. We can’t yet know what the relationship is between that quality of light and, what is this change we want to see in the world? Do we really know what this world is that we want? Justice is a kind of inspiring but also problematic term, and making it social doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems that we have with the justice system or the criminal justice system, right? So when we shift from a kind of state thinking of criminal justice and law and order, and all this kind of proto-fascism that we see so much in the world today, when we turn that around and try to say, “Okay, what do we want? What is social justice?”
[16:47] I think it’s a question, and I think art really excels at getting us to be, I would say, open and honest and vulnerable about what that world is. So I would look to speculative thinkers like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany for a really rigorous lifelong project of imagining what alternative sexual and social interspecial planetary orders of life would be like. We need those kind of speculative visionaries, not to give us a road map to the future, but to help us think about…You know, just one step ahead of the curve.
Cathy [17:27]: You brought up the book that you just finished [Afro-Fabulations], which gets at some of these questions, so I’d love to talk a little bit more about that specifically. What does that book cover?
Tavia [17:38]: It really seeks to address a challenge that was put forth by scholar Saidiya Hartman about a decade ago in an essay called “Venus in Two Acts,” when she called upon scholars in Black studies to engage in what she called “critical fabulation.” We can imagine a justice to come, but how do we imagine a social justice for our ancestors?
Cathy [17:58]: This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests on this show, that really gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do and why you do it, and that’s that question of that better world that you’re working towards, with all of its complexity. What’s that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?
Tavia [18:15]: I want a world beyond alienated work. I don’t want to have my work be alienated. I don’t want the value of it to go to Facebook or Google, or Yale University. But that’s the reality, right? And so this utopian idea, it’s not that it’s too complex to imagine, or only the most visionary person can see this world that we want. I think everyone can see it, right? But there’s a difference between being able to see it, to touch it, and Muñoz talks about this, that queerness is altogether attainable, and yet somehow just beyond reach. When we look at popular culture, think of Black Panther coming out this weekend, and all the think pieces that come out in response to that film that are all about Black girl magic, that are all about Black boy joy, that it’s all about happiness and coming together, and that would be a source of my optimism.
Cathy [19:16]: Well, I think that is a really great place to end on, and thank you so much for being with us and sharing your version of imagining otherwise.
Tavia [19:24]: Thank you so much for having me.
Cathy [19:31] [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, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts,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]