The SPB Q (Grad Chapter): Salamishah Tillet

“You can mark Du Bois as an important founding father and Anna Julia Cooper as a founding mother of those who used intellectual work to create social change and to do really interesting artistic or literary work alongside or as part of their political mission.” ~ Salamishah Tillet, 2009

{I met Salamishah Tillet, assistant professor in English at the University of Pennsylvania, on a dare. Basically, I dared myself to email all the graduates of Harvard’s Am Civ program who now had tenure (or tenure-track jobs) to find out whatever I could about their experience in the graduate program I planned on attending. Chatting on the phone with Salamishah that first night was like talking to an old friend who just wanted to look out. She gave me the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, and even told me where I might find some good food while chilling in Cambridge for a few years.

Of course, just meeting her, I didn’t know I was talking to the very model of a real public intellectual. Salamishah has really dug deep to examine not just the intellectual intricacies of African American cultural work, as she does in her writing and teaching about black feminist theory, African-American literature, popular music, and film, but has also used her own personal experience to create a celebrated body of work that goes directly to the community. She is the writer and producer of Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS), an award-winning multimedia performance that tells the story of her own effort to reclaim her body, sexuality, and self-esteem after being sexual assaulted in college (see trailer below). With her sister, Scheherazade Tillet, Salamishah co-founded A Long Walk Home, non-profit that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end sexual violence. She is also the development director of Girl/Friends, an art-based, sexual violence prevention summer institute for adolescent girls who have been impacted by violence in the Chicago-area, and in 2006, she served as an associate producer for Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s groundbreaking documentary, “NO!” and is featured in the Cambridge Documentary’s award winning film Rape Is… Also in 2006, Ebony Magazine named her one of America’s top 30 Black leaders under 30 years old.

Salamishah’s scholarly work straddles many areas as well: she is the co-editor of the forthcoming The Day that Martin Died: Music, Memory, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She recently co-edited a special issue on Ethiopia for the journal Callaloo, where she’s an associate editor, and her book Peculiar Memories: Slavery and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination (forthcoming from Duke University Press) examines how contemporary African-American artists and intellectuals re-imagine slavery as a metaphor for post-Civil Rights citizenship and political desire. Currently, this music-lover (who wrote liner notes for John Legend and The Roots’ Wake Up!), is working on a book on Nina Simone.

I was hoping that I’d be able to chill with her in Philly when I head down there for a conference at Penn in September, so we could chat some more about music and TV and all sorts of other good stuff, but no go: homegirl is spending the 2010-2011 school year serving her Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship at the Center of African American Studies at Princeton University.

I’m happy that Salamishah found time to do the SPB Q. She’s been a real inspiration to me as a scholar, a Harvard Am Civ grad, and a new friend. Hope you enjoy her Q!}

Name: Salamishah Margaret Tillet

Hometown: Boston, MA; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Orange, NJ

School/Year: B.A., University of Pennsylvania (1996); M.A.T., Brown University (1997); A.M, Harvard University (2002); Ph.D. Harvard University (2007)

Dissertation Title: “Peculiar Memories: Slavery and the American Cultural Imagination”

Favorite book: Toni Morrison, Beloved

Favorite author: Toni Morrison

Favorite movie: Eve’s Bayou, dir. Kasi Lemmons starring Jurnee Smollett, Lynn Whitfield, and Samuel Jackson

Favorite song: Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine”

Academic text that most influences your work: Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988)

Academic who most influences your work: I think in threes: Farah Griffin, Michael Eric Dyson, and Edward Said

Academic High: Organizing two conferences with my academic partner in crime, the brilliant Dagmawi Woubshet: first, our “The Future of African-American Studies” graduate student conference at Harvard University in December 2000; second, was the Callaloo “(Black) Movements: Poetics and Praxis” conference at Addis Ababa University in July 2010.

Life High: The moment I realized that I had the strength to love and the courage to be loved by my life partner.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped into you. What are they?

Your favorite quote: “…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Guilty pleasure: I’m quite guilty: Eating dark chocolate without remorse, watching every episode in the Law & Order franchise, and scheduling my entire Sunday around football.

Attention SCOTT TOPICS™ readers: As SOARS celebrates its 10th anniversary and Girl/Friends turns a year-old (and as they kick off their national “Got Consent?” campaign) all of Salamishah’s great public service work has been rewarded with a nomination for her and her sister as Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year. They need your votes! Click here at GLAMOUR to cast a vote for the Tillet sisters! Voting ends on Monday, August 30, so go now…

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