Category Archives: Academia

The SPB Q: Grad Chapter: Lisa B. Thompson

lisa thompson march 2010 headshot copyI met Lisa B. Thompson when she was at Harvard in 2010-11 as a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. We’d already “met” on Facebook, but meeting her in person was an automatic game-changer. Her generous spirit and ferociously funny personality made many a lunch or coffee date into an uproariously fun and educational event. I can’t walk by Chipotle these days and not think of her smile, her candor, her fierceness—and her love of burritos. Lisa’s become a wonderful friend and ally in this crazy world of academia, but she’s also become one of the peeps I look up to most. And as great as I think she is, it was during a heartfelt salute to her grad school mentor Richard Yarborough, for whom the American Studies Association’s Minority Scholars Committee named it’s new mentoring award, that I really saw the kind of soul and generosity Lisa brings to the academic world. She held forth in an early morning room crowded with scholars of all levels, and kept us laughing and tearing up as she expressed the love and respect she has not just for Yarborough but for mentoring as an important and viable project.

I think I identify with Lisa so much because she is the epitome of the scholar/artist. (The first time I’d actually heard her name was as the author of Single Black Female, her funny, touching, highly-regarded play, which was the toast of NYC in the summer of 2006. I can still remember everyone going to see it, and talking about it.) Her devotion to scholarly excellence—as a writer, professor and mentor—doesn’t take a backseat to her ambitions as a creative writer, and she moves smoothly between the two worlds with ease, balancing a remarkable lack of self-importance with a huge dose of self-assurance that makes her not just the perfect role model for peeps who are trying to do the same, but also a better cultural producer in both fields. Her first academic book, Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class— published by University of Illinois Press in 2009 and called “complex and nuanced” by E. Patrick Johnson and “path-breaking” by Valerie Smith—looks at representations and negotiations of black female sexuality in American popular culture, film, and literature, and received honorable mention for the National Women’s Studies Association’s Gloria E. Anzaldua Book Prize, 2010. Single Black Female, which has been performed around the country and was a 2004 nominee for LA Weekly’s Theater Award for Best Comedy, was recently published by the theatrical giant Samuel French. Lisa recently left SUNY Albany for  University of Texas, Austin, where she’s an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and where she seems to be flourishing and enjoying life, if her Facebook statuses and late-night texts are any indication. She also has one of the best kids in the game. Read her work if you haven’t; see her play if it’s ever in your neck of the woods…There’s a new one coming soon. You’ll know about it cause I’ll be blogging, tweeting, and status-messaging about it with the quickness. Hope you enjoy her SPB Q!

Name:

Lisa B. Thompson. My trailblazing grandmother chose my middle name so I always use my initial in honor of her.

Hometown:     

San Francisco, California. Yes, I’m a West coast sista. And no, you better not call it Frisco!

Grad School/Year:

Stanford University, Modern Thought & Literature, 2000

Dissertation/Book Title:

Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (2009)

Favorite book:

I’m an old school bookworm so I cannot select just one favorite text. There are beloved books from each era of my life. During my girlhood Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day sparked my imagination and warmed my heart. When I was a teen, reading Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf changed the shape of the universe for me. I carried it around all the time and performed the monologues for my girlfriends. During college I saw George Wolfe’s Colored Museum and felt assured that there was a place for my quirky, nerdy, irreverent, comic sensibility in the world.

Favorite author:

Toni Morrison! Sula Peace, Frank Money, Pecola Breedlove, Bill Cosey, Jadine Childs and Milkman Dead? Such unforgettable characters! I also deeply appreciate her work as an editor and public intellectual.

Favorite movie:

I’m cheating again by picking two. I love Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger. His rendering of black Los Angeles is so rich and layered. I pray he releases it on DVD soon so I can finally dispose of my VCR! I’m also a huge fan of the Bette Davis classic All About Eve. I’ve probably watched it more than any other movie. It’s about the intricacies of female friendships and the backstage drama in the theatre world, so what’s not to love?

Favorite song:

I absolutely adore the Duke Ellington masterpiece “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Academic text(s) that most influences your work:

Patricia J. Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of Race and Rights; Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor and the Fictions of Slavery; Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Who Set you Flowin?’: The African American Migration Narrative; Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent:  Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 and Valerie Smith’s Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings. I’m inspired by dazzling ideas expressed in gorgeous language.

Academic(s) who most influences your work:

I had the pleasure of working with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin D. G. Kelly, Valerie Smith, and Richard Yarborough as an undergraduate and Masters student at UCLA. They showed me it’s possible to enjoy an impressive academic career while also mentoring the next generation of scholars. I also cherish my time at Stanford. I credit my graduate school colleagues Darieck Scott, Meta DuEwa Jones, Richard Benjamin, Diana Paulin, Lawrence Jackson, Nicole Fleetwood and Asale Ajani for creating such a rich environment to learn, think and write.

Academic High:

Spending my sabbatical as a fellow at Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was my career high. I call it my magical year in Cambridge. I conducted research for my current book project on contemporary African American theatre, and Colman Domingo directed a staged reading of my new comedy Mamalogues at the Hiphop Archive.

Life High:

Without a doubt giving birth to my son in 2005 is my greatest moment. I still can’t believe that my play Single Black Female debuted off-Broadway six months later.  It was like having twins! He’s my Nigerian American Prince. Although being a “momademic” presents numerous challenges, there is simply nothing that gratifies my soul more than being his mother.

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

I’d take the entire Mad Men series—I never tire of watching that show. My library would consist of a massive volume of poetry such as The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would provide my island soundtrack.

Your favorite quote:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Although I would revise that Frederick Douglass quote a bit to say broken people. Can you imagine a society where there are only strong children? Perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal because great wisdom comes from understanding your particular brokenness and using it to shape your journey and better the world.

Guilty pleasure:

Anyone who knows me knows that my weakness is dessert. I’m talking peach cobbler, oatmeal cookies, pecan pie, brownies, red velvet cake, apple pie á la mode . . . There is nothing better than devouring a decadent dessert while taking in a good movie. That’s my idea of heaven.

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The SPB Q: Grad Chapter: Mark Anthony Neal

The first time I “met” Professor Mark Anthony Neal he emailed me to let me know he was going to be teaching my book HUNG in a class at Duke University. After I picked myself up off the floor, I wrote him back and thanked him, and I been on his jock ever since (only slightly kidding; this brotha’s bad!). I’d already been a fan of Mark (or MAN as he’s affectionately known by those who love and roll with him), having read all his work before meeting him. Starting with What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and  Black Public Culture (1998) and Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002) through Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003) and especially New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005), I hadn’t encountered a scholar who’s work blended the elegant prose stylings of a great cultural journalist with far-rangingly trenchant and revealing analysis of African American culture and the ways in which it asked some hard questions about gender, race, and sexuality while defining so many oft-problematic contours of the relationship between nation, community, identity, and masculinity. I’d read MAN’s work and secretly wished that I could do what he did—go deeper into my field without losing the presentational effects of good writing that was so important to me. It wasn’t until he and Joan Morgan invited me down to Duke back in 2006 to talk about hiphop, society and journalism that we met in person. And he did that thing that he does, that thing you see him do on his weekly webcast talk show “Left of Black”: he engaged me with his openness and curiosity; he seduced me with his smoothness; he cracked me up with his witty and subtle running commentary on the world around him. In MAN’s presence you feel truly engaged; he listens. One can only imagine how this quality must resonate with his students—experience has taught me that there aren’t many academics who listen as well as they lecture, participate as much as they preach. Recently, at a dinner while he was visiting Harvard for a lecture, our table was dynamic with conversation that ranged from Theories of Oprah to Old School Hip Hop to Life in the Academy to Race in Age of Obama, and never missed a beat because MAN, the frequent NPR commentator that he is, was leading the charge with his nuanced perceptions and witty asides. And you can catch these same qualities in his online presence, from Facebook to his blog to Twitter (you can follow him here, by the way): Whether he’s tweeting a link to one of his brilliant essays or providing academic info or recounting nuggets of family life, his Twitter game is always on. For a dude like me, coming to this academic game, Mark Anthony Neal provides a perfect model of the modern black intellectual: how to keep it real when the “real” can seem as surreal as a Dali painting, and how to be a good brotha when keeping it good sometimes feels like a losing proposition.  MAN is the “public intellectual” that I look up to. Mostly because he doesn’t look down at anyone from his status as a great thinker, terrific writer, and supportive scholar. I’m looking forward to his new book Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (Spring 2012 from NYU Press) as well as the 2nd edition of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader which Neal co-edited with Murray Forman, which will be published in July. (You can also check out some of his cool Black Music Month writing at his blog New Black Man.)
To get a taste of MAN’s public intellectualism, check out this talk he did at TED:

Hope you enjoy his SPB Q…I did, very much…

Name: Mark Anthony Neal

Hometown:   The place we affectionately call the “Boogie-Down” Bronx

School/Year:  State University Cat: BA/MA SUNY-Fredonia (’87, ’93); Ph.D. University of Buffalo ’96 in American Studies

Dissertation Title: Discursive Soul: Black Popular Music, Communal Critique, and The Black Public Sphere of the Urban North.  It was directed by the influential Black Feminist/Lesbian Masani Alexis DeVeaux

Favorite bookGreg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk [editorial note: one of the best collections of essays I’ve ever read!]; everything changed after I read that.  Recognized that literary style and intellectual substance were not mutually exclusive.  Also Haki Madhubuti’s Enemies: The Clash of Races; my introduction to a Black thinker.

Favorite author:  It’s not PC, but I love Ishmael Reed’s fiction (Paul Beatty’s a close second)—try to tell Ish that every time we spar.  Favorite poet is Henry Dumas—want to write a critical study one day (shout to Eugene Redmond).

Favorite movie:  Love baseball movies. The Natural, but especially For the Love of the Game, for linking the grace of the game with the grace needed to survive getting older.  If my wife were to ask me, it’s The Five Heartbeats, which we’ve watched together about 63 times.

Favorite song:  You’re joking right?  Linda Jones’s “Hypnotized” takes my breathe every time.  Have pulled to the side of the road many times with Donny Hathaway’s “Thank You Master for My Soul” in the car. Every time I hear Diana’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Jr. Walker’s “What Does it Take?” they take back to times with my parents when I was really little—attach those songs to the sweetness of my childhood.  Conjure my grind every day with Jay’s “Roc Boys”—“I wish for you a 100 years of success, but it’s my time!”

Academic text that most influences your workMichael Eric Dyson’s Reflecting Black, bell hooks’ Yearning and Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels gave me tools that I couldn’t have imagined before I read them.

Academic who most influences your work:  Every time I read William Jelani Cobb, I need to go back to the lab.  Daphne Brooks’ attention to detail.  Fred Moten. Damn, just no words there. Sharon Patricia Holland, who made me love theory again. Richard Iton, because he’s just a beast and one of the most generous of readers.

Academic High:  Handed Dyson a copy of my diss back in ’96 when he visited Xavier in NOLA where I started teaching.  He called me 5 hours later at 2am to tell me he dug the work.  Needed that affirmation at that time.  Robin Kelley responding to a letter I wrote a year earlier as a grad student.  Tricia Rose taking time to talk with me for 2 hours at MLA back in ’92 before I got in a Ph.D. program.  My parents being able to witness my hooding.

Life High:  Still have vivid memories of the first times I held both of my daughters;   Being able to record a 70th Birthday tribute for my dad for NPR. My oldest daughter reciting  Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” at my Mother’s Going Home ceremony.  Minutes later when I couldn’t remove myself from the front her casket, it was my then 10-year-old daughter who came and got me.  Damn, just started tearing up thinking about it.

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

  • Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On
  • The 5 Season Box Set of The Wire
  • The Collected Criticism of Amiri Baraka
  • Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace
  • The 9 Season Box Set of The Cosby Show

Your favorite quote: From my blog ““I am a man of my times, but the times don’t know it yet.” –Erik Todd Dellums as “Bayard Rustin” (in the film Boycott)

Guilty pleasure:  Wii Baseball; Reruns of The King of Queens; Fig Newtons

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New website BACKLIST.net (News, publishing, biz, entertainment…& they interviewed SPB!)

The Barker Center at Harvard: Where We Am Civvers Be Based At

Today is the launch of Felicia Pride’s newly-revised Backlist.net, and she asked me to talk about making the transition from working journalist and writer to PhD student. It turned into a great interview/conversation.

Please go see it here, and bookmark Backlist.net…it’s a good place to be!

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The SPB Q (Grad Chapter): Christina Sharpe

It’s my contention that every new grad student should have a Christina Sharpe in his or her life. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself since we first met, via Twitter back in the summer before I started my second year of doctoral study. She tweeted something that made me laugh; I tweeted back; a friendship was born. Every new grad student should have a Christina Sharpe because she has turned out to be that most wonderful of things: a friend outside of the cloistered world of your own campus, yet not so far away that she’s not around for a much-needed coffee break or convo session that makes you feel appreciated yet also keeps you grounded. She knows how to keep you sane when anxiety strikes but also knows how to laugh when the time is right. (Which I’m sure is why she’s such a great and popular mentor on campus!) … She also has incredible taste in soup.

Christina is an associate professor at Tufts University, where she’s affiliated with both the English and American Studies departments. Her areas of expertise include African American literature, multi-ethnic literature, African Diaspora literature, cultural studies, and visual culture (particularly around the African Diaspora and including such artists as Kara Walker, Robert Colescott, Isaac Julien, Tracey Rose).

Last month saw the Duke University Press publication of Christina’s first book, the fabulously-titled and deeply engaging Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post Slavery Subjects. Hailed by such academic notables as Sharon P. Holland and Ashraf Rushdy as “remarkable,” “lucid,” “thoroughly engrossing,” and “consistently intelligent,” Monstrous Intimacies is an ambitious and compelling work of literary and cultural criticism that maps the ways in which the turbulent violence(s) of slavery and its after-effects have still marked raced subjectivities into the present day. Sharpe’s book–which explores such artists as Bessie Head, Isaac Julien, Gayl Jones and Kara Walker–is the kind of broad-minded yet focused interdisciplinary work young scholars like myself dream about producing, multi-valent in the way you want your academic work to be, yet readable with supple prose that digs deep.

I’ve been begging this busy new friend of mine to do The SPB Q, and she finally got some time away from her committed teaching, student advising and campus service to turn out a good one. Read her book; look for her articles. And, if you’re in the Boston area, check her out on Tuesday November 2nd at Boston University (4pm – 6pm, in the African American Studies Library, 138 Mountfort Street, Brookline) where she’ll be doing a talk about her book and her work.

Name: Christina Sharpe

Hometown:  Philadelphia (but I was born in Bryn Mawr & grew up in Wayne, PA)

School/Year: BA/University of Pennsylvania; MA/PhD Cornell University

Dissertation Title: “The Work of Re-membering: Reading Gertrude Stein, Gayl Jones, Julie Dash, Cherríe Moraga and Bessie Head”

Favorite book[s]: Beloved, A Map to the Door of No Return

Favorite author: I’ll name three favorites —The constants are Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, James Baldwin.  I sometimes get obsessed with authors and try to read everything they’ve written even if/especially if I find their work productively problematic.  One person in that category was Doris Lessing.

Favorite movie: Daughters of the Dust

Favorite song: Music goes in cycles but I can almost always listen to Gil-Scott Heron, Fela, Grace Jones, Massive Attack (w/Tricky), Stevie Wonder, P.J. Harvey, and Angie Stone.

Academic text that most influences your work: Wow, there are so many and they’ve changed over time but for my book I’d say: Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging; Hortense Spillers’ work (“Mama’s Baby,” “Interstices”); Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection; Gayl Jones’s Corregidora; Fred Moten’s In the Break (Aunt Hester’s Scream); but also Marianne Hirsch on Post-Memory & Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience.

Academic[s] who most influence your work: Saidiya Hartman & Hortense Spillers.

Academic High: Finally finishing Monstrous Intimacies.

Life High: One life high is intimately connected with the work of teaching and mentoring.  It can be difficult work and I struggle with it at times but it is also capable of giving me moments of great sustaining joy.

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

Your favorite quote:  Too hard.  But here’s one:

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state  of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” ~ James Baldwin

Guilty pleasure: Several, but I refuse the guilt!

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SPB guest blogs at Sounding Out today…

Hey you guys, I am honored and excited to be the guest blogger over at Sounding Out, a cool blog that, to use their words, “provides an outlet for ruminations on the role of sound and listening in our contemporary culture”…they’re a bunch of smart and savvy academics doing some interesting and surprising work. Check it out if you get a minute…My piece, called “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own,” is all about how the noise we make defines who we are and often describes our joy, pain, and shame. Hope you like it. Go to Sounding Out here!

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