Category Archives: PhD

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): Farah Jasmine Griffin

I fall in love with writers, and their books. I’m just funny that way, re-reading passages or whole chapters, remembering why the initial pangs of love were there. I knew I was going to fall in love with Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book Who Set You Flowin’: The African-American Migration Narrative when I read the dedication: “For My Grandmother, Willie Lee Carson (1904-1981), who migrated from Eastman, Georgia, to Philadelphia in February 1923; and Her three Philadelphia-born Daughters, Eunice Cogdell (1924-1991), Eartha Mordecai, Wilhemina Griffin.” As a person most interested in African American names, history, and genealogy (and the mothers of mothers who provide all three), I experienced a world in those 33 words, a contained moment of love and honor and respect that felt whole and real. Then I read the epigraphs a few pages later and saw quotes from such richly disparate figures as Toni Morrison, Cornel West and music group Arrested Development—and I knew it was going to be one of those books. And it was. Crossing all kinds of textual terrain in her study of migration as a major theme in African-American culture—Toomer’s Cane, Morrison’s Jazz, the art of Jean Lacy, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, among other significant texts get investigated—Griffin’s work is like a journey in itself, gracefully climbing the hills and wading the valleys of what she calls the “metanarrative” of the black migration experience with supple prose and clear-eyed cultural and literary analysis.

Currently a professor of English, Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, Farah Griffin has served as the director of Columbia’s Institute for Research in African American Studies. She’s what I think of as a truly interdisciplinary academic, casting her scholarly eye on not just literary subjects but also fields like jazz (she co-edited an issue of Callaloo entitled “Jazz Poetics”) and travel writing. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar and the African American Review.

I got to meet Professor Griffin here at Harvard (where she did her undergrad work) a coupla times, most recently at a conference honoring renowned historian and totem of African American studies Nathan Huggins, and she turned out to be as down-to-earth as I thought she might be after (twice!) reading her book. The warmth and regard she expressed for her subjects was exactly the same warmth she exhibited in person, and I’m sure that was why she seemed to be the one person in the room that everyone was drawn to at one point or another. I’m still looking forward to reading her book on Billie Holiday (If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday), but until then it was a pleasure reading her responses to the SPB Q. Hope you enjoy it, too—and definitely check out Farah Griffin’s work if you fall in love with great writing about American history and literature like I do…

Name:  Farah Jasmine Griffin

Hometown:    Philadelphia

School/Year: Harvard, 1985; Yale 1992

Dissertation Title:  “Who Set You Flowin’?: Migration, Urbanization and African American Culture”

Favorite book:  Too Many to Name

Favorite author:  Impossible.  Morrison; Wharton

Favorite movie:  Impossible.  Eve’s Bayou, maybe.  Double Indemnity

Favorite music:  Can’t Do This…Love music too much to have a favorite, but at the top would be Cassandra Wilson’s “New Moon Daughter” and Mary Lou Williams at Montreux

Academic text that most influences your workStephen Kern’s Culture of Time and Space and Cornel West’s Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America (Beyond Multiculturalism and Eurocentrism)

Academic who most influences your work:  Edward Said; Robin Kelley; Thadious Davis

Academic High: Membership in the Jazz Study Group, Columbia University.  Robin Kelley, Salim Washington, Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Diedra Harris Kelley, John Swzed, Fred Moten, and others were my intellectual family, my comrades, my joy.  The set my brain dancing.

Life High:  The day I met the little girls who would become my step-granddaughters:  Diata and Mariam Cannon; my participation in Billie and Me at the Barbican, London.

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:

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” ~ Attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Thomas

Guilty pleasure:

Bad television marathons.

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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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Reasons to be Cheerful Summer 2010

Every few months here at SCOTT TOPICS™ I like to assess my level of happiness. Of course, that can be a sorta futile exercise at times, considering a) the general state of the world and b) how busy I make myself and some of the ridiculous decisions I’ve made (go back to Brown AND still work at Giant AND try to finish a novel?) and continue to make (get a PhD?). That said, I did get to spend a great month in New York, visiting with my Mom and Pops, the greatest parents in the world (or at least they were from 1970 to 1980, and then again sometime in the late 90s—only kidding, Bryants, you know I love you), and seeing my lil sister, who keeps me grounded and likes to wax nostalgic with me. So I try to be thankful for the good things even when I’m chastising myself for being lazy or boring or jealous of my friends who got a chance to actually get a vacation this summer.

So, here’s my list of Reasons to be Cheerful. Maybe some of them make you happy as well…

  • Janelle Monae‘s album, yes, but also her amazing new video for “Cold War”—stunning, as they say, in its simplicity, making perfect use of her expressive face, and doing what rarely happens for me: making me like the song more than I had just listening to it on iTunes. As a constant complainer about the paucity of cleverness, drama and creativity in contemporary pop music, Janelle Monae has given me faith that music (and videos) that makes you think and feel can still be made with grace and smarts. Check out the vid here if you haven’t seen it:
  • Mad Men: Still so entertaining that I actually watch it first-run (and miss baseball) instead of DVR’ing it, just cause I have to. Even when its disgusting 60’s-era sexism and racism rears its ugly head—as, one guesses, it must, to stay realistic to the time—it’s never not watchable, and always resonant with such timeless meditations on loss, identity, desire and the often covert intricacies of pleasure. Scrumptious.
  • Shane Vogel’s Scene of the Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance: A book, among a few others, that gave me faith that perhaps this grad school thing might just work out. Vogel’s cultural history of the “Harlem Renaissance” nicely traces some of the historical debates around African American “uplift” as it theorizes on the critical cultural work done by the “Cabaret School” of entertainers, writers and musicians who found space in the nightclubs of Harlem to critique many of those debates. Maybe my favorite scholarly text since discovering Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent last school year.
  • Cardullo’s: A gourmet delicatessen in Harvard Square that actually makes sandwiches, which seem to be in short supply around Cambridge, other than the Subway stores I stumble upon. It’s the closest I’ve come to a stylish NY sandwich spot, where I can also get gourmet jam or pasta sauce if I’m so inclined (or flush with cash). And the peeps who work there are actually pleasant and nice—something else in short supply in Cambridge. (Is it a New England, or Boston, thing?)
  • The SPB Q Grad Chapter and otherwise: The success of my new blog feature excites me to no end. Glad that so many cool peeps have agreed to do my fun little questionnaire. Good to share some behind-the-scenes interests of folks doing great work in their fields. Upcoming Qs (Grad Chapter or otherwise): Farah Jasmine Griffin, Christina Sharpe, Alexander Weheliye, Patrik-Ian Polk, Bassey Ipki, and some others I’m just starting to confirm!
  • blip.fm: Thanks to my new Twitter friend @Fortitude1913, I’ve discovered this fun website that allows you to DJ your own playlists. It’s like a virtual digging into the crates. Music Geek Central. Go give it a whirl.
  • Twitter: I wasn’t much of a social network-type til my agent and editor convinced me, around the time of HUNG’s release, to get into the blogging/Internet world to make my presence known beyond print media. When I got to Brown in 2007, like every other undergrad in the world, I joined Facebook. And loved it. Then came Twitter, which I resisted in a major way—way too much screen time that wasn‘t devoted to work. Then I tried it, and the community of new peeps in my life, mostly other grad students going through a lot of the same dramas and issues, has made this new experience bearable in an crazy way. Go on if you haven’t; you might find a community that needs you as much as you need it. (shout-outs to @soulunderthesun, @happybrowngirl, @redclayscholar, @ashoncrawley @negrointellect @sherealcool, @roopikarisam & all the other phd-seekers who’ve made my Twitter-time fun.
  • My lacrosse stick: Who, even though I sometimes used to  lose him due to fear, insecurity, time constraints, away games or combinations of any of the above, always managed to get found. And I gotta shout him out for letting me call him “my lacrosse stick” in very public spaces. ; )
  • Peter Pan Bus: When I don’t have to be in NYC in a hurry (and thus fly), it’s easy (and cheap) to hop on the Peter Pan bus from South Station. Amtrak isn’t even on my radar anymore when I can sleep, chill, watch a flick or go on the Internet…for 18 bucks, and be in NYC before I know it.
  • Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination: I came close to working with Professor Scott at Berkeley but decided to stay on the East Coast for my studies, but I can still learn a whole lot from this brother, an incredible writer and thinker. I cannot wait to get my copy of his new book in the mail later this week. Robert Reid-Pharr calls this theorization of the relationship between blackness and abjection “sophisticated, provocative, and indeed, titillating.” Sounds like a winner.
  • EBONY Magazine: Of course I grew up reading Ebony like every other black kid in the US of A. Never got a chance to write for it til last year’s tribute to Michael Jackson. Now, there’s a new editor-in-chief, my old Brown classmate author/editor  Amy DuBois Barnett, and I’m already writing for them. My “making-of” love jones article runs a coupla issues from now. Sending good thoughts to Amy in her mission to redefine EBONY for a new era and generation. Let’s all support a sister.
  • New De La Soul music: A coupla days ago I got a mysterious email. Opened it to find a link to a brand-new track by my favorite rap group of all time. De La’s recording a new album and this track, called “The Return of DST” might be on it. It’s a hot, funky, catchy lil record, clever as usual: paying tribute to DJ Grandmixter D. ST., the song eventually mutates into the actual Fantastic Five’s “gusto is going home with me” freestyle. (Which is sorta cute considering The Fantastic Five sampled The Headhunters’ “God Made me Funky” on that record—which was also sampled by De La on De La Soul is Dead‘s “Pease Porridge” and “Take it Off” from 3 Ft. High and Rising. It all comes full circle, old school to new school and all the way back again…) Hear the song here at SoulCulture.com.

So, till next time: don’t worry, try to be happy, and remember the things that make you cheerful…Oh, by the way, for those of you who don’t know the original song that gives this blog post its name and theme, here’s a video of Ian Dury and the Blockheads funky 1979 song:

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The SPB Q (Grad Chapter): Professor Robin D.G. Kelley

“It’s funny because I didn’t study history to be a historian. I studied history to attempt to solve a series of political problems.” ~ Robin D.G. Kelley, 2003

{When I decided to pursue graduate work for my PhD, I sent out one email: to Professor Robin D.G. Kelley. Why? Because in the years following my leaving Brown and going to NYC, he was pretty much the only scholar I read regularly. Why? His accessibility; his ability to synthesize sophisticated ideas into readable, elegant prose; his subject matter; his style (personal style, that is); and his ability to shift between academic work and consumer publications. His email back to me was funny, direct, a little skeptical and yet quite encouraging: I can honestly say that I’m where I am today, partly due to Robin Kelley. And I know I’m not the only grad student who feels that way.

Anyone interested in academic work, particularly in history, would be hard-pressed not to appreciate Kelley’s output, which has tilled the domain of African American cultural and political history with a blend of laser-sharp intellectual intensity and race-man love of community. His books—ranging from Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class to Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, to my favorite (and maybe one of the best-titled books ever!), Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America—have tackled working class social movements, radical political thought during the Depression, and African American artistic movements, and have been called “provocative” and “history at it’s challenging and transformative best.” Kelley challenges his readers to consider the brutal machinations of communities on the outskirts of mainstream resistance movements as well as the hopeful possibilities imbedded in the freedom quests of his narratives, and brings a passionate activist’s spirit to the process.

His most recent work Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, is a massive, meticulously-researched biography of the jazz legend, buttressed by rare Monk family archives accessed by no other scholar. It’s a passionate, nuanced work of jazz (and American) history, and it recently won the Best Book award from the Jazz Journalists Association (an organization not known for praising the work of scholars and academics!) The paperback of the book will be out this fall. Professor Kelley, who last year was the first African American to serve as the Harmsworth Chair at Oxford University, currently teaches in the American Studies and Ethnicity department at USC. I’m very honored to have him as the first professor to contribute to The’s SPB Q’s Grad Chapter.}

Name:  Robin D. G. Kelley

Hometown:     (Harlem) New York, NY

School/Year:  B.A., Cal State Long Beach (1983); PhD UCLA (1987)

Dissertation Title: “‘Hammer n’ Hoe’: Black Radicalism and the Communist Party in Alabama, 1929-1941”

Favorite book: W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1992, orig. 1935)

Favorite author: Elleza Kelley (she isn’t well-known, yet, but she’s the most brilliant writer I’ve ever encountered.  And she’s my daughter.)

Favorite movie: Nothing But a Man (1964) dir. Michael Roemer, starring Abbey Lincoln and Ivan Dixon

Favorite song:  Thelonious Monk, “Brilliant Corners”

Academic text that most influences your work:   Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (orig. 1983, New Ed. 2000)

Academic who most influences your work:  I can’t limit to one—at least three: Farah Jasmine Griffin, Cedric Robinson, George Lipsitz

Academic High:  Delivering Black History lectures to kids on lockdown at Boysville Detention Center, Saline Michigan, in the early 1990s.

Life High:  two: birth of my daughter, Elleza, and my marriage to LisaGay Hamilton last year.

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

  • Beah: A Black Woman Speaks [Documentary by LisaGay Hamilton] [DVD]
  • Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall [CD]
  • Franklin Rosemont and Robin D. G. Kelley, eds., Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the African Diaspora (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009)
  • Desmond’s: The Complete First and Second Series [DVD]
  • Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works [OK, the last might be unfair because it’s 50 volumes.  But if I had to pare down to one, I choose Eugene Kamenka, ed., The Portable Karl Marx]

Your favorite quote: “You’re not worried about me marrying your daughter.  You’re worried about me marrying your wife’s daughter.  I’ve been marrying your daughter ever since the days of slavery.”  — James Baldwin

Guilty pleasure: Rockin’ Ice Cube (from the early 90s) on my iPod (at the gym or on my way to class)


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The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mail Bag #2: Best Hip Hop Albums, How Do You Be a PhD? & Hating Teddy Ruxpin

“What’s the best hiphop album ever made?” ~ G.F., Hartford

Why you gotta go there, huh? Why you gonna make traipse through my iTunes and listen to all the rap stuff I got in there, just to answer your ridiculous question? (I’m being willfully full of it right now, obviously.) And do you mean “my favorite” or “the best”? Oh heck, they’re one and the same anyway…Can I name three? The best hiphop albums ever made are: De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell and, depending on the day, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, L.L. Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, or Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. These choices partly come because of my age—over 21…by, um, a lot—but also because I probably have very formal tastes in things like this and I don’t believe a great rap album has been released after 2000.

Why isn’t there a B.I.G record on the list? I don’t exactly know other than I rarely play B.I.G’s whole albums anymore like I used to, unless it’s his Greatest Hits, because I like to hear the hits, and because I think “Niggas Bleed” is, like L.L.’s “Fast Peg” one of the best written pieces of Black Noir in the past 20 years. My reasons? De La’s record predicted a group’s demise but only ironically made them seem more alive (and smarter and saner and more special as writers and thinkers than anyone else on the scene and “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” still, to this day, chills me to the bone); Run-D.M.C.’s record because it is the single best evocation of b-boy glamour-meets-grit and never takes itself seriously while breaking all kinds of new cultural ground (and because “Peter Piper” can still rock a party); Ice Cube’s record because it’s one of the most incredible sounding albums ever, sonically and lyrically dazzling due to the beautiful tension of the Bomb Squad’s techno-scratch futurism blending with Cube’s gangsta-as-everyman realism; L.L.’s because it was a comeback that dared to be sexy and self-centered and superstar-y when many artists would have slunk away after the way Todd had been received with his last record (and because “Jingling Baby” is the kind of brilliant, stupid-good, politically incorrect single that only rap knows how to do with any real imagination); and PE’s record because, well, when black America needed a CNN, Chuck, Flava and the Bomb Squad ripped straight outta the Long Island and gave it to them. (Honorable mentions: All For One, Brand Nubian; Paid in Full, Eric B. and Rakim; and Mecca and the Soul Brother, Pete Rock & CL Smooth; Debaters, haters, and 5-mic raters are welcome to offer their own opinions—cause I know you will!

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