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Jenn Jackson on the Campbell Conversations

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Jenn Jackson
Syracuse University
Jenn Jackson

Black feminism is usually regarded as a relatively newer dimension of racial justice movements. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Jenn Jackson, a Syracuse University professor, and author of "Black Women Taught Us," about early Black feminists, as well as contemporary ones.

Program Transcript:

GR: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Jenn Jackson. Professor Jackson teaches political science at Syracuse University, focuses on the politics of race and gender and racial justice, and has written a new book for a general audience titled “Black Women Taught Us: An Intimate History of Black Feminism.” Professor Jackson, welcome to the program.

JJ: Thank you so much for having me.

GR: Well, it's a really it's a really wonderful book. So we're glad to have you on. So let me just start with the beginnings of this book. I understand the book has an interesting origin story. Tell me how you got the idea to put this together, what it was based on.

JJ: Yeah. So, you know, I have been writing for a long time. Actually, before I came to academia, I was already a journalist, so I had already written for, you know, Ebony Magazine and Marie Claire and Washington Post. And by the time I got through graduate school, I had an editor approach me who at the time was at Live Write. And she's like, you know, I think you have a book in you. And at the time, I was like, I, I'm still in graduate school. If I have a book in me, it's going to be a dissertation book. But we sat down and we talked actually after I got the position at Syracuse University and she said, well, what are you thinking about? And at the time, I had really been getting excited about my Black feminist politics class that I was teaching every spring at Syracuse. And I told her that it was exciting to me because I never myself had taken a Black feminist politics or Black feminist day class in my history. And when I told her that, she was shocked, she was she was amazed that I could teach this. Having never been formally trained myself. So I told her about what it was like being an engineering major in undergrad at University of Southern California, searching for a class like this, and none were offered. When I graduated, I went to go work at Disney, and I was a, what was called a workforce analyst. And I used statistics to, staff, the hotels and staff, the food and beverage locations. And I encountered a lot of racism. I encountered a lot of, misogyny. I encountered a lot of, experiences that I wasn't familiar with. And I hadn't, again, hadn't taken that class, so I didn't have the language to understand it. As an engineering major, you don't take a lot of classes, to understand culture and people. And so I called my mother on the phone back then, and I said, “Mom, I don't know what's going on here. I don't know how to navigate this.” And my mother was a voracious reader who, read everything Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Patterson, Danielle Steele and Alice Walker and Terry McMillan and she said, “Go to Borders bookstore,” which is what it was called back then. “And find, find the section where you can pick up Alice Walker and Terry McMillan. If you find that section, you'll find whoever you need.” And she was right, I. I went to Borders and when I walked into Borders, I saw those books. But I also saw the book “Sister Citizen” by Melissa Harris-Perry, who happened to just be a political scientist. And this book just happened to be published with Yale University Press. And the book was talking about the Sapphire, the Jezebel, the mammy, the stereotype about black women that have been rooted in slavery. And this theory called The Crooked Room and The Crooked Room theory, suggests that for some people, especially for black women, we walk through the world and we feel as though we are walking at an angle that we just don't fit. But what she said is that The Crooked Room theory says, actually, it's the world. The world that is at an angle. It is the rooms we're walking into that are full of stereotypes, that are full of these ideas of who we are allowed to be, that make it hard for us to exist. And because it resonated so much with me in my job, right. I was working in this place in Orange County, one of the most conservative counties in the country. and I was experiencing anti-Blackness for the first time, having grown up in Oakland, California, around such diverse people. I had never experienced this type of vitriol. And I'm in this bookstore and I was crying into this book, because I was like, oh my gosh, I, I feel seen, you know, I feel this is reflecting my life. And I picked up that book and I began reading everything that she cited in that book. And the first thing I picked up was, bell hooks’ “Feminism is for Everybody.” The next thing I picked up was Audre Lorde’s “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” And the third person I found was Cathy Cohen, who's a political scientist at the University of Chicago. And that was the day I decided it was time for me to leave Corporate America and do something different. I chartered a three-year plan to get out of Disney, to go back to school. and within a year or so, I was pregnant with my, second child. And I went to Cal State Fullerton, terminal master's program in political science at night, after school, after work, I finished that degree program in two years with honors, and I loved it. It was one of the most invigorating and exciting things I had ever done. and they invited me back. They said, you know what? You, you belong here. Do you want to come back and teach statistics? And I said, sure. I love math, so I taught statistics, and then the next semester I taught Black politics. And that changed everything. That changed everything. I knew that I would, I wanted to teach methods. I wanted to teach, about Black politics and gender and and political history. And I applied to graduate school. I got into Chicago and I worked with Cathy Cohen, and that's that's the the journey to academia. And it all started with, “Sister Citizen.” So that's what the book is about. The book is about that journey of kind of becoming a Black feminist and searching and having that desperation of walking into that bookstore that morning and wanting to find these stories and theories that would help me understand the world around me, and not only finding them, but then changing my entire life to move into a new career and a new way of being that would allow me to do that for a living.

GR: That's a great story, because the book does incorporate memoir and your analysis of these Black feminist, activists and authors. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Syracuse University political science professor Jenn Jackson, and we're discussing their new book, “Black Women Taught Us.” So I'd like to play a little, game of sorts with you if we can. And I'm going to list the people for the benefit of our listeners, that you discuss in each chapter of your book.

JJ: Yeah.

GR: Each chapter, although it's not only about that person, is primarily about a Black feminist. And then what I'd like to do is I want to pick one and ask you to discuss what you learned from that person. And then when you're done with that, I want you to pick one. You pick anyone you want other than obviously the one I picked. And then you tell me about that one.

JJ: Okay.

GR: You've got chapters on Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Nora Zell Hurston, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Toni Morrison, the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and bell hooks. Well, first of all, what a lineup. I mean, that's, but picking one is obviously hard, but I'm going to pick one. I'd like to I'd like you to tell me a little bit about what you learned from Angela Davis.

JJ: Absolutely. Angela Davis was so, growing up was so critical to my life, in ways that I didn't actually know until I was about 15. Growing up in Oakland, California, I grew up in the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. So for me, those the ethics of the Black Panther Party of, self-actualization and self-defense were always incorporated into who we were. I found out later in life that my mother was actually one of the children who benefited from the free breakfast program that the Black Panthers put on. My father was a Black Panther. He changed his name in his 20s, when he became a Black Panther. And so these things were always embedded in my life. And I opened the chapter talking about, in high school when I, I cut all my hair off and I was going natural, and my mom told me, “You look like Angela Davis.” And I said, “Well, who is that?” And she told me for the first time who this woman was and what she did and that she happened to just teach down the street. And my mom said at UC Santa Cruz. And that put me on a path to learn more about who Angela Davis was. What's important about Davis's life is that, Angela Davis grew up in Birmingham in the era when it was called Bombingham. You know, she knew the four little girls who were blown up in the in the Baptist church, on the corner whose, stories we hear so often who have been re-enacted in film and for her, that experience, that experience with terror, shaped a lot of her ideas about anti-racism and what it means for us to be fearless and consistent in our struggle, against racism. So I learned I've learned a lot from Angela in that I've seen her. I'm lucky that she's actually still alive. She just turned 80. and I've had multiple opportunities to actually interact with her, over my career. And I've seen her speak about the intersections of anti-racism, gender struggle and abolition. And she's always been very clear that this is an anti-capitalist struggle. This is an anti-institution struggle. This is a global struggle. And I've been very gracious to learn from someone who not only sees this as a kind of theoretical project, but because of her experiences as a child, because of her exposure to violence and vitriol and hatred. She also understands the real-world consequences and the ways that so many Black folk, encounter violence in their lives that her, the, there's an imperative here, right? So her work is not just about the theory, it's about the imperative of keeping Black people alive. So I talk a lot in the chapter about why it's important to think about abolition, not just about, you know, ending prisons and police, but also about returning care to communities. Right? When we think about Davis's central claim that we have to stop investing ourselves in the prison industrial complex, she tells us the first place we do the disinvesting is in our own minds, right? The ways that we live in communities. And we see prisons on the side of the road, and we drive past them as if there's nothing there, because we've normalized, the incarceral state in our own communities. You know, that's where she wants us to start. What does it mean for our communities to care for themselves, to have the resources? To and I equate this a lot to college campuses. Right? College campuses have, DPS, they have Department of Public Safety, but they also have a Title Nine office. They have, therapy services. They have gyms. Right? They're microcosms of the world, but they have all these services available to make sure this community is intact and that the people who are there are safe. And I always think to myself, why can't we think about our own communities and neighborhoods in the same way? And that's really what abolition is about. And I learned that from Angela Davis.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Syracuse University professor Jenn Jackson. They're an expert on race and politics, and the author of a new book titled “Black Women Taught Us: An Intimate History of Black Feminism.” Well, so I picked my pick before the break. Yeah, I gave you the break to think about your picks. So who do you want to talk about out of out of all of these wonderful, Black feminists that we could talk about?

JJ: Yeah. I mean, I think I've been really spending a lot of time thinking about Zora Neale Hurston’s life recently. And it's been resonating with a lot of, readers because a lot of folks don't know how difficult her life was. Zora Neale Hurston died of malnutrition in 1960. She was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. But because, male writers like Richard Wright didn't think that her writing was, relevant at the time, they didn't think that her, capturing of Black people was fair. So she wrote in dialect. She would write in African-American dialect. And she was really serious about capturing the exact way that people spoke. And what they said was that she made, Black people seem foolish and that she made, them seem as though they were uneducated. And so she was shunned and, what this ended up doing was kind of making her, writings, they went out of print. She kind of had to, she returned home. She had a hard time feeding herself. And when she returned home, to the South, she withered away. She withered away. And it wasn't. We wouldn't have had, Zora Neale Hurston works like we do today if it wasn't for Alice Walker. So Alice Walker discovered Zora Neale Hurston and she fell in love with her writing. And then she realized, wait, I don't know, I can't find her works anywhere. She said, where is this woman? What happened? And she found out that, Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave. So she went down, down South, down to Florida and she went to the community where Zora Neale Hurston was buried, and she posed as Zora Neale Hurston's niece and told them that she was looking for her aunt. They took her all of the neighborhood, you know, all of the community, you know, it was all word of mouth. And eventually, she got to the graveyard, and the graveyard was grown over, it was, she said there was, grass that was waist high and you couldn't see anything. And she's in this field and she's near, near crying because she's like, I don't know if I'll find Zora Neale Hurston. And she was using landmarks. She's like, okay, there's a fountain there and a tree here. And she's trying to figure out where Zora is. And she calls out and says, “Zora, I'm here, are you?” And she stepped backward, and at the moment she stepped back where she stepped down into a six-foot hole that just happened to be Zora Neale Hurston's grave. And that moment is so important because and I talk about this as the reclamation of Black women's labor. Right. Because so often, and we know the statistics that help us understand that Black women are paid less for their labor. There's a disproportionate effect of unemployment, when, you know, for instance, during the Covid-19 crisis, when, jobs were removed, it was often Black women's jobs that were removed first. Right? So we know that there's the kind of quantitative side of the labor that is also, not taken seriously. But what I'm talking about here is the labor that folks like Zora Neale Hurston offer in their lives, for communities, you know, that is erased in just a generation, right? If there are no children, if there are no grandchildren, if there are no nieces and nephews to continue that story, to continue that archival work and that memory that, that can just that, that history can go away that quickly. And I, I bring that into the book because I want folks to understand that when we talk about the contributions of Black women to our theory, to canon, to thinking about mass movements, you know, this work isn't new, right? This isn't this isn't work that just started, right? Ida B. Wells was writing in 1892 to, you know, Angela Cooper was writing in 1892. We have been thinking about Black feminism for generations, right? For over a century. and unfortunately, people still have this idea that Black feminism just started in 1989. So it's really important, as we think about folks like Zora, that we understand that it's not that Black women haven't been doing the work, is that so often it's erased. It's forgotten, it's misremembered.

GR: Wow. Yeah. So, even with that lineup of people that you profiled, you must have considered some other people that didn't make it into the book. And I was just wondering, which was the hardest one for you to leave out and why.

JJ: Yeah. Yeah, I love that question. There were two, actually. There were two that I still to this day, I'm like, you know, one was Pauli Murray. Pauli Murray was an incredible, lawyer and activist whose, intellectual work was critical in the Brown v Board of Education decision. Without Pauli Murray’s vision a lot of the legal wins of the NAACP in the 20th century would not have happened. Also, Pauli Murray was a, kind of genderqueer, androgynous person who struggled over the course of their whole life with understanding how they could fit into these movements, given that they also were not sure about what their gender identity was and how they wanted to show up. And so their life, really is, you know, it's resonant for me as a gender queer person. But I also think it's so important because these movements have been primarily masculine. We always had these charismatic male leaders. And while Pauli was so central to this work, they were sidelined because they were still read as a woman and still read as someone who didn't belong in the room. The other was Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman who, was critical in the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969. Her work to ensure that Black, queer and trans people at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York, she created the street transvestite activist revolutionaries along with Sylvia Rivera. They are kind of the folks who started this house culture of, we're going to build homes for people who are on the streets. This is the culture of house mothers and house fathers, house family. The concept of chosen family is really rooted there for, young queer and trans people. There's also data that shows that young queer people are the most likely to end up houseless in high school, and in their early adolescence because of the fact that people find out that they are queer and so she was actively working against that, by providing housing. The problem with Marsha P Johnson's story is that so much of it is undocumented. There's still questions around how she passed away. You know, it's a very sad story. and there's so much more left to be told.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Syracuse University professor Jenn Jackson. I wanted to move away from your book specifically, to a little more general question and it's about, reparations for African Americans, because I know you have some thoughts about that issue. So my first question is, and I know you could talk about this for hours. So if you could, you know, I'm going to I'm going to make it hard for you to try to be brief on this, but first of all, do we really need reparations? And if so, how would you imagine it being carried out?

JJ: Yeah, I love this question. you know, I think need is an interesting framing. I think that I think that, I frame it more through a lens of accountability. I think that we've seen examples of this around the world. You know, Germany is an interesting example. South Africa is another example. We've seen rotational reparations happen and they happen quite easily where the government says we are accountable for the harms and we should do work to ensure that this harm doesn't happen again and I think in terms of what models I've really found to be effective, I, I go straight to, the current Chicago model that is thinking about the Birge trial and the torture justice work that happened. So for folks who don't know, John Birge was a, police chief who used his position to, isolate and torture predominantly Black and brown men, for years in Chicago, they would have these blackout centers. They would have these places where they would literally and they would violate and harm, people. And there was no recourse for a very long time until activists, organizers, lawyers came together and said, we've got to do something about this. And then this happened around the 2008- 2015 moment. And what was so critical about this is they use their resources in communities, they use art, they use media they visited the UN, and they said, you know, this is a human rights violation that the government needs to answer for. And they won. They won, large sums of money to pay, folks who were harmed. There were a lot of folks who were in prison because after being tortured, they had been compelled to offer these, false, testimonies that a claim that they had committed crimes that they didn't commit. So they worked to actually free some folks from prison who weren't supposed to be there. This is the work of reparations, right? It's not just the funding side. They built the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which is just a center that's meant to offer, psychological support, educational support, community support in response to these harms. Most of what reparations is and should be is the, again, care for communities It it falls right under abolition. Right. So people think that reparations has to just be cash payouts. But it's not just cash payout it’s actually rooted in restorative justice. Which means whatever the harm is, whoever the victims are, they get to identify what the solutions will be. So if they want psychological support, if they want community justice, they whatever they need so that they can get back to a place of citizenship, of feeling whole, right? That's what reparations should look like. So this included a whole conversation about teaching about torture, justice in schools, local schools, so that young people know the history of their community. Right. That's what reparations should look like. It should be about truth-telling and being accountable for the actual history, the truth in the fact of history that has occurred, and then responding to the needs of those victims who have been harmed.

GR: So just to clarify, and this is very, helpful to me in my understanding, because so much of this conversation often gets stuck on the notion of general tax revenues being taken in and then redistributed on a broad basis to an entire race or ethnic group. You're talking about things that, in my mind, sound more specific and targeted to the problem.

JJ: Correct, I think the local model is a better, I think it's a really good model.

GR: Okay. we've got about three minutes left or so, and, I wanted to squeeze two questions in if I could. They're they're both big ones, so. I'm sorry about that, but, I want to I want to go back to your book, and then I want to ask you a big-picture question at the very end. So back to your book. The last chapter is titled “I Taught Myself Patience.” That's very intriguing. Tell me briefly about that.

JJ: I, I wrote that chapter because I want this book to, assuage folks fears that they have to have a handle on their Black feminist journey right now. I talked to a lot of young people who feel this sense of urgency around organizing, around movements, around education, and they feel that the the times require that they be experts. And what I've been telling young people is that that's absolutely not fair to yourself. give yourself time to learn. This book is meant to be a starting place, a beginning. And in that chapter, I provide a whole list of other folks whose works you can engage with who are not necessarily a chapter in the book, because I want folks to understand that they have to find their place, and it's not necessarily right now.

GR: Well, your life is kind of a demonstration of that patience in a way. So, just about a minute left my last question. Big picture, the future of the conversations that we're going to have in this country about race and race relations. Where do you think they're going long-term? I mean, if I if I brought you back on this program in 20 or 30 years, God willing, if I were still alive, what would what would we be discussing?

JJ: You know, unfortunately, I just taught my students about this yesterday. I think a lot of history repeats itself, and I think we're in a pendulum-like moment right now. We see the pendulum swinging back to a moment of conservatism. I think we're making incremental progress, but I hope that in 20 to 30 years, books like mine won't be so rare. I think it's so strange that this is the first of its kind. I hope to see many, many more of them on the shelves and many more people engaging with this work in a in a wider way. I want people to understand the facts of history, and I want those to govern society as opposed to this current moment where it's a lot of, vitriol and tropes and caricatures. It's, I'm hoping we move away from that.

GR: Yeah. Me too. Well, that was Jenn Jackson. And again, their new book, which, by the way, is a great read if you haven't already concluded that, is titled “Black Women Taught Us: An Intimate History of Black Feminism.” Jenn, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. Very insightful. I learned a lot. Thank you.

JJ: Thank you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.