This episode features two brilliant scholar-artist-activists Salamishah Tillet and Grace Sanders Johnson. It was recorded live from the Free Library of Philadelphia as a part of the 2019 One Book One Philadelphia festival. Tillet and Sanders Johnson have been friends of Monument Lab since the beginning, actually before the beginning. Tillet as a mentor, Sanders Johnson as a graduate school classmate and writing partner of host Paul Farber.
Together, they spoke about how they approach memory in their works, what kind of archives and artworks haunt and/or inspire them, and how history lives in the present.
Tillet is Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing, as well as Associate Director of the Clement Price Institute at Rutgers University–Newark. She is also the Founding Faculty Director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark and Co-Founder of A Long Walk Home. Tillet regularly publishes as a critic in the New York Times. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination, and two forthcoming books on Nina Simone and the Color Purple.
Sanders Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently completing her first book manuscript entitled, White Gloves, Black Nation: Women, Citizenship, and the Archive in Early Twentieth Century Haiti. In addition to her study of gender and politics in Haiti, she is the founder of “Harriet’s Hike,” an ecological literacy program for girls and elder women in North Philadelphia.
Paul Farber (Host): Good evening.
Audience: Good evening.
Farber: Thank you everyone for being here. Especially, thank you to the Free Library and the One Book, One Philadelphia Festival. I'm Paul Farber, Artistic Director of Monument Lab, and I am thrilled to be here with you and welcome our guests Salamishah Tillet and Grace Sanders Johnson.
Farber: Tonight is a long time coming. Salamishah and Grace, you've been really key figures in the conceptualization of Monument Lab Salamishah, as a mentor and interlocutor, and Grace as a classmate and writing partner. One thing that really strikes me about your respective work, is the way that you think about the past, but how you bring the past into the present. I'm curious to just hear how you began thinking about the ways that the past lives in the present as you approach your work.
Salamishah Tillet: First. I'll begin. One, I'm just really excited to be at the Free Library. It was a pivotal place for me. I met my partner here after college, and so it's cool the Free Library of Philadelphia. Shout-out. Then also, last time I saw these two on stage, you were in Ann Arbor, and they hosted, as grad students, this amazing conference on The Wire, so I'm having my own kind of nostalgia in real time, and everyone's grown up, so it's exciting and people got dogs and babies, and all that stuff. I'll answer the question, and then I'll, you know. It actually goes back to being when I was an undergrad here at Penn. My senior year, and this became my dissertation topic in many ways, there was an explosion of novels on slavery, almost every year. I graduated a very long time ago, like at 1996, and so in the late '80s, early '90s, the most famous of these books is Toni Morrison's Beloved. Every year, there'd be like one or two novels on slavery by a contemporary African American writer. I was obsessed with that, because I was like, why do they keep on going back to this foundational site of trauma, how they're experimenting with it. Then, my senior year, I did like a thesis project, looking at the 18th and 19th Century slave narratives. Academically, what's what was going on, and then my senior year, I was also in therapy. I'm a sexual assault survivor, and I was going to MCP [Medical College of Pennsylvania]. I would go to take a van every week and go to a PTSD treatment center. It as an experimental treatment program for sexual assault survivors. They'd used similar methods to treat soldiers, vets from the Vietnam war, and this was their first time doing it with sexual assault survivors. In therapy, I was confronting flashbacks, dealing with trauma, how does memory control you? How do you differentiate between the actual trauma and your memory of it, and I'm also reading these novels where characters are being, like Octavia Butler's Kindred, the character's literally being pulled back into the past and the past is imprinting her body. I was dealing with it in a very emotional and a very visceral level, and then I started thinking, "Well, if I'm dealing with flashbacks, if I'm dealing with trauma, what does it mean for people to never really have the opportunity to recover from this founding trauma?" I think for me, the personal and the political, but also, memory is both individual, and then also kind of collective and national, started blending into each other. I really thought, "How do you differentiate the past and the present? How does the present use the past in particular ways? How can a contemporary author go back in time, reimagine this trauma or reimagine the past and use it in service of his or vision in the present?" I kind of became obsessed with that, and I feel like that's probably the defining feature of my work. I'm really interested in how the past informs the present. Afterlives of cultural objects, or how artists, like I'm doing this project on Nina Simone, I'm doing a project on The Color Purple, things that kind of live on in the present, but get imbued with a different kind of energy based on which generation picks it up, and then which artist engages it.
Grace Sanders Johnson: I would say that there's so many places you can start, but there are two places that I can think of in particular. One, because of my area of study is Haiti, you can imagine how the past is always present, because for most people, their point of reference for Haiti is the Haitian Revolution. That's a day-to-day conversation, so as a young person always hearing about the Haitian revolution, which was over 200 years ago, thinking, "Why are people still talking about this event that happened nearly 200 years ago as if it happened yesterday? Referencing the revolution, or this will damage the revolution. The other way I came to it was as a drama student, at 10 years old reading For Colored Girls for the first time, and in For Colored Girls, the Lady in Brown has a relationship with this person named Toussaint, and what Shange does in that text is blend the historical figure Toussaint, with this boy Toussaint, that she's engaging with in real time. That was the first time that I said, "Wait one second, is she in the past, or is she in the present? Where is this character existing?" That was also one of my first introductions to Haiti as this historical place, that can be not only captured in literature, but also captured in history. From there I just started studying, and part of what happened in the process of my research was I was interested, not just in broad national history, but one of the questions I had as an undergrad was, well, where are all the women? We're learning about all of these figures, but where are all the women? In that research, finding women's voices and also realizing that there were no monuments, if you will, for these women. There were monuments for all of these great figures. I wanted my writing and my history to, in some ways, capture that. For me, that's kind of always been that connection between the past and the present, and it evolved into art work and taking the archive into public spaces, and things like that.
Farber: You mentioned an early experience with the play [For Colored Girls]. I'm curious, for both of you, how did you talk about or learn about history when you were growing up? Whether in your household or in your school, and did you see yourselves in the study of the past?
Sanders Johnson: I did, because the way I understood history was through an oral tradition, and so I learned about history by sitting under my kitchen table listening to people talk, whether it was about our family history, or neighborhood history. I don't think I understood it in necessarily the professionalized sense of history, or these books they were writing [laughs], but I did understand that there was something living about the past and our present, because those were the most dynamic conversations. The most exciting conversations at the table weren't about the news that day, they were about these events that happened in the past, that our family were sharing among one another.
Tillet: Yeah, I think I saw myself in history longer than I didn't as a child, particularly because I grew up in Boston in the late '70s, early '80s, so there was a kind of black nationalist fervor. I went to a black nationalist school that was an experimental school. People are now sending their kids to these Afro-centric schools, black nationalist schools again, but I was able to do that for first and second, and third grade. Then I moved to Trinidad and Tobago for middle school. What was challenging actually, was when I returned back to the United States and went to this private school in north Jersey, and even in eighth grade, we were reading Chinua Achebe's, like, Things Fall Apart, I read that for the first time. I was seeing either people who looked like me, people I could claim. And then there was this radical break in ninth grade when we were doing western heritage. No, and ancient world was ninth grade, and then tenth grade it was western heritage.
Tillet: It was so hard, because I was trying to write myself back in. Often times, I'll use the framework of gender to do that, but it was very difficult. By my 12th grade year, I was in AP American History, and we're fighting about this, like women's voices or the voices of people of color. For three years, I was in a curriculum where I was absent. Then I had the opportunity to come to college and be able to study African American studies and English. I was majoring in African Diasporic literature. I think having an early foundation of representation and self identification did shape me in ways that are utterly important, but also, when I went to college and started to ask questions again, demand inclusion in ways that I had early in my life and lost for a bit, and then I recovered later on. I think for me, and this is kind of also why the topic of slavery was so important, because my father's from Trinidad and Tobago and my mother's African American, and so what really is the bonding site? It is slavery. Slavery created the possibility of my parents and their ancestors being here, and then finding each other. I always kind of wanted to know as a child of bi-cultural heritage, what is the thing that brings them together and try to really understand that. That was also kind of a driving impetus for me to think about slavery and how artists engaged the past.
Farber: You mentioned a bit about where you have grown up, and also your family's roots. I'm just curious for both of you to just talk a little bit about where you're from, or where you claim, and how that informs the work that you do.
Sanders Johnson: Well, you just came from where I'm from, so Paul is doing a-
Sanders Johnson: You do a series in Memphis?
Farber: We did a project in Memphis, yeah.
Sanders Johnson: A project in Memphis, so I'm from Nashville, but my family is from Memphis and Kentucky, and a whole lot of southern places. I would say, if we're thinking about how that informs, I mean, that informs everything that I did. Growing up in Nashville, it's a pretty segregated city. I lived, literally, and the other side of the tracks, so on one side is the rich history of Tennessee State University and Fisk and Meharry. And on the other side of the tracks is Vanderbilt and Belmont. I lived most of my life on the TSU/Fisk/Meharry side of the tracks. That was an incredibly rich historical experience, because along the streets of Jefferson Street, there are monuments, there are plaques, but there's also a rich oral history tradition, so everyone's telling you from very young that so-and-so did this here, and remember that time so-and-so came here? For me, those people weren't necessarily figures that we recognize in name, like King, but they were people who are part of our neighborhood. Now that I look back on my methodology for my work, I realize that was so important in my understanding of how history operates because history operates with us. How we're engaging with one another, what those stories tell us. I had to walk to school every day, and I would say most important for me, Fisk was kind of the place where my life evolved in terms of history. My parents met there. All of the black kids in the neighborhood went to Fisk in the summer, and that's what you did. You went to Fisk Mini-College, and you learned about all this black history. That is my foundation, but then also, Fisk was a monument in itself. The architecture of the campus is grand. You walk in the buildings, like Jubilee Hall, and the stairs are creaking, but no one's gonna fix them, because that's part of the history. It's supposed to give you this feel [laughs]. If you know anything about HBCU's, that's also often, you're in these dorms that have all this history, and for that reason, there won't necessarily be air conditioning. You're supposed to be able to smell the smells of the building, and all of those things inform how I imagine history, and how I'm thinking about it.
Tillet: Yeah, for a while on my Twitter feed, I would have like, northeast corridor is what claim is my geographical home. I think for me, growing up in different cities, or states, or even countries, it kind of imparted really a nomadic, also a transnational sensibility, or transnational understanding of black identity. Meaning that, again, being a child of a Trinidadian father and African American mother, I both understood blackness within the confines of the U.S. nation state, but then also understood that there are alternative ways of experiencing blackness and blackness not being the most defining characteristic if you're living in a predominantly black country. Race functions differently in Trinidad, than it does in the United States, and how does someone like my father, who technically his mother was Indian and his father was biracial black and white, he becomes African American in the United States, but in Trinidad he's black, but he's also Indian. It's a very complicated identity. I grew up understanding that one can choose to be black, and then one is born black. It's a category they can put on you, and also one you can claim with pride. I think moving in different geographical spaces enabled me to think about it that way. I also grew up in a very artistic home. My mother is a musician, and in Boston, we lived right around the corner from a community performing arts center, the Elma Lewis School, and they would perform black nativity every year. My claim to fame – my old claim to fame, I guess, before I wrote a book – was I was the first Christ child in Black Nativity in Boston. This means that my sister and I, and Langston Hughes wrote Black Nativity, so we grew up really early on in these pageants that were African American musical and cultural history. And then, we left and went to Trinidad. If anyone knows anything about Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival is a national, it's not a holiday, but it should be. It's not really a state holiday, but the country kind of spends at least nine months out of the year preparing for Carnival, which is a tradition that was inherited from enslaved Trinidadians. It's such a vibrant and dynamic expression of creativity, musicality, performativity. All that's going on at once. Growing up, both in my household and then having this as kind of a national fabric, I didn't see any differences between ... I understood that there are different artistic mediums, but when I became a critic, there were few texts that I felt like I was afraid to analyze. That I felt that I could look at dance, and look at music, and look at film, and look at now television, and embrace them, because that's how I lived artistically in my home. Then when we created A Long Walk Home as a non-profit organization, Scheherazade wanted to bring my story to life in terms of my healing from being sexually assault or whatever, I think intuitively for her too, because we grew up in the same household, to do it with multiple mediums, including photography, and using dance, and using poetry. We're children of For Colored Girls in many ways. It was just kinda how we understood the world. I guess, having different geographical spaces also enabled us to have different genres that we could claim and own, and that, I think, is like one of the best gifts that I could say from my childhood, was like just living in between different artistic spaces, and finding myself, and seeing myself in those.
Farber: In thinking about those different ways through art and history that one can see themselves, you write about histories of people who are not always represented in the big archive, or the big library, predominantly African American women. Just thinking about when you're in an archive, what are you looking for to tell the stories of the past, and what do you realize that you can't find there and you have to find somewhere else or in some other way?
Sanders Johnson: I'm trained as a historian, and so part of what we do, is we're looking at all these documents and then we're doing this thing called reading against the grain. Thanks to so many historians who do histories of enslavement, they've developed techniques for us to find people who are not necessarily represented in the archive, or represented during enslavement through an "X," or how much they cost, or just the definition, "girl "or ""boy. For me, when I'm looking in the archive, 'cause most of my work is in the 20th Century, so I have the good fortune of at least having names. A lot of times, I'm looking for places where things don't fit, where they stand out. An example would be I was in the National Archives, and I did just a random search. A random search in this context is "Haiti," which, for those of you who are librarians, that's really way too vague [laughs]. I did the search, because I wanted to see what kinds of things popped up. Under the search, there was a file called "Miscellaneous, " and in the miscellaneous file there were 10 pieces of paper. They were all about this one woman who I later found out her name was Extrea Jean, but the entire file was about a car accident. It was about a car accident during the U.S. Occupation. The U.S. Occupation, for those of you who are not familiar, was from 1915 to 1934, and Extrea is walking across the street and a U.S. military vehicle hits her, and she ultimately ends up dying from the injuries. I remember seeing this in the National Archives thinking why did they preserve this one incident? It's a car accident, right? One of the things that stood out to me in that moment, which seemed miscellaneous, which seemed mundane, which seemed like it was just a regular car accident, that for me, that was a reflection of how pervasive the violence of U.S. Occupation was. In this context, Extrea couldn't even walk across the street without literally colliding with this entity that had come into her space. In the recording, because she doesn't die immediately, she's trying to defend herself, and the ways in which these military officials are trying to undermine her character, to me was fascinating, but what was more fascinating was watching Extrea demand her space in the archives. At a certain point, it was certain that she likely knew she would die, and she's still making claims on who she is. She's saying, "I'm 19. I'm a girl. No matter what you think, I had the right to walk across the street and not be harmed, and certainly not being harmed by a foreign invader." For me, I took that moment that was seemingly miscellaneous, and so one of the projects I've done molding the past with the present, is take archives like that – because the only representation that we have of Extrea is an image of the crime scene, so an image of some X's and some O's on a sheet of paper –I took that archival document. I copied it for those of you all who are librarians, don't get anxious. I took that archival document and made an art piece out of it, and with a group of friends, we found the street, which is in Okap, in the north of Haiti, and we took the art piece and laid to rest in the place where she was injured, where she was hit and later died. For me, that's how I'm engaging with the archive, because for me, the archival documents are always living, they're always breathing, and that's how I can come to this and not walk away saying, "There's nothing that we can do here." That's just one example. The other thing I would just say as an aside, there is a General that I have followed because of the ways in which he violated and killed Haitians under the U.S. Occupation, and when you're talking about my engagement with the archive, I remember I had to go to Atlanta, because he was in the Atlanta Penitentiary, and I had to go to Atlanta to go look at his archive. They gave me his archive and all these written notes, and they'd never been touched, so they're moist. I remember they brought the papers to me and I said, "You know what? I need some gloves." I did not want my skin to interact with this person who I'd had known had perpetrated so many, I can't even explain all of the things that he did. That also is just a practical engagement with the archive. Sometimes, I don't want to touch what's happening there, and other times, I really want to touch. I really wanted to engage with Extrea, which is why I created this whole other world around Extrea's life.
Tillet: The last story that you brought up reminds me, well I'm not a historian, so I haven't been trained to engage the archive in the same way that you have, but from Sites of Slavery, it was really important for me to go to physical sites. My first chapter's on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and my third chapter's on the slave forts in Ghana. I write about the slave forts in Ghana and Benin in particular. I read about Senegal and Ghana. Just going to those physical locations, even though I wasn't approaching it like an anthropologist or historian, or even a sociologist, I was really interested in how other people had depicted them. Just being in the physical landscape, gave me a new prism through which I could then read people's work. I'm kind of very experiential, just kind of similar to more esoteric terms, like the energy that you can experience in a place, or just looking at the spatial parameters. At Monticello, it's so striking. I went on two different tours of the house in the same day. One that was for the general public, and then one, I was part of a private tour by a historian who'd been doing a lot of the recovering of the Hemmings family's history and doing really deep integration of Hemmings' within the larger Jefferson family biography. That was a more ... I saw Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson, this is where she lived. That all did deeply impact what I saw as a phenomenon of African American women and trying to reclaim the story of Sally Hemmings. I'm third generation reclaiming their reclamation of her, but just being in the physical space and seeing how utterly absurd it was that Jefferson built, you know, Monticello at the time was the only home in Virginia that had this dome. That was all through slave labor. Jefferson was so extravagant and really bad with money, and to see both the enormity of his vision, and the way in which it depended on slave labor in real time, shaped the chapter, and then going to this Cape Coast and Elmina and Ghana fundamentally changed how I understood the history of slavery. I went there, because in America, at the time, there were markers and there are memories, but there were no monuments that were really attesting to the trauma and the dramatic nature of slavery. I, like many other people, went to West Africa to find an origin story. That's one way. The archive is there, and there are physical spaces that I'm engaging. On the two projects that I'm working on now, one on The Color Purple and then one on Nina Simone, they're very different archives. Alice Walker was fastidious. She kept every single thing, so her archive is really rich and amazing. And with someone like Nina Simone, there is no archive. There's no Nina Simone archive. You have to create it and it's not like she's from the 16th Century and its impossible, but that people have it, and there are people fighting over the archive, so that you have to kind of create different narratives as a result. One thing I want to say about The Color Purple archive, is when I did an interview with Alice Walker about Celie, the character who's based on her step-grandmother, she kept on insisting that her step-grandmother Rachel was absolutely gorgeous. And she didn't know that, and the people around her refused to see it. I was like, naw. You know what I mean? We're all beautiful, right? I was like, okay she keeps on saying this, maybe she feels bad. I didn't know why. She couldn't find a picture of her, and so I did a search in the archive right before a conference, and there's this one. The only time the name Rachel pops up, and I saw this picture of the four women and this handwriting on the back. I still can't figure out which one is who, because I don't know the people. It was amazing just to be confronted with the archive and the way in which I too had internalized a vision of Celie, because Walker's whole point was like, in the novel, she doesn't understand why the audience trusts the stepfather's really horrible reading of Celie, and why we trust Mister's horrible reading of Celie. Then I realized, by confronting this picture, I too had internalized it. I too believed that Celie wasn't this beautiful person on some level, and so to be confronted with the image that then created the possibility of Celie and then to have to deal with my own internalized self-hatred on some level was pretty astonishing. The archive can be liberating, it can be challenging, it can open up new ways of seeing the past, but also understanding yourself as well.
Farber: Salamishah, you mentioned energy and this is personal, but in your research, whether it's at a site, or in an archive, did you feel like you're encountering the spirit of your subjects? Do you believe in those ghosts communicating with you?
Tillet: Do you want me to ... I mean [laughs]...
Sanders Johnson: Yes. You know, in my mind I'm thinking, this is recorded. Yes, I absolutely know when I'm gonna write about you.
Farber: You said that her voice is speaking to you.
Sanders Johnson: Extrea, absolutely called me into her space. She had nothing to do with what I was researching. I copied the documents, and I went on about my life, but I kept coming back to her. I was like, "I just want to look and see what they said again. I'm gonna look and see what they said again." This wasn't an academic project for me with Extrea. I just needed to experience some kind of redress around what I witnessed, and that's how the art appeared. The other part of my medium is oral history, so in that way, people are always with us in the room. In fact, one of the questions that I ask people is who would you like to invite into this space with us? That can be someone physical, or that can be someone in another realm. Who would you like to witness this story with us? That has turned into part of my practice over time. It evolved. It used to be that I would ask questions like, when were you born? Where did you live? What was your first job? [Laughs] What I realized is that we're always bringing other people with us to the story. We're always bringing other narratives and histories, and so for us to account for the people who were in the room. That's been a part of my practice in oral history, so I account for those people. Then for us to think about how we can engage them. It might not necessarily be that we're lighting candles or anything like that, but if your grandmother is so present, or if your parents are so present in this narrative, how would they respond to these questions, and how would they think about us engaging in this practice? That also came out of doing a lot of oral histories, where there was so much that couldn't be said, so the period that I study in Haitian history, is a period where there is a lot of silence, and there's a lot of silence because there was a lot of violence. There's silence on a local level within families, but then there's also a national silence around things that happen in the mid-20th century in Haiti. That's also part of my practice of engagement, to be sensitive to this. I don't necessarily need you to tell me everything, but I want us to have some kind of understanding of what is safe for us to tell. Sometimes, it's safer for us to tell if we have our people around us. I think that actually came out in this book [Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing], because part of the reason why these ghosts show up in these moments to help the characters think through things and to help them manage really difficult situations, and an oral history moment can be one of those moments. Very few of us sit down with someone and talk about our life story and have it recorded. For me, I have to be sensitive to that, so yes, people show up.
Tillet: I agree with that. I feel like I experienced it a little bit differently, so I'll talk about it from two angles. One, we're talking a lot about Sally Hemmings a lot today. I haven't talk about Sally Hemmings in a while, but when I was in grad school and I did this presentation on Annette Gordon-Reed's book, I was like, I don't really want to write about Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson in my dissertation, because that's like a really messy story and I didn't want to get caught up in that messiness. I was like, "it's just too complicated, blah, blah, blah. Then you go home, and you're refusing and resisting, and then whatever, there a documentary on Sally Hemmings. You're like, "What? Okay." There are things like that happen with that project that happen a lot of times with the Nina Simone project because she's a very difficult subject, because of how utterly brilliant she is. She's difficult because she does not live by any particular code of what musical category she should inhabit. She's difficult because she is actually difficult. Like when you talk to people who are close to her, because of her mental illness, because of her genius, because of the way in which American racism, sexism impacted her. She was a difficult person, and again, the question of archive, it's a loosely located kind of corpus around her, other than obviously are long and deep engagement with her music, you can get that quite easily. There are these ways in which with her, I didn't think I was up to the task of being able to write about someone, because I wasn't a musician, and I really wanted to write a book that people would read. That's what I kept on telling myself. I want to write a book that people would read. Then I had to reinvent myself as a creative writer. I didn't have to, but I chose to reinvent myself as a creative writer and a different kind of cultural critic, so people could read my book on Nina Simone. That was its own difficult thing. I would doubt myself and I doubted and continue to doubt. Then you'd have a song play, or you would have something that was like, "Oh yeah, I'm on the right path." Then I did an interview with her daughter, this was in 2015, and I've only cried during two interviews, because I try to be professional and not cry in an interview. One was with her daughter, and then in that moment I knew that I was chosen to write this particular project, not like I'm the one who's chosen, or the only writer to write on Nina Simone. I thought, "Okay I'm meant to." I've been able to interview her daughter twice. Once at Penn, and then once for this piece I wrote. I was like, "Okay." I felt a transfer of energy and also a blessing, I guess would be the right way of saying it. Then with the Color Purple Project, I cried. I had the opportunity of interviewing Oprah Winfrey, and besides Alice Walker, I think Oprah Winfrey's the one person who The Color Purple, the very existence of that book, changed the trajectory of her life forever. It was something intense, because 'cause we were crying about being survivors and crying about ... I don't tend to cry, again, in interviews, but these two women. What I'm trying to say, I guess, is there are the people that I'm writing about at some point feel like family, and they may be Celie, who's a fictional character, or Nina Simone, who's a historical figure. And if you talk to me, or you hear me talk about them, they're so alive in my world. They are, and this is the shift, I think, from being an academic to being a different kind of writer, because I don't think I actually talked about Sally Hemings this way, even though maybe I would have if I allowed myself to. I didn't. With these figures in this moment, you're kind of excited to figure out where they're gonna take you, or what are they gonna do? There's that. The people that you're writing about are characters that become family. Then there are the people that you meet in real life along the journey of archive, or the investigation, and you may never see that person again, but you share something. They've given you a gift, and you've given them a gift. In that moment, you share an exciting interest in a figure like Nina Simone, and that is enough. They're also part of the journey. The people that I've met, I continue to meet as I do research, and as I write. I again, may never talk to the person, or maybe just one time, but that alone can be enough to have made a connection. They're not family per se, but they're kin. That's also part of my process, and it's a really exciting nature. I'm an extrovert, so I get energy from people, living, fictional, oral, historical [laughs]. Yeah, I don't know. That's how I think about it anyway.
Farber: In other contexts, Grace, you've talked about your experiences in going to Haiti as a researcher. Would you, for the sake of those who haven't heard it, would you be willing to share a bit about your journeys there and elsewhere?
Sanders Johnson: I've been working and living about and in Haiti for some time now. This is what happens when you write a dissertation. You realize it's been like a decade, and you're like, oh my, or more. The one thing that stands out to me about my experience more recently. When I was first headed to Haiti to start my research, so staying there for a longer period of time, not just weeks or months at a time. One of my advisors who is a very well known Haitian historian said, "You know, Grace, you have to remember that history is in layers, and there are a lot of layers in Haitian history. You're gonna have to be patient enough, whether you're in the archive or whether you're in a conversation with someone to just peel back layers and to be able to take your time with peeling back those layers." That was somewhere around early December 2009, and January 12, 2010 the earthquake happened in Haiti. What I realized in that moment was, there's so many things, but there were literal layers that were not in history, that were now in people's experience, and that was gonna be something that I would personally have to attend to within myself, having lost people, having planned on seeing people within a week, and dealing with the layers that I had to manage within myself, but then also dealing with the layers of that historical moment changed everything for me. After that, I moved to Montreal. At the time, my work was always about Haiti and Montreal. It was always about migration. It was always thinking about what does it mean to be Haitian. What does it mean to be a part of a Diaspora? What does it mean when you move from Haiti to Montreal and you become black in this North American way that you're not familiar with? Shortly after the earthquake, I decided that I needed to leave where I was. I went to Montreal and there I started, one, just attending to what was there before trying to pull back layers, attend to that was there. In doing that, I was working with a Haitian community organization, Maison D'Haiti, which was one of the biggest Haitian community organizations in Montreal. What we realized is that after the earthquake, people are displaced and they were displaced to places like Miami. They were also displaced to places like New York [and Montreal]. Mind you, this is January, so you're coming to Montreal in the winter. A lot of what we were doing was just creating space for loss, and how to acclimate oneself. In that space, we started a group on Thursdays, where women would come from all over the city and the group named itself The Circle of Grieving Women. We grieved together for almost two years. That process taught me so much about history, because in those first couple of sessions, we didn't get through sessions without tears. I remember actually, the anniversary of the earthquake, there weren't that many tears, and it was the first time we had gone through an entire meeting together, and by meeting, this is not sophisticated. This is like, we're just coming together and talking. In that process, what I learned is just how we uncover layers, and how we uncover them with care, because you can rip layers off. That's often what happens in the discipline of history, people just want to get what they want. What we were really practicing was just being gentle with one another, and understanding that maybe today you want to talk about something that happened in 1956, and tomorrow you can't do it, because you're stuck with yesterday. That really has been my process in that regard, and just trying to think through what that means. The other thing that happened around tears, there were so many tears, and there were tears of joy as well, so it wasn't all sadness. There's lots of laughter, there's lots of joking and cracking on one another and whatever. As a historian, what I realized what can never be captured were all of the material things that were happening for us, like tears, and so I created an installation around that, that's called The Archive of Tears. What I did with that installation, is just write women's names who I knew. If you're in the archive, you have a box, and you have first and last name. You have the date, and you have things that quantify experiences that cannot be quantified. In the installation there's someone's name, and then it has the date, and has number of tears. It might be 952. It might be three. It might be none, but part of that was for me to think through how arbitrary this thing is that we call history, that we try to land our hands on something that we can hold on to, but also how something happened there, and how do we account for that?
Farber: After the earthquake, did you go back to Haiti, and if so, what was that experience like?
Sanders Johnson: That was a lot [laughs]. I wasn't going back as a historian, I was going back as someone who needed to see for myself. I remember seeing the visual of the National Palace collapse, and I could not wrap my mind around that. It was just too much. There was some things I needed to see for myself. There was some places I needed to see for myself to understand, there's another moment about going back, so while I'm a historian, part of the way I learned history through Haitian history, is reading Haitian literature. In Montreal, a good friend of mine Marie-Célie Agnant. I was interviewing her about her writing process and about her experience of migration, and one day she said, "You know, I used to call home to hear things." I said, "Okay, you're calling home to hear things." She said, "Yeah, I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just wanted my friend to hold the phone out onto the street, so I could hear the noise of the street. As a practice, pre-earthquake, every time I would go to Haiti, I would take a recorder and collect sound, just have it on, going up and down the streets, collecting sound. This was really as a gift to her to say, "Here. Here's some sounds [Laughs]. Those sounds you're looking for." Going back to Haiti after the earthquake, I realized that in that practice, I had collected a pre-earthquake sound of Haiti. That made me even more obsessed with capturing sound, capturing the space, because the earthquake in Haiti, while it was absolutely devastating, it's not unique to a place that lives on a fault line. That's part of how the Caribbean came to be, and there are many cities that live on fault lines, similar to how they are here. I think what was, for me, impactful in terms of the loss of life, but also the loss of our access to some of those layers. That has just been a part of my process now, is collecting. As much as, I feel like now, maybe I'm being like Alice Walker, and that's just like, I'm just gonna take everything and we're gonna hold on to this, and maybe later on, we'll figure out why it's valuable.
Farber: In a few minutes, we're gonna open up to those of you in the audience who have questions. There'll be microphones, in a few minutes. I'm gonna ask just a few final ones to our guests here. For Salamishah. In Sites of Slavery, you closed the book in Philadelphia.
Farber: It's, of course, about the opening of the President's House here on Independence Mall, and the rise of the Obamas as national figures. You're here, back in a city where you wrote that book and you've since been here and been elsewhere. Do you think of that moment as far back in the past, or do you think of that still as very proximate?
Tillet: I was revising the book. I came to Penn in 2007, and the stage that Grace is in now, you're like, I have this dissertation and you're trying to turn it into a book. I was like, "Oh my God. Obama. Everything's in past tense!" This idea that African Americans kept on returning to slavery in the post-Civil Rights era as a way of writing themselves into civic identity and insisting on being seen through this horrible experience of slavery. My argument was slavery's as American as apple pie, and that what was unique about African writers and artist in the post-Civil Rights period, as opposed to any other time in American History, is that they could claim slavery as, in a way, kind of made them American, whereas earlier generations of African Americans, it was a such a source of shame and legal disenfranchisement. You're not going to claim slavery that makes you American, because this is the thing that actually denies you access to America. Post-Civil Rights African Americans have legal citizenship, and I make all these arguments about why then you can return to slavery and do these really experimental things in terms of storytelling, but also with the political. Anyways, Obama becomes President, I'm like, that need. You have a Black President, so we're represented in the state at its highest level. I was like, "Oh, the book is going to be in past tense" and all this stuff. Anyway [Laughs]. Then I had the lovely senior colleague Thadius Davis, and she was like, "You could think about it differently. You can think about these artists as anticipating a kind of democratic moment, as opposed to their arguments are no longer valid." That was like the optimism of 2007-2008. The President's House comes about, even though there were long contestation about it for many years preceding Obama, there was a way in which I found this space to be you're going to deal with slavery and you're going to deal with freedom. Think about fault lines. America's fault line is slavery and freedom. It's also the genocide and colonizations of Indigenous people and the democratic experience. Those are the fault lines in which we operate that hover over us. I thought the President's House was really trying to grapple with those things and be honest about them, and kind of create a space that architecturally embodied the kind of political and philosophical debates that people in the city were having, activists were having, and park rangers were having as they were giving people tours. But now, I think, I mean this is to your work with Monument Lab, and the ways in which these confederate monuments and the contest about them are another way of, not just reckoning with our past, but really trying to figure out, "What is America's legacy to slavery, and how that legacy is kind of ongoing in the present." I don't write about slavery, though I think about it quite often, I don't write about it anymore. That's where I think these debates and the energy is happening. Also, there's all these new novels on slavery every year, you know what I mean? Even if it's another resurgence, there's movies and television shows. There is an attempt to go back to this moment to reimagine it, to understand what is happening to us right now. I think that those concerns and those questions are very present for me, and I just kind of shifted time periods, but slavery to me is the thing that's, obviously, it's foundational, but I guess it's like the prism through which I see so much. Your question is like, is that no longer lingering? I think it's lingering and it's taken on new forms, because every generation kind of has to come to terms with its legacy, and also, fight against the need or desire for amnesia. That's the fight. These battles over confederate monuments or black face and Michael Jackson, depending on what you want to call it, these are all kinds of ways of dealing with ongoingness. That's the term I've been interested in. If I were doing an academic book, I'd be theorizing ongoingness. The way in which the ongoingness, there's a way in which it's tied to the past, but it kind of gives you a different temporality. It's just lingering and there, and it's shaping you, and you don't know how it's gonna impact you until it arises, and then you gotta deal with it in some way. That's kind of how I think slavery continues, in addition to literally structuring our daily lives as black people in America and non-black people in America. It's always constantly there.
Sanders Johnson: I was thinking through what you were saying, thinking the ongoingness of it all and returning to your question about growing up. I'm just reminded of Memphis, because we talked a little bit about Monument Lab in Memphis, and my father grew up at some point in Memphis. That was their last family home, and my grandmother lived there. I remember very clearly around 10 or 11 years old, saying, "I can't come to visit you anymore." Now, part of that was the neighborhood where my father grew up had less resources than other neighborhoods, but it was also the city. The city was forcing this relationship, and forcing this history upon me in a way that as a 10-year old, I could feel. I could feel the energy of the building, the infrastructure of the city. Why is it that there's a big house there and a small house behind there, right? It doesn't take being that old to notice there's a difference, and that the architecture is designed to remind you of where you're supposed to be in the space. I think in that way, that ongoingness is always there. Now, it's cool to live in the shotgun house, but that's a whole other level of ongoingness, right? Of displacement, and so thinking about how that's operating as well.
Farber: There is no national monument or memorial to slavery, at least in Washington, DC on the National Mall. The President's House here in Philadelphia that we spoke about, arguably is maybe one of the most prominent national sites. There are several others, and of course, there are many stewards and memory keepers who have made sure to tell the stories of enslavement and liberation. In thinking about the sites of confederate statues or former confederate statues when we're in Memphis, the Jefferson Davis statue in Memphis Park, formerly Confederate Park, was installed in 1964. Thinking about the ongoingness as you mentioned, it feels as though in one sense that time has blurred, or almost like in the Ralph Ellison sense of time's moving in a "boomerang," and at the same time, the story's very clear when you look back and many researchers have looked at the way that the installation of confederate monuments coincided with the rise of African American freedom struggles and the Civil Rights Movement. As you think about this moment, do you sense that this is a time where the past is coming back as a reckoning? Is the past a source to think about, to remind us? How do you really grapple with the moment that we're in.
Sanders Johnson: I'm grappling with your question.
Tillet: I don't have a formulated answer, but after Trump won the election, I was at a conference in California, and a friend of mine, Gloria Steinem was one of the speakers, and a friend of mine asked Gloria, we were so despondent, and she's like, "Well, we're in the majority this time." She has a different historical understanding of movement building. She's like, "We actually are in the numerical majority.” Meaning liberals or progressives. Those of us who see ourselves on the right side of history, and on the right side of justice. Obviously, there are many places colonization kinda requires a majority/minority, but I think what she meant here is that we're the numerical majority, and we can be in the political majority. I feel like what's interesting about this moment, and this is why the confederate statues and the monuments are so fascinating, is because historically, they are erected either to commemorate, so after reconstruction, a lot of them go up as a way of king of birthing Jim Crow, and then the statue that you just talked about, it's staving off the inevitability of the Civil Rights Movement. in 1964, to erect a Jefferson Davis statue, is a particular statement you're making in the face of history and in the face of progress. I think we're in that moment again. The tide is turning. In my most optimistic moment, the tide is turning. There is something to be said for Donald Trump to give a State of the Union, and to have Stacey Abrams follow him. That's like a different historical reality. I think, we're trying to figure out what country we want be, and what kind of nation we can become. It's always an ongoing battle, and there are always these moments when that kind of reckoning emerges. I just think we're at this tipping point, and it's up to us to figure out what we're going to be and who we're gonna look like. I guess my optimistic self, then yesterday, the Patriots won. I'm like, boycotting the Superbowl. It's just like, oh God. We're here again, literally Groundhog Day, right? There's that element too of history and these forces of patriarchy and white supremacy that kind of feel like they just keep on coming back up, and is there that one day that it's gonna look slightly different, and then that will change the course of the story. It depends on what day you get me, but an optimist usually, and so I feel like, yeah, there's something to be said about these statues going down, and what's and their place is up to us to kind of figure out what we're gonna do next. Sorry, that was my ...
Sanders Johnson: No, I think that was a great answer.
Tillet: My off the cuff answer.
Farber: We have time for questions from the audience, and there are two people with microphones on either side.
Audience 1: Hi Grace. Hi Salamishah.
Sanders Johnson: Hi.
Audience Member #1: I'm Krystal Strong. I'm a colleague of Grace’s and Salamishah’s. I was really struck just in listening to this conversation, the way you describe, both of you in different ways, the way the archive can erase, it can silence. It requires, in a certain way, that one sort of read against the grain to recover, but then you also spoke of ways in which we can see the archive or alternative archives being produced, that do sort of censor folks who are typically left out of these legitimized narratives. I can think of examples, like there's the Baltimore Wax Museum, right? I can think of even here in Philadelphia, the Colored Girls Museum. I just really am curious about other promising practices or spaces that you think show us the way the archive can be different. It felt like there was more that you could have mentioned there. I'd love to hear more.
Sanders Johnson: Yeah. I mean, the language that you're using Krystal[Strong] is great, because part of the way we've been trained is to do this thing called "reading against the grain. "For me, I mean this is also a part of philosophical practice, so for me, I'm thinking in collectivity. I'm not necessarily thinking as an individual going to the archive. I'm bringing my people with me, and I'm trying to meet other people's people. Actually, that gives me an opportunity to say these few names, because I found these women this past week. I found Louise, and I found Marilia, and Claircia and Claircilia. I found them in collective, and I mention that because all of their names were together. For me, it's about thinking about each other in collective. I'm not just going to find one group of women, I'm also finding myself. Part of that methodology came from me in practice with the Circle of Grieving Women, because as we were working together, a dear friend and Haitian poet, Stéphane Martelly. I shared with her that we had this group, and she came and she said, "You know what? We're doing this oral history project in the city around Haitian migration." Initially, the idea was that we were going to interview women in the group about their experience. It became very clear early on that that wasn't what we were gonna do [laughs], because we present ourselves as we want to be seen. These women, while they might seem like they're not there, they are there. They're claiming space. They're refusing that erasure in different kinds of ways. In this group, I've known all of them for a really long time. We ate dinner together, cooked together, took care of each other's children. We did all kinds of things, but interviewing was not going to happen. It certainly wasn't going to happen as individuals. One day we said, "Well, what if we all do what we do, and we sit here, and we create this oral history practice together?" We did an oral history interview, with 18 of us in a room, which according to academic framework, that is absolutely wrong. There are too many power dynamics. People's stories are informing other people's stories, et cetera, et cetera, but I think that's part of where I'm thinking about reading what we're doing, rather than reading what we think we're supposed to be doing. What was happening was, do we want to share these stories? Are we gonna allow these rules to stop us from having this conversation? That Circle of Women has changed everything I mean, there are obviously certain kinds of rules that I have to be aware of, but what is the harm in me and Salamishah being in a room, and then Krystal being in a room, and what you bring to that, rather than what you're taking away, In this conversation, not in, but engaged with the conversation around lack, which is often how we approach black people and black bodies in general, but we know what there's so much abundance. You just don't know how to read my abundance. I think that that's part of that practice. In general, I'm engaging with this idea around silence, because there's so much that's not silent. We make claims on space.I think that's part of the practice. Also, just redoing it. Right now, I'm working on a project where I'm re-interviewing people, actually putting together the Archive of Tears, so that installation. Usually it's me, I'm putting boxes et cetera. Now, I've invited women to join me in putting the installation together, and while we're doing that, we're engaging in the oral history practice. That's also a way for us to remember differently. We are recording the interview, but that's not what we're taking away. We're actually taking away the experience of sharing, and that makes so much more space, and there's a lot less silence there, I guess.
Tillet: All right, that was good. I can answer, too. That was so full! I had two things. One, I was thinking of the idea of oral history. Foucault would call it like a counter archive, and like with the Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson story, what's lovely about Annette Gordon-Reed's first book, and her second book to a certain degree about this as well. There was the dominant story that erases Sally Hemmings. They come up with all these crazy, it's like a version of birtherism, but back in the day. "It's not Thomas Jefferson, it's his cousin." Jefferson historians come up with elaborate reasons and people – who "it could not be Jefferson." That was the impossible, and because of African Americans that an oral history, this guy names Isaac Jefferson, Sally Hemmings' son Madison gives a Republican, back then the good Republicans, Lincoln Republicans. He gives an oral history about how his father is, and then the first African American novel by William Wells Brown, Clotel, is Clotel or the President's daughter. The way in which oral history keeps these stories alive, and then eventually it becomes the dominant. If there's that arc of justice, if eventually those who are dispossessed become empowered, then the counter archive can become closer to the archive. There's that, but then I was thinking about the work that, Paul and I do a lot of work together, and he's also on the board of A Long Walk Home. We're actively doing projects with African American Girls, and self documentation, taking over public spaces, but what's also happening, creating a monument is that we're creating an archive. It's an archive on black girl artistic practices, artist activist practices, and then these girls then are creating another archive, because whether it's Rekia Boyd, who was killed by a police officer in 2012, or Jessica Hampton who was killed by her former partner on the Red Line in Chicago in 2016. The girls that we work in the Girl/Friends Program, they do tributes. They do protests, and they do a kind of different version of archiving, but by keeping the stories of these women alive, it's similar to what Grace was doing with… Extrea, right? You have different centuries of women and girls have these violent deaths, and then you have another generation coming back and trying to restore their legacy and their dignity. For us, it's Black Girls. What is an archive of Black Girlhood look like? That's kind of like on one end, historical, and then on the other, how do we think of artistic practices as also a kind of archival practice as well?
Sanders Johnson: I think what's interesting about that too, it's naming these Black Girls' experiences, archiving them, but it's also naming that ongoingness. Part of the reason why I was able to read Extrea was because of Rekia Boyd, because I had seen the crime scene sheet of Rekia Boyd's murder. I said, "Oh my God, that was just like the scene that I saw, that was in Haiti." But by the same militarization of the state against black women and men, but thinking about how the mechanics of that ongoingness, we're the same. I remember it so clearly saying, "What is happening right now?" thinking about history .
Farber: We have time for one final question. Right here.
Audience: Question for both professors. Well, thank you first of all for your presentation and your deep thoughts.
Sanders Johnson: Thank you.
Audience Member #2: There were two things that stick with me that I saw on TV. One, when Oprah Winfrey went to the Dome in New Orleans after Katrina. One woman who was a victim of Katrina and of the lack of help was a victim of this government's handling of it. She was in such crisis, and she said, "This happened," this was a black woman, "This happened because this is something to the effect of this is an evil place, and God is bringing this upon us as punishment." I remember in the Raoul Peck's Fatal Assistance, the film about Haiti right after, and this is five years later, 2010, about Haiti in ruins, and then how assistance, including so-called assistance, including the Clinton Foundation again, victimized and blocked aid from coming to the victims of the earthquake. One woman in the film, she's seeing from her home, she's seeing the earthquake happen, just as it's happening, and I think she's looking at the Presidential Palace collapse, and she's in shock, and she's saying, "It's the end of the world. It's the end of the world." Both things struck me, because I always think about how religious thought, how that is the filter for us, particularly people of color, how that experience and indoctrination, and learning, and even our oral history, is the filter through which we experience these tragic moments. If you can just, the thing that came to me was not only the sadness of this, especially what the woman from New Orleans said, but also how it re-victimizes. And thing that came to me was why and how, and how sad. If you can just comment on that I'd appreciate it. Thank you.
Sanders Johnson: I'm going to hold on to some parts, and move through what might be useful for us in this conversation, in my lane. That would just be for a brief time, I lived in New Orleans, and this was New Orleans post-Katrina, and it was also new Orleans post-earthquake in Haiti. I'd never been to New Orleans before, and I remember flying into New Orleans. I had fallen asleep, and we were landing. The plane was getting close to the ground, so I could see the ground. I woke up and I was like, "Oh, where am I going? Where am I going?' I looked out the window, and I was like, "Oh yeah. Port-au-Prince." I kept going, and I remember looking around and then saying, "Oh right. I'm not going to Haiti. I'm going to New Orleans." I say that because the history of New Orleans and Haiti are so intertwined. There are many things that are intertwined, but what I love about my experience of that moment was that I felt that it was so familiar, and it was familiar in a beautiful way, not in the way that I know that many people experience New Orleans and Haiti in ways that are these spectacular images that we have, but what I appreciated about that collapse of those two spaces for me, for that brief moment, when I didn't realize where I was going, was just the continuity across that space. For me, that's the topography. I can't necessarily speak to all of the aspects of religious and spirituality, but what I can speak to is the ways in which maybe the outside speaks about a space, and the way people talk about space. While what happens in Katrina was one, nature, but that's also a part of an infrastructural issue. Both of those things happen in New Orleans and in Port-au-Prince. That goes back to that U.S. Occupation that I'm talking about, where the occupation centralized the entire nation around Port-au-Prince. Believe it or not, there are other cities in Haiti! That's what happens when militarization, when certain kinds of centralization of spaces, and that also includes New Orleans, that a natural disaster turns into these grave situations. I'm also saying that because there's so much beauty. It's interesting, before the earthquake in Haiti, I was working in Montreal and I remember watching this documentary about when the earthquake happens, what are the things we will do? To the rest of the world, it seemed like it was a shock that an earthquake would happen, but when you live on a fault line, you know. When you live in Miami, you know a hurricane is coming at some point, right? Similarly, it's not necessarily the shock of the nature, it's the shock of the way the world responds to that, and the shock in the way in which the silence around the infrastructural violence that has gone on. That then is manifested, then we see in these spectacular ways. That's what I would say. I mean, there's so many points of comparison, but certainly those histories, those ongoings, are happening in all these spaces, because these are former slave societies, all of these, it's part of the fabric of this nation, it's also a part of the fabric of many of the nations throughout this hemisphere. That comes together in these current moments, that that is still connected to that enslavement moment. That's still connected to the ways in which bodies are being separated and pitted against one another, and in particular in that anti-black way.
Tillet: Just historically, Louisiana's made possible by Haitian revolution. I was thinking to me sounds like a victim who's blaming herself and blaming her people for the tragedy that they're experiencing. That's a very common way for victims of violence to understand something unspeakable happening to them. That's just on a basic level. She's blaming herself, and she's blaming the kind of…but basically the way in which New Orleans and Haiti, and America itself. It's a mixed up place. It's lots of different cultural and religious identities existing. I would say though that an evil was done to her. I feel like maybe if we can start naming these forces as evil. Slavery was evil. The clan is evil. Katrina was both natural and man-made in terms of the lack of, like you kindly said, they didn't get help, right? The lack of humanitarian relief. These are evil practices that people experience. What's interesting though, I think, and why this election of Trump is so fascinating. I remember I was a grad school in Harvard when 9/11 happened, and Cornel West, I was teeing for him. He would go around talking about 9/11. He sued different terms, but I'm gonna try to, it's like the blackening of America, but he used N-ization of America, I'm not gonna say it. I was like, "Oh God, that's so harsh. Is that true?" What he was saying was that 9/11 was the moment in which most Americans felt like black people. What I find about this election with Trump and we can use Katrina too, as an example, is like we're so used to black people and brown people being the default victims of violence and injustice, and yet it's the democratization of that that's really causing a crisis. It's not something, like black people and brown people, but like, everybody's feeling the impact of these policies and these practices. Katrina's a version of what's about to happen with climate change. What does it mean then when the injustice is democratized? When it's universalized. That to me is evil. That's evil, What do we do and how do we confront that, I guess is, again, back to this reckoning and this moment that we're in.
Farber: We have come to a close. We clearly could continue the conversation, but for now, thank you Salamishah Tillet, Grace Sanders Johnson, for your words, for your thoughts.
Tillet: Paul Farber.
Sanders Johnson: Paul Farber.
Tillet: You all.
Sanders Johnson: You all.