Meet the Press

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Our own Dr. Merinda Simmons recently published a book, titled Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora. In this post, she sat down for an interview to discuss the book, her work, and its relations to the academic study of religion.

The campus of the University of Alabama is the first thing your reader learns about when diving into chapter one of your new book, Changing the Subject: Writing Women Across the African Diaspora. On first glance it might not be apparent to some how these two things–the African diaspora and a plaque in Tuscaloosa–are connected.

I’m really interested in the stories people tell–stories that, when taken together, are known as “history” or “the past.” The historical marker at UA that I discuss tells one such story, about two slaves owned by the University in the 19th century who are now buried near that marker. What I find really telling about the plaque on that marker is the language of approximation it’s forced to use, saying “Buried near this place are Jack Rudolph and William ‘Boysey’ Brown…” We can’t ultimately know the exact placement of their remains, since the context in which they lived did not grant the privilege of documented and marked burials. In the attempt to offer a corrective or counternarrative to the previous story that didn’t mention them at all (the marker was part of a broader and formal apology on the part of the University for the role of slavery in its own early years), we’re still left with an approximate best guess.

I think this series of retellings–each with a different slant or emphasis–is what history is made of. However, so many stories about the past or about a group of people come with a promise that they’re giving you the real goods. Think about the documentary specials that regularly appear on The History Channel, telling us about “the real George Washington,” or taking us “behind the scenes of the Cold War,” etc. The message is one about authenticity: we only thought we knew what sank the Titanic, for instance, but modern science sheds new light on the old story. Scholars do the same thing, often trying to help recast a conversation about someone or something. This is definitely the case regarding the shorthand phrase “the African Diaspora.” In the process, however, these scholars–like The History Channel–forget that their new story is just another approximation, suggesting instead that they are recuperating or uncovering what really happened. My book is an attempt to look at this scholarly interest in authenticity (a problematic one, to my mind) and make sense of the kinds of things that interest suggests. Specifically, I look at a set of literary texts whose “authenticity” in one way or another has been a centerpiece of the criticism surrounding them. The narratives–each dealing with the travels of a woman from the African diaspora and each pivoting from a narrative context of slavery in one way or another–offer a useful counterpoint to that focus. They do so in that they all seem to emphasize the series of retellings I talked about above without settling on a single way to understand so many of the categories scholars apply to these texts (categories like “woman,” “identity,” “labor,” “autonomy,” or “the South,” just to name a few). I discuss how the classifications of such notions change as the protagonists move from place to place. In these texts, migration reveals the ever-shifting registers of identification in ways I find really productive inasmuch as the categories applied to the women in the narratives change with their contexts.

Your Ph.D. was earned in a Department of English but you work in a Department of Religious Studies–separate fields in the eyes of some undoubtedly. But it seems that your interest in this notion of authenticity and how we talk about the past cuts across these, and so many other, seemingly distinct academic fields. Is that a fair way of putting it? Is this apparent in the book?

Yes! That’s definitely a fair way of putting it, and I certainly hope that’s apparent in the book. My Ph.D. is in English, yes, and so an important part of my data set is literary texts. However, those are just examples to which I apply broader questions that I have concerning the ways in which certain understandings of regional and/or racial identity get constructed, by whom, and why. In Changing the Subject itself, I offer reading of a 19th-century slave narrative and three 20th-century novels by and about African diasporic women, so one might say the book is about these texts and their authors. However, I could have chosen any number of texts that present roughly the same phenomenon that interests me. These are certainly not unique in the scholarly emphasis on authenticity that surrounds them! However, I find the narratives neither end in themselves nor interesting in their own rights (though I obviously had my own reasons and interests in choosing them). Rather, they provide an opportunity for me to discuss the easy ways in which authenticity-speak rears its head in scholarly spaces that identify as cutting-edge and invested in progressive strands of theory.

The same thing goes for so much of the work I find really useful across the Humanities, and which is certainly the case in the Department of Religious Studies here. That is, what a person studies–whether it’s a set of rituals, events, people, or places–serves simply as the scholar’s “way in.” That certain case study opens the door for a scholar to ask complex questions, make connections, and add to the conversation on that piece of data. So, while someone might say that my work is “about” race or gender or migration or what have you, I find a far more accurate and useful way of talking about the work I do to be referring to the kinds of question  ask and the approach(es) I take in asking them.

In the study of religion we often hear people talking about material religion or lived religious experience yet you work in texts, which seems a little old school. So what do you think of the move toward more “grounded” studies?

It’s funny…I’ve never heard my work described as “old school.” But that’s very true–I provide close readings of text when I dive into it, sometimes writing multiple pages on a single line or passage. Very old school, right? But, to my mind, texts, like anything else, are artifacts–created in certain contexts for certain purposes. So when I’m discussing a text, “it” is not so much my focus as are the issues and interests of which I find that text reflective. For example, in my reading of Mary Prince’s 1831 slave narrative, I am not concerned with the supposed meaning of the text. Instead, I talk about all the editorial interventions that were at work in allowing her story to see the light of day. Multiple interests were in play: those of England’s Anti-Slavery Society, her former owner who attempted through a contentious court battle to have her returned to Antigua, and the British reading public, just to name a few. Reading the narrative as a product of this multilayered context challenges not only the temptation to locate Mary Prince’s “voice” but also the ways in which scholars legitimize slave narratives as a genre more “historical” than literary.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty baffled at the designations material religion or lived religion because I don’t know what they are being distinguished from. While my interest in text may seem old school, this focus is the one I see as problematically traditional. The same thing is happening in race studies. Recently, there’s been a spate of scholars in that discourse who have taken a turn, as they describe it, to a kind of new materialism. In their views, this materialist emphasis helps to deal with problems “in the real world” and to help counter the effects of race and racism in the “lives of real people.” While these motivations may be admirable or at least well-intended, I think they serve only to further essentialize notions like whiteness and blackness. What’s more, they essentialize the so-called real world as something distinct from the academy–a move that I see as being not so far removed from Sarah Palin’s famous designation of “real America.” These classifications create the divides the new materialists treat as obvious states. In that sense, the rhetorical moves and the categories we use to make sense of the world are what I think are where we should direct our attention. If we did so, we’d talk about the term religion–the discourse on that term religion–as yet another artifact. And we’d press the new materialists to play by their own rules: that is, if we adhere to a strict materialism, talking about “lived religious experience” doesn’t make much sense because we’d see all experiences as lived, as artifacts, as their own discourses rather than as essential cores lying deep within.

This idea of diaspora–of moving away from, or even feeling banished from, a homeland–seems to carry a powerful notion of nostalgia and longing with it. But does that longing tell us something about that remembered place or, instead, the one doing the remembering?

I agree that the idea of diaspora is generally a nostalgic one. That’s because we only ever understand or cast diaspora in relation to that long, lost home. This is part of the reason for Africa–in all its vast geographical, economic, linguistic, and racial complexity–so often being cast as a monolithic place. Even in arenas thought to be progressive or forward-thinking, this rendering of Africa is present. Take the recent “Africa Summit” that took place in Washington at which President Obama met with African heads of state. While the efforts made towards future aid and resources in various countries may be admirable, Obama’s rhetorical emphasis nonetheless focuses on “Africa” as a cohesive place, albeit a vibrant and diverse one. This description tells us not about that imagined Africa but about current U.S. interests and investments. Pointing to its economy and youth population, Obama suggests “Africa will help shape the world as never before.” Such a claim certainly depends upon the focus of the one making it, as someone with interests in imperial and colonial efforts would no doubt suggest that “Africa” had a pretty large influence on how we’ve come to know and think about the world during the centuries that spanned the transatlantic slave trade. Additionally, with over fifty countries (even that number is disputed, depending on who you’re talking to!) comprising the continent of Africa, phrases like “African security forces” and “African peacekeepers” (also used by Obama in his remarks to the press) hold little meaning.  “A new generation of young Africans,” said Obama, “is making its voice hear.” So, even the contemporary politics of talking about the future of Africa rely on nostalgia about that same place.

Do you have a new book project that you’re working on, something that’s linked to, or grows out of, this book?

As a matter of fact, I do! One of two book projects I am working on now deals with what scholars have come to call “slave religion.” I am placing emphasis on scholars here because the work I have read on the subject is deeply invested in–you guessed it–authenticity claims. Two canonical scholarly works, Albert Raboteau’s  Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South and Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordon, Roll:The World the Slaves Made, are illustrative of this investment. They both attempt to recuperate particular histories–to tell, as they see it, the real story of slavery and its legacy–and in that sense, we’re right back to academic reruns a la The History Channel. Strangely, despite the moves scholarship has made since the 70s (Roll, Jordon, Roll was published in 1976, and Slave Religion was published in 1978), the two books still serve as cornerstones of contemporary work on the topic. My focus lies in how the category functions for scholars who write about African American histories and the american South–particularly, its status as a placeholder for conservative and problematic renderings of “religion” as a experiential and private set of beliefs that are manifest or performed outward.

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