‘Between Home, Blackness and Me’: Interview with 2022 Reckford Speaker Magdalena J. Zaborowska
June 6, 2022 | Kristen Chavez
After the 2022 Reckford Lecture, speaker Magdalena Zaborowska joins Patricia Parker and Sharon Holland for a deeper dive into themes from her remarks, including questions about belonging and identity in James Baldwin’s philosophy of Black queer humanism. She also discusses her interdisciplinary research methodologies and provides a glimpse into her future Baldwin-inspired projects.
Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and Friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In this episode, Director Patricia Parker speaks with American Studies Professor and Chair Sharon Holland and University of Michigan-Ann Arbor professor Magdalena Zaborowska, an award-winning James Baldwin scholar. Dr. Zaborowska delivered the 28th annual Mary Stevens Reckford Memorial Lecture in European Studies on February 24, 2022. After the lecture, she joins Dr. Parker and Dr. Holland for a deeper dive into themes from her remarks, including questions about belonging and identity in James Baldwin’s philosophy of Black queer humanism. She also discusses her interdisciplinary research methodologies and provides a glimpse into her future Baldwin-inspired projects.
Patricia Parker: Sharon Holland, Magdalena Zaborowska, so wonderful to have you and so good to be able to continue our conversation after Magda’s wonderful lecture last evening. Sharon, why don’t you get us started?
Sharon Holland: Oh, wonderful. Thanks so much, Pat.
SH: I just want to thank you for your brilliance and your generosity and your work. It’s been extraordinary to take this journey with you as someone who’s also in the fields that you transverse. And I am also wanting to say that the work that you’ve been doing on Baldwin has really set the stage for what so many of us have been able to do in the field want to do in the field. And I would love to let the audience know that in 2009, you won the Scarborough prize from the Modern Language Association for the book, James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, it’s a Duke University Press book. And the work has had a real imprint in queer studies and African diasporic studies, and in Baldwin studies, of course. And so my question for you is, how did you first encounter James Baldwin and his work?
MZ: Thank you and hello Pat and hello, Sharon. It’s a great honor to be here as part of the Reckford Lecture Series and to be hosted by the Institute for Arts and Humanities at UNC. I’m thrilled by the response that my work has received and by your hospitality; and thank you for this beautiful question and beautiful assessment of my labors. I’m just humbled and very, very happy to hear that. My dream as a scholar has been to make a difference and to show that good work on valuable and important writers needs to be heard and that the humanities has a huge voice.
MZ: I was actually not familiar with Baldwin, although we read Black writers when I was studying in Poland. I got my master’s [degree] at the University of Warsaw; we read Alice Walker, we read Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, but no Baldwin. So, I encountered him for the first time as a graduate student on my reading list for doctoral fields examinations in American lit. And the novel I read was Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). And at that time, I was a foreign student, in my second year of study. I had no idea about Harlem, about Pentecostal storefront churches, about lives of Black male teenagers in New York City, but specifically uptown, and the book blew me away with its beauty of language. And I was instructed by my late adviser, Joe Hynes, who took great care in showing me how this book was a masterpiece. And from that moment on, I craved more Baldwin and then my next novel was Giovanni’s Room  when I started my first job. And that novel, in the perfection of its construction, also in its love story – for those of you who don’t know it, it’s a love story between two men, ostentatiously white men. But of course, race, as in Baldwin, is always implied, if not directly represented, in ways that are beautiful, and in terms of literary metaphor, powerful. And so, from that moment on, I couldn’t stop reading him. So, I’ve read everything. And then, after my first book was published by this wonderful University of North Carolina Press, I embarked on work on masculinity. I was really interested in gender, going in for that sort of critique. And Baldwin provided a guiding light. And then a lot of circumstances came together. And I found myself in Turkey, talking to people who knew him. And then I thought: Why hasn’t anybody talked about this? We only have this trajectory from Harlem to Paris for Black artists, why hasn’t anybody looked at the Second World? And that second world I also come from, so Turkey, like Poland, is this sort of in-between. We [both] occupy that strange location, in between the West and the East, or the First and the Third worlds, and Baldwin seemed to be connecting the two, traveling and living in the world as an intellectual, as a brilliant man from very humble origins, who literally clawed his way as an autodidact to brilliance, to artistry that has remained unmatched. And so then I was a “goner.”
PP: [laughs] That’s so wonderful. I love that you weave his complexity into your work and it’s all tied up also with your own positionality I think. And so I think that may be true of many people who study Baldwin. But I’m so excited Magda that your work intersects with themes that we’ve been developing at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. And when we were planning the Reckford lecture, we – I envisioned this as being part of the Institute’s Race, Memory and Reckoning Initiative. I’m just so glad that we were able to work with multiple campus partners, including Sharon’s department – the Department of American Studies – and the University Libraries to weave in some of those themes. And the themes I’m most interested in, are the intersections of place, belonging, and identity. And you explore these themes so powerfully in your work through the lens of Baldwin’s life as he lived abroad, as you just mentioned, and as a queer, Black American writer. And you framed your talk yesterday in terms of Baldwin’s – and I’m quoting from your, some of your writing – in terms of “struggles to find a home, to fight racism and homophobia, and to untangle conundrums of identity and identification within and without the U.S.” And so that, I mean, that gets right at the heart of these questions about race, memory and reckoning, it gets to belonging and place. And Baldwin was such an important social critic of his time, and his voice continues to resonate. I mean, there seems to be this, you know, this renewed interest in Baldwin as fresh and relevant. What do you think we learned from Baldwin struggles in this current context?
MZ: Thank you. That’s a wonderful and loaded question. I hope I can answer it succinctly because, in many ways, Baldwin can save us, and I say this with full understanding of what salvation means. And that’s a complex and really complex understanding in his works and in his life. But his thought, his ideas about what home means to us and how racism is never the only system of oppression, that there are others, always interconnected to it, and working at the same time, often, under the cover of that one, getting all the attention. So, his experience of homophobia from his own people, his experience of homelessness as someone who said he could not write in the U.S., he had to be away. And he kept commenting on his country and trying to save it by his ideas throughout his works, throughout the way he lived as a Black queer man, but also through his pain, through his acknowledgement of his humanity as someone who was an impoverished child, with a homophobic and violent father, who had to escape that environment in order to be a writer. And then through his recognition of the importance of women as his saviors. His mother, of course, Berdis Baldwin, but also his teacher in elementary school, “Bill” [Orilla] Miller. Then an array of friends and wonderful artists and writers like Maya Angelou, Nina Simone or Josephine Baker, women he admired and emulated, who had given him models of how to be a community, how to reconcile identity and identification with one’s life, with one’s loves, with one’s community. And I’m saying this to underscore Baldwin’s notion of salvation through looking at identity, looking at belonging, looking at memory in terms that are non-essentializing, that do not say, “I, as a Black writer” can only read Black writers, or “I as a male” can only emulate other males. Baldwin read Dostoevsky, and found nourishment there; he read …er… Dickens and found nourishment there. When as a child, he saw a film about Maxim Gorky’s life and the life of serfs, basically slaves in Russia, in feudal Russia, he embraced that; he said, I didn’t know my life was so connected to others. That sense of connection, I think, and his philosophy of Black Queer Humanism, about which we can talk later connects to this idea of salvation: salvation through hard work we can do as humans with each other; first of all, with ourselves, in our hearts. His “Me and My House” essay, from 1955, which became [the title essay for] Notes of a Native Son, and with this beautiful line, [that goes something like this] I had to accept that there would always be evil in the world. But that doesn’t mean I stop fighting. But my fight begins in my heart, and I have to fight my own hatred and despair, first of all. And that is deeply humanistic. This is also deeply spiritual. I will also say, this is deeply feminist, and womanist. Because we have, as women, if I may say so, we’ve done this for ages. That’s how the human species has survived. And one of the projects I would love to tackle in this new book, is to talk about how Baldwin deconstructs toxic masculinity of all kinds as one of the sources that support these issues of hatred, these divisions, segregations, and animosities, this lack of connection.
SH: That’s really wonderful. And it really resonates with a discussion that I had with you with my two colleagues, Meta DuEwa Jones, from English, and of course, Antonia Randolph, from my own department. And we organized a book discussion, particularly around the work you just referenced, Me and My House, and our discussion centered around the myriad avenues, your work ventures into: archive, memory, home, belonging, queerness, and family, just to name a few. I am curious about your method. Did you start your career writing, writing in such an interdisciplinary way? Or did interdisciplinary method find you?
MZ: This is a wonderful question. And I have to say, both and then some. And the reason I answered like that is because I was trained in American Studies. And my work was in an English department as a graduate student. So my book, my first book, my dissertation, my first book were on literary figures or authors, but because I worked on women who were immigrants, largely Jewish, impoverished, writing in another language, traveling… From the beginning, there was a movement, there was this sort of understanding of location as a lens of a certain kind, even though I didn’t articulate it until the Turkish book most fully. And also – feminist theory, feminist critique, and Black feminism, with which I end the book; it really opened my eyes to the ways in which literature becomes an agora; it becomes a space where people meet, and can make connections. And where we can encounter in the most intimate ways, the other, or who has been defined as the other to our identity by culture, by society, by governmental policy even. And, and that, really, taught me that, however many beautiful literary theories and methods we have – and I was trained in deconstruction, and I was trained in ethnic studies and comparative ethnic studies, and a lot of philosophy – you know, name your favorite Frenchman, they pop up, right…
MZ: … And … what happened with the work on Baldwin, because there were no papers and archives available to the degree that we have now, with the beautiful collection at the Schomburg, I had to make do with whatever was available. So, in that sense, yes, I came with training and understanding of my field and work. But then I encountered evidence that I had no toolkit to address, literally. I was very lucky to find myself in Turkey and to meet people who knew Baldwin. And it’s like: I’m not trained as an ethnographer or an anthropologist, or a journalist, for that matter. But here I am, and I need to talk to these people and take notes or record them, if they let me; and use that material – oral history, and ethnography;. Then I’m reading Baldwin, who is very adamant about his location, his situation, and his presence in the world, in the kind of autobiographical — emotional even, you would say — way that women often are supposed to be, right, or we as literary critics trained — again, I’m looking at Sharon, trained around the same time — where we sort of segregate how men write, how women write, how women’s spheres and men’s spheres work. And Baldwin breaks all of this down by saying, “No, I am. You know, the personal is the political. And I am going to talk about my life and my body. I will put myself in there, and my story in there, in this sort of honest, vulnerable way.” And that’s not manly. You know, the “Big Three” male writers he’s usually connected to – Ellison and Wright – do not do that. And Baldwin, as a queer man, as a man in his later life [who], I would claim, who was much more feminine-identified, again, in this non-essentializing way. He does that, unapologetically, bravely, and persistently. And that’s why I felt I had to develop a toolkit as a scholar to accommodate all of that. So I remember, even my book manuscript workshop for the Turkey book, people said, those stories you tell about traveling and meeting people, they are interesting. And I said, “Is that okay?” They said, “But that’s problematic for your promotion, as a scholar.” And I said, “But look at how Baldwin writes. How am I as a scholar not to respond to this?” And then I think, in the both-and-then-some approach I’m trying to sketch out here, it’s also important to trust your gut, and to learn from the material you’re working with. So I was learning from Baldwin. I was learning from the stories people told me. I was learning from the places I visited. And to this day, I really believe in this sort of scholarly pilgrimage. For those of us privileged enough, who have the resources to make them, if we can go to that place where he wrote, if we can go to that place where he walked the streets, I believe that something remains there, that we learn something just from that location, from having access to objects he touched, like his books from his house; to know what was on his shelf, what he was reading. So my methodology was created from the ground up. At the same time, as I kind of had to fight against some of what I had been taught as a scholar, and had been told was proper or improper, or even scholarly or not. And in my first book, I have to sort of in the introduction, have long arguments about it. Luckily, by the second book, I didn’t have to do that.
SH: I hear that.
PP: That’s wonderful. And it taps into to a question I have for you, Magda, which is related to the archive, you know, your wonderful response just now to talk about interdisciplinarity and your work and how you found your way through those interdisciplinary paths to Baldwin and the complexity of his life. So our colleagues in the University Libraries here at UNC hosted a wonderful workshop on belonging and identity in archival work, and especially as related to Baldwin’s materials here in our holdings that we have here at UNC in the Wilson Library. And in that workshop, the panelists discussed the role of the archivist, their own identity and perspective and what they might bring in terms of the archivists themselves bring as in terms of curation or conscious editing or framing the narrative. So how do you see your relationship and that kind of research? You’ve sort of touched on that a bit. And but yeah, can you tell us how you bring see yourself?
MZ: Thank you for the question. And I really want to acknowledge the work of archivists and people who protect heritage and legacy of important folks we need to preserve. At the same time, I also need to… sort of talk about my painful realization that not all archives are created equal, and that the very notions of what constitutes an archive, what constitutes value of an object that’s worthy of archiving, of preservation, even of veneration… [All] that has been tainted by the structural inequality built into our history and our culture. So, I have from the beginning, when I first saw Baldwin’s house, I was astounded that his deathbed wish to preserve this [house] as an enclave for writers was not honored. That even though there were institutions and lawyers lined up to do that, his estate decided not to pursue that. And then we ended up losing his house. And people can say, “Well, so many houses get demolished. Why should we care?” We have as a society venerated writers’ houses; we have over 76 of them in the United States open to the public. Only four of them are devoted to African Americans. Baldwin’s house – he’s one of those writers, whose house I believe we should have preserved – and especially given his wish to have it serve African diaspora writers as a refuge, as a haven, [and] because he wrote some of his most magnificent works there. So that place has a vibe, it has his spirit, and to just let it go, and to let it be bulldozed and turned into condos for rich people offended me deeply. And I say this with all the respect I have for people who made those decisions; it’s obviously not for us – although we wish as scholars we could decide on the writers’ estates rather than leaving those decisions to their families – I better say that because that’s what I believe. The archive, as a sort of collection of matter, of material, is something that we defined in very sort of Western and narrow terms, in terms that are also racialized. So, at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where I went to propose that they perhaps buy the collection of objects salvaged from Baldwin’s house, I was talking about… let’s furnish a reading room for students with his books and artwork, and this will be such a special space. I was told, “No, these objects had no value.” Yet, Walt Whitman’s glasses are on a pedestal at this library. They have special value, they are a venerable, and a venerated object. So, this to me immediately created one of those issues I had to discuss, and that I had to embrace as a scholar who necessarily becomes an archivist as she’s doing her work. And I think Sharon would agree with me that it’s not just the notes you take, and the PDFs you collect, but it’s also those material objects. It’s also, literally, impact of the work on your body, as you do the work, as you travel, as you are stressed out, because your subject tells you, as once happened to me [in Turkey], ‘Oh, I’m not meeting you in Istanbul. I’m in Bodrum,’ which is like a three-hour flight and a three-hour bus ride. And he’s waiting for me the next day, and how do I get there? And I managed it. But so, and sometimes you think, why would you do that? But that’s what the work demands. And in some ways, and I’m not trying to be heroic or special in any way. I think, we simply have to meet the author and the archive on the ground, as they are. And if the archive happens to be something we don’t know how to handle, we learn how to handle it, and we do the best we can to preserve it, and also to disseminate it, because those material objects, those are not just papers, but what survives in terms of matter, in terms of legacy, is important. We need to hold on to that.
SH: You know, hearing you speak of the archive really does bring back the intimacy that occurs while you are researching a subject’s life. I remember going to the Temple University archive to look at the move documents, which is always already emotional when you’re a person of African descent or when you’re a part of an underrepresented group. And relating to that archive, in this visceral way, and having the time, you know, during the day to do so. And so, one of the questions that really comes forward for me is, how do you take the intimacy from that archival experience and bring it to a broader public? And I know you’re involved with two projects, right? The James Baldwin Project and Chez Baldwin, which I love, which is literally a reconstruction, right of Baldwin’s living life, so to speak, and housed self. And so how… what are the what are the tools you use to make the intimacy that you’ve been describing apparent to an audience who really does need to encounter him in this particular way.
MZ: Thank you for saying this, Sharon, and for emphasizing intimacy. I mentioned vulnerability. And again, these are so stereotypically associated with women, with softness, with effeminate men, with “sissy” men, if you will, and, and queerness, of course. And I find these to be fundamental values to embrace when you’re doing this kind of work, that is, the work that approaches the whole person. So to me, Baldwin is not just a writer, he’s a whole person, with a body, with stories, with uncomfortable stuff even, that make him who he is. And the humanism he gives us through his works, through his Black queerness – doubly, triply marginalized because of class as well and experience of rejection. Think of Eldridge Cleaver writing horrific, homophobic words against Baldwin in Soul on Ice in 1968. That hurt him to the bone. And yet, his moral rigor, his commitment to keeping himself intimate with his reader and to revealing the most difficult and crushing event — I mean, there are moments when he recalls being, you know, sexually assaulted as a child. There are moments when he recalls beatings by his father; he also takes on violence, sexual violence against Black women. And he, in Just Above My Head – the section on Julia is one of the most beautiful portraits of a young Black woman. So, this is when, I think, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Just Above My Head and Julia connect in ways that, again, as literary critics, we must embrace as intimate as one writer’s sensibility teaching another. I truly believe Baldwin learned from women, listened to them. And his notion of intimacy, again without essentializing it because anyone can embrace that way of being, that way of nonviolent communication, that way of nonviolent representation. And what I mean by that, of course, both Morrison and Baldwin represent violence, but they represent in nonviolent ways, in ways that teach us why such things should not be done, and why those who do them, do them. Baldwin has compassion for both the victim and the victimizer, as does Morrison. And I think that is where intimacy is something we must force ourselves to embrace because it’s not easy. The world is not about that. The world beats us into self-fashioning, through social media and performative personas that disconnect us from each other and from ourselves. So, in those two projects [Chez Baldwin], I, again, thank you to Tulani Salahu-Din, to Juan Barrera, Kylie Skewers, Lauren Janes, all the folks who helped me with the project for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also the James Baldwin Project, Karen Thorsen and Doug Dempsey. And the slew of scholars working with them, and the U of M students I’ve just mentioned: Because I’ve also created a digital collection documenting artifacts from his house. That collection is open access and people can go into it, and, literally, check out what magazines survived, what phone logs, what paintings and posters he had on his walls. And I think that intimacy of seeing how he was housed, who he loved, what he loved, is something that makes us more human. And that maybe leads us towards that salvation that we talked about earlier.
PP: Your work is so powerful, and so multifaceted. Thank you for sharing, sort of the breadth of your work. There was one last question before we move into talking about what you’re working on next. There was a question that came from last night’s lecture. I believe this was from Meta…
SH: From Dr. Meta DuEwa Jones in English.
PP: Yes. And her question was this, which I think follows from what you just were talking about in terms of the intimacy and in his writing. How do you contrast the rejection by some of the Black writers earlier in Baldwin’s career with his love of Black women such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison? And do you see connecting their literary lineage as a way to also move beyond the Baldwin branding that precludes seeing what you asserted as his queer Black humanism?
MZ: Absolutely. A great question. And I, I think it really connects to our discussion of intimacy, again, thinking of gender as a binary system of representation and identification, but also of claiming values that have been stereotypically assigned to the feminine sphere, as human values, as values that, in fact, perhaps, I believe, truly should run the world, should inform how we create ourselves as countries and societies and cultures. I think that Baldwin had trouble embracing and understanding some of his own masculinist privilege, even as a Black queer man. He… in his conversation with Nikki Giovanni, for example, in 1970, there is a learning curve, there is a listening, and there is, at the end, an acknowledgment, “Ha, you have taught me something.” By the time you get to 1986, and he’s speaking to the Press Club in DC, and he’s talking about Alice Walker. And he’s talking about Toni Morrison. And he says, these women’s books are changing the world. And look at this: Men have always imagined, we can write about any- and everybody, because of course, at the time, there were issues, you know, the war of the sexes. Why are the Black women airing the dirty laundry? They are anti-men and all those feminists, all of that stuff? Again, this bipolar, schizophrenic approach to what should be building points of connection and building coalitions. And I understand that it’s not just sort of simple, simple kumbaya moments, and gay men and women should band together because they are all effeminate. No, I think the life experience and survival skills and intimacy skills that women, specifically Black women, have developed, and that the literature they produced, and remember, they were writing at the time Baldwin was writing. So, he was reading Gwendolyn Brooks, he was reading Ann Petry. He was aware of writings that were available at the time, he was also listening, and he was ready to learn. And that’s what I embrace. And that’s what I think is so, so important for Black queer humanism, that it takes a philosophical concept that was sort of Western and denuded of intimacy, of warmth, of human contact, and he infuses it with his Blackness and his queerness, again, as labels that he may not have embraced as readily as we do today, because he was against all kinds of labels. But that he also learned how to negotiate from women and from their flexibility, from their adaptability and survival skills. And of course, when you think of how he was rejected by straight Black men, there were not many places to go, in terms of seeking friends. And in 1985, he writes in “Here Be Dragons,” one of his later essays, that he felt he needed all the friends in the world he could get. And then by going back to the legacy of his mother, by going back to these values that he actually learned as a child, raising his siblings as a kind of a co-parent, even though, of course, he was just their brother — all of that taught him and brought him to the understanding that in his later life, and in his last work, The Welcome Table, he really puts it on paper; and I wish that play had been published. It’s been co-written with Walter Dallas of the Freedom Theatre from Philadelphia. It’s a valuable and a very interesting play. It’s also based on Anton Chekhov’s 19th-century drawing room dramas, echoes of Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, in that play, and why not? Except that the portrayals of characters who are Black, who are diasporic represents, who represent almost all of African diaspora in this house, and it takes place in his house in the south of France, The Welcome Table play. That is where I think all those lessons from women come to the fore. One of the characters, in fact, is completely open. She, he, them can be any and everything. And that character is a photographer. And their name is Terry. And Terry, of course, looks at the world through the lens of the camera, through the visual; and that kind of amorphous body, undecided body, boundless body is very interesting to me as a possibility in which Baldwin ends his career. And given the books on his shelves, and his, again, keen awareness of women’s lives and experience, and advice, and lessons they gave him. That’s how he arrives at Black queer humanism. And there was Buford Delaney there, and there are other influences that I talk about in the new project as well.
SH: I’m thinking here of something that Baldwin said, you know, ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change until it is faced.’ I think that’s a paraphrase. I’m sure he was much more eloquent than I’m thinking about Baldwin, thinking about that future that you just spoke of. Can you tell us what you’re currently working on and how that fits in to, you know, bringing forward a better world? I want to tell you that reading your the letter in the lecture last night, the letter to Baldwin that you closed your lecture with, was a stunning moment for so many of us who have often, you know, experienced our literary and cultural, you know, heroines and heroes and others in through the epistolary form, through letters. I write letters to Toni Morrison all the time. I don’t put them anywhere, but I just write them little ones. So anyway, I would love to hear about this next project.
MZ: Thank you. And as I begin talking about it, I really want to acknowledge my debt and love for African American scholars who have supported my work, who have encouraged me to do it, and who told me it’s okay to go there, even though you’re scared. And even though some people push back against what you’re doing. And that has really, in some ways – to go back to the salvation theme – saved my life, because I’ve tried to find myself as a scholar in this country. And in many ways, the only literary tradition, even though I teach everything, in terms of American Studies, as we all have to do. That literary tradition completely blew me away, and in many ways saved me as a person; and that’s very personal and maybe some of it will go into the biography I’m currently writing of Baldwin, whose title is Being Better than the World: James Baldwin, A Womanist Biography – I’m hoping to have that subtitle. The title was actually suggested by a colleague, by Jackie Goldsby, when we talked about the project a couple of years ago, and I really am finding more and more how apt it is. And you mentioned the letter in my lecture yesterday, which I end with a quotation from Another Country that has that specific phrase about “being better than the world.” And the situation is: there’s a funeral of Rufus Scott. In Harlem, the preacher is talking about him, being one who “tried” and “all who tries must suffer.” That’s what he says. And this is, in a way, the cause and quintessence of this project, which is based around Baldwin’s philosophy of Black queer humanism. This new humanism coming from somebody who’s African American, somebody who’s queer, somebody who grew up impoverished, but also lived in the world, who did the work of connecting to himself and to other people. The humanistic work of understanding both the victim and the victimizer, and then seeing that the binary approaches to segregating ourselves and defining ourselves are not working, are, in fact, doing us great disservice. Again, that lesson came from women. So, the book in progress I’m talking about, Being Better than the World will be published in the Black Lives series by Yale [University Press]. And this project started literally, with Black queer humanism as my tremulous hope that I could really talk about it. And that is something that could be central to a project. And I thought no one would ever embrace it. Because as we know, well, even in African American studies, we had to create Black Queer Studies as a subfield to get our work to be recognized. But suddenly, this rather, you know, stodgy, very established press is embracing it and giving me this wonderful opportunity. And I do think, if I may say that in a very corny way, that Baldwin has tasked me with this work that, since I first saw his house, and I saw the room in which he died in 2020, 22 years ago now, I felt connected. And even though after my first book, I thought I was done, he was not done with me because I had to go back to that house and do that work. And some of it was really difficult and stressful. But then, all those wonderful things came up. So, in some sense, I think, I have this mission as a scholar, and I humbly accept it, and I’m very, very grateful and honored by it. So, in this biography, not to give too much away, I really want to pay attention to Baldwin being formed by women’s influence and lessons, even though it took him a while to get there. I also want to talk about his connection to Beauford Delaney, the Black painter who was also queer and a son of a preacher like Baldwin, who really saved him as a spiritual father. I also want to talk about people whose influence has been undervalued, like the Jewish editors who hired him in the 40s, when he first started publishing book reviews, and no one would hire him in Harlem because he was too dark, too queer, as he wrote about himself, too much of a “freak,” as he wrote later.
MZ: And then they just gave him these wonderful opportunities. And especially with somebody like Robert Warshow, who we don’t really talk about much, who died young, who was an editor at Commentary, who pushed Baldwin to write at the age of 24, the Harlem Ghetto essay. “The Harlem Ghetto” is a look at American racism, but also the Black and Jewish relationships in Harlem. And it is beautiful. And it is smart, and it is complex. So… Baldwin writes about it and talks about it. I’m about to look at his correspondence with Commentary at the Schomburg in a couple of weeks. And he talks about this essay as kind of having changed his life, because, he said, he pushed me when I was scared to go where I didn’t want to go. And I just wrestled and wrestled, and I got it out of me. And he’s, you know, his realization I got it, you know, this little guy, 110 pounds or 115 pounds soaking wet, you know, tiny person who walks with a swish, who’s so visible as a queer person, who’s so vulnerable in many ways. And yet that strength, you know, that toughness – and I associate that with women most of the time, because I’ve always admired that resilience. And, and I think he, you know, he simply demands a book like that. And if I can do a semi-decent job about it, I’m humbled and honored to be doing it. And I’m really grateful for the support and guidance and mentorship I’ve received.
PP: Well, we will certainly be waiting with bated breath for that book to come out. And what’s the press again?
MZ: It’s Yale.
PP: Yale, that’s what I thought it. So we’re excited for that. I want to end with question that I believe we include in each of our podcast series, this will this podcast will be a part of a series. And your work has resonated on this campus with a lot of our undergraduates and graduate students, hearing from my colleagues with the different ways that we’ve engaged with your work. So can you talk about can you tell us what is your favorite undergraduate course to teach? Or you could you could talk about a graduate course. But just talk about your teaching and know that you’re a wonderful teacher, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about that.
MZ: Thank you. So I’ll mention a couple of courses quickly, and then talk about one that has been sort of life-changing. So just recently, I’ve taught a new format for a capstone seminar in our Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, AAS 498. And that format connects students to hands-on work with either a community or an archive of projects that will go into the world. So, you saw in the lecture yesterday, a slide with student work from that project. The course is based on the [Baldwin] collection I’ve created. And this was a test run, last fall, under COVID. Few students, but really interesting work. And I told them, you publish this, so people can read it. And of course, it’s work of undergraduates, it’s not always polished, and … but there are such fantastic ways in which these young people engage with the material and become creative. So that’s one of the things I really am committed to doing more. I’ve also taught a graduate course in Black digital studies, whose archive is also available on StoryMaps like the other course. This course was based on what we could find at the University of Michigan. So, we have quite a few archives there. And suddenly, you know, students discovered a Black queer woman in Detroit [Ruth Ellis], who was the center of social life there since the 40’s. And nobody really knew about her. Another student worked on the new mural at the Museum of Art at Michigan that was commissioned from a Nigerian, I believe, artist. And that [mural] sort of deconstructs cartoons and Western architecture. And it’s a very interesting project, “What Faces Hide,” if you would like to look at that. And lastly, when I got to Michigan, we have teaching curriculum that is called Race and Ethnicity required curriculum. So all students have to take a class that is an R&E, race-and-ethnicity-certified course. And these courses are meant to teach them about the issues that, in our fields we teach routinely without thinking, but of course, in many other areas of campus life, unfortunately, they don’t encounter them. So the course I’ve developed. American Culture 225, it’s called “Space, Story and Self: Humanities Approaches to American Studies.” And in this course, I give them– it’s a 200 level class — I give them an array of literary and spatial contexts to talk about identity and to bring them closer to deconstructing those binaries of race and gender. So, you know, we begin with something they find boring and very well known, like The Scarlet Letter, but I teach it in a way that’s, sort of, charted by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark – it’s a canonical text that is all about the creations of whiteness and the national culture and the heteropatriarchy. And by, by the end of that module, the students are beginning to question how we read and what it is that we are reading. And then throughout the semester, we progress through sections on Native literature, through sections on Asian American Literature through sections on feminism, intersectionality, Latinx studies. I show them film clips, you know, we look at the ways Cinqué and lawyer Baldwin in the film, the Spielberg film “Amistad” communicate without having a language in common, and they all use sort of spatial reference and moving their bodies and drawing in the sand and, and slowly we all begin to sort of say that you know, all those systems of representation, be they graphic or metaphorical, they, you know, they work in certain ways, they are set up according to certain relationships of power. And then I bring in some, you know, architecture critics, from Darell Fields’s Achitecture in Black to Leslie Kanes Weisman’s work in feminist architecture, and talking about how space, like language, is socially constructed, and how our arrangements, be it grammar (Hortense Spillers) and, you know, buildings reflect power relationships in society, and they inflect us in ways we don’t even realize. So all of that leads me to teaching, a student, as a whole body, as a person who’s there in their entirety, with their histories, with their fears with, their need for intimacy, and sometimes rejection because of who and what they are, be their families or peers.
MZ: And, lastly, first year seminar in writing Black lives, looking at survey of literary representations from the beginnings of American literary history in slave narratives, to the latest work by Evaristo or Zadie Smith, showing students how to just write about themselves and embrace writing as a survival skill and a way to access intimacy with themselves.
PP: What a gift to your students and to us. Magdalena Zaborowska and Sharon Holland, so wonderful to be in conversation with both of you. Thank you for being here.
SH: Thank you Pat, for everything that you do everything. And thank you, Magda.
MZ: Thank you, Sharon. Thank you for being my spiritual scholarly twin. Even though we don’t get to see each other.
SH: Yes, I know!
MZ: It’s wonderful. And Pat, thank you! So lovely to meet you. And I love the Institute for Arts and Humanities. I should be wearing the button that says so – I did in the lecture. Thank you for a wonderful opportunity and I’m so honored and happy to be here.
KC: Thanks for listening to this latest episode of the Institute podcast. You can view Dr. Zaborowska’s remarks from Reckford Lecture at our website, iah.unc.edu. There, you can also find the latest news featuring Arts and Humanities Fellows, information about grants and leadership development opportunities for all UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, and spotlights on upcoming public events. All of our podcast episodes are available at our website, and you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud and more.
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