About Derrais Carter, Ph.D.: Derrais Carter is Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at The University of Arizona. As an academic, writer, and artist, Dr. Carter’s work explores Black culture, gender and sexuality with a focus on literature, rhetoric, and media. Dr. Carter has published books including the multimedia project Black Revelry: In Honor of “The Sugar Shack” and the co-edited collection The Iconic Obama, 2007-2009: Essays on Media Representations of the Candidate and New President, with Nicholas Yanes. His academic essays have appeared in journals like M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, RSA Journal, and Black Camera: An International Film Journal.
Dr. Carter’s creative work has appeared in publications such as Alluvium. He has participated in artist residencies including the C3 Initiative and PLAYA and held arts fellowships with If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be a Part of Your Revolution and Sandberg Institute. Dr. Carter has previously received a Fulbright Scholar Grant to work with the Department of North American Studies at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. His work has also been supported by the Netherland-America Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Andy Warhol Foundation. Prior to joining the faculty at The University of Arizona, Dr. Carter was Assistant Professor of Black Studies at Portland State University, and Assistant Professor in the Critical Studies Department at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Dr. Carter received his Ph.D. in American Studies from The University of Iowa and his Bachelor of General Studies in Sociology and African and African American Studies from The University of Kansas.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic, creative, and professional background? How did you become interested in Black Studies, critical perspectives on gender and sexuality, and American Studies, and begin to apply these perspectives to study Black identity and sexuality in relationship to media, rhetoric, performance, and the arts?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] I’ll start with my government name, all that kind of stuff [laughs]. I am Derrais Carter, Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at The University of Arizona. My research is broadly in Black Studies and 20th century constructions of gender and sexuality. I am also a creative writer and a newly minted book artist.
I became interested in Black Studies as a discipline when I was an undergraduate, but long before that I grew up in a Black world made of stories about folks who came up in Arkansas, which is where my dad’s side of the family is from. Four Black families left the Carolinas for Arkansas in the late 1890s, and we’ve been there since. I grew up hearing stories about some folks whom I would later meet as elders and others whom I’d never have the pleasure of sitting at a table with to drink corn liquor, eat chicken loaf, and talk.
My parents met in the military. They later separated, but I grew up in a large, imaginative, and funny family. Reflecting back, I see how my family was really big on representing Black life. It was so regular, so mundane. So, when I started nerding out in undergrad at Emporia State University, I was insistent on figuring out how and where race could be used as a lens for understanding sociology, which was my major. One of my professors, Dr. Nathaniel Terrell, was really invested in helping us understand W.E.B. Du Bois’ contributions to American sociology specifically. He’d teach the big names, like [Auguste] Comte, [Max] Weber, [Karl] Marx and [Émile] Durkheim, but he also taught us not to sleep on Du Bois.
At that point, I was adamant about understanding where and how Black people were in the literature. I didn’t really understand journal articles, but I was hanging out in JSTOR, looking up key terms like “Black” and then central terms from the discipline. I was printing these articles out and taking them to my sociology and anthropology classes. I was going to my professors’ office hours. I was so hungry for that information.
I had a mentor at Emporia State, Christina Myers, and I would sit in her office with my stack of JSTOR articles and ask her questions. She asked if I had ever thought about being a professor, and introduced me to summer undergraduate research programs. After that, I wasn’t doing anything else.
After a while, I transferred from Emporia State University, where I studied sociology and anthropology, to The University of Kansas. I did so primarily because I had done a study abroad in Ghana at the end of my time at Emporia, and I was heartbroken because I had a very romantic, diasporic notion of what, as a Black American, my relationship would be to the country of Ghana and the continent of Africa more broadly. I took that experience to KU where I finished my sociology degree and added a second major in African and African American Studies. I needed that because I knew I was going to get my Ph.D. and I wanted to be prepared.
I went to grad school at The University of Iowa. I was thoroughly convinced I was going to do work on Black popular culture in the 1970s. I knew at that point that I was interested in Black masculinities, so I was going to write about Gordon Parks, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and Melvin Van Peebles. Those were my five.
I was devouring whatever I could, but then I realized I wasn’t ready for that work. That’s how I understand it now. Back then, I knew I had a problem with how scholarly literature was framing this historical moment in the 1970s dubbed “Blaxploitation,” but I didn’t have the language, skillset or counterexamples to tell a different story. I was in American Studies, which is a very interdisciplinary field.
When I decided to pursue American Studies, I made the conscious decision to study with all the Black faculty I could. At that point, I think there were two Black faculty who were core faculty. One was Horace Porter, a critical literature scholar, and the other was Deborah Whaley. If I couldn’t take their class, I still made an effort to meet them and learn from them.
For example, I would talk with Richard Brent Turner in the Department of Religious Studies, who has a groundbreaking book on African American Islam. I never took a class with him. I learned from him primarily through the stories he would share with me. Our offices were on the same floor and we would both work at night. In terms of research methods, I learned rhetoric and media analysis from André Brock and Bridget Tsemo. Vershawn Ashanti Young taught me performance studies. Miriam Thaggert, Lena Hill, Michael Hill, and Horace Porter were my go-to scholars for African American literature and close-reading. Deborah Whaley remains a model for doing Black cultural analysis and critical theory.
I thought, “Y’all have got some work on Black people that I’m trying to understand and what I want to do is use this interdisciplinary field to come up with as many methods as possible.” I knew I had questions, and as a researcher it was up to me to figure out what skillsets are necessary to most suitably address those questions.
It was this whole crew of people helping me understand key terms and concepts and helping me figure out how to think through historical documents and archival material. I took one course in Black women’s history with Leslie Schwalm, and I went into that class with training I received as an undergraduate from Chico Herbison and Shawn Leigh Alexander and Randal Jelks at The University of Kansas. They instilled a curiosity in me about archival material that made me spend my weekends at The University of Iowa Law Library combing through microfilm.
My first and final years were fellowship years, and I did individualized study. That’s how I became a Black Studies scholar. I didn’t get a separate graduate degree. I had all this reading I had done outside of school, some of it in Pan-African Literature, some of it in Afrocentrism, which I was stewing together and trying to figure out what I could possibly do. So, for me, graduate school was a grab bag. It was something that I saw as giving me options for pursuing the life of the mind that I want. That’s how I approached it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For those of our readers who might be less familiar with American Studies, could you introduce us to this field and its connections to Black Studies, gender and sexuality studies, and scholarship on rhetoric, performance, and media? What does synthesizing these perspectives uniquely allow you to explore or address in your work?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] I’m very old school, in that, for me, American Studies is about the combination of historical and literary methods. I largely think about it as using these methods to understand American culture and identity, and power relations in a broad sense. There are so many camps that fall under that, but part of the excitement of being in American Studies as a grad student was the way it broke open an object of analysis.
An American Studies perspective on automobility, for example, examines the mechanical and social function of cars as well as cultures rooted in automobiles. This leads us to think about the construction of highways, neighborhoods, city infrastructure, drive-ins, drive-thrus, and more. So, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about cars or kitsch… or scents for that matter. American Studies helped me get mileage out of an idea, item, or symbol, by asking how we integrate it into our lives.
Riffing on Cedric Robinson and Fred Moten, Black Studies is a radical, absolute upheaval of the perspective we just discussed. Black Studies takes as its object of analysis Western civilization. You can do the whole, “I think therefore I am” thing, but I tend to think about the Black con artist William Douglas Street Jr., who was portrayed in Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s film Chameleon Street (1989). He says, “I think therefore I scam.” I’m constantly thinking about the ways that the project of the singular subject in Western civilization is in fact a scam. For me, Black Studies constantly breaks that idea open so we can remind ourselves that there are all of these other ways of building and affirming life that are present. As a discipline whose origins are not within the US academy proper, Black Studies is beholden to the various communities that comprise the Black world and Black worlds.
For me, it was a trip going through graduate school as an American Studies scholar and also being actively in league with these other forms of being and doing that are not strictly authorized by the academy. Black Studies is very much that. I think of American Studies as a driver’s license, and Black Studies as my will to move, let alone drive. American Studies is legible to folks in the academy in a way Black Studies simply is not, and this is in part because they recognize Black Studies at the moment it entered into the university, when it’s much older and more nuanced than that.
Take, for instance, my work on Marvin Gaye. Part of how I come to the Marvin Gaye project is not through American Studies but through Black Studies. I wanted to write a book about a soul icon. I wanted to write a book that didn’t make one of its primary concerns answering for Black representation to a white readership. I wanted a book that lived in Marvin Gaye’s blackness. I wanted to inhabit that world.
Black Studies says you can take that up if you want to, and/or you can approach it from a place that is embedded in Black culture and Black identity. Black Studies, for me, provides the concepts, the thinkers, the approaches, and the archival materials that move me in that direction. I want exploration within a Black world, not distillation for a dominant group. The part of me that is trained as a scholar wants to say, “This is a project about representation.” When we have a project on Black representation, then we can easily slip into centering how Black people represent themselves for an implied white audience.
I’m constantly asking about the relationship between Blackness, gender, and sexuality. When I talk with graduate students, I say, “Let’s not assume there’s this thing called gender that can be uncritically applied to Blackness and taken as valid.” Gender as we know it is possible because of Blackness. We can start to understand this through Patrice D. Douglass stunning essay, “Black Feminist Theory for the Dead and Dying” makes this fantastic Afropessimist critique of gender and the way gender is used to subjugate Black people. I’m constantly interrogating what it means, or how it looks, for gender to be a product of anti-Blackness, or to be fueled by it. You have the capacity for gender integrity because of the ongoing regulation of Black people’s bodies and lives.
We can then turn to Toni Cade Bambara, an absolute favorite of mine. I’m regularly haunted by her ghost. In her essay “On the Issue of Roles,” Bambara addresses how Black women are situated between the Black question and the woman question. She says, we might, instead of being betwixt and between, take up the question of Black selfhood, or Blackhood. For me that’s an exciting provocation because we can take up gender, not as something that’s applied to Black people, but take up Blackness and then ask ourselves to what extent Black people in a particular context are concerned with and enact gender. If they are, how does that look? For me, Black Studies upends so-called official discourses and concepts that structure the normative world.
To put it differently, Hortense Spillers in her text Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book works us through the very negations of Black womanhood that become necessary for society to function. If a term like gender is evidence of anti-Blackness, then what’s under that? Black life is under that, Black culture is under that. It doesn’t matter if it’s an official term, policy, ideal, law, or mandate. The moment you ask about the where, when, and how of Black people, you have to undermine the official discourse. Gender and sexuality are both terms that need to be subjected to Black critique because they are made and remade by anti-Blackness.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One of your most recent projects is Black Revelry: In Honor of “The Sugar Shack.” This multimedia book assembles an LP record with print media, collecting visual art, creative and critical writing, and musical interpretations that respond to Ernie Barnes’ important painting The Sugar Shack. Would you provide us with some background on this project, its goals, and your work with the Amsterdam-based arts organization If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be a Part of Your Revolution?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] Black Revelry is the result of a memory, some nostalgia, a fixation, and relationships. It emerged from me thinking about being four years old and living in southern California in the late 1980s. My parents would have their friends over to hang out, and my brother and I would sit on the stairs and ear hustle. I was so young and understood so little about the world that, when I saw a white, milky fluid in a glass, I was trying to figure out why the adults were drinking iced milk because I didn’t know what a piña colada was. I think about this as what my friend, the poet Cheryl Clarke, calls “adult Black culture.”
For whatever reason, when I think back to that moment of ear-hustling on my parents and their friends, and I try to hear around the corner and visualize what I was hearing, I always go to The Sugar Shack. It’s an impossible scenario. There’s no way that our kitchen and dining room looked like that, or that all those people would fit in there. But, for some reason, that’s the leap my mind and heart make.
I’m constantly thinking about how this painting has been in my life for as long as I can remember, even though I can’t remember the first time I saw it. Black Revelry allowed me to do what we were just discussing, where I don’t need to answer to white supremacy and can linger in the lifeworld of Black culture through this painting. I’d known for many years that I’d wanted to write about Ernie Barnes’ The Sugar Shack, but I didn’t know how. I’ve grown very frustrated with some modes of academic scholarship that are about lording authority. That’s not to say we can’t be authorities, but I’m much more interested in how we can make our work invitations, not just to critique, but to be immersed in the lifeworlds of what we see depicted.
When I got the chance to work with If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution as a Researcher in Performance, I was excited because I knew that Black Revelry would let us hang out with this painting. I didn’t know what the book would look like, but I knew early on it would be a really creative work where I could invite artists to join me and kick it with this painting.
Curator Megan Hoetger and graphic designer Karoline Świeżyński made that practically possible. The idea was that every few months I’d visit Amsterdam, where If I Can’t Dance is based, and develop a component of the project. It includes a radio show, installation, performance lecture, and publication. But the pandemic changed our plans. We then worked primarily over email and Zoom. The film and party associated with the book were indefinitely postponed. So, because of the pandemic, I began to think of the book as a party, and it feels like with every meeting, Megan, Karoline, and I transformed our collective vision into a beautiful book.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Will you discuss your commitment to bringing together academic and creative approaches to explore and celebrate Black identities? How, in this project or in your research and teaching more broadly, do you aim to put art and academia into a productive dialogue, and what do you see as the critical importance of this dialogue?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] Fred Moten, in All That Beauty, has a line: “Is that is or is that ain’t like being stuck in sweetness, held in life?” When I look at The Sugar Shack painting, I think about wood, honey, sweat, noise, excitement, and arguments. There’s a whole sensory network that’s activated for me. There was no way I could possibly put together a book that’s a series of arguments about this painting. I thought, “What if, instead, we kicked it? What if I asked writers to generate an ekphrastic text, piece of music, or artwork based on a detail of this painting? Don’t tell us everything you can. Take one moment and use it as an anchor to invite somebody into your reading of that painting.” Then, because I love a pairing, I asked the artists to pair their contributions with a song and a beverage.
I wanted to know how you take a book as a prompt to linger in the world of a work of visual art. That’s what we got to do here. We created a radio show to accompany the book. There’s a whole scholarly and creative bibliography that informs how it is, for example, that on the Black Revelry Quiet Storm Radio Show, I was performing close readings. That’s inspired by the work of folks like Kevin Quashie, LaMonda Horton-Stallings, Mark Anthony Neal, and Chico Herbison. There are all these academic ideas driving this project, but it was more important for me to fold the reader into the world. Let your imagination take hold. Have a drink and slow dance.
Why would I sit here and argue about the significance of slow dancing? I wanted to invite a different kind of relationship to this world of Black ideas. The scholarship was great for helping me build the proposal and helped me think about how it would look and feel to center Black social life, but so much of appreciating Black social life is, for me, about making description do a different kind of work.
I taught rhetoric as a graduate teaching assistant, and one of the things I remember from my training is to describe a text before you analyze it. You treat it as if your audience hasn’t encountered the text you’re going to analyze. I wanted to see, if I took for granted the folks that I’m speaking to have encountered the painting before, what can description do differently? Sometimes it’s a drink that might cue up a form of nostalgia. Other times it may be the writing. It could also be the color of the text or the color of the paper. The sample or the detail is the conceptual anchor for the project, but so is repetition. There are so many stories that emerge from the repetition of colors, ideas, and sound.
No piece of scholarly writing that I’ve done has generated more conversation than this project. Conversations where somebody comes up to me after a talk and says they want to go home and speak with their elders. When I do performance lectures for the project, I have a practice where I bring a bottle of Hennessy for the audience. You’re sitting in a room with a group of people who have been drinking cognac for 45 minutes, then you have the Q&A, and everyone slow-dances to Nina Simone for two minutes before we depart. That’s not what we’re doing at conferences. It’s a different way of holding the experience, and people respond to it radically differently.
With Black Revelry, this project, I got to subject scholarly and literary analysis to my own creative whims, and invited a whole constellation of Black artists to spend time with this painting, and with me. I’m honored they did so gleefully and we’ve made this sprawl of a book. It was an opportunity to digitally gather with these folks who were dispersed and see what we could make. Now we have Black Revelry, and it makes my heart melt.
[MastersinCommunications.com] This collection is one example of your international academic creative engagements. In addition to serving as Researcher in Performance for If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution, you previously received a Fulbright Grant to teach at Charles University in Prague, and you have lectured and performed across Europe. Could you discuss your experience working as a scholar, performer, and artist abroad? Are there particular difficulties or rewards that come from bringing your work on Black popular culture and Black sexualities to international audiences?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] The Western world has a governing relationship when it comes to Blackness, and I’m on the underside of that arrangement. That’s not to say my life is awful, but to say that, as a scholar and artist, I move forward with that understanding. I don’t move with the belief that what I’m saying or the critiques that I’m raising will be readily accepted. What I was saying about Western civilization before holds for every discipline within the academy: Black life is the underside of it. The whole point of my going to Prague was to help do a curricular redesign for the Department of North American Studies at Charles University and introduce some Black Studies approaches.
It wasn’t the worst thing for me. I needed the space and I also needed the perspective. Being there and having students be resistant to the amount of work I expected from graduate students, but also to rigorous engagement with scholarly thought around race. There was quite a bit of resistance to that. I found that, for the entire academic year, I had more international students than Czech students. That prompted me to take stock of where I wanted to go, whom I wanted to visit, and what I wanted to do. After being in the country for maybe three months, I sat with a friend and made a list of places I wanted to visit. I knew that the Fulbright commission had a grant for scholars to do a talk outside of the country, so I wrote to a bunch of schools in different countries, and I traveled the better part of my second semester there.
I lived near Berlin, where a lot of my creative work jumped off. My partner is a performance artist, and he was based in Berlin for a few months. I would visit him and hang out with artists and theorists. I was back and forth between Prague and Berlin for months. That meant I wasn’t thinking so strictly about what was happening in the academy.
One of the first talks where I took research material from the 1970s and talked about them while serving cognac was in Berlin — that’s where the Hennessy lectures emerged. It’s one thing to give a talk at a symposium or conference, and another to have your talk be part of a night of billing that includes a group of dancers performing a piece in honor of women in the music industry, and ends with a dance party. That’s a very different kind of interaction from being at the Marriott in Conference Room G waiting for a Q&A to start [laughs].
A lot of that time was about breaking open form and becoming a student again: a student of Black Studies who was wrestling with his alienation in various European countries, but also coming to recognize what Black folks made in different places. So, that year was pivotal for me in terms of understanding what kinds of conversations I wanted to center in my work. I asked myself, “What if you stop trying to be the academic you feel like you’re supposed to be in order to get a job that might not even exist for you, and started focusing on the theories that animate you, the stories that compel you, and the practices that keep you coming back to this work, how would your life look different?”
That question stayed with me, returning in waves. But the biggest thing about that year was that I got to study and to be slow and meditative. The work I was doing there has urgency, but the urgency wasn’t guided by an academic promotion.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press is entitled Obscene Material: Erasing Black Girlhood in the Moens Affair, and is the product of research you have been conducting for many years. Could you explain what the “Moens Affair” is, and the critical exploration your book provides of this “scandal”? What do you perceive as the enduring significance of the Moens Affair for how U.S. culture constructs and treats Black girlhood?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] The Moens Scandal, to me, is about how Black girls survive the world’s attempts to devour them. As a historical event, the Moens Scandal reveals how a Dutchman named Herman Moens, moved to Washington DC during World War I, and got in good with a bunch of Black intellectuals and activists, saying that he wanted to study Black school children and prove that Black people were, in fact, racially mixed. The self-professed anthropologist targeted Black girls in his work, photographing them partially or fully nude, and assaulting them.
Moens argued what Time and Newsweek argue every few years when they throw an ambiguously ethnic, curly haired, green-eyed person onto their covers and project that this is what the average American will look like in 10 years. This man made this claim 100 years ago, and he did so while saying he could look at a child’s hair, skin, and eyes and determine their blood composition. He was conniving enough to appeal to NAACP activists’ interest in racial uplift through visual culture. In 1918, agents from the Bureau of Investigation (now FBI) arrested Moens for “exhibiting obscene material,” referring to the photographs of Black girls. He was tried the following March and found guilty in a week.
For my first several years of working on this project, I was trying to write an objective history. Then, in the summer of 2014, I saw Carrie Mae Weems give a talk at Emory University at the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Black Aesthetics. She said, “I often begin by asking the question of what we do with women we cannot see?” At that moment, my thinking around the project shifted considerably. I had these documents, but none of them told me about Black girls. The newspaper discourse on the scandal focused on Black women, but these were girls.
Now, fast forward a few years, out of the 2,000 pages of archival material I collected for the book, the writing centers on maybe 10 pages that provide information on who these girls might have been. I frame it as an anti-recovery project. By that I mean, I’m trying to intervene at the level of narrating the scandal. How can we take these documents and, instead of giving the loudest perspectives and the ones most prominently represented in archival material, how can we understand the meaning of Black girls strategically removing themselves from the scandal?
Herman Moens claims to have looked at over 5,000 schoolchildren. If you look at the Bureau of Investigation Records, you only get the names of maybe 10 girls; and only one of them, named Helen, says definitively, “I was involved and this is why I did it.” She also orchestrated the failure of a federal sting operation on Moens in 1918. Essentially, they wanted this teenage girl to get in bed with Moens and arrange for federal agents and local police to photograph them so they could blackmail the Dutchman into leaving the country. They didn’t do it because they wanted to protect Black girls.
Obscene Material is about thinking through how Moens and these Black intellectuals and activists were invested in using Black children to advance racial uplift in a way that produces a particular vulnerability for Black girls. It’s also about taking seriously the fact that Black girls knew enough about the danger to circumvent association with the scandal. This, I argue, makes it possible for them to survive, and difficult for us in the present to grapple with the likelihood and scholarly implications of that circumvention.
Methodologically, I wanted to take those few pages of Bureau of Investigation documents and recast them in terms of how we talk about Black girls. For example, there’s a girl named Juanita mentioned in the documents whom the FBI describes as a “runner.” For the Bureau to describe her as a runner is to pathologize her behavior and make it seem as though she has an illicit relationship to geography. But, for me, her being a runner suggests this Black girl had a skillset that made it possible for her to navigate the city.
As a runner, she knew where she was going, she knew how she was moving, and likely how others would move. I don’t have to write about her in the same way that she’s represented by these official sources. I think about how the nuanced understanding of geography that Juanita possesses by virtue of being a runner enabled her to distance herself from the scandal. Helen, whom I mentioned earlier, agreed to participate in the sting operation she later sabotaged in exchange for a white-collar government job.
This is also an anti-recovery project in the sense that I take the photographs that Moens had made of these girls, I put them in the book, and I redact all of them. I do this, in part because I want the viewer to confront the expectation that they should be able to see this information because I’ve made it transparent. I want to call into question the reader’s even implied entitlement to read scenes of intense assault on Black girls.
Obscene Material is a way to remind the reader that scholars must also talk about how Black girls survive and at times orchestrate their own strategic erasure. It’s about how Black girls are making it close to impossible to understand the Moens Scandal from their vantage point. That’s the story I’ve been trying to tell.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you might give to students interested in blending creative and academic work or in critical scholarship on race, gender, and sexuality, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree?
[Dr. Derrais Carter] For the art folks, just keep making it. That’s step one. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Remind yourself that it is ok for your art to not transform the academy. Experiment and develop your practice. Unless you’re specifically in an art program, humanities graduate programs are largely invested in making scholars. Use that time to get your critical chops and learn what you need to about cultural critique and analysis.
While you’re doing that, listen, taste, and feel for ideas and practices that stoke your creative side. You can also read a host of work to help you do your work differently. At the same time, it’s more than okay to have a space for your art that does not answer to the dictates of the academy. This is the art you’re doing for yourself and your communities. If you can help it, don’t let art be another area where the pressures of a professional clock overdetermine your dedication to craft. And apply for opportunities! Residencies, research grants, funds for more training. You never know what will resonate with you. Plus, one way to keep writing and making is to try to make your work legible to more audiences. As someone who gets in their head a lot and sometimes stalls on big projects, this is especially helpful.
Because I come from a family that thinks there’s no romance without finance, if you’re going to do art you have to make it your work to constantly apply for residencies and any other opportunities you can get. I had to pursue the opportunities in Amsterdam and had to apply to residencies so that, when I’m sitting here at my desk trying to figure out my academic work, I don’t feel pressure to do this art, and I don’t feel guilty when I do art because I know I have a chapter to finish. I compartmentalize as much as I can. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be overlap between academic and artistic work, but it’s been very illuminating for me to construct a space of play for myself.
If I worried about someone writing an academic review of Black Revelry, it wouldn’t be the book that it is. I’m a firm believer in using art and writing to make audiences. Sometimes in the academy you can take for granted the existence of an audience, but sometimes you have to write an audience into existence. Art helps me remember that. I don’t care if I’m making a bookmark or carving a linoleum block, I do so with a community in mind that is deeply imagined and felt.
My advice for people interested in critical thought is to engage broadly and create research folders for yourself. Then hold on to the work that scares you. Hold on to the work where, even at the level of the sentence, it screams at you or feels too loud. In my experience, the work that feels too loud is the work that’s speaking to a version of you that you haven’t become yet, or a version of you that you are running from. If you find work that sparks that interest in you, hang out in that work, hang out in its works cited page, read more of that scholar, and see whom they’re in conversation with. Over time, it’s helped me understand who is in conversation with whom.
When I was reading the work of Black intellectuals, even when I didn’t understand it, I knew what other scholars an author was writing to. It made it a lot easier for me to become an academic writer, to generate literature reviews, and to identify logical overlaps and central areas of conversation and debate.
Thank you, Dr. Derrais Carter, for your insightful and fascinating discussion of your research, and how you combine art and scholarship to both celebrate Black culture and examine the relationship between gender, race, and systemic marginalization.
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.