About Javon Johnson, Ph.D.: Javon Johnson is Assistant Professor and Director of African American and African Diaspora Studies with an appointment in Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An acclaimed slam poet and recognized performance studies scholar, Dr. Johnson is the author of the book Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. He is also co-editor of The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape, which collects poetry, lyrics, essays, and other media from youth artists in Chicago, and, most recently, published the book of poetry Ain’t Never Not Been Black.
In 2019, Dr. Johnson received the Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Performance Studies and Interpretation. In 2021, Dr. Johnson released his short film, “Voicemails to my Future Self: Volume 1,” as part of the “Myriad Originals” anthology series. Dr. Johnson received his Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in communication from the California State University Los Angeles.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in and begin to study performance?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] My academic journey is a bit of a mixed bag, and kind of all over the place, even though it looks somewhat clean on paper. What I mean by that is I got my undergraduate degree from California State University, Los Angeles after transferring over from a community college, which was El Camino College. I stayed there for my master’s degree and both of those were in communication studies, then I applied to and got accepted into Northwestern.
The easiest way to understand all of this is to say that I’m less of an academic that’s interested in creative spaces than I am a creative and artistic person that’s interested in academia. I started out as an artist, a performer, a writer, and doing speech and debate. Transferring over to California State University, Los Angeles, I kept doing speech and debate, because that was a place where I was given time and space to really write. Even though I wasn’t really supposed to be writing my own literature, I was. It gave me a space and a purpose and a place to put that energy and be rewarded for that energy.
When I transferred over to Cal State LA, I had applied to a few places, gotten into them, and ended up choosing that program because their coaching to student ratio was really phenomenal. They didn’t have the team built yet, but they had these really fantastic, nationally awarded coaches who were champions when they competed. So I thought, this is great, I can learn from four or five former champions and not have to split that kind of time. I ended up choosing a lower ranked school as it pertains to speech and debate.
There, I met Bryant Keith Alexander who would eventually become my MA advisor. Funnily enough, I’m writing a review of his next two books — it’s been nothing short of fantastic reviewing my teacher. Then, I also met Judith Hamera. Bryant is now at Loyola Marymount, where he’s a dean, and Judith is now over at Princeton. These were my teachers, they were phenomenal, and I had never run into people like this. I had never met people interested in thinking about creativity in really complex ways. If I wanted critical thinking, I remember having to go to places like ethnic studies. If I wanted creativity, I remember having to go to art and theater spaces. I wasn’t seeing anywhere where they were being combined at that point in my career, but here I walk into their classrooms, and they’re combining these things. When I met these people for the first time, I felt like people weren’t teaching at me but really teaching me and with me.
All of that to say, I applied to a few master’s programs, got into a bunch of those, and I thought, “What am I doing? I really enjoy learning from Bryant and Judith — then, Dr. A. and Dr. Hamera. I remember just wanting to stick with them. So, I stayed back. I always tell people, I grew up poor and my undergrad had an emphasis in public relations. My thought process was to quickly get a job and help my family make ends meet, but I learned I didn’t like much about public relations. I decided to stick around and do my M.A. at Cal State LA. I had no clue I was ever going to get a Ph.D. Again, my biggest goal was to make money and help my family make ends meet.
It was somewhere in the middle of my Master’s that Bryant and Judith both pressed me. They said, “Yo, have you ever thought about a Ph.D. program? We think you’re really smart, we think you’ll be good in academia.” My response was, “Huh. Okay. Let’s see.” There was no master plan for this. I thought, “Cool, somebody paid for my master’s, great, they paid for my bachelor’s, great, now I’ve got somebody paying for my Ph.D., this sounds awesome.”
I applied to the schools that they [Bryant Keith Alexander and Judith Hamera] went to because I admired–in past tense, but also very much in present tense–them and their work and how their minds worked. I got into both and I happily went to Northwestern for a number of reasons, especially because E. Patrick Johnson, who would eventually become my Ph.D. advisor, was there. I started this journey as a poet, so it comes as no surprise that my critical energies went to thinking about how poets engage the world, and exploring the communities in which they engage. Northwestern taught me how to become an ethnographer and I decided to practice ethnography as it pertains to poetry communities. That’s how that came to be.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What led you to come to see performance as a way to critically examine race, gender, and sexuality?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] I learned from people like Bryant [Keith Alexander], who constantly talked about the way that race, gender and sexuality collided with how he understands performances of everyday life as well as on the stage, as well as from Judith Hamera. I had that really concretized in profound and brilliant ways by E. Patrick Johnson, my advisor, and by my other teachers such as Harvey Young, whose earlier work explores the theatricality of slavery and lynching postcards. Of course, I must not forget D. Soyini Madison who was Judith Hamera’s colleague at Northwestern and E. Patrick Johnson’s advisor at North Carolina.
It was a familial thing, where all these people who were teaching me, whose work I really admired strongly, were talking about performance and race and sexuality. At this time, E. Patrick had just come off of writing, not too long before that, the very profound, field-shifting and field-establishing essay, “‘Quare Studies,’ or (Almost) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother” — the one that essentially said, “There’s some race problems with my queer theory and there’s some queer problems with my race theory.” He forced us to have that kind of conversation. For me, learning from them, there was never a way for me to not examine those things through performance because they spoke my language.
The final piece I would say is, interestingly enough, when I went over to USC for a postdoc my colleagues were people like Robin D. G. Kelley, the well-known historian. Ruth Wilson Gilmore [geographer and prison abolitionist] was really helpful to me as well before she ended up leaving. I mention those two particularly, and the American Studies and Ethnic Studies program in particular, because this was a time they were coming off really thinking about racial capitalism heavily, in some very wonderful ways. It was really important to note that, because then I began to think about that same racial capitalism and how it might inform performance studies and how performance studies might inform it, and how that all comes together with issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, and so forth.
That’s the whole thing. On paper it looks linear. It was really this journey of all over the place — starting in PR and ending up in an American Studies program through communication, through performance while also having a certificate in Gender and Sexuality studies, while also learning from people like Dwight McBride and Richard Iton and Barnor Hesse in African American Studies.
My teachers were coming from all sorts of fields. Judith, Soyini, Patrick and Bryant were all performance studies proper, whereas Bryant and Patrick are performance studies but from communication studies departments. You have someone like Dwight McBride who focuses on English with African American studies, and then Richard Iton, who is a political scientist in African American studies, and then you have folks like Harvey Young who is theater studies, and folks like Robin D. G. Kelly who is a historian. All of these people are in my ear in various kinds of ways informing how I think about performance.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You received your Ph.D. in performance studies from Northwestern University and are currently a professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For those of our readers who might be unfamiliar with these scholarly traditions, could you tell us a little about these fields and how your own scholarship brings them into conversation?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] African Americans studies and, more broadly speaking, ethnic studies were born out of protest and fight. It was not a field that was born out of enlightened white men who were running the university who woke up one day and said, ‘You know we probably should study race and ethnicity someday.” They didn’t decide we should study what was at one-point women’s studies, which later gets renamed in various iterations to be now known as gender and sexuality studies, though there are still spaces where it is still women’s studies and for necessary reasons.
Ethnic studies was born out of protest, and the most well-known story is that it was born out of protests at my former institution San Francisco State University: protests by faculty, protests by staff, protests by students, and protests by community members. Which means, it’s a discipline born out of fighting, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that when I think about what it means to be in African American Studies and Ethnic Studies. There’s a spirit of that within the discipline. Because it was born out of fighting, that teaches us that there was not a “natural” idea that these fields should exist, and that means, by definition, the fields are always under attack — under threat of deletion, of being put under moratorium, of not getting its fair resources — in ways that make them difficult to operate in, and make it challenging for them to exist with the university.
With that being said, performance studies is another field quite like that in some ways. While it wasn’t born out of the same kind of protest, it is a field that still has to prove its legitimacy constantly. Shannon Jackson writes about the history of performance studies and complicates in some brilliant and nuanced ways this notion that there are two spaces or strains that performance studies comes out of: that Northwestern, midwestern model, or that NYU east coast model that we so often tout. What we should say is that performance studies at Northwestern was born out of where communication studies meets English studies. What does it mean to put literature on its feet through performance, to put literature in the body? What happens when my Black self decides to perform Shakespeare and not Othello in particular? How then does race change the discussion of what Shakespeare is arguing in a particular text, or gesturing toward in a particular text?
It was [Francis] Bacon who begins to think about the text as other, and that leads us into a discussion of these other kinds of others. These other kinds of others are racial others, i.e., my Black self. They are the gendered others, the sexed others, the classed other — any other kind of othering, non-normative, non-white standard we can think of. It led me to think about how performance might be better suited to study and examine these things. I think a lot about the various fields that I exist in and how they come together and I always come back to Dwight Conquergood’s very pithy phrase that performance studies braids together disparate ways of knowing. This is the essay “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research,” where he’s discussing some of Zora Neale Hurston’s work.
The point that I’m ultimately making here is that I think about that notion a lot and, for me, when I think about race in particular, and how it comes into conversation with gender and class, I see performance as the best lens by which to examine it — the performance of everything, of the quotidian, of staged performances, of political, legal, and medical performances.
Some of the best examples we have of what I think of as the “ill-logics” of race is literally through legal and political definitions as the maintenance of whiteness through the performance of whiteness. For me, performance becomes a very wonderful way–a really good framework–to understand what race is, not as a material engagement, but as a thing that is produced by its doing. Here I might sound a little Butlerian [Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble and other important gender studies work], so forgive me, but its proof is in its own doing; the proof of its doneness is in its doing. I think performance becomes a really good trope to examine that.
To give an example: I think a lot about the case of Thind [Bhagat Singh Thind], the Indian who sued the US not for being racist. He said, “I’m not going to win that argument–there were Asian people who did that prior to me; what I’m suing you for is the right to be white.” His argument was kind of solid. His argument was that, if we think about Proto-Indo-European cultures, we come from the same space, and because I’m of a high caste system, that means by definition I’ve had less racial mixing than you so by definition I’m more white than you are. He took it all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said, “I see where you’re going with that and you got something really nice here, but this [gestures at his arm]. The color of the skin.”
What that tells me is there is no logic to race, or the only logic is the maintenance of white power that’s maintained through the performance of courts that legitimize it, through the performance of legal definitions that legitimize it, through the performance of political definitions that legitimize it. The United States Census changes its definition of race as a performance of authenticity. I want to say it’s done this 12 or 13 times since its inception. The fact that ethnic Europeans are not considered white and later became white. All of these are performances of the maintenance of race for the maintenance of white power, and I think performance gives me the best lens to examine that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your scholarship on slam poetry, which draws from your own experiences as a successful slam poet, often returns to metaphors of death. For example, your first book is entitled Killing Poetry, and your recent book chapter is “Give Me Poems and Give Me Death: On the End of Slam(?),” both begin by meditating on the accusation that slam poetry constitutes the death of poetry. What does it mean, in your view, for an art form to be living or dead, and why has this supplied a productive way for thinking about the politics of slam poetry in your work?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] I’ve never actually published this, but I don’t believe an artform lives or dies. I think a better way of thinking it through, perhaps, if I am going to continue on with life or death as this larger framework, is that art forms reincarnate. I think they mutate and become other things. They grow. They change. They move. They don’t sit still. They’re restless. I think part of the reason they are is that to create is imaginative. Imagination is, on some level, to think about what’s not there — there’s more to it of course, but for brevity’s sake — creativity is then imagination, which itself is a practice. It is to think about creating or establishing that which was not once there: to think about making material something that previously did not exist. If I were to create a table, there was no table, and now there is a table.
I think about that a lot because creativity asks us to think about something which is not yet there. At its core, once it’s established as form, it goes “Alright, what do we do with this form? How do we advance it?” It’s restless that way. “What do we create next? What do we do with this? Where are we going, what are we doing tomorrow?” Good creativity is restless in that way. I always tell people, as a creator myself, I’m a restless creator. I don’t have the capacity to not create: even when I’m tired I feel like I should be writing something, I should build furniture, I should paint. There are things that need to be created in the world.
I say that to say, I don’t think art dies, per se. What I do think it does is turn into other things and because we can no longer imagine it in its “purest” form — even though this idea of a pure form has a whole host of terrible problems attached to it, as any good performance studies scholar would agree –because we only recognize it in that pure form, we say, “Oh it’s dead. It’s dead.”
For me, that’s about the anxiety of not knowing what’s next. We have a lot of anxiety about not knowing what’s next, and lamenting, and not properly grieving what has been. I was thinking about this when I was talking to my uncle, who is much older than me, by I think almost 30 years. He and I talk about basketball and he constantly laments the death of the pure game. When “young” me is thinking, “Isn’t it beautiful that you got to see so many iterations of the game? Isn’t that a beautiful thing to think through – that you got to see the era of the big man, that you got to see Magic and Bird save the league, the era of Jordan and hard fouls, and now you’re seeing this free-flowing game and the era of the three-point shot, from half court. There’s something remarkably beautiful about saying I got to see all of that, about tasting and experiencing as much beauty as you can before this world ends. I am caught up in that: this idea that I want to see as much as possible before it’s done.
I think about these different frameworks, and I think, “Look, maybe my era is gone.” In the case of slam, the era in which I initially began slam is done. There’s no coming back from that. I’ve probably seen three iterations of this young artform already. And rather than lamenting the good old days, whatever that means, and I think there’s some stuff around power attached to it — that’s when I had my day and I was in charge. I’m also just excited I got to see these multiple iterations.
I think it’s about anxieties — that the thing I knew to exist is now gone, and that tells me about my own mortality and my own usefulness, and it informs me, and scares me, and worries me. The idea that art dies, and our fear of that, is counter to what I think creativity is in the first place, which is something that will be different tomorrow. Our anxieties about not being able to hold onto that thing, not being able to conquer that thing….it might even be useful to think about patriarchy, to think about how capitalism teaches us we have to conquer the thing as opposed to experiencing it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your second book, the edited collection The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape, assembles a variety of artistic texts and critical writings to interrogate the trope of Chiraq and reductive representations of Chicago as violent. Could you give us some background on the making of this work? What defines a literary mixtape, and what do you think this type of collection helps express or represent about Chicago that a more traditional collection of scholarly essays might overlook?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] I was talking to someone about the frustrations I was having finding a literary home, a publishing home, for Killing Poetry. This was right before I met with Rutgers University Press and got the contract with them. That person connected me to some folks at Northwestern University Press. They were initially interested in Killing Poetry, but by the time I had the conversation with them I had been offered the contract with Rutgers maybe two days before this conversation, and I was very likely going to take that contract. They told me to let them know if I had any other projects, and I told them I would. We stayed in touch and they got in contact with Harvey Young, or vice versa — remember I mentioned Harvey as one of my teachers from earlier. Harvey had a series with Northwestern University called “Second to None,” which plays off the notion of Chicago being the Second City, and they were wondering if there would be space for me to write about Chicago’s poetry slam.
I proposed the idea, not of writing about it, though I could have done that, but of writing with it. We talk a lot in critical and creative academic spaces about what it means to not be in the ivory tower, to be behind these paywalls, to really be among and with the people we write about. Here was a chance to materially practice these theories: to not write about Chicago and its youth scene, but to write with them, to think alongside them.
I went to Young Chicago Authors, whom I worked with when I was in Chicago at Northwestern, and I told them, “I have this idea but I can’t do it by myself. I need you all, and I would love to see the youth write about it.” Part of the reason I wanted to do that was not just for theoretical purposes of exercising and practicing the theory but also because I knew some of these youth poets. I knew some of them since high school and I thought, and still think, that they’re brilliant people. Some of them are now professors. They’re very brilliant people and age made them no less brilliant at the time, and I wanted the world to see that brilliance in a way that we often do not and are not willing to.
We think about Chicago’s youth scene as an incredibly nihilistic space, as if no one is working against the violence. What those youth artists taught me while I was there and what I kind of always knew but needed to see again was that, not only are they working against the violence in parts of Chicago, but they’re also simultaneously having to work against the state, who also participates in the very violence that it claims to not want. I wanted to name that and I wanted to frame that.
The literary mixtape and what makes it its thing and why we chose that as a form is — and I say this in the introduction — a mixtape takes popular tracks and puts unknown artists on them so that people can come to know the unknown artist. That’s one iteration of the mixtape; there are other iterations, particularly recording a bunch of songs that you like and sharing them. The point of the matter is the popular track was Northwestern University Press and the unknown artists are the youth we swear don’t care about Chicago.
You’ve got this popular press who forms the popular track, the popular beat, that the underground youth artists are writing on to illustrate that they care vehemently about their city and that they work hard for their city, and if we are to imagine a more equitable world, a more just world, that beauty has to be a part of imagining that, creativity has to be a part of imagining that. If creativity is not there, to go back to the last question, we don’t produce a new thing, we produce an iteration of the old thing we claim to not want to begin with.
That’s what a literary mixtape is and that was the reason why I wanted to do this. I could have done a collection of essays, as well. I know a ton of scholars in Chicago–for example, one of my closest friends is Jeffrey McCune [Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr.]. What I think it does is — there’s Black slang as old as when I was young, where you would ask people “Do You Feel Me?” For me that’s an understanding of the entire body.
To echo some core truths about performance studies, it reflects the use of the body, and that the body has knowledge, and that we share that knowledge through performance. It’s an understanding with the entire body. It’s not simply this disembodied, mental, “Do you understand me?” It’s a “Do you feel me?” Do you understand me, do you feel me, are you alongside me in this? Not as a detached individual, but are you collectively with me on this? Are we together on this point? What I do think poetry gives, that traditional scholarly essays do not, is the ability to feel.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your first book of poetry, Ain’t Never Not Been Black, was published in 2020 and was a finalist for the Midwest Publishers Association’s Poetry Debut award. How did your experience working on this book compare to your previous work writing academic criticism and poetry for performance? Are there benefits or challenges that come from working between different genres of writing — moving from academic writing to poetry, or even from spoken word and slam poetry to written poetry?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] The challenge really for me is the other way around. As I told you earlier, I started as a poet. This is what I always want to return to. Honestly, if I could write books of poems for the rest of my life, I’d be fine. I’d be more than happy. I don’t necessarily have to write another book that’s academic, though I’m in the middle of writing one now. The point of the matter is, I am a poet at my core, and what happens when I write the academic stuff is I sometimes get lost in this notion that I need to write a certain way that’s not necessarily true to my voice. Not that it is antithetical to my voice. Not that it’s counter to my voice. It’s just not the core of who I am. Poetry allows me to be the core of who I am.
I make a lot of the same arguments in my poetry and my academic work. One difference is that, while poetry has a lot of rules, you get to choose rules in a way you don’t often get to in academic writing. Performance studies pushes that a lot, but it still exists largely in the academy in a lot of ways. Poetry says just do what you want to do and see what happens. I remember being in course work at Northwestern and one of the professors said, “We just take our play very seriously here.” I’ve always loved that idea — the idea of what it means to take play seriously. Play has moments of play that are not serious of course, and I don’t want to do away with that. But what I love is trying to figure it out, as opposed to being precise, what it means to get in there, get your hands dirty, and see what happens in the end of going into something uncertain and coming out. I love that about poetry.
So, it was easier for me to write this. The part that was hard is when you share things that are just profoundly personal, for obvious reasons, but also because you wonder how the academy takes this profoundly personal work. Those are really the challenges. The academy is happy to say, “One more of our faculty members produced one more book, we produced x amount of books.” But what does it mean to take that in and consider it as a form of knowledge production on par with other traditional forms of knowledge production? What does it mean to interpret knowledge production as a whole other story in itself?
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there ways in which your experiences writing poetry and performing as a slam and spoken-word poet have impacted, not just the subject matter of your scholarship, but also the way you approach your academic work? Is pushing the envelope to integrate creative and academic scholarship one of your objectives as a scholar?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] I don’t think I push anything. I think I be, and my being pushes. I think that distinction is really, really important because I think my being as a creative, particularly as a Black creative, particularly as a Black creative from 1980s South Central Los Angeles means that the university never imagined me as a student, let alone as a professor that produces knowledge. Meaning, I don’t think I’m the only smart black kid from 1980s South Central that was capable of being a professor–that’s absurd. I would be nuts to believe that. For lack of a better way of putting it, it would be incredibly egotistical and arrogant, and, while I do suffer from my own bubble of ego at times, certainly that’s not where that issue lies.
I think my very being pushes the envelope. My very Blackness enters scholarship in ways that are comfortable to me and the moment I try to do scholarship that’s comfortable to me, it’s an inherent push of the envelope, which means, according to the established institutions maintained by those in power, I was not supposed to be here to begin with. That’s important because it frames it less as, “This is how it happens to be in the university” and more in a way that opens up the space for us to think about the insidious ways the university gatekeeps. I push back on that, not because of my practice, but because of who I am through my practice.
I don’t go into writing scholarship thinking, “I’m going to push the envelope today.” I go into scholarship thinking, “How can I be me today?” If that makes people uncomfortable, then good. It’s called growing pains for a reason and perhaps this is just another forced growing pain that I’m responsible for, not by myself, but as a small part in a large group of people. This is different, but not entirely different from when Black studies first entered the academy. I don’t have an idea in my head that I’m going to push the envelope; that to me is incredibly self-centered in some weird ways, but I do have an idea that being myself might push the envelope.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is there advice you would give to students interested in performance studies and its connections with race, gender, and sexuality that are currently considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication or a related field?
[Dr. Javon Johnson] For me that answer is really contingent on the students themselves and what they’re looking for. There’s a part I didn’t say in response to your last question, which is part of what being a creative does to my academic writing, is it forces me to be intellectually curious. My interests are all over the place. I really vibe off what folks are doing in studies that have nothing to do with me at times. I don’t necessarily think I’m an expert in all of these fields, but I’ll pick them up and I’ll read them because I think what they’re doing is dope.
I think that the thing I would probably advise is, if you can be, be intellectually promiscuous, get down with multiple fields, see what happens and see how they talk to, amongst, and across one another. See the ways in which they’re challenging one another. I’ve never been loyal to a particular discipline. One of the things I do tell my graduate students is to never forget that they’re called disciplines because they discipline, and if we’re in a critical field we have to on some level reject or critique some of that discipline to ask what can be produced outside of these confines. Be intellectually promiscuous or, a different way of putting it, be curious. My favorite students in the world are curious students that just want to know things. I think that’s important.
Be honest with who you are and what you want out of this. The academy is becoming increasingly hostile toward professors, and we gotta be honest. I’m a very honest person when it comes to talking to graduate students about the academy, probably sometimes too much so. Academia is hostile in a lot of ways as institutions are looking to create more and more adjuncts and fewer tenure track positions in order to pay for overinflated administrative salaries. Because of that, be honest about what you want out of this.
I also always tell students, and this is more practical than it is subject oriented, never forget that it’s a job. It too is a job in a capitalist machine. There’s a lot of beauty to this job, there’s a lot of amazingness. When students tell you you’ve changed their lives, I don’t think there’s any feeling quite like that that I’ve had. What do you mean I’ve changed your life for the better? I don’t think I’ve given a really good response to any student who has ever told me that because it’s such a mind-blowing comment. I don’t really know how to process that fully, even though I can tell you for a fact there are professors who changed my life.
I wish I could give a better answer than those really practical fear-based answers. I think the answer I could give that’s out of something else, is, when I said know who you are and what you want, partly what I mean is figure out what brings you joy about this job and chase it. Chase it relentlessly.
Thank you, Dr. Javon Johnson, for your incredible insight into the intersection of performance studies, African American and ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies! It was a privilege speaking with you about your experiences as a scholar, poet, and creator.