In the following interview, managing editor Kathryn Vaggalis discusses the Fall 2019 special issue on Black love with our guest editors, Drs. Ayesha K. Hardison and Randal Maurice Jelks, from the University of Kansas.
What inspired you to create a collection of writings on Black love?
AKH: This project came out of an undergraduate class I was teaching focused on Black love and romance. As a teenager I began to read romance novels because my mother loved them, and I had recently discovered a series of historical Black romance novels written by Beverly Jenkins. They depicted romances shared between enslaved Black people, between Black people who were part of the free-produce movement and the Underground Railroad, between Black female teachers and Buffalo soldiers. The stories were based on well-researched histories, and they imagined love between African Americans in time periods when we only tend to remember struggle.
RMJ: Ayesha and I were discussing her ideas around Black romance novels, and I suggested that she expand the idea to think about doing something more broadly. We decided a symposium would be a great idea. We found that all things around Black love were shrouded in pathology. We thought that scholars had forgotten that folk in Black communities had all kinds of love. The most recognized story of love, we agreed, was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God published in 1937. The novel, it turns out, was published two years before E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States (1939). Frazier researched the harmful effects of a political economy that left many Black families destitute during the Great Depression. His assessment, however, was limited though it is still used as the basis to portray Black families—especially Black women—negatively to this day! In contrast, Hurston rightly points out for us that Black folks have internal loves that need to be assessed against a reading of empirical statistics.
What contributions to the field will this special issue make? How do you hope others will build and expand upon the work you presented?
RMJ: The contribution we hope to make in this issue is to widen the scope of how to think about Black people’s loving relationships. I hope to challenge scholars to go beyond a sociological assessment that sees only a negative hetero-normative light.
AKH: Black love is a multidisciplinary conversation taking place in film, history, sociology, anthropology, and literary studies within this special issue. I hope scholars will continue to do interdisciplinary work using love as a critical framework to think about Black people’s interpersonal and communal relationships as well as broader social and political contexts. Such work has added salience in our contemporary moment.
How does this special issue fit within your own scholarly interests?
RMJ: I am foremost an intellectual and a historian of African Americans. I see this issue as engaging a long overdue discussion of Black strengths. Love is one of those strengths.
AKH: I am a literary historian who explores African American representation in fiction and various kinds of culture. My current research returns to the modern civil rights and Black Power eras, which deployed love of people, community, and culture as a political act of survival.
How can teachers and scholars use the theme of Black love in their own classrooms or pedagogical frameworks on race in America?
AKH: The theme of Black love offers entrée into Black humanity, which has been obscured historically within scientific studies and too often left out of analyses of the political and social. Black love is the complication in a single-note story of Black oppression. It is forged by Black people’s social conditions, and its highs and lows, then, are reflections of those conditions. In that way, it is as instructive in the classroom studying race in the U.S. as disenfranchisement, civil rights, or social justice—it is another way to interrogate all of these things.
RMJ: All kinds of ethnic people have self-regard. In this context, Black love is about communal self-regard. If we proceed from the idea of negativity—a rather DuBoisian question, “How does it feel to be a problem?”—then our inquiries lead to despair. Can we ever live up to the assumed standards of a capitalist society? No American ethnic community lives up to those assumptions. Black love allows teachers and scholars to think about Black folk on their own terms—good, bad, or indifferent—and the ways Americans create love even under dismal circumstances.
Why did you choose WGFC as a venue for this scholarship?
RMJ: I published in WGFC before. I thought the journal would be amenable to our topic “Black Love After E. Franklin Frazier,” and scholarship taking up this affirmation would fit within the journal’s wheelhouse. Lastly, we were determined to do more than just hold a nice conference. We wanted to give our work serious intellectual credence, and we knew this journal was the perfect fit for us.
AKH: I would add that the journal’s central focus on women, gender, and families is congruous with the questions we wanted to ask. We knew WGFC, as a scholarly forum and network, would solicit the contributors and attract the readers we wanted to engage as well as support and promote the work we want to further with our collaboration.
About the Editors:
Ayesha K. Hardison is associate professor of English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas. She also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of African and African American Studies. Her award-winning book, Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2014) examines representations of Black women and the politics of Black literary production during the 1940s and 1950s. Hardison has published book chapters and reviews as well as articles in African American Review and Meridians, and she has received fellowships and awards from the Ford Foundation, Schomburg Center, Black Metropolis Research Consortium in Chicago, and Kansas Humanities Council.
Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies. He also holds courtesy appointments in History and Religious Studies; he is the co-editor of the journal American Studies; and he is an ordained Presbyterian clergy (PCUSA). Jelks is the author of two award-winning books: African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights Struggle in Grand Rapids (The University of Illinois Press, 2006), which won the 2006 State History Award from the University and Commercial Press of the Historical Society of Michigan, and Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography (University of North Carolina Press 2012), winner of the 2013 Lillian Smith Book Award and the 2013 Literary Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Currently, Jelks serves as an executive producer for the two-part biographical documentary I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled, a film collaboration with the Dream Documentary Collective and the Lawrence Arts Center supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.