Transformative Scholarship Beyond the Ivory Tower: A Conversation with Dr. Hortense J. Spillers

March 21, 2022
Professor Hortense J. Spillers gestures with her hand as she speaks into a microphone

In her 1987 essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense J. Spillers, distinguished visiting professor of literature at SUA, dismantled prevailing ideas about gender and Black communities. In the decades following that groundbreaking article, Spillers became a preeminent American literary critic and Black feminist scholar whose work explores the African diaspora and Black experience in America.

Spillers, who was named the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Human Rights’ first visiting fellow, is teaching a two-semester course at SUA on the idea of Black culture. She was Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor at Vanderbilt University until she retired last year. Spillers’ essays have been collected in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture and Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text.

SUA spoke with Spillers from her home in Nashville during winter break.

SUA’s student body is unique in its commitment to global citizenship, and also includes a larger percentage of international students than many colleges. Has your experience teaching here been different than at other universities?

In a sense it was different because the people who took the course last semester were not people you would think would take the course. There were no Black students in the class. They were all Japanese or Hispanic students, and all women. It was a marvelous experience because they did not come to the class with any well-formed ideas about Black culture or Black people in general. I found them very open-minded.

Were they surprised to discover some of the realities of Black life in America?

I think the surprises came in the details. They had a general sense of American life and race relations in the United States. That was mostly because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd case, as the timing of that trial overlapped the course. And they were aware of discussions about race that have taken place on campus. But I think the details were often shocking. The systematicity of racism interested them, and certain of its tropes. Most surprising to them was the extent to which a lot of what the thinkers we studied, who were writing between the late 19th and the middle of the 20th century, said still has relevance now.

You grew up in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. How did that shape your own ideas about race?

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, at the time that apartheid in the South was officially ending. I saw my mother’s terror when Emmett Till was murdered, because if he had lived he would be a few years older than myself. My mother was absolutely out of her mind about this 14-year-old boy that had just been killed right down the road—Mississippi and west Tennessee are cheek to jowl. So I grew up in that kind of possibility of carnage, in that terror. And I also saw it officially come to an end. So I have seen pretty substantial change take place in society.

Given all of that, I went to the University of Memphis at a time when 30 Black kids were so-called integrating a college of 10,000 white kids. Every day was a challenge. You did not know if you were going to make it home off that campus on a particular day. I’ve seen racism. I think I know what evil is and I think I understand something about ignorance, about racial attitudes, but I have never seen what we are going through now. But I keep thinking that there may be enough of us, as Baldwin put it so powerfully in The Fire Next Time, enough white people and Black people who are conscious, so if we do our work maybe we can save things. The radical left movement in the United States has always been cross-racial. It’s often been led by Black people because we were the ones on the bottom of it. But I’ve always believed that when radical whites and radical blacks put their heads together that things in the United States have always changed. That is still my hope. It gives me hope, every day, that at some point we’re gonna snap to it.

Where did your own resilience come from?

I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood. And this might sound ironic or a little strange, but I think growing up in an all-Black neighborhood where all the good that you saw in the world and all the bad that you knew about in the world was generated by people like yourself.

So you grew up thinking that nobody in the world was smarter than you or better than you. Because you knew kids who were so smart they were going to Fisk University in the 10th grade. You knew people who were so smart that MIT sent recruiters down to Memphis in 1968 to recruit people. There were Bibles and books. And you had three newspapers in your household. One of them was the Pittsburgh Courier that had a beautiful centerfold with pictures of people like Thurgood Marshall.

I knew we were poor, but it didn’t matter. By the time I was 19, I had a sense of who I was that nobody could mess with existentially. You could mess with it on the surface but you were just not gonna convince me that I was inferior and something was wrong with me. I just thought that the way the world was treating us was just simply wrong.

That’s where that determination came from. It came out of a circumstance and then the adults behind us who were pushing us. We had teachers who loved us. I was 13 years old and expressed the wish to become President of the United States, and some of the older women in my church looked around at each other and said, “You know what, she can probably do it.”

So when did you decide to teach instead?

At one point I did want to be a politician. I wanted to be a lawyer, and then I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. In college I was a disc jockey at a station in Memphis that was one of the first, if not the first Black radio stations in the US. I was a DJ, but I really wanted to do news commentary. Ironically, I got to do commentary the weekend that John F. Kennedy was killed because I was on the radio and the station suspended playing music. I wrote up my commentary and read it on the air for an hour.

I was going to take a test to become a broadcast engineer, but I decided that I just loved William Blake’s prophetic books more. I loved the English Romantic poets. So in 1968, a few months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I took off from Memphis for the doctoral program in English and American literature at Brandeis University.

At the risk of oversimplifying your long and distinguished career, what would you say is the overarching theme of your work or the question you’ve most wanted to investigate?

The question that has preoccupied me most would be the extent to which Black personality has responded to modernity. Before modernity, which dates back to the 15th century, I don’t think there was any such thing as Black personality. There was certainly the idea of an African personality. With the start of the transatlantic slave trade and the creation of an African diaspora, something called Black personality that didn’t have to exist before had to exist. There was a need to talk about a personality in relationship to heterogeneous personalities including European peoples, native peoples, and so forth. We saw the creation of this new thing in the world called Black or diasporic personality that is both African but not quite African, and not all African but African plus something else. And what is that something else? That plus factor that has been the big puzzle for me. How has it affected the lives of those populations? What’s been the fate of gender in relationship to ideas about family and kin?

All the same questions that confront human beings have confronted human beings in these populations, but given the history out of which those populations were created the answers have not been anticipated. In other words, we have not been able to anticipate answers to those questions based on a standard sense of how human beings behave in the world because there’s nothing standard about this situation.

We make stabs at it, but it really isn’t a once-and-for-all. It’s a constant creation, and that’s hard to swallow. We are always creating the circumstances of our lives at the same time the circumstances of our lives are creating us. They’re in a kind of dialogical relationship. I think the situation of a Black personality in the modern world has to be clarified every generation. We keep thinking we’re going to get to a point and stop, that we won’t have to fight those battles anymore. It comes as a rude shock that we’re constantly fighting.

Do you feel that diversity efforts in higher education are important and helpful in fighting systemic racism?

I think so, but it’s complicated in the sense that if a fetish is made of diversity it becomes a problem. And what does that mean? Well, it’s hard to describe, but I think you kind of know it when you see it. Some universities have created deans of diversity, for example, and put the task in the hands of a particular person. I wonder what that will do because it’s going toward the kind of fetishization that I’m talking about. But how do you get at diversity? It is a big, big subject. Maybe you get diversity by not calling it that all the time. Maybe diversity comes in different guises and disguises.

I think what higher education should really be about is not only diversity but literacy. The job of the university is cultural literacy. Cultural literacy encompasses just about everything, but what it mostly means is fomenting and creating critical intelligence so people go out into the world with the power to know the difference between a con man and one who is authentic. We should be about the business of creating critical people rather than gullible people.

That’s the hard part. That’s what we’re not doing. There are people who honestly believe that the education failures in society have to do with the undereducation of Black kids and kids of color, but it has to do with all the children in the United States. We are looking at a society that is coming apart at the seams and a lot of that is the failure of critical intelligence.

You can put all of it under the rubric of ignorance. If you have a society that is ignorant, you can’t get any messages through—about women, minorities, diversity, critical race theory, or Black Lives Matter. You can’t get any of that through because people are not thinking anymore. They are feeling. They are emoting. They’re having opinions. But they are not thinking critically. I think we’re quite sick in body and mind and spirit in our society and that we need massive help.

So how do we keep fighting?

I have no solution in my head, except that I think the only thing you can do is rail against it. You can write about it, you can talk about it, you can teach about it. I think of a certain kind of scholarship as activism. I don’t see any disparity between a certain kind of scholarship, a certain kind of writing, and a political commitment. I would say a lot of the works I have taught over nearly 50 years of teaching are transformative and can possibly change people’s lives. Or the way they see things in their lives. I don’t think of scholarship as something that comes out of an ivory tower or something that is detached from living in the world. It participates in its own way of living. And you just keep hammering away. That little bit chips away at it. I think that’s the best we can do.