Series 29: For the Love of Black Lives | Episode 05
Celebrating the Rich Legacy of Black Culture, Art & Fashion in America, with Dr. Tanisha C. Ford
Black culture is central to American culture—we simply don’t have America without having the Black experience, born of slavery and systemic racism and white supremacy, of physical and mental and emotional pain. But through generations, Black women and men have passed down stories given from their mothers and grandmothers. They’ve cooked and sang and danced and played the most beautiful music. They’ve written and dreamed and created. Black culture has inspired us for hundreds of years as it has woven its way into the tapestry of American life. And today, we’re going to talk about the richness of it all with Dr. Tanisha C. Ford, a cultural critic and professor of history at CUNY. Dr. Ford shares the artists and icons that shaped her world as a young Black woman growing up (everyone from her own mother and her leather jackets, to the music of Aretha Franklin and TLC, Roberta Flack and Mary J. Blige). Dr. Ford shows us how looking deeply at culture helps us see the threads of politics and society woven within. We learn why cultural appropriation is tied to systems of exploitation. We see why we need to shift our eyes away from history books that haven’t centered important Black pioneers like Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells, why everyone needs to read words from thinkers like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. We see how Shirley Chisholm paved the way for Kamala Harris. We see the beauty and strength of artists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, and how they birth artists like Alicia Keys and Janelle Monáe. And through it all we see how new forms of technology have carried Black voices to new corners of the world for decades, planting the seeds for social media to blossom into a powerful force for the change that we’re seeing today.
Dr. Ford: I’m so glad to hear you say that Black culture is central to American culture, because it is. It is. It’s not a thing like, “Oh, well if we just want to privilege Black voices, then we need to center them in American history.” No. It’s just a fact.
Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today, we’ll dive into the rich history and influence of Black culture in America with historian and cultural critic Dr. Tanisha C. Ford.
Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I am super happy you’re here today because we have an episode for you that’s absolute fire.
I’m so happy you hit download, how you have already subscribed, and you have chosen to tune in not just to this whole series, but specifically to this conversation because I loved this one. In fact, I told Tanisha, “This hour went away from me in sixty seconds.” It was so fast. She’s so interesting.
So, you probably know we’re in a series right now called For the Love of Black Lives. It’s been powerful and interesting and fascinating and sobering as we look around this racial reckoning happening really not just in the United States right now, but globally. This felt like a really important time to bring powerful leaders to this podcast who could walk us through so many different facets of this work and this moment and help us look not just forward, but also backward.
So, today we are going to talk about the rich and bold and beautiful contributions that Black women and men have had since day one on the fabric of American culture. We don’t have an American experience without the Black experience. This is not ancillary. It’s not a side experience. It’s fundamental. It’s centered.
So, the Black experience [was] obviously born out of slavery and systemic racism and white supremacy and physical and mental and emotional pain, but also resiliency, power, family, liberation, healing. It’s all embedded. So, frankly, unless you’re Native American, your family came from somewhere else. If you’re white, your ancestors probably came voluntarily. And if you are Black, your ancestors were likely forced under threat of violence to board a ship bound for the slave blocks on the American shores, right?
And through all of that, from beginning to now, Black women and men still told the stories passed down from their mothers and grandmothers and they cooked the meals that have been staples of the family. They sang and danced and played beautiful music. They wrote and dreamed and their culture is deeply woven into the absolute fabric of American life through art and persistence and resiliency passed down from generation to generation to this living day. Black culture has fed us and moved us and inspired us for thousands of years.
So, today we are going to talk about the richness of it all with a scholar I am so happy to introduce you to, if you haven’t already followed her. So, today we have on Tanisha C. Ford—Dr. Ford, if you will. She is a leading voice, speaking at the intersection of politics and culture. She’s an award-winning writer, she’s a cultural critic, she’s a professor of history at the graduate center of CUNY. So, no big deal.
She’s also the co-founder of Textures, which is a popup material culture lab creating and curating content on Black design, material life, and the built environment. Just so interesting. Obviously her commitment to social justice and racial justice in communities of color is evident in literally everything she produces. Her latest book is called Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion. Right? It’s a memoir about Tanisha’s journey through fashion. Oh, and guess who’s adapting it for TV? Freida Pinto and Gabrielle Union. Tra la la!
You’ll notice today in today’s conversation she’s obviously a scholar and a teacher—and a good teacher. I felt like I was in the class of my favorite professor who was engaging and interesting and just jammed full of wisdom and experience and knowledge. So, you’re going to really, really like this discussion. You’re going to learn a lot. You’re going to hear a lot.
I’m so glad and grateful to have gotten to speak voice to voice to Dr. Ford. And I was really happy about her final answer to, “What is saving your life right now?” So, you’re going to have to stay tuned all the way to the end to hear that awesome answer.
Okay. So, with that, I am so pleased to share my conversation with the brilliant scholar and writer, Dr. Tanisha C. Ford.
Welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I am just absolutely delighted to meet you. I’m just really crazy about your work. Thank you for being here.
Dr. Ford: Thanks for inviting me, Jen. Likewise. The feeling is mutual, so I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Jen: Yeah, me too. Me too. Your specific body of work, your area of expertise is just fascinating. It’s just so fascinating.
So, let me just say right out of the gate that it is impossible to even capture a teaspoon’s worth of Black culture and the richness of it, the depth and scope of it in one podcast. That’s silly. But I am excited to even just dip in a little bit, to be able to learn from you today.
Please hear me say this right out of the gate. I really appreciate some of the labor that you are offering me and my community today to share your experience, to share your knowledge. Some of this dips into hard and traumatic places. And so, I recognize that this is an emotional labor for you, and I’m very, very grateful that you’ve chosen to do it. Thank you, and I see it.
Dr. Ford: Thank you, Jen. See, this is why I love you! Because you understand, you get it. You get the politics. You get that kind of effect of labor that goes into this work, the emotional labor. All of that. So, yeah.
But the part of me that’s a professor first and a teacher first loves to have the opportunity to take what I’ve learned and know and then translate that for an audience outside of my…
Dr. Ford: To make this all very tangible and understandable and relatable for people. So, this is my job and I love to do it.
Jen: You’re a teacher’s teacher. This is what you do. Probably in your dreams and in your sleep.
So, I filled in my listeners with your incredible bio and credentials. When I see your work and the huge scope of what you think about and what you read and what you write about and what you teach, I’m speaking to a woman who has been probably a lifelong student of culture, is my guess. High culture, pop culture, niche cultures. Whatever. This feels very natural to you.
So, could you talk for just a few minutes about maybe when you realized, This interests me. I want to be a student and ultimately a teacher of culture, and even how your parents and your household growing up shaped your view, particularly, of Black culture.
Dr. Ford: I think when I went off to college, my freshman year of college, I started taking courses—and this is at a time when Spike Lee films were hugely popular and courses were being offered on Black American film and Black music—I started to think, Wow! These things that my parents introduced me to at home are college courses? I can take courses on culture, on Black culture?
Because my father, I would consider him a left-leaning, new-left kind of guy. He served in the Vietnam war-era military, and so his mind was shaped a lot around those kinds of politics of the sixties and seventies, and he loved jazz and soul music. So, I grew up with this very hefty music collection. And our ritual was to go downstairs into the basement where he had all his equipment set up, and we would just listen to music for hours. So, by the time I was ten, eleven, twelve, I knew the names of Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin. All these people! Gil Scott-Heron. These were the people my dad had me listening to.
Then my mother, she was a self proclaimed feminist, a Black feminist. She was really involved in feminist politics, and of course was going to college in the early 1970s when the women’s movement is in full swing. So, for her, it was always about empowering me as a woman and empowering me as a Black woman. So I can remember wearing “Black Is Beautiful” t-shirts. I can remember she always had Black-centered artwork on the walls, and she would take magazines, Jet and Ebony magazines and they were always neatly arranged underneath the coffee table.
So, there was a way that this culture was all around me in my home. But it wasn’t until I went off to college, where I majored in English and African American studies, that I realized that, Wow, I could really take this seriously. These are real ways to analyze the world. So, the love of culture blended with my love and interest in the social movements of the 1960s and seventies. I started to realize that there was a way that you could use culture to understand all sorts of social and political phenomena. So, it’s like the love of those two things just kind of blended together and then that became my whole academic career, making people understand how you can take everyday things like culture and use them to explain very complex ideas about race and gender and sexuality and other identity politics.
Jen: Your path was set, and you walked it well. Your particular expertise is fashion, which is so fun and exciting to talk about. I wonder if you could walk us through your closet through the years, and how that has been an expression of who you were as a Black girl coming up, who you are as a Black woman today.
Dr. Ford: It’s interesting, because I kind of came to the dress piece of this all really late in terms of the analysis of it. But I started to think, In this world, humans wear clothes.
Jen: They do.
Dr. Ford: Right? So, every day, we make a choice to get dressed. That choice comes with a whole set of politics around it, whether we’re cognizant of those things or not. So, I started to think that this becomes a really important way to study the human experience and what unites us as people across race, across genders, across sexual identities, religions, etc.
That really got me going along this journey into my own closet. That especially became the case when I started writing my latest book, Dressed in Dreams. But I realized that my earliest ideas around fashion and the dress body came from my mom. So, I think my early closet was just everything in her closet.
Dr. Ford: I just wanted what she had! Because my mother was an amazing dresser, and she just made and designed her own clothes, including her own wedding gown.
Jen: Oh, no way!
Dr. Ford: She made her own wedding gown and her bridesmaids’ wedding gowns too. So, this was another thing that was just kind of in my blood.
Dr. Ford: I had a mother who really cared about clothes. So, in the early days, it was wanting to wear her leather jackets, and put on her high heels, and she had these brooches that she would put on her Connie pumps. But then being a child of the hip-hop generation, so much of hip-hop and R&B shaped my style. So, TLC and Aaliyah, Mary J. Blige, the way they’re wearing baggy oversize clothes and bright colors. The R&B group Jodeci and their big clunky, chunky boots. The combat boots. That was the look.
So, I think that so much of that shaped my adolescence. Then of course, hip-hop before hip-hop artists loved diamonds and bling, they loved gold. So, we all had to have our bangles and our bamboo earrings. So much of that for me just kind of shaped who I was as a young Black girl, but as a woman, as we get older, our bodies change. I’ve had a baby. Everything is always up for grabs.
Jen: It is. It’s up for grabs.
Dr. Ford: But you know what I love now? I love a good hat.
Jen: Oh! Okay.
Dr. Ford: I love a good hat. Even today, I’m inside my house. I’m not wearing a hat. I usually like to wear my hats in fall and spring. But I even have a head wrap. I just love a head piece.
Dr. Ford: It’s a main thing for me, and so I love to pair a cute brimmed hat with some hole-y jeans.
Dr. Ford: And a nice duster or cardigan or blazer. Just kind of do this gender bending mix of the masculine and the feminine.
Jen: So cute. Yes.
Dr. Ford: So, I think that that kind of says who I am now as a grown woman, fully grown woman.
Jen: Listen. To everybody listening, we are going to go grab as many pictures as we can from your social media sites, and we’ll put them over in the transcript so you guys can see.
Let me ask you this. So the Black experience is obviously central to the American experience, and it has been since the very beginning, since day one, back when African culture was brought straight over here on slave ships. The myths, the music, the fashion, the stories. All of it.
When I consider Black culture, it’s amazingly resilient. It has never given in to the colonizer’s demand to buckle and assimilate. Never. So I wonder as a history professor, when did Black culture begin showing up in the “history books” of America—which I say in air quotes because history has always been seen through a revisionist lens, through the lens of white supremacy. When and how did we first begin to see the impact sincerely about, and in the greater culture I should say, of Black women and men in the earliest days of our country?
Dr. Ford: I’m so glad to hear you say that Black culture is central to American culture because it is.
Jen: It is. These are facts.
Dr. Ford: It is. It’s not a thing like, “Oh, well if we just want to privilege Black voices, then we need to center them in American history.” No. It’s just a fact.
Jen: It’s just a fact.
Dr. Ford: We have been here. We are central to the founding of this country. That our experience, our forced labor, the sexual exploitation of Black women, all those things are central to this country. We were a fully formed human population. We were a fully formed political group, ethnic groups, with our own kind of diversity, with our own various languages, political hierarchies, royal families, peasant families. Everything in pre-colonial Africa.
So, when we were forced upon those ships, those of us who survived that very treacherous Middle Passage journey were kind of dispersed across the entire new world. So, it meant that what we now consider “Black culture” or “Black American culture” in the United States is really an amalgamation of the various cultures from across West Africa, which again, I want to emphasize how varied and diverse the peoples of those nations were.
But then also an amalgamation of all of the new world cultures. So, you have people of various African nations and ethic groups who then are brought to various parts of the Caribbean and South and Central America. So, they’re fusing with the indigenous people of those places. People are being moved. It was nothing for enslaved men and women to be moved to several different colonies over the course of their lives. So, I really want people to understand just how diverse this culture is.
So, then what we see happen in the United States is that different cultural patterns form differently, unevenly across the United States colonies. So, what’s happening in New Orleans and parts of South Florida looks different than what’s happening in Virginia or Rhode Island. So, it’s a really a mix of things that we kind of come to describe as African American culture.
What’s really important to me is that there have always been some African Americans who were never enslaved or can not trace roots back to slavery. So, that means that there’s been a free Black population. There have been enslaved Black populations and people who are able to purchase their own freedom or who ran to freedom. So, what that’s meant is that we’ve always had Black historians and storytellers. There were some very sympathetic, left-leaning abolitionist whites who were instrumental in helping to tell those stories. So, that’s how we get people like Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, and Henry Box Brown, and various people who’s narratives of slavery to freedom become part of the early telling of America, if we were to tell that through a Black lens.
So, I would say that there have always been these moments where Black voices have shown up in the history. And there’s of course the Black print media, both in terms of Black print presses, but also in terms of abolitionist publications that definitely believed in an integrated vision of telling stories and telling history and delivering the news. Those things were always popular.
But with the establishment of various HBCUs either right before the war or immediately after the war, that’s when you start to have history departments that are helmed by Black scholars who are teaching a very Black centered agenda, a Black centered history. Who are saying, “We need to know our history. It’s not just about the great white men of America or American history, our founding fathers. There are stories of our own people that we need to tell.” And that’s why people like Carter G. Woodson are supremely important in this history book. There’s also a cadre of Black women who become highly educated like Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells. These women who are central to telling our stories and centering Black women’s voices as well.
So, yeah. We’ve been there and we’ve been writing these histories. But what’s interesting to me is that as a historian, as professional historians, we make a set of choices about what kind of dates, location, people, voices that we privilege in the archive or what we think is available in the archive to tell a story. And because of that, that means that if the academy is mostly populated by white men, they’re more likely to reproduce a story that centers as George Washington or an Aaron Burr or Alexander Hamilton.
So, as we start to see the American academy become more diverse, then we get to see some of those histories that had already been written, but kind of fell by the wayside. Then Black women scholars such as myself reclaimed those things. Black trans scholars say, “Oh wow, Black trans people have always been around. We’ve always been present in the archive. But because no one was looking for our voice, they didn’t center it.”
So, it’s really important that for people to understand that history isn’t just a set of facts. People like to think it’s a set of dates that you just memorize. No. History is constructed by source material and how one reads that source material. What source material they see as valuable and what source material they say, “Not so much.”
So, the work of the Black woman historian has been to find Black women in death records on slave ships in the middle passage. To find Black women in property sales slips and sales records because again, we were seen as less than human. We were seen as property, akin to cattle. Akin to a wooden desk that one would sell or one would be a part of one’s estate after they passed away.
So, that’s how we had to find Black women’s voices. Because these people weren’t allowed to legally read and write. So, we may not have a rich set of papers, but we’ve had to learn how to strategically read the documents against the grain in order to show that Black women were here. So because of that, we’ve been able to tell these very rich histories of the Middle Passage, but also of the early American republic.
Jen: Totally. Oh my God. You’re such a good teacher. I could listen to you talk all day long. Oh! You’re such a good teacher.
Dr. Ford: Tell my students that! Tell my students how much they should appreciate me.
Jen: I want to talk about church for a second. Church has been, obviously, a huge part of Black culture and remains that way today. When did church become a place for Black women and men to congregate? Because it’s a complicated thing to discuss, since the Christian church in the West was introduced to the Black community through white colonizers. Right?
So, why and how has it remained such a huge cultural touchstone for the Black community to this day?
Dr. Ford: So, I am a Black girl who grew up in church, and I was on the usher board and I was in the choir and all these amazing things. So, it’s totally right that the church has been central to the Black community for a very long time.
One thing that I think is important to point out is that the white Christian church, again, is not a monolith. There are various denominations and sects within the Christian church, and some of those sects were more amenable to Black Christians than others.
I think that there is an overarching element of racism, for sure, that informs why and how they are Christianizing African people, people of African descent in the new world.
But what we know is that the church service became a way for enslaved Black men and women to find a sense of autonomy and to create a sense of community on their own terms in new ways. So, on most plantations across the U.S., church service was something that was allowed and that these were people who didn’t just buy into Christianity wholesale. They used it to very strategically communicate messages of freedom, using the very Bible that was used to oppress them to create a message and a pathway to freedom, if you will.
But these were people—again, if we think about how diverse of a population, we’re talking about millions of people, how diverse they were. They brought with them a lot of indigenous religions and indigenous religious practices. So, the kind of Christianity that Black folks have practiced has never just been a wholesale acceptance of a white or European Christianity. It was always infused with candomblé, with Santería, with Yoruba traditions, etc. So, it’s very common to see Black people who are wholly devoted Christians, but who also believe in other spiritual forms and practice other spiritualities.
So, I think that even by adapting Christianity, again, that there was something rebellious or fugitive about the way that they did that. So, we can then think of something like the Sunday church parade, which Sunday became a day where bonded men and women could dress themselves in their own clothes. So, maybe a woman had her own small garden, and she would trade her garden materials or her garden goods for material for a head wrap or a dress. And then she would make and hand stitch a thing for herself that she would wear on Sunday. So, that Sunday parade from the slave quarters to the church house became a way to walk upright, back straight, shoulders up and back and be proud, right?
So, again, there’s a way that if you read this through the lens that Black studies gives us, we can see how they’ve used Christianity as a tool of resistance.
Jen: That requires 10,000 podcasts just to trace that throughline all the way to today. Love that sense of honor and liberation inside of that.
Let’s go back to something you talked about earlier, because it’s just facts that American music has been absolutely shaped by Black artists forever from the beginning. Spirituals, gospels, ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, R&B, rap, all of it. Without Black artists, we just simply would not have the cultural musical heritage we have. It wouldn’t exist. So again, this one conversation could be the foundation of 10,000 dissertations.
But from just a high level as someone who is so salient around the experience of Black music and artists—again, I really appreciate how you keep telling us there is no monolithic Black community or culture nor white. So, some of these are reductionist explanations that sacrifice some nuance and complexities. I get that too.
But maybe from a 30,000-foot view, what is the story that Black music has been telling throughout the generations? Do you see those stories changing over time? Do you think there’s been sort of a constant thread that has stayed, that has remained? I’d like to hear you discuss Black music and its artists and its impacts and its shifts.
Dr. Ford: Yes. Such a great question, Jen.
I think that when we look at Black music over time, we see certain universal themes that are just universal to all humans. So, the themes of love, themes of loss and pain, themes of hurt—themes of losing all your money! Because Black music is so central to American music, there’s so many overlaps. There’s a way that now when we think about country music or bluegrass music, those music are raced in white in certain ways, but of course those musics stem from Black roots, from the slave hollers, from the blues, from the gospel. All of that stuff. So, I think that a lot of the themes that you see show up in country music are the themes that showed up in early blues music. So, some of those things are definitely just universal to the human experience theme.
But then there’s also a way that Black music over the years has been political. Both in big P like formal politics political, but also like the everyday politics of life.
I think some of the people who were critical in using Black music and to talk about politics were the blues women. The blues women of the turn of the twentieth century who of course are talking about the regular themes of love and loss, but they’re also putting forth a certain kind of gendered analysis. The experience of love and loss through a woman’s perspective. They are talking about bisexuality. They are talking about being sensual and this is groundbreaking because this music comes at a time when Black women particularly middle class to upper middle class Black women, educated Black women are saying that, “Hey we don’t want to be seen as sexual because of the ways that we have been denigrated throughout slavery. We don’t want to be seen in that way. We need to be seen as respectable and pious and wholesome, just like our white women peers.”
So, you have the blues women saying, “No.” That there is a politics in owning and embracing our sexuality and claiming that as its own form of freedom, why do we have to uphold these moral standards twice as much as white women just because of the ways that we have been exploited?
So, I think that the blues women for me are supremely important in this conversation. But of course, once they start getting into the fifties and sixties, the politics of music become far more overt with women like Nina Simone singing about old Jim Crow and making these bold declarations about segregation and about white supremacy and white terror.
Billie Holiday when she sings “Strange Fruit.” Oh, man. It’s just, to me, that music is so rich. Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” These are people often who came out of the Black church. So, some of those same ties that we mentioned earlier are threaded through their music. So, there is a feeling of hope. “A Change is Gonna Come.” But then there’s also this prophetic fire that comes through those lyrics that we can see women like Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys and other mainstream artists today embrace the kind of message that we see in the earlier music of the blues women and then the singers of the fifties, sixties and seventies.
I just love it. I love studying that music. I love thinking about music as an art form. Some of my earliest research was on Black music. So, before it kind of got into dress, I was doing a close analysis of the music, and that’s how I got into the dress. Because I wanted to look at Miriam Makeba and Odetta and Nina Simone and how their clothing and their hairstyle, their natural hairstyle choices were just as important as the lyrics themselves. So, that’s what got me down that path of dress. But it’s because of the music. There’s just so much power and potency in that music.
Jen: So much power and potency. It gives me goosebumps. I get goosebumps when I think about the power and the courage that was represented in that era, too. Those shoulders that our generation is able to stand on, it’s pretty incredible.
We can’t talk about Black art and Black culture without discussing appropriation, especially in an American context. Again, this is a really deep conversation that we’ll only be able to touch on, but I wonder if you could talk about cultural appropriation with me and how you see that having always played out, obviously. Especially currently, because this is one of those white blinders in a lot of white communities, who have the luxury of not even paying attention to both what appropriation means and the harm it creates. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Dr. Ford: Yes. So, cultural appropriation. This is a term I learned in college when I’m taking all of these cultural studies, American studies, Black American studies courses. We’re introduced to this language of cultural appropriation. So, in many ways it’s a very academic language, that kind of doesn’t quite get at some of the emotional elements of this. But it also doesn’t necessarily get at another element that I really want to talk about of all of this stuff.
So, on one hand I think just basically [cultural appropriation] means taking, borrowing, stealing the culture or cultural elements of a group that you don’t belong to and doing so without any kind of attribution or understanding of that history, then even renaming that thing. So, for example, women of African descent have for centuries been wearing what we call corn rows or cane rows, braiding of the hair close to the scalp in very intricate ways. But once the Kardashians started wearing their hair like that, those things became part of the mainstream fashion and beauty culture and magazines, beauty magazines are writing about these and they’re calling them boxer braids. Creating a genealogy that starts with Ronda Rousey and the women of the kickboxing, what is it called?
Dr. Ford: So, that’s where they create a whole new origin story around the thing. So, when people hear folks of various marginalized groups say, “You have robbed something of my culture. You have appropriated my culture,” oftentimes what white folks hear them saying is, “Oh, you started wearing your hair like mine. Why did you do that?”
For them it’s like, “What is it? What are you talking about? It’s just hair. It’s just baggy jeans. So what? Who has a province on jeans? They’re just jeans.” That sort of thing.
So, there’s two things that people don’t realize. One is that we’ve just spent so much beautiful time together talking about the pain and the trauma and generations of violence against indigenous people, against Black people, against women, against queer and trans people. So, everything that these folks have forged as cultural expressions to stay alive means something. Right? So, as a Black girl when I’m giving a survival handbook on how to be a Black girl in this culture and how to thrive and find some kind of joy in a place that hates my people, then dress becomes a huge part of that. Being handed down big mama’s fur coat is part of that. Making sure I don’t leave the house ashy is part of that. Wearing my hair in braids and learning how to appreciate those corn rows and appreciate the kinky texture of my hair is part of that. So, when other people then take those things and say, “Oh who cares? Why does it even matter?” It’s like, “No it matters deeply. Because these things are key to my survival.” So, that’s one part of it.
The other part of this that I always try to teach and stress when I talk to people about appropriation is that we’re not just talking about a one-off thing. So, it’s not like, “Oh, Jen. You’re wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. You don’t have the right to wear that, Jen. You, the individual woman.” That’s not what we’re talking about. That is a piece of this, of course, and some people have a really huge problem with that. They call it being a culture vulture, etc.
But what I’m trying to stress is something larger than that. It’s that the fashion and beauty industry, which are some of the main industries where we see this kind of appropriation, these are places that were built on whiteness and white supremacy. The main white families who had access to generational wealth that came, that rose to power in the Gilded Age, that these are the people who control these industries and that these industries are fueled by white privilege and nepotism. So, these are spaces that Black people and Black creatives have not had equal access to.
So, every story that we get in a beauty magazine that talks about boxer braids or any other kind of thing that they attribute to a white person or somebody other than the group of people who popularized the style, they don’t have access to be in that space. It’s told through the white lens. So, what I want people to understand is that cultural appropriation is the result by in large of systems of oppression. They are tightly tethered to a capitalist system that was never designed for Black and brown people to participate in it.
So, part of the problem is that we don’t have a pipeline into these spaces in the ways that we should to be able to correct the narrative. That needs to happen, not just as fashion designers or just as models. It means the executives at these companies. It means the marketers. It means all the people who are a part of this chain, they all need to be held accountable and we need to see way more diversity on the more visible aspects of this and then way less labor exploitation on the invisible parts of this, the labor chain. So, cultural appropriation is tied to systems of exploitation.
Dr. Ford: Period, point blank. No matter how you look at it.
Jen: That’s it.
Dr. Ford: So, that’s what people need to realize. That it’s an emotional piece, but there’s also this systemic piece that needs to be dismantled.
Jen: Really you’ve just described systemic racism perfectly and we could drop that over as an overlay on 100 other systemic spaces of oppression. That that’s how it works. Disproportionately represented in the places of power, and the flip side is the same. Disproportionately represented as its victims or just simply for use. For use, but not for power.
I’m curious about your thought on this. From your vantage point, how would you say social media, particularly in your space, has changed the fabric of Black culture if it has? What does Black Lives Matter look like without social media? What does some of this sort of cultural reckoning we are experiencing right now look like without social media? To say anything else of the arts and music. What do you think? What’s the effect here? Is it good or bad? Is it neutral? Is it all that?
Dr. Ford: I think about this so much, Jen, so I’m glad that you’ve asked this. Because I do think that social media has been a game changer in many ways because whenever we can democratize media or make media accessible to marginalized folks who never would have had access to it, then the more we start to see those voices and the more we start to see media fugitivity, if you will. Like, people who are using the media as a tool of resistance, as an insurgent technology.
So, yes, people have used Tumblr. I think that’s why so much of the Black queer culture that emerges, I don’t think we would have Pose in the sense that we wouldn’t have had a major media corporation who says, “We want to put the show Pose on air,” had it not been for the way that Black queer and queer color activists have been using spaces like Tumblr, to create a certain kind of visibility to elevate their own voices, to elevate the voices of Black queer ancestors and fore family who have been doing this work. That’s when we start to see a resurgent interest in James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and folks like that for the younger generation of people. So, in that way, I think that social media has been amazing.
Then the historian in me also wants to point out that there was another moment and another kind of technology that made some of this work possible in an earlier time period, and that’s the mimeograph. The mimeograph.
Jen: Here she comes. Guys she’s a professor. She can’t help it. She’s going to do it. Teacher’s going to teach. That’s good.
Dr. Ford: To be able to take, to crank out your own flyers, to be able to crank out your own what we would call now memes or to be able to crank that out and get your own political message out.
So, I would say that the people today who are using [social media] technology are in a long tradition of Black folks who have used the technology available in their time period to get their own more radical message across and to help it to reach an audience.
So, I think that the challenges with this is that as always, this is a country that thrives off of surveilling, policing, and confining Black people and other people of color.
So, then we have law enforcement of various forms who their sole job might be to just study the Twitter account of various known activists to see what they’re doing, what they’re planning, how they’re planning it. So, there’s a way that some of this activism across social media has had to go underground a little bit in order to protect the movement and the kinds of moves that activists are making.
There’s also a way that people have had to say, “Well, if you’re going to attend protests, don’t put a camera in someone’s face. Don’t post things of people’s faces or identifiable tattoos or any other thing because you’re putting a person at risk who’s there because people are watching this stuff.”
But the Black Lives Matter movement and also movements against police brutality and exploitation in other parts of the world most certainly have benefited from this technology. I’m thinking about the so called Blackberry Riots in the UK, I think that was in 2011. They’re called the Blackberry Riots very colloquially because of the way that they were using smartphone technology to organize. So, we kind of see this cross-Atlantic use and conversation around social media and technology and using those things to organize.
So, I think that social media like anything has its downsides, but definitely it’s been a way to organize and galvanize people but then to also say, “Here’s the thing that mainstream is never going to show you.”
Dr. Ford: Right? We never would have known about George Floyd had it not been for the people who were using their smartphone technology and then uploading those videos to their social media platforms.
Jen: That’s 100% right.
Dr. Ford: Ahmaud Arbery. We wouldn’t have known. Breonna Taylor we wouldn’t have known had her family not come to social media and say, “Hey, this thing happened to our daughter, to our sister.” So, yes. It’s hugely important and it’s also in this long line of the ways that Black people have used technology.
Let me just say if I can, Jen, one other thing about this.
Jen: Yes, you can.
Dr. Ford: Research has been done by academics and even corporations to show that young black kids are more likely than any peers of any other race to use their smartphones, to have their smartphone be their major piece of technology. So, you have students who are writing whole papers for their high school classes on their smartphone because they can use that. They don’t have a computer at home. So, these are people who have a high level of literacy with smartphone technology and social media technology, because it’s likely to be the main piece of technology that they have access to.
This was the huge problem with COVID-19 that it exposed. Well, you’re saying, “Oh yeah, just go home and we’ll just have class via Zoom on your laptop.” It’s like, “Laptop?”
Dr. Ford: “Desktop? Who has a computer at home? Oh, I’m going to have to figure out how to Zoom from my phone?” Because that is a reality. So, what we see is a generation of young Black people who are so skillful with cell phone technology.
Jen: That’s interesting.
Dr. Ford: And, thus, with social media technology, right?
Jen: That’s so interesting. I’ve never heard anybody connect that. That is a really fascinating runway into what will become very soon for that generation their own activism as they kind of step into young adulthood.
I have one more question, and then we’ll kind of land the plane here. 2020, man. We’ve watched a lot go down this year, and a lot of it was garbage, but not all of it was. It has been just pretty amazing to witness the first Black and South Asian woman to become a part of a major party ticket in our history.
What would you say it means for people of color to have Kamala Harris on the ticket? What is having her on the ballot do? What does it mean to little girls? What’s the impact of normalizing, if you will, the authority of a woman of color at sort of the highest levels of our country? What’s your take on this?
Dr. Ford: Yes. Oh, Kamala Harris. Yeah. It’s interesting. There are many debates—and there should be—many debates about her politics and those sorts of things, but let’s just set that aside.
Dr. Ford: Let’s set the politics aside and let’s just talk about what it means to have a Black woman, a woman of South Asian descent, a Caribbean woman, a child of immigrants to be in this position. Because I can remember 2008, I was a graduate student at Indiana University and historically a red state. To see that state go blue for Barack Obama on election night, I can remember crying. I can remember being on the phone with one of my childhood friends and us saying, “We never saw this moment coming,” and both of us being parents to Black male children and saying, “Our sons can now grow up and believe that they can be President of the United States.”
Now, you have people who can say, “I can now have my daughters believe that they can be in the highest ranks of American politics. That my Black daughter, my South Asian daughter, my Jamaican daughter, my immigrant daughter can imagine this for her future.” That is groundbreaking.
Jen: It is.
Dr. Ford: Both symbolically, which I know some people think that, “What is symbolism? What does that matter?” I think symbolism matters because representation matters.
Dr. Ford: But it does matter also very hardcore big-P politically.
Jen: It does.
Dr. Ford: To have this happen. I think that it doesn’t happen without a Shirley Chisholm. We have to place Kamala in a genealogy of Black women, since women who even in the Reconstruction Era weren’t allowed to hold a political office, women who were supporting American politics, mostly through the Republican party at that time. These women have—Kamala comes from somewhere, you know? And that matters to me. She then amplifies and throws light upon a long history of Black women who have been a part of American politics, who have shaped this thing.
Also, I must say, we are members of the same sorority. Yeah. Appa Kappa Alpha sorority incorporated. So, there’s a way, just watching my sorority sisters.
Jen: Oh that’s great.
Dr. Ford: So proud.
Jen: Yeah that’s so great.
Dr. Ford: That a member of our organization has earned her rights to be on this ticket and every Black woman who has come out to vote and to support formal politics has earned that right for her. We’ve put in the work for centuries.
Jen: Right. She’s not an anomaly. She’s not an aberration. She is the end result of centuries of investment, of activism. This is a long line of women and it’s incredible to watch. I agree, as we should be, just politically using our critical thinking skills. It’s always good to look at our candidates and discuss deeply, but just with that aside, it’s something to watch. I cried my eyes out when she was named as the VP candidate.
Okay. We’re going to move into just the last questions. These are just off the top of your head. We’re asking everybody in this series these questions. Here’s the first one, and obviously this is a hard question that’s got a billion answers possible, but just pop it off the top. Who have been for you some of your greatest role models?
Dr. Ford: My mother, hands down. Nina Simone, for sure, just because of her politics and her vision of blackness and Nina as a vision of blackness, for sure. Love her. Shirley Chisholm for me is another one. “Unbought and unbossed,” come on, that’s language that as a Black woman walking into my office, I walk in with that attitude. “I will never come into this room on my knees. I come in on my feet, ten toes down, proud, shoulders back.”
Jen: I literally have goosebumps. That is amazing. I love that you said that.
Who would you suggest us, and you’ve mentioned some of them and they’re all so worthy. By the way, everybody listening, we will link to literally every person named and their work and their spaces. So, don’t worry if you’re like, “I can’t capture it all.” We’ll have all this for you in one spot.
But for you, who were some of your personal favorite artists, your favorite teachers, your favorite leaders that you would like us to be paying attention to, listening to, learning from, supporting, buying their work.
Dr. Ford: Yes. There are so, so, so, so many.
Dr. Ford: Nicole Hannah-Jones and the amazing work that she’s doing with her 1619 Project. I love everything that Ava DuVernay does. She’s just such a brilliant creative mind, but also a brilliant political mind. Brittney Cooper. Amazing Black feminist thinker and political commentator. Raquel Willis, a trans woman who’s voice is so strong and powerful on social media. Everybody needs to be following Raquel’s feed. Treva Lindsey, another scholar who does work on Black women and violence—it’s such an important topic. Then related to Treva’s work is of course the work of Kimberly Crenshaw, who gives us the so important language of intersectionality and who has been doing so much of this work as a legal scholar and an attorney in the early days of Anita Hill and all of this. She’s so amazing. Andrea Ritchie who did a lot of the research for the Say Her Name project that Kimberly Crenshaw heads up. Jesmyn Ward is one of my favorite writers. Oh man. Love her voice.
Jen: She’s so gifted. Yeah.
Dr. Ford: Right? Just so gifted and amazing. The list can just go on and on of the people who I follow regularly. Christina Greer. She’s another social scientist who does a lot of media work, but writes very importantly about Black immigrant populations. So, she’s an important voice for me. There’s so many people. I just can’t wait to give you all the names like, “Here are all the people, you all!”
Jen: We’re going to list them. We’re going to list them and link them. Last question. I actually ask everybody this in every single series and you can answer it literally however you want. Big, small, silly, serious, your choice.
Dr. Ford: Okay. Okay.
Jen: Okay, what’s saving your life right now?
Dr. Ford: Rosé.
Jen: Oh yeah! I knew we were meant to be friends. I knew it! Yes, God!
Dr. Ford: Rosé totally saves my life. Part of it is because I love to travel, which I can’t do right now. But rosé becomes part of my traveling experiences. When I was writing Dressed in Dreams, I did this whole Black girl Eat, Pray, Love my way through Paris. Of course, rosé in paris in the summertime is this central thing. You can’t be in Paris without rosé in the summertime. So, rosé is reminding me of when I could travel. The walking the pathways of other women who walked those spaces before me and found their creative energy. And so rosé is saving my life right now!
Jen: Right there with you. Listen. Whenever this whole thing breaks, if you are ever for some random reason in Austin, Texas, you are invited to come to my big old porch and we will just sit over rosé and solve all the problems that exist.
Dr. Ford: Yes, Jen! Let’s do it. Let’s totally do it.
Jen: Thank you so much for being on today. This hour went away from me in one minute. It was so interesting to listen to you teach and talk today. Your work, it’s meaningful. It matters. Thank you for bringing to bear your body of expertise and knowledge and examination and analysis.
So, for bringing it to my little podcast today, thank you. If you get a big influx of white women into your spaces, I don’t know. Either you’re welcome or I’m sorry. I don’t know which it’s going to be.
Dr. Ford: I love it. I love to connect with different people, and I love being able to take something that matters so much to me, and then just share it with people and help us find these things among us. That’s why I kept saying human. Human, human, human. The things that unite us.
Jen: Okay. Happy to have met you.
Dr. Ford: Likewise.
Jen: So happy to have had you on today. Thank you for your time today.
Dr. Ford: Thank you.
Jen: Well, I hope that was as interesting and engaging for you as it was for me. That one made my brain sizzle in a lot of really great ways and grateful that this caliber of leader is coming to our show and sharing her body of work with us. We are lucky ducks here at the For the Love Podcast.
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Okay everybody, have a great day. See you next week.