Interview with M. Jacqui Alexander

M. Jacqui Alexander, Professor in WGSI, returns to Toronto this academic year after a sojourn at Spelman College in Atlanta where she had been invited first as a Distinguished Cosby Endowed Chair, and later as Research Professor through the Women’s Research and Resource Center, on an Arcus Foundation funded project on institutional change and LGBT issues at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Alissa Trotz caught up with Jacqui to welcome her back and to talk about her work, and plans for the future.

Alissa: Jacqui, your presence was sorely missed! But your work has kept us connected in important ways while you were physically gone. Can you share with us a bit of your experience as a Cosby Chair?

Jacqui: A significant piece of the work in my first year away as Cosby Chair, was linked to Women’s Studies through the Women’s Research and Resource Centre, and had to do with deepening conversations that had started prior to my arrival, about sexuality in the African diaspora. That was a very crucial move. The second piece was to explicitly engage the queer and the spiritual together among African diasporic immigrant populations, which I did primarily through teaching. The focus on diaspora, feminism and even Black Studies is surprisingly miniscule at many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), so to wrestle with these questions at the Women’s Resource Centre and Spelman is really unique.  It is perhaps the only program in Women’s Studies at HBCUs that holds on to these intersectional, diasporic, global dimensions of feminism.

I taught two courses, Migrations of the Sacred and Indigenous, Black and Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, both of which had substantial LGBT content.  One of the great things about the Chair was its interdisciplinary dimension, in the sense that I was able to establish deliberate linkages with members of the Women’s Studies Steering Committee through their ‘home’ departments, if you will, especially English, History/Caribbean History, and African Diaspora and the World, which at Spelman is offered as a year-long required course.  I participated in an important panel discussion conversation between Spelman and the Greater Atlanta community as part of an interactive artistic exhibit launched by the Spelman Museum of Fine Arts—a very active community-based art gallery—that coincided with the spiritual aesthetic of the renowned Afro Cuban artist, Magdalena Campos-Pons, Dreaming of an Island. The culminating event of the Chair was called, Africa in the Americas: Movement, Light, Sound and Water, a two day symposium that brought together cultural workers, students, scholars and practitioners to discuss the continuities and transformations of Africa throughout the diaspora, primarily though the lens of the spiritual. And of course we had critical conversations about the ongoing intellectual work of the Women’s Center, its crucial link to activism in a manner that supersedes this fictive schism between activism and scholarship and about ways to foreground questions of LGBT sexuality through the Arcus project as an important component of the Center’s political and epistemological work.

Alissa: Over the last three years you were also involved as a research professor in an Arcus Foundation funded project on facilitating climates of institutional change at HBCUs, and which focused specifically on LGBT issues. Could you talk a bit about this?

Jacqui: I was actually a co-investigator on this project with Beverly Guy-Sheftall, which was intended to really engage HBCUs and discuss how to bring about institutional change on these campuses whose climate LGBT persons experienced as chilly. We addressed a number of areas: policy; institutional commitment; curriculum; student life; housing; residence life; counseling and health; public safety. We looked at 11 HBCU’s, in a wide-ranging consultative process that involved focus groups with senior level administrators, staff faculty and students. About 7-8 of the campuses had very active LGBT student organizations and some had done work with social justice organizations (such as the Diversity Initiative within Human Rights Campaign, Campus Pride and the National Black Justice Coalition, which was a meeting ground of civil rights and queer issues), which was extremely important. In April the historic Audre Lorde HBCU Summit was held at Spelman, “Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity, and Progressive Change at HBCU’s.” In addition to our findings, which also reported on best practices on college campuses, we created an extensive document that included five commissioned scholarly papers that served as the intellectual underpinnings of the project, resources for teaching, research and activism.  We mailed this 300 odd pages document to 103 HBCU’s around the country.  The Summit Resource Book was important because we wanted to solidify an intellectual base for the project. We felt that without that, it would be easy for LGBT issues to be dismissed in some circles as merely lifestyle choices that we were trying to impose on people; and we have to see this also in the context of several HBCU’s coming into existence through religious affiliations that would not have been amenable to LGBT issues. We also found that there was not much feminist and queer curriculum at many of the campuses we visited. So we wanted to have the debate. What we found, and Spelman is the model for this, is that the presence of an active and engaged program in Women’s Studies and an active Women’s Centre can create the intellectual and political underpinning for the introduction of strong feminist curriculum. In fact Spelman was the only school that had a visible queer theory course.  Perhaps what this means is that feminism is the gateway into LBGT/queer scholarship and politics at HBCU’s; it is the route to meaningfully open up these conversations on campuses.

Alissa: In your own work, especially your writings on sexuality in the Caribbean, you have talked about how movements for change can see their efforts neutralized through recognition and incorporation, where a transformative agenda can be whittled away to something that barely resembles where one started out. Is this observation a good warning that while the HBCU Report is important, the work has in fact barely begun?

Jacqui: Indeed. This reminds me of the odd feeling Cynthia Enloe once described, when she arrived for an interview with a high level US state official and discovered copies of her book on his shelf. This raises questions of course about how is one’s work being consumed, by whom, and what work is it being made to do? So on the one hand there are always these realities of co-optation, especially with work that has this policy-driven side to it. On the other, it foregrounds the reality of a certain kind of continued marginalization; we can continue to raise questions about a certain kind of state violence, for instance, but  state managers and some  senior level administrators can continue to behave as if we have never spoken of these issues, or as if they have already done the necessary work and there is no need for further intervention, which really means no further intervention according to the formulations of those marginalized in the first place. For me, this means that perhaps the most critical dimension of our work must be to always keep contestation in sight, this fact that there are always competing definitions of reality.  Returning to the HBCU Report, even though we focused on senior level administrators, it was clear that the push for change was really going to come from students on the margin, who have suffered a great cost from the sexual silences on their campuses. But these costs, when examined, do the important political work of transformation. Perhaps one model for this is the relationship between the student movement and the institutionalization of black or LGBT or women/gender studies in higher education, but there again the cautionary note comes with the recognition of how institutionalization can remove the radical edges, the promise if you will. So the work is ongoing and the need for vigilance is critical.

Alissa: As you wrap this work up, and I know the Report continues to make headlines across the US, what were some of the key lessons you took away from this experience?

Jacqui: This research into HBCUs revealed that silences around sexuality, especially LGBT issues, are quite profound, though one of the commissioned papers, the work by Ruby Nell Sales, noted that the kinds of silences we see around sexuality were really a kind of strategic dissemblance, in that people lived queer lives but were not out in the contemporary sense. Nonetheless, students at HBCU’s talked about how difficult those silences have been for them and the importance of forming student organizations, because not only were there few spaces for curriculum or conversation, but it was difficult to find Black faculty who were out.

But there are also ways in which easy conclusions can reinforce other kinds of stereotypes. Often when sexuality is brought up in relation to Black communities, it is easy to draw conclusions that these communities are more homophobic. We need to interrupt that thinking. Last year, for example, a study of the state of higher education for LGBT folk at predominantly white institutions reported ongoing homophobia, and there was national alarm at the recent suicide of the young student at Rutgers University.

Addressing homophobia is a complicated situation, because one of the things we have seen in light of this suicide is that queer folk of colour especially, are worried that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Legislation might end up being disproportionately deployed against people of colour. Organizations like the Audre Lorde Project never even supported this legislation believing that they are safer “outside the system.” As you know, everything has to be shaded and complicated; we cannot reify one thing at the expense of another. It also goes back to the point we discussed earlier, about why it is important to talk about the state. Once we bring in the state and state practices, one of the things we have to engage is the contradiction of ‘protection’ and criminalization, levels of extreme violence that co-exist with talk of progress; so that for instance one of the things we know is that there has been increased incarceration of transgendered people by the state at the same time that we see the passage of same sex marriage in New York, for example, but no same sex marriage recognition for immigrant same sex couples.

Being in Atlanta has also made me reflect on the differences between being in Toronto and being in the southern United States, which in some ways felt closer to being back in the Caribbean. What has been interesting to me, for example, is how sexuality is a site of silence at the HBCU’s we looked at, in perhaps the same way that race and racism are sites of silence in the context of the Canadian classroom. I’ve always sensed in the Canadian context that it’s almost as if multiculturalism had somehow supplanted a serious engagement with race and issues of racism. The lesson for me is that we need to interrupt these divides that place sites on a hierarchy of progress and stagnation and instead think seriously about how we investigate how different silences emerge in different contexts, the ideological work they are called upon to do, and their function in the matrix of formal power.

Alissa: One of the things you were committed to when you went to Atlanta was forging connections between students in both places. What kinds of work did this entail?

Jacqui: The courses I taught at Spelman had been developed at the University of Toronto, and one of them, Migrations of the Sacred, brought students from Toronto and Spelman together for the one entire. The whole purpose of this course was to explore the relationship between immigration and modernity-tradition, and in particular to interrogate the arguments about whether ‘immigrants’ travel with their traditions, making it difficult for them relate to modernity, a position that not only replicates binaries but obscures the ways in which modernity spawns its own traditions, especially in the context of religious fundamentalisms. The course was designed to get at those questions, and it also provided a space for students to map the spiritual biographies of their own families, which they did through interviews with their mothers (and in one case, a father). What happens in the space of migration, how are spiritual practices configured at this historical moment, what does that mean for understandings and practices of family? In Toronto, many students in the class were second-generation (children of immigrants), and what was phenomenal was how few of them had any access to those intimate histories prior to the interviews. For many of the family interviewees, there was some reluctance or struggle to name difficult experiences (and this silence had been generationally reproduced), and it turned out that these spiritual practices had provided a crucial space to address those experiences of fracture, how to live in Canada as Canadian and hold on to what they knew of themselves. For our students, this was new knowledge, and it was extremely powerful; at the end of the course when the reports were presented, several mothers and other family members came out.

In Atlanta, a couple of graduate students, Moya Bailey and Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who were very politically active and intellectually savvy built a website that would enable the class to regularly communicate with the Toronto students. This led to an ongoing technological exchange, and during the culminating Cosby Chair event at the end of the year, included a live video exchange between Spelman and Toronto students, who had developed a set of questions they jointly addressed. It was an amazing experience. Since then, four of the University of Toronto students in Toronto  – Lisa Child, Deena Dadachanji, Sara Mohammed and Danielle Smith – spent a year and a half developing an essay, “Cyberquilting: Weaving Our Herstories Through Anti-Colonial Feminist Research,” that they have submitted for an edited publication, Feminist Cyberspaces: Pedagogies in Transition.

The topics addressed in this course dovetailed in interesting ways with my SSHRC-funded research that looks at the kinds of work that women spiritual practitioners are engaged in, in the context of globalization. The work is being carried out with women in Trinidad and Tobago, among African communities (Nigeria), companion African groups in Toronto, Haiti and indigenous communities in Canada. One of the principal questions driving this project has been to assess whether there have been shifts in the kinds of issues that communities are wrestling with at a spiritual level. Among the issues that have emerged is this sense of feeling under siege, being viewed as ultra-traditional and facing incredible hostility from fundamentalist Christianity and mega-churches that revert to an older colonial model that characterizes these practitioners as engaged in the work of the devil. Some women also believe that their communities are under economic threat that is part of globalization, and one community talked in striking terms about witnessing increasing levels of depression.

Alissa: How are you linking up all of these elements, your research on the kinds of work that women spiritual practitioners are engaged in, in the context of globalization, the students, the communities of practitioners?

Jacqui: In the most exciting way. I have for the past few years been involved in an extraordinary effort to create a multi-faith centre in Trinidad and Tobago, that so far has involved the national herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago, colleagues at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Jamaica, and conversations with the Carib Center of Trinidad and Tobago, and members of the Orisa/Ifa community, spiritual practitioners of Nigerian Yoruba and descendants in Trinidad and Tobago. Although I have mentioned working with indigenous communities in Canada, I also refer to indigeneity in the context of the Caribbean and specifically Trinidad and Tobago, not only to refer to Amerindian populations, but also to name a set of spiritual practices that were created on this soil by virtue of people’s own migration. They were forced to develop a set of practices that some might refer to as variants on ‘original’ models from other parts of the world, but whose iteration is really specifically Caribbean. That is how we are thinking of indigeneity in relation to the spiritual centre we want to build, as a multi/inter faith centre that is open to all, a spiritual site that can be reconfigured in order to accommodate cosmological ways of thinking and practices of all groups seeking to use it. A ten acre parcel of land has been acquired in Tobago, adjacent to the rainforest reserve which is known as one of the oldest rain forest reserves in the ‘West.’ We are hoping that the ground will be broken at some point in early 2012, which is an important year in the Mayan cycle that is understood as an important moment for the reconstitution of global cosmic consciousness.

Alissa: In secular terms, 2012 also marks the 50th anniversary of flag independence in Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica. It is really an interesting time to raise these fundamental questions. How are you planning to infuse the spiritual into other dimensions of our lived experiences through the design of the Center?

Jacqui: The Tobago Center will also have a large environmental and teaching component. We have signed a memorandum of agreement with Environment Tobago that pays attention to the question of land, because one cannot talk about indigeneity without talking about our stewardship of and care for land. The activities will include: wisdom knowledge exchange between youth and women elders about healing/medicinal plants and herbs; links with regional indigenous community; the creation of a sacred garden that can also be economically viable; the development of curriculum on interfaith cosmological principles and practices accompanied by ceremonial visits, yoga and meditation; ceremonies linked to various sacred calendars; study abroad/student exchanges.

I am very interested in getting students from Toronto and other places to come down here. There are so many things we could do, to have students begin to be steeped in the cosmologies of Trinidad and Tobago, to have them think about whether our research yields different results when we orient it through the prism of the spiritual, do we end up in different places and how might we account for those differences? In our classrooms, feminism has become a really secular project, and I wonder what we have lost by sacrificing the sacred dimensions of our lives.

Alissa: You have talked to me before about this idea of what you have called a mobile classroom, and I am struck by how it is threaded through all of the issues we have touched on above: the students whose persistence led to the HBCU report; the imaginative and transnational learning space you created across Atlanta and Toronto; the possibilities for student exchanges at the Tobago Centre.

Jacqui: This brings us full circle. The mobile classroom is so necessary for work in the Caribbean and elsewhere, where the idea of knowledge being circumscribed within four walls of a traditional classroom, though important, is really breaking down. The mobile classroom is crucial in another way, because there are real limits to what can be achieved within an institutional setting. This is why we have always got to situate our work in the context of communities from which we draw so much of our epistemic strength and inspiration, and bring them back into the classroom always. Because it is our link with communities that will make possible the kind of political and intellectual vigor and rigor that are so sorely needed now.