ERIC ACREE: Hello, everybody. My name is Eric Acree. I am the director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library. And it's my pleasure to be here today. We're going to hear our noted scholar at the Africana Studies and Research Center talking about a new publication. The person is my colleague and friend, Professor Riché Richardson.
And let me tell you a little bit about Professor Richardson. This is the short version. I could spend 15 minutes talking about her. Riché Richardson was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, and is a professor of African-American Literature at Africana Studies and Research Center here at Cornell University. She began her stint here in 2008.
Her other areas of interest include American Literature, American Studies, Black Feminism, Gender Studies, Southern Studies, Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory. She was the 2019-20 Oliver B. O'Connor Visiting Distinguished Chair in English at Colgate University. She graduated from one of the most famous historically black colleges in Atlanta, Spelman College, and was an English major and minor in Philosophy and Women's Studies.
She received her doctorate in American Literature from the English department at Duke University, along with a certificate in African and African-American Studies. So she is well-versed, as you can see. She has produced nearly 40 essays published in many journals. Just to name a few, Mississippi Quarterly, Black Renaissance, Transatlantic, The Southern Quarterly. I could go on with regard to that, too.
Her first books focused primarily on examining 20th and 21st-century texts in literature and culture, incorporating archival research materials. Her first book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta was selected by Choice Books among the outstanding academic titles of 2008, and by Easton Book Company, along with outstanding academic titles, humanities in 2008, also.
But today we're going to be talking about her new book which she wrote, Emancipation's Daughters: Reimagining Black Femininity in a National Body, which was published by Duke University Press this year. Coincidentally, this book already has received two publication awards on the path to publication in January this year including, a TOME award which was also linked to the Cornell University Library. And it received much of the Hull Memorial Publication Fund at Cornell, a path to publication.
I am pleasured to introduce my colleague and friend. And you're going to be a lesson to be learned. And we had information about how to purchase the book at a discounted price. And we will be posting that information later, as well.
I really am pleasured to introduce Professor Richardson. You're in for a treat. I believe this book is a must read. It should be required. It has so much historical literary information in there. It's going to blow you away. Professor Richardson, the show is yours.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Thank you so much, Mr. Eric Acree, for such a wonderful and generous introduction. I'm deeply thankful to the Chat in the Stacks program, to Library Communications, to Evelyn, Ready, and everyone who has brought this event together. My deepest thanks to the audience, including family, friends, colleagues, everyone who's joined us, who's taken time out of your schedule to be here today.
I'm going to deliver this talk in two parts. First part, I want to spend just overviewing its contours and talking through some of its arguments, and then shift to a brief slide presentation. And then, we'll open up to Q&A.
I always like to begin my presentations by mentioning my major areas of research, the primary questions that I've worked on from my graduate years, really, as a scholar, and initially as a student. And so through the years, I've primarily been invested in two research questions in the main, the status of the US South and shaping discourses of race in the United States, and the status of the region in shaping categories, such as the American and the African-American, and also discourses of race, gender, and sexuality. And so whatever my projects have been, the inquiries have been foundationally grounded in those questions on that terrain.
And so my first book was situated on it, and focused on a phenomenon that I thought was interesting to examine, of black masculinities in the South being the site of ideological formation, ideologies that crystallized in the United States and the South, and underwent nationalization, and in some cases, even globalization. And I followed that up with a turn to what eventually became this project, which emphasizes Black women's impact in shaping national femininity.
And this book has been a long time in the making. I started it in 2007. And it was inspired by Condoleezza's seemingly ubiquitous presence in the national media. I found it intriguing that she had become so salient, such an ever-present force in the media, and variably iconic. So it confirmed the Black women's ability, Black women's potential to make a strong national impact.
And I've been working on another project before then as my second book. But I couldn't get away from questions that Rice raised for me as she participated in the Bush administration, initially as National Security Advisor and eventually as Secretary of State.
And then when Michelle Obama entered the public sphere of politics and began to signify so compellingly and draw interest, that was a moment that further confirmed my observation about Black women's iconicity. And so the two of them and their profound national impact in the late 2000s helped me to develop the foundational and core arguments for this project that I continued to develop and nurture over time. Those concerns related to Black women's impact on national femininity in the United States. And it's intriguing to me that their imaging as iconic Black women ran counter to the typically abject narratives associated with Black womanhood, and most of all the mammy image, which has profoundly been rooted in Southern nostalgia, and is very much an outgrowth of the plantation myth in the United States South.
One of the most salient illustrations of that stereotype has been the Aunt Jemima. As some critics have observed, most notably Lauren Berlant, that Aunt Jemima is a spectacle and has been nationally abstracted. But simultaneously, she is voiceless. She's silent. She lacks agency, lacks a voice.
d this image, which like the mammy, is rooted in slavery's continuing assault on the Black maternal body. That's been a primary way of pathologizing Black womanhood in the nation. And so the women who are examined in this book represent a counter-narrative to that story, to that stereotyped image associated with Aunt Jemima, and quintessentially embodied by her.
The chapters themselves focused on four key iconic Black women who are also associated with distinct historical moments. So for instance, the first chapter focuses on Mary McLeod Bethune. And I primarily link her to the Depression era. Then Rosa Parks is linked to the Civil Rights era, Condoleezza Rice to the conservative Republicanism of the 1980s, and then Michelle Obama with the Obama-era, the emergence of a new millennium, and a time during which ideologies of the post-racial and post-Blackness were very pervasive and widely proliferated.
I'm intrigued with how these iconic black women have leveraged the maternal motifs associated with Black womanhood, but in more enabling ways, more sustaining ways than, say, a stereotype like the Aunt Jemima. And so in Mary McLeod Bethune's case, it's noteworthy that she revises the matriarch in very significant ways.
And one thing that I'm also examining, is how consistently the women who are examined across the chapters establish voices in the political arena and advanced platforms that center Black families as well as children. And so that's been a consistent pattern. And that's another thing that this book tracks from beginning to end.
Beyonce surfaces for me in the Michelle Obama chapter and eventually in the conclusion, as an illustration of Black women's national and global iconicity, but also attest to the possibilities for popular culture to also be a site on which political arguments are advanced and conversations. And so she, I think, adds other valuable layers to the book once I come to the section that focuses on her at the end. And it's noteworthy, as well, that these women have roots that are variously linked to the South and the United States, what I theorize and analyze in this book as the Africana South.
So what it does, in terms of illustrating Black women's long-standing impact in shaping national femininity in this nation, runs counter to the conventional national narratives that have long centered and prioritized whiteness. We're very familiar with, say, stories of the nation's founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. White women have also been consistently marginalized from national narratives, but have definitely been more salient in constructing and shaping them than Black women and other women of color.
So the book critiques those white-centered narratives, and, as the title of it suggests, helps us to envision, to reimagine how we can understand and make legible what it is to be American. It raises key questions, such as what happens when Black women unsettle these conventionally white narratives of the nation, and complicate them to emerge as the premiere national subjects, the premiere national voices.
I mean, we're much more familiar with the narrative as a Black women as being abject. And I argue in this book that it's precisely those narratives, the stereotypes, including Aunt Jemima, that obscure Black women's profound and long-standing impact in shaping national femininity in this nation. Had I more space, I would have explored the phenomenon even throughout the Antebellum era, because there's something to be said, even, for the impact of Phillis Wheatley early on in Colonial America. We can talk about Harriet Tubman. We can talk about Sojourner Truth.
And another thing that's important to acknowledge is that this book could have been mapped in a variety of ways. It could have been developed in a variety of ways. I'm most fascinated in, and I think-- I'm fascinated by, invested in looking at these figures because of their iconicity, because of the writings, because of certain patterns. So the preface of the book acknowledges the many other black women who I feel also have helped to create and sustain national voices within the African-American and African diaspora, in context.
Theoretically and critically, one intervention and contribution that it makes is outlining this notion of Black national femininities. And so that is very much a term that reflects my observation of the phenomenon of Black women emerging as these representative, these iconic models of national identity, even in the United States, a nation that has conventionally excluded and marginalized Black bodies, and produced a national body premised on whiteness.
Theoretically and critically, the book is also very invested in Southern Studies, and particularly the new Southern Studies. So that played a major role in helping me to develop the project from the beginning. Similarly, studies of the global South, and primarily based in Southern Studies, played a role theoretically and critically in developing the study.
The work on the hemispheric south has been a valuable resource to draw on. And Black feminism is foundational in its development, as well as studies of Black girlhood. And so all of these theoretical resources are ones that have valuably contributed to the critical dialogue that unfolds in this book.
Whereas these women who are the main topic have then linked to-- what I'm analyzing is more subversive models of Black womanhood. I argue that they are, nevertheless, limited, because the models have very much been premised on heteronormativity. And they've excluded Black queer and trans women, specifically. And these categories have not been as legible, as imaginable, as models of national womanhood in the African-American, African diasporan context.
And so one of the questions it raises is what is at stake in such forms of exclusion, because one of the goals is to, again, envision a more broadly inclusive nation? And that has everything to do with achieving the greatest democratic possibilities in this nation.
This project is inspired, then, at one level, by everything that I learned from reading, and studying, and knowing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who remains dear to my heart. The study definitely would not exist without the influence of major scholars in American Literature and American Studies.
Lauren Berlant is another intellectual who has profoundly influenced me through the years. And I'm ever-inspired by her brilliance. I'm so deeply saddened by her loss a few months ago.
And then Amy Kaplan, as well. She's another scholar whom I will miss, in terms of her valuable and such really brilliant contributions in American Literature and American Studies. And so these scholars, early on, helped me to get a sense of the ways in which the nation has been a site of ideological formation.
Then there's Dana D. Nelson, her work on national manhood that was very influential for me early on. And the work of one of my own mentors, Cathy N. Davidson, in terms of looking at the novel, and patterns of shaping nationalizations and reading cultures in the United States. And so all of these scholars have played a very important role in helping to establish foundations for the critical work that I'm doing now in this book
I want to turn to its content more directly and just describe some of it in the next few minutes. And so the preface focuses on Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama as signal illustrations, as signal models of Black women's iconicity, again, as embodiments of national femininity, and particularly in American political culture. And so I juxtapose the speeches that Rice delivers at the Republican National Convention in the year 2000 on the one hand, and Michelle Obama's delivery of her speech to a national audience at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, because if we set them side by side, it's interesting that though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, when one reads the speeches closely, some of the points of reference are very parallel in invoking parental and family influences that have played a role in the development of these two extraordinary women.
And it's significant that they both frame themselves as daughters and as part of a lineage that has shaped them, and that is also representative of core values, core family values that are very precious in the nation. And so that is also another dimension of the book that feeds into the title Emancipation's Daughters. And we can talk more about that as time goes on.
The work draws valuably on archival work. And the introduction is where I begin to introduce some of that work, particularly by sharing some of the discoveries that I made in the Duke Library archives as a researcher. I looked at multiple boxes of Quaker Oats and Aunt Jemima records, specifically, the records relating to her marketing. And it was significant and I think very revealing to see how varied and multifaceted the marketing strategies were over time from one period to the next. And I can maybe talk more about that if we have time, as well.
But looking at that archive is something that helped me to understand even how Quaker marketed this product to Black families, even, by the 1960s. So the nuclear models of family that were represented in relation to the product in the 1950s, which very much reflected the domestic culture romanticized in the media at that time, was interestingly and ironically mirrored by the way in which Black families were also brought into the advertisements.
And what they reflected, too, and going back to some of the work of Lauren Berlant, was this prosthetic appropriation of Aunt Jemima. So even at a time when Black women, when we look at the statistics, were increasingly not working in white households, those products like the syrup, the pancakes that sit on the breakfast table, serve as a reminder of their subjection.
And it's also research that helped me to write the op ed for the New York Times in 2015 entitled "Can We Please Finally Get Rid of Aunt Jemima? that came back into view in the media last summer, last June, in the wake of the protests that erupted in all 50 states and cities around the world in the wake of George Floyd's tragic death at the hands of Derek Chauvin. Part of it is always heartbreaking to think about how we come to this conversation in the first place. But my long-standing research on Aunt Jemima is what helped to prepare me to be a part of it and to contribute to it in whatever ways I've been able to do so.
In terms of the chapters, the first chapter again focuses on Mary McLeod. But then it embraces her legacy fully, and spends the first section looking at her biography, primarily through film work that's been done on her and her perilous work and advocacy as a leader in the national arena on behalf of African-Americans, even though she has been largely marginalized in Black intellectual history in some way.
When we think of the time during which she initially emerged, a lot of times we focus on Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois without acknowledging that Mary McLeod Bethune was also very much shaping valuable epistemologies on education early in the 20th century in a way that resulted in the founding of Bethune-Cookman College. The college that eventually became Bethune-Cookman College, I will say. So that's a part of her history that really intrigues me. She famously was a part of the Black Cabinet of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In this book, I'm invested primarily as a literary scholar, primarily from my standpoint as a literary scholar, in examining documents such as her last will and testament. I think historians have done a really excellent job of engaging this piece. Literary scholars, not so much.
And so one thing that I really wanted this study to do was to throw it into relief as an important literary text. And that's really what I've done with all of the figures whose work I've studied. So it's primarily pitched to the African-American context. Published in Ebony Magazine significantly after her death. And so it definitely has a tone of-- its like an elegy, really, I would say. And it's that moment that sutures her voice and role as a national mother in the United States.
So reading the last will and testament is a very important part of this chapter. And it also throws into relief her relationship to John H. Johnson, because his last will was published in Ebony Magazine. So another important archival dimension of this project excavates those moments when Ebony, over time, republished the last will. And it's fascinating to look at all of the different examples into the early 20th century because it was represented differently every time, and also illustrated differently every time. And I think that there are important messages in how it was presented and re-presented.
And this [INAUDIBLE] performativity actually become very important to me in discussing Bethune in that chapter, in part because of some of those patterns. But they definitely come into [? bolder ?] relief when I'm discussing the Bethune statue on the nation's capital that was really the first erected to an African-American. And it followed up the Freedom's Memorial that had been set there in the late 19th century and represented ex-slaves.
So when we think about the breakthrough that Bethune made at that level, we can recognize the profundity of her contributions as a national figure and her importance. Ironically enough, though, that impact that she made during the height of her influence became less familiar in the mainstream as time went on.
So the book looks at the congressional hearings that were held about the question of making Council House a national historic site in 1982 and 1985. And so I go back and read the transcripts of those hearings, because I think that they tell us a lot about the ideological views of African-American women that were pervasive during that time. And so whereas we have Bethune on the one hand who is this iconic Black figure with a national impact, simultaneously, a discourse was crystallizing with the neoconservativism of that era about Black women as welfare queens.
So one thing that the book suggests is that this reactionary dialogue even on Bethune, advanced by institutions such as the National Park Service, was indicative of the ideologies that some internalized about Black women, including Black mothers. And I problematize some of those dynamics in the book and raise questions about what's at stake in them, that even with someone with the magnitude of Bethune, it's not clear that she should be honored and celebrated. And so that's an aspect of the book that's also very explicitly invested in critical race theory, this theory that we're hearing so much about these days. And so because of the legal contours of that chapter, critical race theory is yet another critical framework that has been very valuable to draw on for me in developing this book.
And another thing, the final thing I'll say about the Bethune section is that it's significant when we consider that now there's this excitement on the nation's capital about unveiling yet another Bethune statute that will replace a confederate general. So how far we've come I think we can track in certain ways through Bethune even now.
With Rosa parks, she's been the object of a myth and a lot of just downright false impressions, in some cases. But this myth of quiet strength has long been attached to Rosa Parks. And it's a limiting narrative that historians nowadays, such as Jean Theoharis and Danielle McGuire have thankfully challenged.
Well, one thing I do in my chapter on Rosa Parks is to center her voice and writings which were ever pitched to children, to youth in this nation and around the world. And I argue that like the reactionary imagings of her that have obviously been internalized by the bus driver James Blake, her representation as a national mother is also inherently raced and sexed in ways that we don't always consider.
But my question in the chapter on her is what can we learn from that image, including from her deployments and embrace of that image? And I focus on analyzing the Rosa Parks Children's Museum or the Rosa Parks Museum at home in my hometown Montgomery, Alabama, and then think about and reflect on her morning on the nation's capital.
The chapter on Condoleezza Rice reads the first part of her memoir Extraordinary, Ordinary People, and particularly her engagements of the story of the girls who were murdered in the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But ironically, Rice uses that story to rationalize the War on Terror. And so part of that chapter begins by asking, what is at stake in such appropriations?
And then the chapter turns to an acknowledgment and discussion of the benign neglect that was associated with her during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in 2005. And those moments have also helped to shape certain popular responses to her in art and comedy. And those are the contexts that I look to to draw on, to build my analysis.
And so the "Condi Comes to Harlem" skits from Mad TV are analyzed in one section. I relate afrofuturism to that reading and analysis in much the same way that I do when I'm reading the Rosa Parks Children's Museum. And then I look at how artists have explored Rice and critiqued her, most notably Luc Tuymans, Ayana Moore, Terry Lord, Amy Vangsgard, and Enrique Chagoya.
The final chapter on Michelle Obama looks at her as a kind of premier Africana South subject, thinking about her roots on the south side of Chicago, and acknowledges some of the ways in which she's been pathologized by the right wing. But in that chapter, I begin by looking at her speech again in 2008 and representation of herself as a South Side girl, of her family as a representative American family. But then turn to her platforms on children, like childhood obesity, specifically, including the cookbook that she published, American Growth which was part of that agenda, and then the Let's Move project which unfolded in collaboration with Beyonce.
And the thing about Michelle Obama, as well, is that she continues to examine that epistemology on Black womanhood that's been reactionary by claiming that title Mom in Chief. In that section, I also note how she was pathologized as a baby mama by Fox News, in keeping with those ongoing and long-standing pathological scripts of Black femininity.
The conclusion on Beyonce reads and analyzes her performance of the Etta James song "At Last" at the inauguration of, I was about to say of Michelle and Barack Obama, but Barack Obama in 2009, and acknowledges her impact on Black queer and trans women. And so that's a section that I think is important for establishing the breadth of Black women's political influence which also plays out in some cases in the popular realm. It's noteworthy, for me, that Beyonce has contributed to signal political movements Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, and Take a Knee. And the support of those movements is very evident in the formation project, the visual album.
And I think that's such a profound moment. And I'm particularly reading and interested in that section in looking at her performance of formation at the Super Bowl because it was a tribute to the Black Panther party as well as Malcolm X.
Overall, I talk in that final section of the book about the emergence of a formation nation that runs counter to the reactionary discourses that we've seen in films such as Birth of a Nation over time. And I think it's especially important to think about those alternative models, especially when considering something like the insurrection of January 6th.
So briefly, I'm going to turn now and share the screen and just a few slides that I want to go over before we turn to the Q&A. So this is a big birthday week in my family. And Kyrie and Malachi are very much the lights of our lives as the babies in the family. And so I want to just give a shout out to Kyrie and wish him a happy birthday.
He's pictured here with his-- he turned four on Sunday. And so here he is with his baby brother Malachi who's going on six months old now. He's four months in that picture,
Megan O'Neill is pictured here, she's my first cousin and Ky and Malachi's aunt. So tomorrow is her birthday. And so I just wanted to wish her happy birthday. This is her sister Carrie pictured in the second picture beside her. And this is my aunt, who's their mother, pictured with them at my aunt's retirement from 32 years of kindergarten teacher, my aunt Pamela Garrett.
A shot of the book cover, which actually the Duke Graphics Department drew on one of my art quilts in designing the cover. And so that was really a nice surprise. And I'm really thankful to have my own art quiltwork featured on the book. And another thing is that embedded in the book throughout are surprises for the readers because there are-- well, I won't even give it away.
My grandfather Joe Richardson and grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson very much helped to inspire this book because they lived in Florida during the World War II period in the 1940s, first in Pensacola and then moved on to Daytona Beach. And so my grandmother had sightings of Mary McLeod Bethune during that time. And so she's someone who even inspired me to learn more about the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune who she viewed as a mentor as someone who, herself, had participated on the NYA as a young woman.
This is the Bethune statue on the nation's capital that I'm referring to and take time to analyze in the first chapter of the book, which I think is a useful toolbox for thinking about the things, statues over time, including the one on the nation's capital that will be unveiled shortly. So anyone interested in thinking about those backgrounds I think would find Emancipation's Daughters to be a very useful work.
Rosa Park's arrest photo from February of 1956. It's often confused with the one that she took in 1955 on December 1st. But that really hasn't been available.
Here I am participating in the historic stamp unveiling in honor of Rosa Park's 100th birthday on February 4th, 2013 in Montgomery, Alabama. And so the postmaster and his staff invited me to come up and be a part of that. And I'm standing alongside Georgette Norman, my art curator and mentor, who's the founding director of the Rosa Parks Museum.
And I just want to mention the project The Scholar As Human which discusses my work as a public scholar and what it means to do public scholarship and community art. And so this volume co-edited by and Anna Bartel and Debra Castella at Cornell I think is just a valuable resource for anyone interested in thinking about the public humanities more broadly.
These are images of the Rosa Parks Museum and then the time machine in the Children's Museum at Rosa Parks Museum that I analyzed. The four girls from Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church who early on also importantly shaped the discourse on blackness and national femininity. These are some of the art images from the book and that are analyzed in depth.
And so these are very compelling images by the artist Enrique Chagoya. Another artist's image by Enrique Chagoya. My art quilt on Condoleezza Rice that appears in the book, and my other quilt on Rice V that also imaged in the book at one point. I'm giving too much away.
I could not have asked for a better time for this book to be published in the Fall of 2020 when history was being made by Kamala Harris and her selection as the first Black woman vice president in the United States, and then Stacey Abrams and everything that she's done to advance voting rights. And so it was just such a blessing. I mean, the book is just a blessing, in general, but it was just so monumental, I think, for it to be published when it was published and in circulation, because it is a valuable toolbox for helping to understand how it became possible for, say, Kamala Harris to come into this public role as a Black woman. So Emancipation's Daughters provides theoretical and critical apparatuses for interpreting and analyzing how and why that has happened.
And Stacey Abrams is also very critically inspiring to me these days. This book again draws on the theoretical work of the New Southern Studies increasingly. I've been theorizing a Now Southern Studies. And so all of my keynotes in Southern Studies over the past few months have analyzed and talked about the Now Southern Studies, in terms of our time being now, as Stacey Abrams describes it.
It's so urgent for us to think about what is at stake in American democracy, and creating a more inclusive democracy. And intersectionality, and affirming and embracing intersectionality, is an important part of that so that we can have a fully diverse and, I think, our best possible model of a democracy in the United States that's truly interracial. And I will conclude my portion of the presentation there.
ERIC ACREE: OK, this was amazing. Wow, Professor Richardson, you just took us all to school. This was so amazing. You made me think of so much.
We even had one person in the chat saying that you basically took these women to another level with regard to depth. And I'm thinking about Rosa Parks because I know your family was connected to Rosa in conversations that we talked about in the past. And you are so right with regard to her own personal writings.
Let me pause for a minute. My name is Eric Acree. I am the director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and also curator of Africana Collections for the Division of Rare Manuscripts. And the reason I say that, because as a librarian, as a curator, you speak to my heart. And what I mean by that is the fact where you talk about going into the archives, and discovering all these things, and sharing it with us.
And also the literature, the children's books that Rosa did for young adults I think is so underestimated in terms of the biographical information that she pulled out. During your talk, I printed out something from her book on young adults called Quiet Strength where you get a different interpretation of Rosa, because you're also right. During the struggle of Civil Rights and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, folks would also point her in a different way.
In a minute, what I want to do is ask people to post questions in the chat, because what we want to do is get a conversation going with you and the participants in this webinar.
But I can't help but point out that Rosa was such a hero for me, a heroine for me. In your book, you really carved that out. If you don't mind, I'd just like to read just a brief thing from your book because you really solidify who Rosa Parks was, in my humble opinion.
You write, "the ways in which Parks confronted racism through her courageous choice to remain seated sometimes obscures a level of which she also, in effect, confronted sexism that fateful December evening. According to Parks' biographer who draws on Parks' reflections, Blake [INAUDIBLE] directed most of this hostility towards verbal tirades at Black women and slurs." And so you really bring out that this courageous woman was not just this person who was tired, is how the movement presented her. She was a political activist at the heart of it.
So I want you to talk a little bit more about Parks because it's not passing us that you chose her to be on your cover, as well, the quilt that you did. So I just want to know if you just want to share some more reflections for people. Tease them out so they will read your book, because Parks is such an important figure I know in your life and in my life, and I'm certain the listening audience, as well.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Oh, absolutely. Yes, she was such an extraordinary figure. And I was following her and her example even before I realized that that was what I was doing. One who volunteered as a teen at age of 16 and 17 every Friday afternoon at the Cleveland Avenue YMCA, nurturing a group of youth on leadership skills, and social graces, and all of that. And so this was the same community in which Rosa Parks had lived when she actually took her famous stand and sat down. It's an extraordinary legacy.
I think one of the implications of the book is that were we more visionary in thinking about feminism, we would not primarily associate Rosa Parks as someone who spearheaded the Civil Rights movement through her choice, but then also see her as a fore-runner and front-runner of second-wave feminism. So it's just really, I think, crucial to recognize the radicality of her contribution across the board. And that's why I think that [INAUDIBLE] Harris's work is so valuable, because she helps us to grasp and fully appreciate Rosa Parks's insurgency.
Another thing that I do is help to throw Rosa Parks's significance as a senior Black woman into relief. One of my all-time favorite people and professors, Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles at Spelman has founded a very important institution, the CIS Oral History Project, where her students literally go out throughout the United States and the African diaspora and interview and document the histories of senior citizens. They interviewed the 107-year-old woman, the Black woman in Georgia who voted for Obama in 2008.
And so the place of oral history is what I think that we can look at in interesting ways through Rosa Parks, too, in part because her books were collaborative. But this was, nevertheless, her voice. And so one of my goals in doing this work was to center and prioritize the voice and perspective of Rosa Parks, because everything that she said herself-- I mean, she really doesn't need anyone to speak for her. Everything that she does speaks for itself. So that's one message of the book.
ERIC ACREE: Exactly. I'm going to read a question from Peg Coleman. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly. And it reads, had you seen Condoleezza Rice in the American Creed? She and another professor from Stanford interviewed students first in their families to go to college. Did your book relate to this time period after her public service?
RICHE RICHARDSON: I'm not thinking in the book as much about her time period after public service. A lot from this book has hit the cutting floor. Like reams from it hit the cutting floor, and in some cases come out as journal articles on their own.
And so one part of this book that's no longer there and that's going to be published as a separate piece is my analysis of the Condi trilogy. And so it's a filmic examination of Condoleezza Rice that I think [INAUDIBLE] ways complements the analysis of the art that I'm doing in this book, as well as the comedy.
I can't say that I'm too pleased by things that Rice is saying at this point, even, though. I heard about the appearance on The View a few days ago. And the idea that anyone would suggest that the public is ready to move beyond January 6th I think really sadly downplays and really doesn't necessarily fully grasp the extremity of what happened. And as someone who is formerly our national security advisor, I'm very disappointed.
ERIC ACREE: Yeah, I know in the book you are critical of Condoleezza Rice at different points. I'm not going to give it away to people. But I find it interesting that people compare you to both Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama. I mean, where is that coming from?
RICHE RICHARDSON: Well, I don't say it. I didn't want to go there in the book. But in a way, I think it's a reflection of that tendency to say, well, all Black people look alike. So it's not necessarily a good thing because I think that that's just how we are oversimplified in some cases. But to be oversimplified like that isn't too bad. So I won't complain.
ERIC ACREE: Question. I'm hoping I pronounce your name right, Sarita Davis, Associate Professor at Georgia State University. Professor Davis says, I study HIV and Black women. My question, how does the sexualization of Black women line with your icons in your book addresses?
RICHE RICHARDSON: Well, I would say that there's this tendency within our ideals to obscure and to sidestep questions of sexuality. And so I would underscore the importance of bringing them into relief. And maybe that's another reason that, say, Black queer and trans women have been systematically excluded from these national narratives, because a part of even being admissible into them is conforming to legible scripts of identity in the nation. And so anyone who doesn't fit those boxes is subject to be excluded. But one of the points of the book, one of the arguments is that we can have a much better democracy and a much better America, to the extent that the nation state continues to exist, were more people invited to the table and embraced.
ERIC ACREE: Thank you. We have a statement, a comment from Amiri Douglas. Again, I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly. Thank you so much for this amazing talk. I can echo that. You mentioned previous how these intervention of Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice's speech has created a language of daughters and Black family values. I was wondering if you can talk about how they reframe family in a national platform in the history of Black pathology.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Excellent, excellent question. Thank you so much, Amiri. Yes, I think that those questions are important because one of the goals in making those public addresses has been to challenge those conventional representations of Blacks as being other, marginal from, say, notions of American identity.
And so the effort, I think one of the rationales has been to show that, at bottom, we're just like you. So that I think that these scripts, however subversive they've been, in some ways also play along with the conventional notions of nuclear family, and help to sanction those narratives in ways that are not unproblematic. With Rice in Extraordinary, Ordinary People, I think that she definitely does that from the title on.
And another thing that I find limited is that she looks at racism as America's birth defect. I'm very uncomfortable with that language. I feel it's very ablest. And I don't want to get started with the deeper implications. But the book really does put pressure on points like that.
ERIC ACREE: Thank you. We have a question. I'm sorry, I almost missed it. This is from one of our own here at Cornell. I think her name is Kelsey. I'm sorry, I missed it. Here we go. From Kelsey Jenkins.
Sorry, I'm having a problem with this scroll feature. I'm not as good as some other people. Here it is.
Kelsey writes, love the family photos. Thank you so much for this brilliant talk. Bravo. My question is, by bringing further considerations to these esteemed Black women figures, what impact do you hope your work will have on both public discourse as well as interdisciplinary study around these Black women, as well as Black women political figures? Excellent, excellent question. Thank you so much.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Thank you. Thank you, Kelsey, for that wonderful question. Well, one thing that I really want to emphasize in the book is that Black women matter, that we, over time, then is now, been there, and have played an important role in shaping the nation, whether that role has been acknowledged and embraced or not. Recently, we witnessed Nikole Hannah-Jones speak so compellingly on campus. And I think it's significant that she ended her presentation by acknowledging Black women's signal and very unique contributions to politics.
And so that is the point I think that I can only amplify in a contribution like this, this very invested in centering Black womanhood, this very invested in drawing on discourses of Black feminism and Black girlhood, to challenge those inclinations toward rendering us as being invisible and irrelevant. Bringing us, as Bell Hooks would say, from margin to center.
ERIC ACREE: Fantastic. Thank you so much. I know you ended your presentations, oh my God, so well with regard to one of your sorority sisters and also Stacey Abrams. And I was thinking, also, of Latasha Brown. These Black women, they represent such a continuation of the women that you wrote about. Do you want to comment a little bit more about where we're at today with regard to the legacy and how these women are, in my opinion, carrying on what the women that you focus on?
RICHE RICHARDSON: Oh, most definitely. Yeah, I think that we definitely are going in new directions, even in terms of seeing Black women's voices continue to be amplified in the political arena. And it's deeply inspiring to see the work that newer leaders are doing.
Stacey Abrams inspires me just so much. And it's like a pants-on-fire situation now, really. If we recognize what is at stake in these unapologetic attacks on Black voting rights, that the work of these activists is just crucial to acknowledge.
And that's another reason that I think I also appreciate what Beyonce has done in using her platform to showcase the work of Black Lives Matter and to advance Take a Knee and Say Her Name. And so I would say that those movements are important to continue to build upon as we go on, because the democracy is in jeopardy.
And I think we're even seeing newer waves of racism and injustice that would have even, in some cases, been unthinkable in the past. I mean, I don't even really entirely have the language to describe what's going on. It's just so deeply disappointing. And this dysfunctional political arena is frustrating to witness.
And so everyone who's speaking up, I can only thank them from the bottom of my heart, and amplify their messages, and help to spread them, because it's now or never, really, in terms of getting it right, and achieving a true interracial democracy in this nation. I mean, I can't begin to convey the disgust I feel for the attacks on critical race theory. When we are at a moment, again, after protests in all 50 states and in cities around the world, and the reaction, the response to that is to try to repress truths about slavery as articulated in the 1619 Project on the one hand, and then to spread propaganda about critical race theory on the other instead of working toward healing and grappling with these problematic and historical truths that can continue to have an impact.
So if there's no sincere effort to deal with the problem, then I don't know what to say as far as what's possible. I will just take the good people wherever they are and continue to support them, and try to be my best myself.
ERIC ACREE: I think you're hitting the nail on the head. I would be remiss if I didn't answer this next question from one of my mentors, and I'm sure one of yours. This is from Professor [INAUDIBLE] And she writes, can you speak to the international dimension of all these women in their time? I think that's a really nice follow-up to what you just talked about.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, I think that it's really significant that in all cases, the women were profoundly connected, not only at a national level and measurable at a national level, but then also gained global iconicity.
If we look at the headquarters, for instance, created and spearheaded by Mary MacLeod Bethune for the National Council of Negro Women, she very purposely located the headquarters in Washington DC because it was a gateway for so many people and a contact point for people coming, leaders coming from so many different directions. And so even the space itself was a paean to this sense of a multinational identity for Black women.
And so I think that bears noting, that Bethune was primarily based in Daytona Beach, Florida. And that was a site that was very precious to her. But her public work was centered on the nation's capital because of her investments in drawing international groups together.
And then with Rosa Parks, the international impact was just very embedded in her project. And one of the things that is explicit in her books is speaking to children around the nation and around the world, and challenging them to claim responsibility for creating a better future.
So Rosa Parks was-- in fact, the Children's Museum, the institution that I examined that is so dear to my heart, is premised on these futuristic notions of Black identity, and draws on these space-age images in constructing the time machine, so that we're dislodged, literally, from our conventional understandings of time and space. And so it's very futuristic. And I think that approach also challenges the images of Rosa Parks in relation to a static kind of Civil Rights discourse that's stuck in the past. No, Rosa Parks, if we look at her representation of herself, if we look at the major institutions established in her honor, was always forward-looking and forward-thinking.
ERIC ACREE: I was muted. [LAUGHING] The next question is a really important one because I was thinking of asking something similar to that, because you lean on, I think in part, the work of Patricia Hill Collins, the Black Feminist Thought, which is like it just jumps out at me.
So the next question is from Mary Douglas. And Mary writes, you mentioned previously Aunt Jemima's vision of [INAUDIBLE] has a spectacle that is staged at our family dinners. This made me theorize how mammy has curated nostalgic childhood and Black material body, almost like a mammy memory in all childhood. I wanted to know your perspective on how we can go further into the image to challenge the memory. Interesting.
RICHE RICHARDSON: That that's an excellent question. That's repeatedly come up in some of the public dialogues and debates in which I've engaged on Aunt Jemima as a product and it's fetishization in the marketplace. So I think it was a major breakthrough that PepsiCo made the decision to let go of Aunt Jemima as a trademark, at least visually and verbally, for the most part. So that's a major accomplishment and breakthrough, I think.
But one of the things that I've said repeatedly as I participated in these conversations is that it's important that the changes not be simply cosmetic. That we need to dig deep and think about institutions, and challenge even their lack of diversity, in some cases, because who's sitting at the table makes all the difference in terms of how these decisions are made. And sometimes the regressive decisions, the reactionary decisions come because the people who would have raised the questions and offered the critiques are not present, are not included, are not welcomed. So that's a problem that persists.
With the resistances to letting go, I've heard in some cases people say, well, this is a product that I remember from my childhood. It brings to mind memories of family, memories of home. But I think that that was part of the ideological work that Aunt Jemima was always designed to do, to help construct this notion of domestic space premised on Black servitude. And so even, say, if it's the 1950s or if it's now, the image is premised on a persona that invoked the mammy of antebellum slavery.
And so how proud of that can we be, that it's an image based on a view of Black women as a stereotype and as being inferior, as only being acceptable to the extent they are servants? And so it's a form of visual violence in how the image comes together, has come together conventionally. And even the updates over time have not entirely mitigated the problems associated with the image.
And it's also verbal violence at another hand, that the name of it, aunt-- because we have to remember that in the Jim Crow South and the segregated South, there were resistances to referring to Black men and Black women as Mr. And Mrs., because those references would have implied their equality. And so aunt and uncle were stand-ins so that wasn't so bad to swallow. It wasn't as if one was suggesting that they were socially equal. And so Aunt Jemima also carries the residue of those times if we think about the name of the product.
So I think that people can rationalize holding onto her all they want. But we can't sidestep the ideological residue and even the memes that I've seen circulate out in social media in some cases that suggests that removing Aunt Jemima does a disservice to Black women who performed her historically such as Nancy Green, and so it erases Black history when the company removes an Aunt Jemima product. Well, this was never Black history.
The reality is that there was the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. And Black Civil Rights leaders, including Ida B. Wells, the famous anti-lynching crusader, were all excluded. They were not allowed to set up exhibits at that exposition, whereas Nancy Green was the hit as she was featured in a giant flour barrel flipping pancakes.
And so what does that say about the insistently stereotypical view of Blackness demanded as a condition of their legibility and participation as Americans? I mean, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1923 worked to erect a monument on the nation's capital in mammy's honor, and the initiative didn't succeed, but that it happened in the first place is symptomatic of the long-standing investments in narratives of Black subordination. And so again, even that history and legacy makes me very thankful that, to the extent that we have to see monuments and statues, I'm glad to see one going up.
ERIC ACREE: Yes, your talk is making me think of so much. And I'm getting cues that we have to wind down. And you can directly contact Professor Richardson at RDR83@cornell.edu.
I'm thinking about patriarchy. I'm thinking about sexism and racism. And I'm thinking about the famous gymnasts this summer. Simone Biles, I think it was, where she basically did not want to participate, and how they were telling this Black woman what she should do with her body, rather than controlling it themselves. It's just indicative of what you're talking about that this still goes on, that this woman does not have control.
Then we could talk about the whole effort being made to abolish abortion. So it's so many things. Your book is burning, in my humble opinion, the patriarchal society with racism, with sexism, that Black women especially, women, all women, what they're dealing with. I just wanted to know if you wanted to reflect on that at all.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Well, I think it does critique patriarchy in significant ways, as well, to be sure. This was a much bigger book before. I mean, [INAUDIBLE] page tome in its original design is to scale it back, and again, let go of a lot of the dimensions.
But one of the earliest dimensions looked at Zora Neale Hurston, and particularly read the sections of Their Eyes Were Watching God related to Janie and being the wife of the mayor. And so the motif of a first lady, and how even Janie Crawford embodied that image. But the price of ascendance was silence and her silencing. And so she was marginalized from the front porch culture.
And of course, we got the famous line from Zora Neale Hurston about the colored woman as the mule of the world and what does that mean. And so I think that is so important, so crucial for Black women to resist those efforts to continue to fetishize and prioritize the extraction and expropriation of Black women's labor in ways that diminish who we are or dim our light, because this is an issue that's been longstanding over time.
Of course, spanning back to the Enlightenment with the institutionalization of slavery, primarily through, again, a law in Virginia and 1662 stipulating that the condition of the child should follow the mother, which affected Black women in a duel way, as people whose labor was expropriated not only as workers, literally, often of fields and variously as domestic servants, but then also as mothers, in terms of literally producing and reproducing the slave class. And so Black women have long been, I think, targeted because of perceptions of profitability in relation to Black womanhood in this nation, about the perception of who can benefit from what we have to offer and our talents.
And so it's important to have good discernment, as far as is being involved or engaged in whatever activities we are engaged in, because even a master athlete, say like Simone Biles, in certain ways, inevitably face the stereotyping of Black women. We saw with Gabby Douglas, as well.
ERIC ACREE: That's right. Well, I want to thank you. I mean, as a moderator, I did not do a good job with the time because your conversation and your talk was just so intriguing. And it's so wonderful. And I'm so happy that you wrote this book. And I hope people will order it. Again, they could contact you directly at RDR83@cornell.edu.
On behalf of the Chats and the Stack, Suzette Newberry, among others, a leader, I want to thank you so much. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for not only doing the research, because I remember when you were researching this book. We had conversations about it. As they say in the Black community, you made us proud, OK.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Thank you so much.
ERIC ACREE: I want to thank you so much. And I want to thank the behind the scenes of Sean Taylor. And this is being recorded. And it will be posted through Cornell's website.
And the one that comes in from Mary Douglas. This talk was amazing. Thank you for answering a lot of questions. I can't wait until your book arrives. Thank you so much.
I echo that tenfold. Thank you everybody for showing up. We're signing off. And I think what I'm going to do, if it's OK, Sean, let's put up the ordering information so people can go ahead and order the book. And we can leave that up.
But thank you, Professor Richardson. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And thank you, Suzette Newberry and Sean Taylor, for also helping behind the scenes people, that without them, this would not have happened, as well. Bye bye, everybody.
RICHE RICHARDSON: Thank you, all. Bye bye.
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In her new book, Emancipation's Daughters: Reimagining Black Femininity and the National Body (Duke University Press, 2021), Riché Richardson draws on literary texts and cultural representations to show how the work of five iconic black women, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé, successfully challenged white-centered definitions of American identity and broke down barriers to Black women’s civic participation. In a live, virtual Chats in the Stacks book talk, Richardson, professor of African American literature in the Africana Studies and Research Center, discusses how—through a focus on motherhood, families, and children—each of these emblematic women defied dominant stereotypes and helped reconstruct ideas of Black womanhood. However, Richardson also argues that these ideas were often premised on heteronormativity that excluded black queer and trans women, and she explores new possibilities for inclusive models of blackness, national femininity, and democracy.