Imani Perry’s busy year is finally winding down. It’s the end of the semester at Princeton University, where she is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African-American Studies, and she’s at the end of her publicity tours—all three of them, one for each book she published last year: May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, and Looking for Lorraine: A Life of Lorraine Hansberry.
They’re vastly different books, though each approaches its topic with a spirit of loving critique. May We Forever Stand is a cultural history of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as it rose to ubiquity in black schools, churches, and other social institutions. Vexy Thing is a work of feminist theory, drawing on philosophical and theoretical texts across disciplines. Looking for Lorraine is perhaps the most personal: Perry’s father instilled a love of Lorraine Hansberry’s work in her from an early age. There are many ways in which Perry’s own life and intellectual interests seem like a reflection of Hansberry, in her leftist politics, her deep love of black culture, and her work on gender and sexual liberation.
Nawal Arjini: OK, so I have to ask you: Beyoncé opened her 2018 Coachella performance with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and in this year’s accompanying album, there’s a track where her daughter sings the song to her—just as your son did, in the scene that opens May We Forever Stand. The setting of the concert, a pep rally in an imaginary black university, also has a lot do to with what you write about in the book, which came out a month before Coachella. What did you make of the performance?
Imani Perry: It reminded me of the culture of pageants in the early 20th century in black communities—historical pageants, which told the story of black life from precolonial Africa to the present, which were such an important part of black institutional and cultural life pre-desegregation. Hundreds of people performed in them, with elaborate outfits and elaborate composition, and a whole body of brilliant dramaturges, many of whom were black women. It’s a really wonderful remix of history: Beyoncé created a pageant for the 21st century that recounted the institutional practices and spaces where pageants used to exist. She gave the public an encapsulated black cultural history.
There is a powerful symbolism to having her daughter learn the song; that was a huge part of [pageant culture], the socialization of children to give them a sense of themselves that was far beyond and far greater than the inequality and degradation they experienced in everyday life. It was beautiful. But it’s also important to think about the crisis of this moment that makes the desire to return to those types of practices feel so urgent and resonate so deeply.
NA: How are your three books connected, to this moment or to each other?
IP: Lorraine Hansberry is a proto-exemplar of the kind of liberation feminism I’m talking about in Vexy Thing, but she was also a product of the kind of black institutional life I’m talking about in May We Forever Stand. So she’s at the center of the two other more academic projects.
NA: That was striking—you talk about Looking for Lorraine as a “third-person memoir,” you open May We Forever Stand with a personal anecdote, and in Vexy Thing you often write in the first person. How do you think about that kind of subjectivity?
IP: Academic training often encourages mythmaking around objectivity, a pretense that your work is not grounded in ideology or experience. That’s absolutely not true. In order to develop the passion to live with a project for years, it has to resonate with you personally. The imperative is rigor, so your opinions don’t overwhelm the serious or critical work. I have never felt a need to pretend that I don’t have a life and commitments that shape the work. I don’t feel self-conscious about it—it’s not as though I sacrificed rigor.
NA: There are so many constraints within the academy on what you can publish and what you can teach. How do you navigate those boundaries?
IP: It helped to make the transition to African-American studies, which draws on multiple disciplines, because the traditional disciplines don’t fully get to the experiences of marginalized people anyway. When you pursue African-American studies, you have to have flexibility in terms of methodology, and a willingness to be expansive and experimental.
I talked to [law professor] Derrick Bell when I first started teaching at [Rutgers University] Law School. I said, “Well, I want to do all this unconventional stuff, and you do all this unconventional stuff—how do I navigate this?” He told me, “Write a lot. Whatever you write will be highly objectionable to a lot of people, but if you write enough of it, they probably can’t derail your career.”
NA: Each chapter of Vexy Thing comes at the question of gender and liberation from a totally different standpoint. What prompted the project, and how did you choose your methods?
IP: I wanted to produce a work of feminist theory, or as I call it, liberation feminism, that would speak to the particular conditions of neoliberal capitalism and the hypermedia age—this eruption of digital media, where things that look like democratic spaces are at the same time corporate platforms.
I saw so many uses of the term “patriarchy” that didn’t actually apprehend the structure of domination. Patriarchy is a project that coincided with the transatlantic slave trade and the age of conquest. It’s not just attitudes. It’s legal relations between human beings, which lead to very different encounters with violence and suffering. The book begins with where patriarchy comes from, and then morphs into the current landscape, in which conditions are different but where that foundational structure is still present. Feminism is ultimately a way of reading the world with an eye towards reducing or eliminating unjust forms of domination, violence, and exploitation.
NA: A lot of those concepts are used much more often and familiarly when people talk about racial domination than with the patriarchy—people have been studying the relationship between race and gender and domination for a very long time, but in the language of activists and mainstream discourse, do you feel that there’s a gap that you were filling?
IP: I always feel two ways about things! It’s good for academic work to be applicable to the work of organizing. All these academic concepts have moved into the mainstream, sometimes in very useful ways—but also in ways that are very difficult for organizers. Organizing is a collective, transformative process. Academics engage, more than anything, in critique. If you begin from the position of critique, it’s difficult to bring people into organizing, to be about the process of transformation, and to work with other human beings.
NA: I was here a couple of months ago, when [the poet, theorist, and critic] Fred Moten gave a lecture to a packed room. There’s such interest among students, especially academically inclined students, toward critiques like his of the university’s potential to accommodate black students, people of color, leftists of color. What’s your response to that?
IP: On the one hand, universities are of the society, so they entail all the structures of inequality that we’d see in any other institution. There’s a particularly pernicious element in that they are the spaces in which knowledge is produced. Being at the site of knowledge production, there’s a lot of potential danger. People are trained to think in ways that legitimize domination.
On the other hand, the university is one of the rare sites where there’s even the prospect of having explicitly Marxian or leftist or feminist politics within the site of employment. Lots of places become sites of struggle, but being a faculty member at a university is one of the rare places where you can have your work attached to your politics—which is not to suggest that there’s not backlash, and not to suggest that universities aren’t complicit in all kinds of forms of domination, whether it’s of support staff, or adjunct labor, or academic exploitation.
NA: Universities aren’t Marxist themselves, but they give room for people like you.
IP: My friends who are red-diaper babies, or movement babies—depending on which part of the struggle you come from—they’re either in academia or they’re in the nonprofit world. Both places are problematic in their own way, but that’s where they’ve gone, because those are places where you can at least hold onto your ideas.
NA: Would you talk about the relationship between working in the department you work in—a top-ranked African-American studies department—and being in Princeton, as both a university and a town?
IP: It’s an extraordinary department, and Princeton as a university has treated me very well. I love that we increased the number of first-generation and Pell Grant–eligible students in the student body. I feel the difference; it makes the classrooms much more rigorous spaces. It changes the classroom dynamic, the questions that emerge, the ways in which students are pushed to think.
People in our department live in Princeton, and seem to be perfectly comfortable. For me, it’s not particularly appealing. It’s so important for me to live in close proximity to a substantial black community, and places that are racially and class- and immigration-status diverse.
NA: So living in Philly is good for your academic work?
IP: Oh yes. It’s very good for my personal life and makes a difference in my work. I walk past beauty-supply stores and check-cashing places and Ross Dress for Less and Walmart, and that helps me think. It’s useful for making good work, having both the everyday and the academic.
NA: Do you see changes in the students who come to your department? In terms of who they are, or what they want out of their education?
IP: People assume that first-generation students, or students from poor and working-class backgrounds, are the most concerned with getting a job or getting out [of their situations], and I find the opposite. In fact they’re more likely to approach the classroom with a deep commitment to asking serious intellectual questions about ideas and social relations. Obviously, there are kids across the spectrum who have that, but it’s a higher proportion of the kids who are less privileged. It elevates the level of conversation in classes; there’s less of a taking “living the life of the mind” for granted. It’s good for all of us.
I don’t yet think that we have figured out how to make the university a place that is equally caring to all students, and that seems to be the next stage of aspiration that we have to pursue. The student body is shifting. How should we shift to accommodate the student body?
NA: When I was in college, consciously or not, we would always go to professors of color, women of color, to ask for help—they were the people who shouldered that burden of handling the shift in the student body.
IP: I feel conflicted about that narrative, and I heard it a lot: “You’ll be expected to work twice as hard.” That’s true, but I do it because that’s my calling. I do it because those are my politics. I want to pour into students what was poured into me: care about me as a whole human being. I do think the institutions should find a way to acknowledge that additional labor, but I don’t resent it. Maybe some people do, but for me, it is part of why I’m here. Also we owe a lot of our position to students. It’s not because we aren’t excellent, but student demands have made universities open their doors to women faculty, to faculty of color, and as a consequence we have mutual responsibility. I feel extreme gratitude towards students who have decided that the work that I have devoted my life to is meaningful for them.