Black Feminist Imagination: An Interview with Janell Hobson

Janell Hobson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Albany. Her duties at Albany also include working as Director of Undergraduate studies, along with Director of the honors program. Dr. Hobson’s previous works include Venus in the Dark: Backness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2005) and Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (2012). Now, Dr. Hobson has written another landmark book, titled When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination (2021). Robert Greene II, Senior Editor of Black Perspectives, interviewed Dr. Hobson about her newest work. 

Robert Greene II (RG):What inspired you to write this book?

Janell Hobson (JH): I’ve been contemplating this book for quite some time. As a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies scholar who does interdisciplinary work from Black feminist perspectives on Black women’s histories and representations in popular culture, and who does much of this work engaging in transnational and Diasporic frameworks, I was always interested in writing what I call ‘bridge” narratives. I was curious to see if I could “bridge” what’s going on between history and present, and between “here” and “over there.” I was especially influenced by what Ella Shohat calls “relational feminisms,” in which she encourages feminists to challenge the arbitrary divides we create around disciplines, around nation-states, around spaces, places, and time. Oftentimes, I find in academia that we will have conversations only within certain fields, and when you do interdisciplinary work, you’re always having to jump from one field to the next, sometimes realizing that we’re not talking to each other. So, the result is writing a book that looks at how contemporary Black women creatives use their work to engage the past and shift Black women’s stories “from margin to center,” as bell hooks would say, and to also engage different spaces in which this work occurs: from the history of the Haitian Revolution to the history of portraiture in Europe and Black women as art subjects, to the history of  enslaved women and signares on Goree Island and their links to the “door of no return.” And, of course, Harriet Tubman.

RG: Tell us a bit about how the book utilizes Black feminist methodologies. 

JH: I employ what I call a “Black feminist imagination,” that is a radical re-envisioning of Black women’s past lives through contemporary engagements. I interweave literature, art history, film, music and popular culture to assess the intersections of race, class, and gender in the complex lives of Black women, past and present.

RG: In the introduction, you mention public debates over history and memory, especially regarding race and anti-Black ideology in Western thought. What impact do you want your book to have on this ongoing debate? 

JH: I want my work to interrogate the politics of history and memory, to reveal the constructions we bring to narratives of the past. This is such an important time to address history and memory and the ways in which race and anti-Black ideology have shaped these ideas. From the 1619 Project challenging America’s “origin story,” to the movement around the removal of confederate monuments to Harriet Tubman being selected to appear on a redesigned $20 sometime in the future. This feels like a moment of reckoning. But I hope, in the upheavals we want to make in our conversations on history, that we don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I get a bit queasy with any “removal.” That feels like erasure, and I worry that we’re not replacing removed statues with a more transformative narrative. I personally prefer ADDING statues, memorials, and monuments. If we’re going to move toward a “diverse and equitably inclusive society,” we need to rethink what inclusivity means, especially when we engage each other’s narratives. Again, as I said, I’m about doing “bridge” work.

RG: How do your previous books–especially Venus in the Dark and Body as Evidence–relate to this book? How has your use and theorization surrounding Black feminist methodologies changed during your career? 

JH: This third book is a culmination of the previous books. My first book, Venus in the Dark, focused on Sara Baartman, aka, the “Hottentot Venus,” and it’s not coincidental that the different eras that I write about in When God Lost Her Tongue, take place just before or after her own life. Body as Evidence is a more contemporary rumination on our digital culture, but all three books still center Black women’s lives and their representations. My writing has changed more than my theorization, truth be told. This new book is much more experimental in its writing, and poetic, and it expresses my ideas beyond the context of career goals. My first book was for tenure, my second book for promotion to full professor. This third book is really for me, and one I was able to pay attention to last year during our year of pandemic and lockdown. It’s getting to that place that Toni Morrison describes, in which you’re writing for yourself. Hopefully, in writing from that place, it can resonate with a wider audience.

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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.