Black Women’s Cultural Production: An Interview with Robin Brooks

Today’s post features Robert Greene II’s, senior editor of Black Perspectives, interview of Robin Brooks on her new book, Class Interruptions: Inequality and Division in African Diasporic Women’s Fiction, published by the University of North Carolina Press. Robin Brooks, Ph.D. is a scholar who examines cultural matters concerning Black communities in the United States and the wider African Diaspora. She is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and her current research focuses particularly on African American and English-speaking Caribbean populations with special attention to matters of inequality and social justice. Her primary research and teaching interests include contemporary cultural and literary studies as well as working-class studies, Black feminist theory, postcolonial studies, digital humanities, higher education management, and education policy. Before joining the University of Pittsburgh, she was a Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of San Diego and a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of South Florida. For the 2019-2020 academic year, she was a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in residence at Emory University.

Robert Greene II: What brought you to the topic of Black women’s cultural production during the era of neoliberalism?

Robin Brooks: One of my primary research areas is Black women’s cultural production because I always have been interested in the variety of ways Black women build communities and creatively contribute to local, national, and global discourses. As a person dedicated to improving the life chances of Black people across the African Diaspora, I also find it significant to focus on the impact of neoliberalism on the lived experiences of people of African descent during this contemporary period. Neoliberalism carries multiple meanings, and I define it as an ideological, political, and economic project that spans from deregulated markets to virtually every aspect of people’s daily lives. It emerged as a response to post-World War II legislation and civil rights legislation. Sadly, it shuns structural explanations for unequal playing fields, and instead, blames people for their circumstances, claiming that certain people lack personal responsibility. In the midst of all the buzz words and phrases like “deregulation,” “privatization,” and “erosion of public services,” I wanted to investigate how Black women literary artists were engaging discussions on worsening socioeconomic conditions, especially given the feminization of poverty—meaning women represent the majority of the disenfranchised across the world. Ultimately, all these matters brought me to this particular topic that I explore in my book Class Interruptions: Inequality and Division in African Diasporic Women’s Fiction

Greene: The authors you’ve used for this book–including Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Oonya Kempadoo, Merle Hodge, Diana McCaulay, Dawn Turner, and Olive Senior–cover a wide swath of Black diasporic fiction in the late 20th century. Talk a little bit about why you decided to use these particular authors.

Brooks: In order to thoroughly engage the topic of growing class gaps and disparities as well as the impact of class on people’s lived experiences, I needed to create a set of criteria for my research endeavor. As I noted earlier, my attention is on how women writers of the African Diaspora portray these matters, and I wanted to focus on novels because a large portion of fiction produced in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century is in novel form. Of course, I needed to focus on novels that have class conflict or tension as a major part of the plot. Most of the authors I use are canonical, which is significant to my research. Class Interruptions demonstrates that failure to focus on or include critical examinations of class in the readings of representative canonical works means that the analyses of such works are incomplete. My research, thus, adds to the literary history on class inequality and to the larger context of the modern historiography of class. The book pushes African Diaspora literary studies in a new direction as it expands the scope of how the Black women’s literary tradition, since the 1970s, has been conceptualized by repositioning the importance of class. The authors I examine are representative of what I call the long contemporary period.  

Greene: The centrality of class to your work makes it a unique, and much-needed, contribution to Black intellectual history and Black studies. How do you think your work fits into a larger movement within Black Studies to talk more about class within the Black diaspora?  

Brooks: An important feature of Class Interruptions is that it analyzes writers’ portrayals of class conditions as well as the broader frameworks in which these class conditions sit. Particularly, the book is situated within a broader analytical framework of racial capitalism, which allows the book to center and take as a starting point both the historical and present experiences of people of the African Diaspora—the very ones who were simultaneously capital and labor. I use the phrase “racial capitalism” over the more familiar term “capitalism” to account for the historical interconnections of capitalism with racial difference or, specifically, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, which many people do not highlight enough when discussing the origin of capitalism. This framework is essential to my reading of Black women’s cultural production because it also resists the continued denigration, marginalization, and/or elision of Black voices in discourses on class inequality. Some forerunners of Africana Studies, spanning from W.E.B. Du Bois to Cedric Robinson, for example, have long been influential in underscoring class and its role in the lives of Black people. Class Interruptions builds on this Black intellectual tradition, which includes dedicated scholars both from the past and present such as Eric Williams, C. L. R. James, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Carole Boyce-Davies, Robin D. G. Kelley, Peter J. Hudson, Stephanie Smallwood, Donna Murch, Nathan D. B. Connolly, and Jennifer L. Morgan. Ultimately, the title of my book reveals a primary goal of mine, which is to interrupt the lack of contemporary scholarship on class in the fields I study—Africana Studies, literary studies, women’s studies, etc. I emphasize scholarship because one thing my research shows is that literary artists have long been engaging the topic of class; it’s just that the scholarship has not kept up. This interruption brings attention to inequalities in an attempt to destabilize our unjust status quo. 

Greene: Finally, you mention in your introduction that a key objective for your book is that it “facilitates a conversation between the humanities and the social sciences, as the literary writers in this project are invested in the same inequality phenomena as social sciences.” Could you talk a bit about the methodological and theoretical tools you use in your book to do just that? 

Brooks: Class Interruptions draws on a wide range of approaches and materials from different disciplines and fields of study, including contemporary Marxism, Black feminist theory (particularly intersectionality), literary theory and criticism, postcolonialism, sociology, anthropology, economics, history, working-class studies, women’s studies, and Africana Studies. My literary ethnographic fieldwork, which included participant observation and oral interviews with authors, along with close readings of Black women’s cultural production and a literary diagramming of the anatomy of what I have coined a “cross-class relationship trope” are central features of my methodological approach. This trope is a literary technique that pairs two characters from different class backgrounds—generally, working-class characters and middle-class characters. Authors connect the cross-class pair to a theme that the authors are emphasizing, and the contrasts expose the wide span of inequality and operate as a central means for authors to expose relations of domination in the portrayed communities. The critical period or paradigm shift of Black women’s literary history identified as the second renaissance beginning in the 1970s is also key to my analyses. Ultimately, all of these approaches and tools work together to address how contemporary African Diasporic literature helps us think about structural inequality and how this thinking becomes an important piece of the broader examination of (informal) politics in efforts to redress inequalities in matters associated with people’s class position. 

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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.