Fashioning Lives: A New Book on Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy
This post is part of my blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Today I am featuring Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, which was published last month by Southern Illinois University Press.
The author of Fashioning Lives is Eric Darnell Pritchard. Professor Prichard is an assistant professor of English and the 2016-2018 Criticism and Interpretive Theory Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also recently joined the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Pritchard’s research and teaching focuses on the intersections of race, queerness, sexuality, gender, and class with historical and contemporary literacy and rhetorical practices, as well as fashion, beauty, and popular culture. His writings have appeared in scholarly and popular venues including Literacy in Composition Studies, Palimpsest, Visual Anthropology, Southern Communication Journal, Public Books, Ebony, and The Funambulist: Clothing Politics Issue. His article, “For Colored Kids Who Committed Suicide, Our Outrage Isn’t Enough: Queer Youth of Color, Bullying, and the Discursive Limits of Identity and Safety,” in Harvard Educational Review won the inaugural “Lavender Rhetorics Award for Excellence in Queer Scholarship” in 2014 from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).
Fashioning Lives was completed with the support of a Scholar-in-Residence Fellowship from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the National Endowment of the Humanities. He is currently at work on multiple new projects including his next book, “Making Themselves from Scratch: Literacy and Social Change through Black Queer Activist Organizations, 1974-1990,” a special issue of QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking titled “Sartorial Politics, Intersectionality, and Queer Worldmaking,” and the biography Nothing Is Impossible: The Life and Work of Patrick Kelly.
Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy analyzes the life stories of sixty Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people along with archival documents, literature, and film. Author Eric Darnell Pritchard provides a theoretical framework for studying the literacy work of Black LGBTQ people who do not fit into the traditional categories imposed on their language practices and identities. Examining the myriad ways literacy is used to inflict harm, Pritchard discusses how these harmful events prompt Black LGBTQ people to ensure their own survival by repurposing literacy through literacy performances fueled by accountability to self and communal love towards social and political change, a process the author calls “restorative literacies.” Pritchard highlights restorative literacies in literacy institutions (e.g., libraries, schools), historical records repositories, religious and spiritual spaces, parties, community events, activist organizations, and digital spheres. This trailblazing study draws connections between race and queerness in literacy, composition, and rhetoric and provides the basis for a sustainable dialogue on their intersections in the discipline.
Fashioning Lives brings to visibility and critical attention thought-provoking literacy histories of African Americans who identify as LGBTQ and underscores literacy as a tool for surveillance and censorship but also for salvation and restoration. Pritchard’s work challenges us to recognize and understand the nature, ways, and means of ‘restorative literacies’ in the work that we do.” —Jacqueline Jones Royster, coauthor, Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies
Ibram X. Kendi: Did you face any challenges conceiving of, researching, writing, revising, publishing, or promoting Fashioning Lives? If so, please share those challenges and how you overcame them?
Eric Darnell Pritchard: One of the most challenging stages for Fashioning Lives was definitely the time working on the initial draft, and then the process of revising that draft. The first challenge was reminding myself through the uncertainties of writing a first book how much I truly loved the project. This includes making sure that my personal intention for the work was foremost in my mind in writing and revision. It is very easy as a writer—and I am speaking specifically as a writer of a book that comes with so many external expectations about what it should be and do in a career as a tenure-track faculty member—to lose sight of our own intention in our work. I have come to know that whatever that thing is, it is what we should be most accountable to because it is the thing that helps us complete the work, with integrity, and in ways we can be most proud of and still love the work. I addressed this challenge by making that the lens through which I began writing, and even more so in drafting. I also communicated this intention to any of my colleagues with whom I shared any part of the work so that they too could help me stay accountable and hold that integrity.
The second challenge was one I understand many interdisciplinary scholars face: how to do work that best makes the contributions your book is poised to make across a cluster of fields and disciplines while remaining true to the ways the seeds of the book were first planted within a specific scholarly discourse and discipline. Though educated in literary studies and critical theory, the seeds of my book were first planted within the field of literacy studies in the discipline of Composition and Rhetoric.
There has not been a substantial or sustained attention given to Black queer life, culture, and politics among literacy, composition, and rhetoric scholars. This is the exact opposite truth of other parts of English Studies, and in other disciplines I read and engage with in the book. This was not something I could lean on disciplinarily. In terms of interdisciplinarity, I had lots to work with, but those conversations were in two different places, and I took seriously and approached carefully the responsibility I had to thread that needle in the word.
The way I sought to address this challenge was, first, to take the advice of a senior colleague of mine who said “call out in your writing to the people whom you are speaking to, no matter who they are or what field they are in. Trust that they will hear you.” I approached the initial writing of Fashioning Lives with that in mind, from its first lines until the end.
The second way I sought to address this challenge was in the revision process. Before sitting down to revise any part of the work, I would replay interview tapes or go back to an archive and think about what exactly was the current scholarly discourse in the particular field in which the contribution I was making would most resonate. I would listen with fresh ears to how my research participants’ lives, literacy performances, and rhetorical practices could not be accounted for if I did not use my research to prepare a table for a conversation where that was possible. This was imperative not only for my project, but for what I am most excited about with the publication of Fashioning Lives: a future for literacy, composition, and rhetoric wherein many more will apply and expand what is possible in a critical race-feminist-queer intellectual approach.
Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.permission.