The Academic Feminist: Koritha Mitchell on lynching, LGBT violence, and love

Welcome back, Academic Feminists. This month’s edition features Koritha MitchellMitchell,
Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University. Her research, which is focused on African-American literature, racial violence, and black drama and performance, has been supported by the Ford Foundation and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Here, Koritha discusses her award-winning book,
Living with Lynching, and her more recent work “Love in Action,” which draws connections between the underlying causes of lynching and contemporary violence against LGBT communities.  Along the way, she shares some of her feminist inspirations and important insights on self-care. You can find out more about Koritha’s work on her blog Kori’s Commentary  and her blog about her book Living with Lynching.

And today’s also a special day for academic feminists because it marks the start of the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference! This year’s conference, Negotiating Points of Encounter, is taking place in Cincinnati, Ohio, and both Koritha & I will be there – come say hi! If you can’t join us, follow #nwsa2013 for the latest happenings.

1.  Your book, Living with Lynching, explores the way that Black communities responded to lynching through plays and performances. What made you focus on this particular response?

When studying racial violence in the United States, one finds that white-authored lynching photographs are the most consistently referenced evidence. Those pictures show that spectacle lynchings were theatrical productions. There is a very scripted quality to the images themselves and to everything surrounding them, including newspaper accounts of the violence. Because Performance Theory is one of my analytical lenses, it didn’t take me long to figure out that mobs were making stages out of trees, bridges, courthouse lawns. That helped me understand that black playwrights who addressed lynching, while they were vulnerable to it, were encouraging their communities to re-purpose spaces they could control. African Americans could control their churches, schools, and living rooms, and they used them to perform identify-affirming theatrical work. After all, that’s what performance ultimate is: a way to define and affirm identity. Mobs performed their dominance and their right to keep blacks in their “proper” place, and these playwrights encouraged African Americans to rehearse their understanding that they were citizens unjustly under siege.

 2.  How has your research been influenced by feminist thinking? Who are some of your favorite feminist scholars and activists?

This is an especially important question because lynching has been my focus for so long, and most Americans think of racial violence as a very male phenomenon. Such violence seems the ultimate evidence that, in a country invested in patriarchy, white men have waged war on black men. Meanwhile, women are relevant to these battles only as pawns or spoils. Although the rape of black women literally fueled slavery, and it continued long after Emancipation, white men made their abuse of black women a non-issue in public discourse by insisting that black men had to be lynched because they were natural rapists who targeted white women. In short, lynching seems to have been about white men and black men. In truth, women were more than pawns and spoils, but even if they weren’t, as a feminist, I never lose sight of the fact that a war among men is about gender and requires the tools of feminist analysis.

I was trained as a literary scholar, so my formative influences have been black feminist literary critics whose work took intersectionality as a basic requirement for intellectual rigor, even before the circulation of that term. Some who loom large for me include Ann duCille, Hortense Spillers, Barbara Smith, Deborah McDowell, Hazel Carby, and the late Claudia Tate, Nellie McKay, and Barbara Christian.I see myself as part of a tradition of thinkers committed to addressing how the mechanisms we use to create identity categories, including gender, race, sexuality, class, and “ability,” shape the experiences we ALL have.

3.  Your latest piece, “Love in Action,” traces the similarities between present-day violence against members of LGBT communities and lynching in Black communities. What was the impetus for this piece? What has been the response so far?

Responses? Let me address that first.  In the many months that it took me to research and write this piece, I sought lots of feedback because I was stepping out of a certain comfort zone of expertise. Over and over, people said I really should not “go there.” Each person had good reasons; each was genuinely trying to keep me from making comparisons that they felt sure would ultimately prove faulty. I appreciated those reactions because they helped me clarify why I was invested in the project. What I found harder to take was how consistently people failed to offer feedback once I shared a draft with them. I shared the work with many more people than usual; consistently, people with expertise relevant to these issues said they would give feedback and simply did not do so. I found it truly baffling and painful, but I finally took it as a sign that this needed to come 100% from me. I needed to get my own clarity about these issues. For whatever reason, I needed to stand on my own with this. The nature of writing is that you can always see things you would tweak, but come what may now that it’s in print, I very much stand by this work.

As for the impetus, two years ago, I had a question posed to me during the Q&A of a Living with Lynching book lecture that literally stopped me in my tracks. “Love in Action” constitutes my answer. Because I describe that exchange in the essay’s acknowledgment, what I want to emphasize here is why I needed to write a 30-page scholarly article to address that question:

Studying lynching has taught me that the purpose of violence is to mark who belongs and who does not. When I critique violence, it is a way for me to say unequivocally that those targeted are part of me and mine. I couldn’t leave that question unaddressed because LGBTQ people are part of me and mine, and we have a rightful place in this country we helped build. This isn’t about my wanting “equality” for my brothers and sisters. After all, heterosexuals and cisgender people are not so admirable that anyone should aspire to be “equal” to them. This is about the fact that me and mine belong, period. This essay is an attempt to help more people gain some clarity about that fact.

4.  And, finally, you have been studying lynching for 15 years. What advice can you give other scholars working on areas of study that are deeply traumatic on both collective and personal levels?

My best advice is to know that dealing with emotions is part of the intellectual work.  You don’t get to a point where you are no longer bothered by it. You don’t get to the point where you are so “professional” or “objective” that it is no longer something to be worked through and managed. So, you are not weak or unprofessional or less intellectual for consistently needing to address the emotional aspects of the work.

Further, self-care is simply not optional! For the last 3 years, self-care has come in the form of running for me. I always tried to exercise consistently, but I never stuck with anything until I found running, and it strikes me as an ideal activity for scholars and writers. Distance running gives you practice at not stopping just because you’re really uncomfortable—a skill we definitely need. Running long distances also teaches you how to keep going even when it feels like you are not making any progress, and that has proven crucial for me as a writer. More than anything, though, running has helped me to celebrate small victories. Because scholars are discouraged from even recognizing small accomplishments (and in academia, any achievement is easily belittled), developing this tendency to celebrate them has been life-changing. Basically, it keeps me very connected to gratitude.

In April 2011, I founded the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of Black Girls RUN!, a national organization that supports black women as they prioritize an active lifestyle. Locally, we often chant, “Grateful I can move, so I’m moving!” That summarizes why I run and why I try to get others to do the same. My using that particular source of motivation is very much related to my work on racial violence.

Watch Koritha discuss “Love in Action” here, courtesy of OSU’s English Department (we apologize this long video does not have a transcript):

Extra Credit!
In addition to the above linked materials, below you can find more information on the topics
discussed here, as well as some of Koritha’s recent work. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees

More on the connection between Koritha’s running and research: “Never-ending Battles Require Sustainable Energy

More on self-care: “Should-ing All Over Ourselves” in The Feminist Wire

The conception of “intersectionality” that has most influenced me can be traced to Kimberle Crenshaw’s seminal essay “Mapping the Margins”  [PDF]

Good recent work on women and violence includes:

Barbara McCaskill, “From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: How Black Women Turn Grief Into Action

Crystal Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching

Evelyn Simien, Ed. Gender and Lynching: The Politics of Memory


4d33Gwendolyn Beetham curates this series for Feministing. When she’s not interviewing academic feminists, she’s working as a freelance researcher, teaching college students about feminism, and baking up a storm in her Brooklyn apartment. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynb

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

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