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Exclusive interview with "Dr. TARA T. GREEN"

TARA T. GREEN is a professor and former director of African American and African diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. She is the author or editor of several books, including A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men, winner of the 2011 Outstanding Scholarship in Africana Studies Award from the National Council for Black Studies, and Reimagining the Middle Passage: Black Resistance in Literature, Television, and Song.

Please introduce yourself and your two most recent books?  

I am a Black feminist community engaged scholar who is a storyteller. As a professor of literature and a lover of archives, I enjoy writing and studying Black lives and learning from and about their creative spirits and remarkable resiliency. This is what I try to capture in my books Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson and See Me Naked: Black Women Defining Pleasure During the Interwar Era.

Why did you choose to focus on the women in your books?

Studying the personal and public lives of Black women—Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Moms Mabley, Lena Horne, Memphis Minnie, and Yolande Du Bois—who came before me resonated with my own journey as a Black woman. I felt as though I was convening a gathering of Black women ancestors that were willing to teach me things I did not know that I needed to know. How they defined themselves at particular times in American history speaks to the importance of understanding Black women’s vulnerabilities as humans, but also helped me to see their accomplishments as even more spectacular. As I studied these women’s archives and talked to people who encountered them, I have come to understand the remarkable impact they had on thousands of people of all ages. It is an honor to laugh and cry with them.

Why did you feel it was important and necessary to publish these books now?

I write about women who were alive or born at the turn of the century and who lived during WWI or longer. In the last ten years, the US has been in transition. Between 2012-2022, the Black Lives Matter movement began, Obama was re-elected, and then the political landscape changed. Also, same-sex marriage became legal. Alice Dunbar-Nelson was heavily involved in politics and was a suffragist. I was very aware of how her work as a political activist is being challenged now, but opened the door for social and political change. I also wrote wondering how she and Moms Mabley, both of whom had intimate relationships with women, would have responded, in their public lives and work to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

In your book, you say, “Pleasure is a privilege. Pleasure can also kill you.” Please explain.

When pleasure is practiced in public, rather than in private, there is a risk for Black people. For example, I was keenly aware that taking late afternoon walks—my practice during the pandemic—could be dangerous if any person saw my brown body in a predominantly white neighborhood as a threat. I live in a beautifully landscaped, quiet, “safe” neighborhood where people of all ages walk on the streets and surrounding trails. That’s a privilege for all of us. But safe for whom? Who determines that? My walks became an act of resistance as much as they did exercises for my mental, spiritual, and physical health.

Why is Black women’s pleasure such a vital subject to explore?

As other Black feminist scholars have noted, studies of Black women’s historical lives may focus almost exclusively on rape and other sexual violations. But there is so much more to Black women’s lives. Blues women tell us this in song. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and so many other Black women tell us this in their fiction. Poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Mari Evans tell us. Biographers such as Erica Armstrong Dunbar and autobiographers such as Harriet Jacobs tell us this. I can go on. My point is that we must listen and learn that Black women are not parts or pieces borne of tragedy. A study of Black women and pleasure teaches us how Black women define ourselves rather than or despite being defined by societal expectations. Pleasure is a practice of self-empowerment.

Is respectability politics alive and well in 2022?

Yes, certainly it’s alive. This is why I look at its impact on the Black women that I discuss in both my books. There has been resistance to it in political ways, but even my Black students see respectability practices in their dress, talk (code-switching or not), or hairstyle choice. They see it in the ways they engage with white people also, even when they are not conscious of their “performance.” Many have not had a language for these performances, but they are aware of the politics of respectability and its history.

What would you like readers to take away from your books?

I hope the books not only provide insight into women known and unknown, but that readers also find inspiration in the women’s work and their personal choices. I hope that readers laugh more than they cry. I hope that readers will see the importance of developing a pleasure practice for themselves that sustains them.


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