I am not here to bring you what you already know. I am here so that we can become recognizable to one another.
Sharon P. Holland
Sharon P. Holland, Townsend Ludington Distinguished Professor + Chair of American Studies
The Critical Ethnic Studies Collective is a new initiative to convene faculty engaged in research that focuses on intersectional thought and social justice in diverse communities.
Recently profiled in an article in The Daily Tarheel, Sharon is working with a mutual aid fund that has distributed over $46,000 to LGBTQ people of color. Learn more about this survival fund for QTIPOC folks in the triangle here.
Watch Conversation on Anti-Blackness, White Privilege, and Allyship: Kia L. Caldwell and Sharon Holland joined Shauna Cooper, William Sturkey, Heidi Kim, and Mark Katz in a conversation on anti-Blackness, white privilege, and allyship, hosted by Targeting Equity in Access to Mentoring (TEAM) ADVANCE in partnership with the Center for Faculty Excellence and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Sharon's book, "Raising the Dead Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity" from Duke University Press: "Raising the Dead is a groundbreaking, interdisciplinary exploration of death’s relation to subjectivity in twentieth-century American literature and culture. Sharon Patricia Holland contends that black subjectivity in particular is connected intimately to death. For Holland, travelling through “the space of death” gives us, as cultural readers, a nuanced and appropriate metaphor for understanding what is at stake when bodies, discourses, and communities collide. Holland argues that the presence of blacks, Native Americans, women, queers, and other “minorities” in society is, like death, “almost unspeakable.” She gives voice to—or raises—the dead through her examination of works such as the movie Menace II Society, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, and the work of the all-white, male, feminist hip-hop band Consolidated. In challenging established methods of literary investigation by putting often-disparate voices in dialogue with each other, Holland forges connections among African-American literature and culture, queer and feminist theory. Raising the Dead will be of interest to students and scholars of American culture, African-American literature, literary theory, gender studies, queer theory, and cultural studies."
Absolute + Enduring
Melody: This is Southern Futures. Welcome to our podcast. I'm Melody Hunter-Pillion with the Center for the Study of the American South. Joining me today is Dr. Sharon Holland, professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at UNC. Sharon looks at death, she studies marginalized communities; connecting race, gender, sexuality, and all the things we usually put into their own little boxes...and she is an African-American equestrian. Yes, Black Folk are part of the equestrian world, y’all. Sharon and I will get to that in just a bit, but first, welcome to the show, Sharon!
Sharon: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here and have this time to converse with you.
Melody: Your interests are varied and you have some heavy, new responsibilities at a time when decisions and work may count more than ever. When did you start thinking about going into Academia, being a professor--so tell us, where did you see yourself way back when?
Sharon: This is one of those stories that takes me way back. I think I was 12. My father was a physician, and he was a great chemist. He worked with a compounding pharmacist, and he had a practice. Even though my parents had divorced when I was seven, when I was 12, I think my father had been under the impression that I would take over his practice, that I would go into STEM, some form of scientific investigation. I read a poem (I don't even remember now what the poem was). I remember calling my father and I told him that I wanted to be a poet and I wasn't going to be pursuing anything revolving around medicine. My dad had a pretty healthy stutter,which would only manifest itself with his family interestingly enough and not really with his patients. I remember my dad stuttering a bit and getting it out and saying: “you better find a way to support yourself! You better find a day job if you’re doing to be a poet!” I think from that moment on, and by the time I got to high school, I wanted to be a writer, and that's all I ever wanted to be from that moment on.
Melody: This is taking you to an entirely new role, in addition to being a professor, you have this new role as chair of the Department of American Studies. This is really historic because you're the first queer, African-American, cisgender woman to chair the department. So other than the already enormous responsibilities of chairing a department at a major university, what sort of additional pressure is it for you (if any), to be a chair at a university like UNC?
Sharon: Well, first, I am thrilled to be chair of the department. I can't imagine a better time, a better faculty, and I am very honored to take on this position. I think there's two intersections here, and this is something I learned after the amendment 1 campaign, during the time when I was involved with Equality NC and also I'm working with folks who were representing SONG: Southerners on New Ground. I learned something about statistics. There's three of them, very central: The first of them is that the majority of out queer people who raise children, live in the South. The majority of those who are out and queer, are usually people of color. And that there is a high concentration of Black lesbians in particular raising children in our state. One of the other things that I already knew, is that the field that I am most indebted to and work within (sexuality studies) was founded in the south at Duke University. If you want to talk about founding, if you want to use that vocabulary, with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and others. I feel that doing what I do here: being chair as a cisgender woman and queer person in this space in North Carolina--one, I'm coming home, and two, I'm not an anomaly. I feel that I don't experience my uniqueness in that regard, but I do feel like this is a challenging time because we have two Public Health crises--racism and covid-19.
Sharon: You are dealing with so many things--we all are--giiving the crises that were in. You told me this wonderful news today, where you really are opening up and helping someone else as they're going through this crises. You received some incredible news today--can you share that with us?
Sharon: When the pandemic hit our shores and it became very clear that we were going to follow the way of folks in Wuhan and other places in the world, and go to stay at home orders in March, it reminded me of the first pandemic that I lived through and in my twenties--the HIV crises, which became a pandemic. It reminded me of that and I think the desire to do something in that moment led to a connection that are already had with queer and transgender activists in the Carrboro-Chapel Hill-triangle region. I literally ran into Tiz Giordano at Weaver Street Market and I just got a teaching award, so I said, “I have a little bit of money, who needs help?” They were like, “are you kidding me? yes!” We started this mutual aid fund for QTIPOC: that's queer, trans, indigenous, people of color. We've given out $25,000 so far since late March. We got a $10,000 grant from the third wave fund. I'm waiting on $1,500 to come from a corporate sponsor, which were going to announce on our page, another $500 has been given to us by the Southern Vision Alliance. Through this work, it's a low barrier fund, through all of the work that we've been doing to keep our community members safe, to distribute funds to those who need them, to distribute funds in a transparent way where everyone knows everybody else. There's an accountability here that's amazing. If somebody needs something in a given distribution week, and someone else feels like they can wait, they actually forego their chance to receive funds so that somebody else can be supported. I have been so heartened, especially during a pandemic, where we saw people hoarding toilet paper and pulling their world so close, the extent to which our queer community is “Eyes Wide Open, Arms Wide Open” is amazing. What came from there was the chance to be a home host for the lgbtq center in Durham, and as a home host I will host a young adult in my home as they transition to be more independent. I'm really excited about that, it's going to happen for me this week. I can't imagine a better time to try to live differently. I think this is a global call for us to slow down, stay at home, and really think. One of the memes that was going around on the internet was like, “I think the Earth told us all to go to our rooms to think about what we've done.” I actually took that call seriously, amidst the death and the devastation and the inability to mourn in the way people want to mourn. To be able to help people survive this time, as someone who survived HIV when it first came to us, is such a gift.
Melody: Sharon, you're also the convener of the University's Critical Ethnic Studies initiative. You do not look at race as a standalone, or gender by itself, or sexuality or inclusion as separate things in our world. Your work requires that we look at how all these things intersect to create where we are and who we are. The way you put it to me that really stuck was, “what are we to one another?”
Sharon: Critical Ethnic Studies was started toward the end of the twentieth century and it began as an investigation of a critical analysis of existing ethnic studies work in this country in particular. Critical Ethnic Studies thinks exactly what it says: it thinks critically of ethnic studies and that's the reason why it's so important for us to understand, not only how we intersect with one another as ethnic “racialized” beings, but also what is possible through those connections. A typical ethnic studies project in the seventies or eighties might have been already looking at Blackness, looking at Brownness, looking at Indigeneity and its relationship with whiteness in the state and certain structures. I'm not saying that critical ethnic studies doesn't do that work, but we're also interested in the ways in which Indigeneity and Native Americanness and Blackness and LatinX peoples, how we intersect and how we interact with one another. The worlds that we create together and how despite modes of structural exclusion and abusive institutional structures, we have also connected to with one another in meaningful ways and in ways that have produced whole swathes of scholarship and art and cultural engagement and visual culture. All the things that create the southern future that we all imagine. A southern future is one in which foodways, music, art, other forms of visual culture, voice, and intellectual thought combine. Critical ethnic studies takes intellectual thought very seriously. One of its tenants is that, if you were going to be working with a people, you need to know their history, but even more importantly, you need to know their intersecting histories and their cultures.
Melody: I find myself returning to this issue of silencing in our nation's history--what's been left out of the nation’s story, who's been left out of the nation story. Your book, “Raising the Dead Readings of Death and Black Subjectivity” explores that silence. Your writing is theoretical. Talk to us about that.
Sharon: That book was a labor of love. I think the best way to describe how that book came about is to really highlight a conversation I had with my editor Ken Wissoker--who is my editor and that nineteenth-century way, in that we found one another when I was a young scholar and he knows my heart and my mind and he's very honest with me when I hand him a book. Duke has first right of refusal for my projects because I will always want to work with Ken. He asked me something very important in that book: he said to me, “okay, you're like 28 years old, almost thirty, writing this book about death. You need to tell people why you're writing this book.” I didn't want to, but then I went back and I wrote the preface to the book. The book is really about a journey I took after my dad died of a self-inflicted wound. I was 24 and at the time I felt like a grown-up, but now when I look back, I was just a baby! Michael Taussig talks about the space of death. He's an anthropologist. I felt myself literally being sucked into a room away from other human beings in this face of death. In order to come out of that moment and in the devastation of what happened, and how my own bio family (my mother's family in particular reacted to it), I threw my intellect at death, and I read literature about death and dying. I was looking in particular at Bill T Jones's work and really embracing kind of that HIV AIDS moment in our culture. I began to look at figures like Tupac Shakur, in light of this kind of death-drive that seemed to be going on within hip-hop culture. I also thought about Toni Morrison's work in Beloved. Beloved isn't a ghost--Beloved comes back. I began to really take on this kind of Netherworld, this kind of space of death, and think about what it offered is a contemplation for intellectual work on Black subjects and on Black Culture in particular. Especially in this moment where we’re looking at anti-Black racism in particular, I'm thinking of that Central Park moment and Amy. I think if that person had been asked, “could you, would you, in a park say something to an African-descended person or try to harm them?” I think they would have been like, “are you crazy?! No! No way!” Amy just loses it! I mean, literally becomes a completely other person to themselves in that moment. That's what I call the psychic life of the slavocracy. The questions I ask in my work revolve around that focal point. 200+ years (that’s a conservative estimate) of watching backs flailed, of watching beings being injured--hurt, captured, chained, sold. What did that do to our culture? When you're transitioning from that moment, then into formal extralegal lynching, and Jim Crow, and Civil Rights and the prison industrial complex. That moment just keeps carrying itself forward, which is bound up with harm to Black beings. My work goes to that space. My work tries to unpack that psychic life. We have to ask ourselves, “what becomes of us in those moments? What bubbles up?” I think what bubbles up is what's always been there. That's why I keep telling folks, we need an anti-racist practice that we can utilize every day, because if we don't have one, the only thing that's available to us in these interracial moments is what Amy called up with that police officer.
Melody: We mentioned at the top of the podcast that you are an equestrian. As a scholar are you often disappointed, and maybe even surprised, that folks are surprised that African-Americans are and have been equestrians?
Sharon: I don't think it’s shocking to anyone anymore, because in all the Black Lives Matter protests that we've had across this country, Black Riders have shown up! Riders in Houston, riders in Philly, (most of them are Western seat and I ride in the English seat and I study that tradition). I ride a quarter horse mare. Her name is Annie. When I returned to North Carolina because this is where my mother's people are from, I decided that I was going to return to riding because there's a barn every 20 minutes in North Carolina. What people don't know is that, I didn't return to do something that is an anomaly for Blackness; I returned to the place where the hunt-seat began. The first race was in the 18th century in North Carolina with three enslaved beings on three quarter horse mares. That was literally the beginning of America's sport, which is racing. African descended people were brought over here because of their horse-person-ship, and we have been trainers, jockeys, and horse people from day one. It means a lot to me when Annie and I are together. I don't feel like I'm trying to fit into a world that excludes me. When we ride, I feel like I'm fulfilling my legacy as an African descended person in North Carolina. My mom told me that grandfather, who died when my mother was 17, had horses in Georgia where he was from. I feel like I come from horse people. I investigate that in part of the new book that I'm working on. I think about what would it mean for us to change our opinion of Black people's relationship to the animal and Black people's relationship to creating animal cultures.
Melody: You received a distinguished teaching award this year. What is your goal for students when you begin each semester? Obviously, you connect with students in a really meaningful way.
Sharon: Our job as educators is to connect with students in the totality of who they are. I tell my students, “my job is to know you all past this course.” I want to care for them. I feel like we're so busy telling us what we cannot do, that we don't practice exercising the boundaries that allow us to do more. We have a lot of rules, like, “don't do this, don't do that!” We cut ourselves off, we cut the part of ourselves off that actually can connect in a real way. Our job is, once we make that connection, to build the ethical life that we have around that connection and nurture it so that our students feel, first and foremost challenge at their core. In terms of your intellectual work that you need to do, it’s going to feel pretty challenging and rather unsafe, right away, because I am not here to bring you what you already know, to confirm what you already know. I am here so that we can become recognizable to one another. Maybe I'm just an optimist, but you know, change each other in meaningful ways that will change this world.
Melody: We are moving into our Southern Futures reading corner. What are you reading for us and why did you pick this particular selection?
Sharon: I picked this selection, because how often do people read Black feminist theory in a podcast? Any of my students who are listening know exactly what I say I'm going to be reading from: a 1987 essay written by Hortense Spillers, called "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book."
The African-American male has been touched, therefore, by the mother, handed by her in ways that he cannot escape, and in ways that the white American male is allowed to temporize by a fatherly reprieve. This human and historic development-the text that has been inscribed on the benighted heart of the continent-takes us to the center of an inexorable difference in the depths of American women's community: the African-American woman, the mother, the daughter, becomes historically the powerful and shadowy evocation of a cultural synthesis long evaporated - the law of the Mother-only and precisely because legal enslavement removed the African-American male not so much from sight as from mimetic view as a partner in the prevailing social fiction of the Father's name, the Father's law.
Therefore, the female, in this order of things, breaks in upon the imagination with a forcefulness that marks both a denial and an "illegitimacy." Because of this peculiar American denial, the black American male embodies the only American community of males which has had the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears the life against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and murder, including her own. It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood- the power of "yes" to the "female" within.
This different cultural text actually reconfigures, in historically ordained discourse, certain representational potentialities for African-Americans: 1) motherhood as female blood rite is outraged, is denied, at the very same time that it becomes the founding term of a human and social enactment; 2) a dual fatherhood is set in motion, comprised of the African father's banished name and body and the captor father's mocking presence. In this play of paradox, only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed. This problematizing of gender places her, in my view, out of the traditional symbolics of female gender, and it is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject. Actually claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to "name'1, which her culture imposes in blindness, "Sapphire" might rewrite after all a radically different text for a female empowerment.
Melody: Thank you for sharing that with us. I want to ask you how you reimagine the South? What do you think the future is for the South?
Sharon: I think Toni Morrison said it best when she said, “how do you erase a culture seething with our presence?” I don’t think of myself as an Affirmative Action project. I don’t think of myself as something that ought to be added to something that already exists. I think the intellectual pathways that I travel are very Southern indeed. The Southernness of that travel has to do with the fact that I believe that my presence is not only absolute, but enduring. What I'm trying to do is actually get everybody interested in thinking about the South and its actuality.
Melody: Sharon, thank you for your time and for sharing your insights with us. We wish you the best in your new role as chair of the Department of American studies at UNC and we look forward to your new book.To our listeners, thank you for your time today. Please join us for our next episode. For executive producer, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery and sound editor Mark Meyer, I’m Melody Hunter Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative--the new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South, and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.