The Slinger Of Facts. Secretary Of State Of Blackness. Dacia Mitchell is the new co-host of This Week In Blackness Radio, a Brooklyn, New York-based podcast focusing on issues of race, class, politics, and culture. As a doctoral student participating in NYU’s American Studies program, Dacia is currently working on her dissertation, “Is A Laugh Treason?: Caricature, Slavery, and Citizenship in the Age of Revolution”, a study of 17th- and 18th-century political caricature and its impact on the formation of white identity during the early stages of post-colonial America and the French Revolution. Dacia currently resides in Oakland, CA with her husband and three-year-old daughter, and between managing the TWiB blog, preparing their daily docket, working exhaustively on her dissertation, and being a functional component of her family, she was able to devote some time to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her life and work.
In this second part of the interview, we talk about Dacia’s dissertation and why it matters, Lil’ Wayne, media representations of black people, comparing Rachel Maddow to Casablanca, and the people who are inspiring her right now. Dacia is a genuine inspiration, a real powerhouse in progressive discourse, and I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed making it happen.
RA: I wanted to talk to you about your dissertation, as I’m very curious about it. It’s called “Is A Laugh Treason?: Caricature, Slavery, and Citizenship in the Age of Revolution”. So I read your description on your blog, and it’s very wonky. It’s fantastic, and I love the idea, but can you summarize it for me us in like, regular, layman’s English so that we can get an idea of it? Then talk about why you chose this subject and how it is relevant to the current discussion of race.
DM: Sure. The first part of that, what it’s about, is 18th century caricature. Back in the 18th century, there was a sudden influx of caricature that was produced. These were graphic satires; what we would think of as political cartoons. These political cartoons grew in popularity very suddenly, and what I think defines a caricature is the exaggeration of features, or the exaggeration of gestures. The influence for those features or those gestures came from what was considered anyone who was not a white male. So in order to represent a white, British politician as being a bad guy, you could give him an enlarged forehead. Say he had a savage gambling habit; you would give him large lips. They were pulling body parts from Africans, from indigenous peoples, or from anyone that’s considered to be “other”, and placing them on to the body of a white male in order to poke fun at them.
What it ends up producing is an anxiety about what whiteness is, because whiteness was not something that was explicitly defined at that time. You had kind of a national identity in Britain that was shifting, because you’ve got British colonies where racial mixing that’s happening, and there are tales that are coming back from the colonies through the Metropol that are talking about this race mixing, and are making people really uneasy. Then you also have this question of what does it mean to be a free Briton, when you’ve got France defining what freedom is and what it looks like during the French Revolution. So it’s about how information was being circulated throughout the Atlantic world that was creating both an anxiety about whiteness, but also establishing what whiteness was. That then solidified how we understand identity through to today. It was a modern conception of identity that hadn’t existed before then. The way that we understand ourselves as unique, free individuals comes from this moment of seeing yourself represented as both yourself, but also as this monstrous version of yourself, and having to define identity based off of that media representation. It’s not just how someone sees you, but it’s also how someone sees you represented on paper. The triangle that creates.
RA: So it’s like how someone sees you as an individual, but then how someone sees you as a culture, and how those two overlap?
DM: Right. Also how the fact that a representation of you can change who you are. The caricatures that were created were mainly of politicians, but the act of even a layperson seeing the caricature was producing an idea of who that person is through these cues of their bodily exaggerations. So it almost creates a lens through technology for viewing authority, for viewing power. If there’s any way for towards better understanding yourself as a free individual, it’s how you see yourself in relationship to power. If that is seen through a media representation, what you end up having is…I feel like I’m getting really academic again –
RA: It’s kind of hard not to. It’s very nuanced, very complex.
DM: It’s very complex, and basically the way we understand ourselves is through mediatic representation. In this particular moment, mediatic representation was about defining what’s considered to be “normal” and acceptable citizenship, and what is considered to be “other” and different. In that, normalcy is defined as white, as male, as straight, as property-owning, and “other” is everybody else. A mechanism that allowed people to start to see that way was caricature. See? I knew I’d get there. *laughs* I knew I would.
RA: *laughs* So what brought you to this subject? You’re currently studying American Studies through NYU, and you have a Master’s in Visual Studies from California College of The Arts. There’s obviously some Visual Studies stuff going on here, so is this a sort of tie-in of your Visual Studies work with your American Studies work?
DM: Well, American Studies is really American cultural studies. It kept the name “American Studies” from way back when the State Department started program as a way to create good, non-Communist scholars and diplomats [to] spread throughout the world. After 1969, when buildings were occupied, it shifted how American Studies was considered, and it became sort of a [blend] of multicultural studies. So you have ethnic studies that are produced at this time, you have women’s studies and gender studies, black studies and Latino studies, and American Studies was an intersecting site for that to happen. As a result, American Studies PhD’s are now a cultural studies interdisciplinary program, and so my program is a mixture of cultural studies, visual studies, and history. It brings together my Visual Studies training with the history lessons that I’ve learned in American Studies. As for the inspiration for the caricatures, I have this habit of looking at a caricatures or looking at an images – I’m very image-oriented, which is funny, since I’m on the radio – but I’m very image-oriented, and I think meaning is produced through looking at an image and operating from that. I came to it when there was the caricature of Michelle Obama and Barack Obama on the cover of The New Yorker. It was the cover from back before he was elected in 2008, and they were giving each other fist bumps, and in the caricature he’s wearing something like a Muslim outfit, and she was dressed in military camo with bullets across her chest, and hair like Angela Davis.
RA: I don’t think I saw that.
DM: It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek since it was on the cover of New Yorker, and it was supposed to be a representation of how the Right was creating this image of Michelle and Barack Obama. I had done some work in my Master’s program that led me back to the 18th century, some histories of representation work, and I had stumbled upon some of these caricatures but had kind of shelved them as scholars will do. You just kind of put it in a file. But I reopened the file, I saw the caricatures and I was like, “That is insane. What do I make of it?” That’s always what happens: you see something, and you’re like, “What the hell? Something crazy is happening here, and I don’t know what it is.” So I went back to the peak of racialized caricature in the United States, and saw that it was so done, so many people had done it. I was afraid to jump into that because it had been so done already, things like 19th century blackface and 19th century cartoons. So I pulled out the file and asked myself, “What exists before that?” That’s when I found this incredible body of British caricature work that I found very peculiar, where there weren’t a lot of representations of non-white people in these prints, but there was something about the way that the features were exaggerated. There were some where they were actually portrayed as apes, then I read this wonderful paper that someone wrote about representing the Scottish as being ape-like, and I was like, “Hmm…okay, I’m on to something.” So it just became about how these images are part of this crisis of national identity which is producing a white identity, one that enables people to cement their citizenship in a way that was indisputable.
RA: Now this is all post-colonial, right? Or is this pre-colonial?
DM: This is colonial. Actually, instead of colonial era, I would say that this plantation era. We’re looking at 1760 through about 1830. So the peak of my dissertation, the hot chapters, are right during the Revolutionary Era. It starts with the American Revolution, and then kind of dies down a little bit. Then we’ve got the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution happening, which are offering these ideas of freedom and liberty that are challenging to the Metropol, they’re challenging to Britons. They don’t really want a lot of upset, it’s freaking them out, and so a way to ensure what they understood as freedom under sovereignty was to create a certain national identity that would to secure it.
RA: So this isn’t so much about just forming a white identity, abut forming a white American identity, isn’t it? Because this is in the early post-Revolutionary War period, the early stages of American development, right?
DM: It is, but what’s interesting is that the way these identities developed was regionally based. What defined white identity in North America, for example, was different than how white identity was being developed in London. While it did have to do with this exposure to a non-white other, there was also an exposure to challenging questions of freedom. Basically, whiteness became a description for freedom instead of it being something that could be considered a judgment call or an aesthetic thing. It became your ticket to freedom, and sort of a given as to how freedom was defined. But I think that one of the challenges of this is actually the fact that whiteness is developing in different ways, depending on if you’re in Haiti, if you’re in North America, or if you’re in London.
As for the way this project translates into the present day, we’re still tackling these questions of what race is and how it operates. If we understand race as a practice, as well as a technology that is used to organize people, how is it a tool that was organizing people in the 18th century? How is it something that continues to organize people to this day? Because it does, but it has shifted over time. There never was a static “this is what white people, this is what black people are”; it’s something that is constantly in flux, and changes over time. What I’m looking at is the start of what we would consider to be a racial modernity, and how it kicked off. You can go before that, but this was the moment that was particularly fruitful, and that’s why I decided to focus on it.
RA: Fascinating! So, the last thing I wanted to ask you about is has to do with On Blackness. One of the great things I like about it is that at the end of every episode, Elon asks whomever he’s talking to about who’s work on various subjects is influencing and inspiring them right now, and I want to put that same question to you: who’s influencing you right now? Who’s inspiring you right now in academia, in politics, in media? Maybe pick one from each?
DM: Pick one from each? Wow…I mean, this is going to seem so trite, but in terms of political media, I have to say Rachel Maddow. The reason why isn’t just because she’s a progressive, and quirky and everything. The reason why is that I study her shows, because she’s able to create an argument – whether I agree or disagree with that argument – in this very concise and very writerly way. As anyone writing their dissertation will tell you, you’re always looking for inspiration on the practice of writing. When you get stuck, all you want is someone to just kick you back into gear, and often I will turn to her show; even old shows. I have shows saved on my laptop that are from like two years ago, because they just did the essay really well. I appreciate her for content, but mainly for form.
RA: I listen to the audio version of her show, because I usually don’t have time to watch it, and I definitely agree with you. One of the things I like about her show the most is that she is a phenomenal storyteller. One of the biggest pitfalls I see with liberals and progressives in general is the fact that, while we are the keepers of history, the reciters of facts – and this is incredibly important, how we name names, we name events and so on – but we are lousy storytellers. We don’t have good narratives, we don’t have compelling narratives that keep people listening. She is a master storyteller. Listening to her talk, I don’t even have to watch the show; I just love listening to her speak. I’ve gone back and I’ve listened to some of her old stuff from Air America Radio, when she was still working with Sam Seder and Janine Garofalo, and it’s amazing. She just has a way with words and stories that more people in the progressive movement need to take a lesson from. On a podcast I listened to a couple of weeks ago they made a great analogy with her show to Casablanca that was very interesting. I’m probably going to totally hamfist this one, but….refresh my memory, what’s the main character’s name again?
RA: That’s right, Rick. The show to compared Rachel Maddow to Rick, and her show to his bar during the Nazi occupation. She’s on this major media outlet with a major show – one of the most popular shows on MSNBC – and Rick had this incredibly popular bar during the Nazi occupation where you could you could take things up to a certain point, but once you cross that line, you’re done for. That’s how it is in our mainstream media today: if you cross the line, you’re done. She is so good at getting just up to the edge of that line, just towing it, and getting you to think without ever crossing it. It’s a beautiful thing.
DM: That’s really interesting, because what she enables is this: if MSNBC is – and now I forgot his name, the police officer that would go into Rick’s cafe – he was a policeman who wasn’t on the dole, but he was sympathetic. There’s that famous scene where they’d just reported that there was gambling going on, there was a fight, and he said, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that there’s gambling going on in this facility!” Her show enables MSNBC, if she were to tow the line a little too close, to go, “I don’t know what happened! I’m shocked that that happened!” Then they’re able to basically be able to walk back from it. That’s really interesting. I love Casablanca.
But she’s also in exile, in a certain way. There’s no one else like her [on MSNBC], and she could only exist there. You couldn’t have Rick’s cafe in Vichy, Paris. You couldn’t have Rick’s cafe in the United States. It’s in those moments when she brings on somebody like the guy that was supporting the “Kill The Gays” bill in Uganda. She brought the author on and read his book, read lines back to him and was like, “What do you make of this?” That’s the moment when you bring on somebody who’s singing the national anthem of the opposition, and then she’s able, through her support and her insistence, to sing y’know, the French national anthem, and outsing them. That’s awesome.
I’d have to say that in terms of scholarship, I feel like if I don’t say my dissertation committee, then they’ll be mad.
RA: *laughs* Provided they’ll actually hear this.
DM: *laughs* One of them doesn’t even know I’m doing this, and she doesn’t need to know. If she finds out, great. “Hello, yes I’m here,” but she doesn’t need to know. But I’d have to say, it’s always a book. It’s not always a scholar, but it’s always a book. For me, the book that is the most dogeared and written all over, the one I turn to when I’m stuck, is Toni Morrison’s “Playing In The Dark”. It’s a very small, hundred-page, non-fiction book. She’s a fiction writer. It’s a meditation on literary representations of blackness and literary representations of the African body, and how they create a cultural artifact. Not just in a direct representation of a black person, but in tropes, in “darkness”. It’s in all of what we now see as the detritus of blackness and how when combined, it becomes a symbol. It becomes a black body in itself, that is artificial, that isn’t real, and that doesn’t reflect what black people actually are. It just reflects who we are, it doesn’t reflect individualism. But there’s this trend to assemble black bodies in media over and over and over again that aren’t actual representations of individuality, something that’s often offered in media to white bodies, even though it isn’t; it’s an illusion. But it’s something that is a given when you’re watching television or reading it in literature. So “Playing In The Dark” is the book that is sitting on top of the stack of books on my floor, and I just pick it up periodically.
RA: So who’s inspiring you in politics right now? In political action, political discourse?
DM: Well, there are a few people. In terms of the big-ups, I lived in Vermont for a year, and I’m married to a Vermonter, so I was first introduced to Bernie Sanders in 2002, literally.
RA: Oh, you actually met him, then?
DM: Oh yeah, there’s this Indian restaurant that he loves to go to that I ran into him at one time, and it was like, “Hey, Bernie!” He still drives the same car he’s always driven, too. After he gave that speech – I was always a fan of him before then – but he gave this incredible speech that was a filibuster but not a filibuster, where he was talking about inequality in the country, and it was actually published into a book. I have a copy that was signed by him. He’s an outlier that just refuses to give in. He’s just like, “Nope, nope, I’m a Socialist; deal with it! My state works, and I don’t understand why you’re not listening to me, so I’m just going to keep talking.”
RA: I was hearing about him today. I think it was him and Barbara Boxer that just got together and sponsored this very aggressive cap-and-trade bill that involves carbon taxing and using the revenue from that to generate revenue for green industries, while using the rest to pare down the deficit. They’re getting ready to ram this through the Senate right now. It’s incredibly ambitious, and this is one of a long list of things that he’s been pushing for ages now.
DM: That’s not surprising at all, because once he sets his sights on something, he just goes and goes and goes. Someone else in media who I always appreciate for their writing is Richard Kim over at The Nation. He’s actually from my alma mater, from NYU, and he always has a really clear and nuanced take on whatever the story of the day is. He just wrote a piece about drones that was really great, and I follow his Twitter feed religiously, because he always has really sharp, concise things to say. He does so in both an incredibly intellectual and almost scholarly way, but that’s incredibly accessible. I’m always a fan of that, of being able to take something that is incredibly complex and bring it to an accessible level. That’s something that I try to do on the show. I’m not always successful; I can trip over my own words, because I’m still practicing, but I think that the more that you know your shit, the better you’re able to actually talk clearly about it. There are moments where I’m rambling too much, and I’ve just wandered into territory that is unfamiliar. Often I’ll stop, and then backtrack until I get back into the space where I actually know [what I’m talking about]. I think that that’s often a problem in media, is that we have these safety nets we create for ourselves in terms of how we’re going to talk about things [that are not always observed].
RA: A perfect example that you were talking about on one of the shows the other day – I can’t remember if it was This Week In Blackness or if it was on AM TWiB – there was the guy, I can’t remember his name, but he was talking about Christopher Dorner –
DM: Oh, Mark Lamont Hill!
RA: Yeah, Mark Lamont Hill. He was going and going, and everything was good, and then he made the Django reference, and everyone was like, “Ugh…what are you doing?” He went on approximately six seconds too long, got into unfamiliar territory, and almost completely undermined everything he was trying to say.
DM: But I was with him all the way up until there, and then it was like, “Aww…dude!” That’s a danger that we can all run into. I know I’ve stepped in it. There’s a sense of just being mindful, and the nice thing about the show is that I think of it as kind of a work in progress. I enjoy the “well, that didn’t go as well as I wanted it to, but there’s always tomorrow,” and seeing the show as a success in the sense of a laboratory, instead of like this polished, precious thing. It’s something that we’re constantly working on, and something that always needs improvement, which means that it will never be perfect, and there is an incentive to keep going. Because what’s the point of making it perfect? Then you have to stop doing it.
DM: Someone just introduced a woman who writes for XOJane. Her name is SistahTV, and I just started following her stories. Her voice is so clear and so sarcastic, but so emotion-rich and funny, that I can’t help but give her a shout-out because I just found her. She wrote this great story about her white friends being racist by serving her fried chicken and chitlins, and I was like, “You got me.” It was really hilarious.
DM: I pick and choose from all over the place. I do have a standard feed that I wake up immediately to, and I’m on Reddit. There are people who I admire, but I’m always on the lookout for new folks. I’m always afraid of being sucked into just watching the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, or just reading certain magazines. I have these things that are my favorites, but I’m hungry for more, and the similar feature on Google does not hack it. You have to go under the radar. Also, I follow people who post interesting stuff.
RA: I’ve found myself guilty of falling into that trap sometimes, often very recently with the TWiB network.
RA: You guys have so many shows now, and they’re all fantastic. I sit at my desk with my headphones in my ears and Stitcher just running all day, and I find as you guys release more shows and I want to follow them because they’re they’re interesting and they’re funny, but all the other shows that I like to listen to, I find myself missing them more and more. I don’t want to get sucked into this trap where I’m just listening to what you guys have to say, even though what you guys are saying is relevant and powerful, but you’re not the only voice that I should be paying attention to.
DM: Wait, we’re not? What? *laughs* Yeah, it is hard, and from my perspective, that is a great problem to have. But I do think that with immediate access we have to so much, it can be overwhelming to try and listen to everything. I do take time to try and listen to some other stuff. “You Look Nice Today” is one podcast that I follow. It’s Merlin Mann and two other guys, talking about awkward white people shit. They’re really funny. I listen to them, and other stuff, but I got bored with “This American Life”. Sometimes, I just can’t deal with the ultra-tweed liberalism that’s on there. It’s pretty grating sometimes. But I think you can give yourself permission to not listen to every single show, and listen to other folks, because people are producing lots of really great stuff right now. I would still say that for the folks who listen to us, there aren’t a lot of podcasts like us. At least not that I’ve found, and I’ve looked. That’s how I found TWiB, and I haven’t found anything like it since.
RA: You guys are filling a much-needed vacancy in progressive media, and progressive discourse in general, and I think it’s fantastic.
DM: One thing that we’re trying to do is still be people, and our flaws are out there as much as our awesome features. So I think that seeing that is also part of what makes it such a fun to do. Once Elon says “have a pleasant day” at the end of the show, we hop on Google Hangout and we wrap up about what the show is, and we talk about what’s next. We’re not just doing the show as a performance and then we’re out; we actually do hang out. If I were in Brooklyn, I would be there in person, but because of Google, we can actually do a Hangout. Shout-out to Google, I guess…? Is it weird that I did that?
DM: The next step is to try and generate revenue, which is really sticky, because at no point does Elon want to hand over control of the show to anyone else, he doesn’t want to see TWiB hosted by Lil’ Wayne, his ratchet ass.
RA: *laughs* You guys were talking about him on yesterday’s show, about his new song, and I had heard Emmet Till’s name before, but I did not know the story. So after you talked about it, I went and looked him up, and I was like, “I wanna punch that guy (Lil’ Wayne) in the face!”
DM: Thank you!
RA: That is so, it’s so…I can’t even. It’s just so horrible.
DM: Yeah, and it seems like if you know the name – and I don’t know what Lil’ Wayne does and doesn’t know – but if he knows the name, he knows something horrible happened. I immediately went to the images, because I’m an image person. I immediately went to the pristine image of this young boy, and then the brutal image of this young boy. Then I thought that the lyrics set that you have, it was both about women and about women’s bodies, and it was about Emmet Till. So I’m like, “OK, well Emmet Till is the image of the pristine boy and the beat up boy, so what is the popular female image that we know of that we can compare it to?” That is the beautiful picture of Rhianna, and her face beaten to a pulp. So I was like, “Dude, I can’t even with you!” This is the moment when I’m like, “Look, I didn’t imagine this.” This is something where, as difficult as it is to study the cultural production of ideas because it’s easy to say, “Well, that’s just in your head,” and apologize when people see things, it’s part of something that we’re all familiar with. Even if it didn’t conjure it for you, it conjured it for me, and now that I’ve explained it to you, you see it, too.
RA: Yeah, and now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it, which just makes me all the more infuriated by the fact that he would even draw that sort of comparison in the first place. That’s just so awful, it’s so abhorrently bad.
DM: At the same time – and my advisor would be very proud that I have become this archiving historian – I don’t think that they should have censored the song. He made it and we’re now talking about it, which means that it’s part of a historical moment, and it does articulate something bigger than just Lil’ Wayne dropping a terrible verse.
RA: Yeah, so many networks have pulled the song from the airwaves, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity. That’s just going to generate more [interest]. People now are going to look for it, wondering, “Why was this so bad? Let’s go listen and find out!”
DM: I mean, it really is terrible. The song is just so bad. Did you listen to the whole song?
RA: I don’t have to! I listened to the clip from the show, and I was like, “This is the song? I don’t need to hear any more than what I’ve heard; it’s God awful!”
DM: It’s funny, because Elon had me on mute when we were in [Google] Hangout as I’m listening to it with my headphones on, and my face is just increasingly scrunching up over time. He was like, “What’s happening over there?” and all I could say is, “I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know!” I’m listening to the song, and I don’t know.
RA: It’s incomprehensible.
DM: But I do think that it should still be registered as something that happened, and not to try and erase it from the record. It’s something that happened in life, and the question isn’t just why did Lil’ Wayne decide he was going to do that, what made it OK, but what were people thinking of it when they listened to it? What’s the draw now, how many more people are now Googling Emmet Till, and are actually seeing the image and being like, “Why would you…? That’s weird.”
RA: At the end of the day, while it’s incredibly controversial and the comparison that he made is pretty disgusting, there’s a teaching moment to be had here, and to think that Lil’ Wayne is providing a teaching moment for something that kids are not learning about in school is nothing short of amazing in itself. *laughs*
DM: *laughs* Yeah, and a huge critique of our current educational system and it’s failures therein.
You can listen to this This Week In Blackness – as well as all of the other TWiB network shows – on iTunes and Stitcher Radio, or by visiting www.thisweekinblackness.com. To know more about the inner workings of Dacia’s mind, be sure and visit her blog at www.daciatakesnote.com, or you can follow her on Twitter with the handle @daciatakesnote.