Racialicious Crush Of The Week: Tamura Lomax

By Andrea Plaid

Tamura Lomax. Photo: courtesy of the interviewee.

You may have seen the R’s cross-postings from The Feminist Wire (TFW), that brilliant collective of mostly writers of color doing their intersectional thang on topics like Black women’s self-care in academia, forums on World AIDS Day 2012 and voting, and–in full disclosure–an interview with one of the R’s staffers. (I’m telling you–it’s a treat of a lifetime to be interviewed by one of your heroes.)

So, mutual admiration is fair play.

I got to interview the great brain behind TFW, Tamura Lomax. Her bona fides: she’s the Assistant Chair and an assistant professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work has been featured at, among other spaces, Religion Dispatches. She’s working on a co-authored book about the Black feminist/womanist reponses to Tyler Perry’s work and a book on Black feminism and Black cultural production. And she’s just hella fun to clown around with online, which, of course, has led to some hush-hush plans for a future academic conference.

I’ve said too much already about the event. Here’s Tamura…

The Feminist Wire is a heck of a collective of some of the best minds thinking about the intersections of race, gender. sexuality, bodies, politics, etc. How did you gather such a great group of people and, more interestingly, why and how did you start the blog?  

The Feminist Wire began as a concept in 2010.  Hortense Spillers and I were working on my dissertation and we thought it would be neat to write something together—two black feminists working across generations.  At this time, she even referred to me as a younger version of herself.  We were definitely similar in terms complexion and hairstyles and–as we learned later–personalities.  Her work and writing style definitely informs my own.  Our initial idea was to write some sort of peer-review essay for academia.  However, when the Shirley Sherrod incident occurred, we knew it was our time to put pen to paper–or, in my case, fingers to keyboard.

We wrote the essay, “Shirley Sherrod: Open Letters Between Two Frustrated Feminists, Hortense Spillers and Tamura Lomax,” which was a critical call-and-response about Sherrod, of course, but also black women and media.  We shopped the essay, hoping to get it published at theroot.com.  However, no one responded.  Frustrated, we decided to “create our own damn site” so that we could publish what we wanted when we wanted.  Due to timing, we published the essay on my now defunct webpage, tamuralomax.com, and began charting our path toward The Feminist Wire.

Hortense thought of the name “Feminist Wires.”  However, “Feminist Wire” (sans the “s”) already existed as a blog at Ms. Magazine.  I added the article, “The,” removed the “s” and commenced to working with a web designer to build our site.  I had a previous site, “The Call and Response,” made up of Black Ph.D. candidates from Vanderbilt University, so I had plenty of experience with building a site and working with a collective of writers.  Everything really grew from there.  We began reaching out to our contacts and people whose writings we admired and developed the Editorial Collective.

We’ve seen plenty of changes since then, including leadership and Collective member changes.  I think we began with about ten Collective members.  Of that ten only three remain.  Hortense left the project in December 2011.  I was faced with the choice to either lead the organization alone or to let it die.  The three standing original Collective members stepped up in a huge way during this time and not only asked me to keep The Feminist Wire going, but to help take the lead and share the load in terms of responsibilities.  This shift turned into something really amazing.  We re-grouped and re-organized into a more circular community of peers and have been rocking ever since.

Our Collective and readership have grown by leaps and bounds.  We have gone from approximately 20k monthly readers to 60k, 10 Collective members to 28, 1,856 Facebook likes to almost 9k, etc., in less than 12 months.  However, the thing I’m most proud of is the love and support that we’ve managed to nurture within The Feminist Wire community.  The organization is truly life-giving.  Trust is an essential ingredient.  It’s as significant as a critical feminist gaze.  All Collective members come by way of referral, and they have to be communally approved–at least by my partners, Monica and Darnell, both of which have been helping me to lead The Feminist Wire since December 2011, and me.  We’re fortunate enough to be extremely selective now that we’ve experienced such growth.  Still, we’re always looking for new and amazing feminist voices to add to the chorus, especially as we plan to branch out and do other things on the business front.  There’s a lot in store for us.

The Feminist Wire has done some great series on Black feminism, the latest being about mental health and Black female academics. What are some of the topics that you’re passionate about but has yet to be covered at TFW?  

Thank you.  We want to do more forums on academia and health.  However, we want to create space for other marginalized groups, such as women of color and gender non-conforming academics, to speak.  We need to hear their voices.  I’d also love for us to do more work on poverty, pornography, and the prison industry.  Additionally, there’s been quite a bit of work on academics and fashion.  I’d love for us to do more work on fashion and beauty.  The beauty of The Feminist Wire and our current organizational structure is that what gets published is based on the creative juices of the entire Collective.  Folks are always coming up with amazing ideas.  I’m all about creativity, soundness, and production.  If someone has an idea that meets the above criterion–and aligns with both our public and private aims–I’m all for it.

You’ve also gathered quite a few people–mostly people of color–who teach at the university levels at TFW. With the shift in validation of knowledge content-providers–where people with PhDs were held as the paragons of a focused study (a.k.a. experts) to the online world where having a degree may or may not help as far as having expertise–how does TFW navigate and contributing to this new reality?  

That’s a great question.  I think we have so many PhD’s due to the kind of work that most of us do: we work in the academy.  However, we’re all critics.  I don’t think any of us believe that we have all the answers and would likely cringe at anyone claiming to be an “expert.”  We’re hell-raisers who sincerely long for a more just society, so our aim is to always be in community with the broader community in which we understand ourselves to merely be a part.  We understand that knowledges are situated and contextual and emerge from a variety of complex spaces—outside of academe.  We’re always in search for and open to the creative genius of our folk.  We’ve also added a few “young feminists” as well.  We want variety.  Our goal is to create space for multiple intersecting and diverging “wires.”

Still, given the reality of knowledge production and social hierarchy–that is, who get’s to be read, heard, tweeted, used in a classroom setting, forwarded, republished at other sites, etc.–often depends on who our readers dub as the “expert.”  So, drawing close this interstice is admittedly quite challenging.

We have been struck once again with two tragic murders, Jordan Davis and Kasandra Michelle Perkins. Both, I’d contend, are the results of an engendered racism, namely stereotypes of the Threatening Black Man and the Jezebel who “must have done something to deserve” her death. Though I’m grateful for the counter-conversation to dispel these myths that shape people’s perception about the victims, especially Perkins, where else would you like to see discussion regarding Davis and Perkins move?  

I think we need to explore the utility of these tropes.  Clearly they’re needed.  My question is why–and I mean, really, “why?”  I want to go deep in that direction.  Thingification and the violence it produces is nothing new.  The reproduction, maintenance, and circulation of racial and gendered tropes aren’t new either.  We know the history.  We know how these ideas get transmitted from generation to generation.  And, we know how pornotroping (seeing with both the eyes and the psyche) leads to all kinds of violence.  However, we, or at least I, know little about the social utility here, beyond basic arguments about white power and dominance.  Why are black boys and girls simultaneously so valued and abhored?  What’s the social utility of this sort of hatred?  And, what’s the social utility of their death?  I think there’s a lot to discover there.

Speaking of the Jezebel myth, it reared its nasty head in the discussions surrounding the fight that broke out at Halle Berry’s home over Thanksgiving between her ex and her fiancé, namely that Halle’s “the common denominator,” which stinks of blaming her for the actions of two grown-ass men as if she’s got some siren song going on that she used to cause the fist-flying. Why do we keep operating with these stereotypes when it comes to framing Black women, and do you see new(er) stereotypes coming to pass regarding Black women?

Okay…I read those comments and they are straight up b.s.  Why is it that Black women are always the supposed source of their own misery?  Give me a break!  This brings me back to my research on Black women and cultural ‘medias’—representational systems that convey meanings through signs, symbols, significations, and representations like language, images, etc.  In short, and as Spillers writes in her essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” there is a circulating discourse on “Black womanhood”–also known as America’s grammar book on race and gender–that’s been operating for centuries.  Thus, there is this ridiculous entanglement with diasporic women and girls and this dominant meta-narrative that we can’t seem to shake.  It wreaks of innate unscrupulousness and perversion and, thus, regardless of the facts, Black women and girls are continuously and mundanely positioned within contexts of unbridled freakery and viciousness.  We’re always the source and always to blame.  And this is marked by both society’s verbosity and silence when unfavorable situations literally engulf us.

It seems like we’re always trying to find balance on this human/non-human/hyper-visible/invisible tightrope.  There’s an existing stock of knowledge regarding Black woman and girlhood that’s literally killing us.  The problem is it’s so pervasive and mass-produced that even Black folk believe it at times.  Not only this, these stocks of knowledge—significations of Black women as Jezebelian/hyper-sexual/black-female-as-whore/trouble-maker types—are dynamic.  They’re constantly being realigned and re-appropriated intertextually.  Meaning, cultural tropes and meanings accumulate across cultural spaces, often deferring to both new and old knowledge productions and contexts, thus remixing and refreshing previous narratives.  So we get Reagan’s “welfare queen” in the 80s, who was a mixture of tropes within a contemporary context, “baby mamas” in the early 20th century, and so on.  Tropes evolve. Still, the major “texts” such as Jezebel, Sapphire, and Mammy, remain ever present.  They’re like amoeba.

This is like representational terror, though.  This kind of overriding script is harmful.  Of course we’re not completely overdetermined by social-cultural projections.  Nevertheless, I don’t think we should underestimate their dynamism.  We’re constantly being turned into, and turning others into–including ourselves–some version of these narratives.  Not only are they mythical, they’re omnipresent.  That’s a horrendous mix.  I really wish we’d get to a point where we no longer need them.  However, I don’t think we will.  Many racist and sexist ideas about Black women have been around since modernity.  I don’t think they’re going anywhere.  They are a part of our ethos and collective psyche.  Moreover, the cross-pollination process has already begun.  How can we even begin to stop that?  The grammar book on Black women and girls is deep within the soil.  We can’t stop reproduction at this point.  Perhaps we can lessen it though.  That’s what I’m interested in.

Check out the rest of the interview at the R’s Tumblr!