Picturing Black History

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Transcript: Sheneese Thompson, a Picturing Black History Interview

Sheneese Thompson

My name is Dr. Sheneese Thompson, and I’m originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which will become more important, you know, as I talk more in having to write about MOVE. I am a researcher in diasporic culture, and Black popular culture in particular. So my research has looked at everything from Black Twitter, and its liberational potential to be used in protest to Black Atlantic history culture and religion. So my research kind of runs the gambit, I have a special interest in Black Atlantic religion, but I tend to write about those things which kind of pull at me and seem timely. And so I had a master’s advisor tell me once that I had a constellation of interests, and I think that’s still true. So sometimes it’s very hard for me to pigeonhole myself as a researcher, but broadly speaking, I do Black history and culture. As I think of myself as an educator, I want access points for people in every place to meet them where they are. So I’m really glad that I was able to be part of this project. History is a lie, right? It’s a breathing thing that’s happening. So if you treat it that way, I think fundamentally, it becomes more interesting, because I’ve had many students say to me, in past that history is boring. And I’m like, that’s not true. You’re being taught wrong. Because history is one long soap opera, and it’s a mess, and therefore very interesting. But no, if you see this one event as connected to these things that do matter to you, that you do have a stake in, I think that changes our perspective about historical events, because I think for unfortunately, one of the disservices that has been done around history as a field is that it’s, there’s this myth of objectivity, and so it’s designed to feel foreign. It’s designed to feel unattached, not real. It’s designed to feel far away from you and distant. And I think the way that we engage people in historical events, is to let them know that history is actually a really intimate thing into your everyday life, and I think that’ll change how people interact with it. I remember sitting down with my grandmother for an interview, and I asked her about it, and she had her own, I mean, cuz she’s a Philadelphia, she was born and raised in Philadelphia, she grew up in South Philly, spent most of her adult life in Northwest Philadelphia, so, and the Mount Airy section of the city, but has like acute awareness and memory of everything that was happening that day, and how even Black people who were maybe frustrated with MOVE, found that to be like completely irresponsible on the part of Wilson Goode and the police department.

So even now today, like, if you drove over to Osage Avenue, you will find that that area of the city is still largely vacant, right? And I think a lot about the afterlife of the MOVE bombing, yes that neighborhood was razed, people were displaced who had nothing to do with the MOVE organization. But also, that area is still vacant and the bones of the remains of those people still have not been returned to those families. And people were processing as recently as two summers ago to return those remains to their families, right? So this is one of the things that I’m trying to capture in the essay is that things, some of these things are not quite historical and the way that we think of them. There is an event that happened in 1985. However, things are still happening as a result of the event in 1985, and I think that’s worth discussing. It is a worthwhile endeavor to write a separate essay completely dedicated to the harm that MOVE may have done in the community that they were in and within the organization itself. I think it’s a very worthy topic, although it isn’t the topic that I chose. Having a nuanced conversation about what it might mean for sexual assault allegations to be true in the wake of this gratuitous violence that impacted an entire community of people and resulted in dead children. I think those two things have to stand on their own because they’re unrelated.

So I think that we’ve always understood representational power to be faulty in terms of a way to look at what it might mean to have a Black person in a position of power, which is oppressive, it doesn’t make it any less oppressive. But there are two things I want to say about Wilson Goode, because I don’t want it to seem as though he’s less culpable than he is, but what I will say is to the people who I talked to, who were alive for the event, many of them feel very strongly that Wilson Goode had little to nothing to do with it. If only because he was a figurehead and a mouthpiece, not necessarily any kind of political playmaker in terms of how the city was functioning at the time. And I think many people in the city of Philadelphia will still agree that the position of mayor, although it’s an elected position, is not one where it is a seat of power. That doesn’t mean it can’t, in my position, that he’s less culpable for the violence that unfolded, but I do not see his Blackness in this role as something that should have been a mediating factor that would have eliminated the threat of violence against the Black community. We’ve known that to be true for some time, and we can see, for example, in other places, Clarence Thomas on the court, Barack Obama in the presidency, he was one cog in the machine, which was already designed and running well to oppress Black communities, and I don’t think that he was empowered in that position to stop it. Isn’t it the work of Black history to understand that it does not need special attention in the first place, and that it should just be integrated into what we’re learning all the time? I don’t actually think that’s what Carter G. Woodson would say though, right? So on the one hand, I understand cultural co-optation, in terms of how it works to undermine.

So, if we provide a gratuitous amount of attention to Black history in February, in Black popular culture, in corporate culture, then what we come to understand is that it does not then mean that you value Black life any more. But you do see the corporate value of performing care, which is not the same thing. I do see a devaluation of Black culture and history that happens because of the corporate co-optation, which has taken place, but I do still see Black history month, February, as something that is very important and very sacred, because there are too many people who have done this work for us to overlook the contributions, right? Because that’s the thing that would unsettle me – that all these great historians, Carter G. Woodson, Arturo Schomburg, all these great intellectuals and archivists and librarians had painstaking work, right, of excavating Black history, as it were, to not necessarily take the time to honor their labor, because that’s what it’s about for me. It’s not about February is the Blackest month of the year, potentially, culturally speaking, but that’s not actually what it’s about for me. What it’s about for me, is taking the time to honor the people who paved the way for me to be able to do what I’m doing. A great term called ancestral genealogy, which just speaks to who are the scholars that help frame and inform and teach you what you come to do? So that works on a lot of different levels.

Sometimes there are actual touch points, like teaching you had, and sometimes it’s just scholars that you read who are deeply inspirational to you, and I have quite a few of both. So I guess I’ll start from myself and work outwards. So I mentioned the Philadelphia Freedom Schools Project to begin with. And you know, it’s interesting, Dr. Kelli Sparrow Mickens has written a history of Philadelphia freedom schools, and that is a published book if you’re interested in educational spaces that were committed to teaching Black history and providing educational resources to Black students who didn’t have them, quite frankly. That is a history that people should know, specific to the city of Philadelphia for sure. Coming back to the city of Philadelphia, there has been a movie about this on Netflix, but the Black cowboy culture in North Philly, people have got to know about that. That is just so good. So coming back to my genealogy and moving out some, I’m an alumni at Howard University. I’m very proud of that. And I had some excellent educators over there. So I’ve mentioned Greg Carr, Mario Beatty, Valethia Watkins. Oh, gosh, like every professor ever had over there was excellent. And I know leaving names out, but those three definitely for sure. And so now that I’m, I mean, I’m going to Ohio State University and Dr. Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́ was my chair for my dissertation, I mean, and he is an excellent scholar. But also when I was there, I had classes with Simone Drake, Kwaku Korang. And one of the things that I mean, I read so deeply, in theory, and one of the scholars that I was introduced to while I was there was Christina Sharpe. And I’ve made her acquaintance twice, and she has some of the most insightful, nuanced, critical work around what Blackness has been constructed to mean in the United States, and it is deeply moving to me. I mentioned Ida B. Wells, just as a scholar, she is my hero, professionally and personally, because she was so brazen, I’ll use that word, she was so brazen about telling you the truth of the matter.

And then it’s very clear, because for so long, and I think even to this contemporary moment is very dangerous for Black women to tell the truth. And she committed and understood that it was a risk to her very livelihood to do that. And her quest for justice was more important than her life and it is deeply heroic to me. Also, honorable mention, Charles Mills, who actually passed away last year, he has a book called “The Racial Contract” a quite required reading. And there was that Neely fuller Jr. “until you understand race, everything you think you understand is only going to confusion? Oh, yes. Also that. Very important. If I had to talk about a contemporary moment, I do see an opportunity for Black stories to get told in new and exciting and not trite ways through the internet. And the access we have to cameras. I mean, Black people are doing really amazing things independently speaking, that are not happening in Hollywood to tell these lesser known stories of Black historical and cultural contribution, right? I think the other thing, too, is that because we have something like social media, I think people are paying more close attention to the ways in which Black culture drives cultural production in the first place, right? So now we’re having different conversations about what does it mean to be a tastemaker for let’s just say, fashion and what is fashionable? Especially coming off the heels of the Met Gala, what becomes high culture and when? Right? And I think that because we are able to have these conversations in real time, people are able to have more nuanced and critical conversations about how things become high culture and how other things become marginalized, or how the culture of people becomes appropriated, and they become marginalized and it becomes high culture. I think we are in a place where we are hyper-focused on our cultural identity. And I mean that across race, gender, sexuality, religion, and so I think cultural performances is very critical in this moment, in terms of the personal is political. So I do see where people are performing Blackness in these very interesting ways, whether that be through dress or tattoos, hairstyle, especially within this critical move that I’ve seen over the last, I would say, 10 years in earnest toward natural hair among Black women. In some, I don’t see them as completely discreet, but I do see where culturally speaking Black people are having more conversations about their overall contributions to what we would consider something as American culture