“It is crucial for us to understand that what we feel as Black peoples provides useful data that can be turned into critical analysis.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Bianca C. Williams. Williams is Associate Professor of Anthropology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her book is The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Bianca C. Williams: The Pursuit of Happiness is my first contribution to answering a question I imagine will be a life-long study: “How do Black people maintain emotional wellness in the midst of racism and sexism?” The book follows a group of heterosexual, African American cis women tourists as they travel to and from Jamaica, seeking an escape from U.S.-based racism and sexism while desiring diasporic belonging. Neither I, nor the women I studied, could’ve predicted this current political and social climate a decade ago. We are living in particularly troubling times, and it feels like every day we are witnessing soul-draining acts of racism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. But what the book provides some insight into are the strategies for wellness that Black American women create in spite of, and sometimes in resistance to, people and institutions determined to deny their full humanity. Most of the women highlighted are of the Civil Rights generation, and they lived through a time of great violence and significant cultural and political transformation. We can learn from their lessons learned. Their travel to Jamaica, and their participation in an online Jamaica-centered community, are attempts to practice self-care strategies and prioritize themselves when no one else will.
“Most of the women highlighted are of the Civil Rights generation, and they lived through a time of great violence and significant cultural and political transformation.”
The Movement for Black Lives (particularly Black Lives Matter) has pushed us into an international conversation about emotional wellness. Expanding Audre Lorde’s theorization of “self-care as political,” they emphasize mental health and emotional wellness in their fight against white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The #MeToo Movement has brought a reckoning, requiring us to sit with and commit to healing from the stress and destruction caused by sexual violence, abuse, and trauma. Even in the midst of all of this,especiallyin the midst of it, Black women find innovate ways to experience happiness, affirm one another, and make themselves visible. Contrary to popular depictions, anger and sadness are only part of our story. Pursuing happiness is a political project for Black women, and it is one I believe helps liberate us.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
First, happiness, leisure, and pleasure are essential to our organizing and imaginings of liberation. The women in The Pursuit of Happiness are doing their best to live their best lives with limited resources—much of their pursuits of happiness include dancing, eating good food, getting close to the ocean, connecting with friends who value one another’s stories, and briefly escaping the racialized and gendered burdens frequently placed on Black women. In the past few years, I’ve experienced and witnessed so much of the burnout that Black women struggle with as central organizers in equity and justice movements. But I’ve also seen how intentional commitments to wellness, happiness, and leisure act as connective tissue within these communities. People like Kleaver Kruz (The Black Joy Project), Esther Armah (emotional justice), Prentis Hemphill (healing justice), Mariame Kaba and Mia Mingus (transformative justice), adrienne marie brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Treva Lindsey (pleasure) advocate for the centrality of emotion and healing in our fights for equity. While not centered on organizers, I see the book being in conversation with their work. Additionally, it’s important to note that affect, emotions, and feelings are forms of knowledge. Instead of belittling the significance of tears, laughter, grief, happiness, it is crucial for us to understand that what we feel as Black peoples provides useful data that can be turned into critical analysis. How we feel as we experience racism and sexism provides a lens into understanding how power operates.
“I’ve experienced and witnessed so much of the burnout that Black women struggle with as central organizers in equity and justice movements.”
Finally, everything that is political is not radical. Ashon Crawley wrote an excellent Twitter thread on this recently, in relation to happiness and joy. In the book, I explain that as African American tourist women travel to pursue happiness, they must negotiate the power differentials embedded in diasporic and transnational relationships. While their pursuits of happiness are political, they are simultaneously implicated in various forms of nationalized and classed inequities that affect others, particularly Jamaican women.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I teach a course titled “Black Women, Popular Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” where we spend fifteen weeks interrogating the relationship between racism, sexism, and emotional wellness. As I introduce students to Black feminist theory, and watch them learn about mental health disorders and strategies for dealing with them, it never ceases to amaze me how much shame and fear are present. I’m not surprised that it’s there; I’m surprised by how deep these wells run. Black women, in particular, are taught to sacrifice ourselves for our community’s needs. Our relationships with our bodies, with loved ones, with media, with our minds are influenced by white supremacist, anti-Black, misogynoir ideologies that fuel U.S. society. To be Black and a woman and feel entitled to pursuing happiness is viewed as selfish, something we should be ashamed of. It is as if Black women experiencing happiness disrupts the Matrix. I hope that readers are able to value the emotional journeys of the women in The Pursuit of Happiness, recognizing that wellness as a political project for Black women chips away at the destructive, shaming effects of white supremacy and patriarchy. Sacrificing our wellness for the benefit of others, even our loved ones, should not be something central to Black women’s identities; but so often, this is what is asked of us. We see it in the discussions surrounding Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Black men causing harm in the academy and organizing circles. I need everyone to unlearn this racist and sexist notion. If Black women decide to contribute our (physical and emotional) labor or care-work to our communities and institutions, it should be a choice, not a requirement. We should not be shamed for choosing otherwise. Our humanity being seen or affirmed should not be dependent on this.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Black feminist knowledge makers are my intellectual heroes. Some of them are women who ensure that Black women and their knowledges will not be erased, especially from higher education—Beverly Guy Sheftall, Barbara Christian, bell hooks, Barbara Ransby, and Melissa Harris-Perry. Many are anthropologists who creatively think about the ways Black people make meaning of our lives, write about it, then use that knowledge to transform the institutions and disciplines we reside in—Zora Neale Hurston, Leith Mullings, Dana-Ain Davis, Faye V. Harrison, A. Lynn Bolles, Deborah A. Thomas, Cheryl Rodriguez, Irma McClaurin, and Johnetta B. Cole. Some are folx who have transformed how I think about leadership and organizing philosophies, practices, and pedagogies—Elle Hearns, Janaya “Future” Khan, Patrisse Cullors-Khan, Mary Hooks, Leslie Mac, and Charlene Carruthers. Some are men who actively use their educational capital and institutional resources to engage and make room for Black feminist knowledge production, while ensuring our voices are heard—Lee D. Baker, John L. Jackson, and Mark Anthony Neal. Some are writers who are extraordinarily gifted in articulating the impact generations of oppression have had on Black peoples, while creating narratives that inspire us to powerfully embody our Blackness(es)—Nayirrah Waheed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Kiese Laymon. Audre Lorde’s intersectional analysis of (queer) Black women’s lives is food for my soul, and her theorization of affect is central to my research. Finally, say what you want, but the analyses of #BlackTwitter is often unrecognized and undervalued as a form of intellect. When I am teaching, strategizing, and writing about emotion and resistance, I draw inspiration and affirmation from all of these brave and radically honest intellectuals.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Many Black women are exploring different ways of being in relationship with ourselves and others. We are also growing evermore aware of the transformative power of our emotional labor, and the significance of emotional wellness. This is powerful. These are some of the reasons I was committed to documenting the journeys of African American tourist women in The Pursuit of Happiness. I saw their reimagining of self and community as part of a feminist project. And the fact that “diasporic heart”—a deep desire to connect with and invest in African diasporic communities was central to these reimaginings made the project even more exciting. In a post-Black Panther moment when so many are participating in passionate discussion about power, equity, cultural exchanges, political strategy, and liberation within the African Diaspora, I’m happy to have written a book that centers Black women’s needs, desires, and contributions to diasporic dialogues. These conversations, and the practices that will follow from them, are what will lead us to more equitable and just new worlds.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of U.S. Empire.