Occasional Lecture Series

Report on Hortense J. Spillers's talk

January 4, 2010




As part of the Occasional Lecture Series of the Forum on Contemporary Theory, a talk by Prof. Hortense J. Spillers, Professor and currently the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in English at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA was organized on January 4, 2010 at 4.00 pm at the Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda. Professor Spillers has authored Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, a collection of essays (2003), Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition (co-edited with Marjorie Pryse, 1985), and Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text (2001). She also sits on a number of editorial boards of various notable journals. The title of the talk was: “The Idea of Black Culture: On the Road Again.”

The talk presented an overview of the author’s ongoing research on the black culture and the notion of ‘Blackness’. Spillers explored the complexities of the idea of black culture through her observations and experiences during her travels in the following cities: New York, Chicago, Detroit in the United States, Kingston in the Caribbean, Toronto in Canada, and London and Paris in Europe. Primarily, her main concern was to figure out what contemporary black cultural practice is like in these cities of black critical mass. She elaborated how Black culture finds expression through dance, painting, music, creative writing, etc.  She also observed that there is no monolithic singular Black culture or the notion of ‘Blackness.’ It shows variations with reference to the ‘Context.’ Blackness and the experiences, feelings and memories associated with it differ in each continent, each corner of the world and perhaps all individual (with different skin colors) attach their own perspectives to the notion of ‘Blackness.’

In the discussion that followed questions like why the present study has not engaged with the context of Africa, to what extent the usage of the term ‘diaspora’ is relevant in the context of the present study, how could one account for the variations in the usage of the term ‘Blackness’, etc. were raised. Prof. Hortense affirmed that she has been considering the inclusion of Jamaica and Johannesburg in her study. She briefly talked about her perspectives on terms like ‘diaspora’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’ and their relevance in her analysis. Citing examples from different cultural contexts wherein ‘blackness’ is expressed and represented differently, she warned that one should not see the black culture and the idea of blackness as homogenous and unchanging. She also made an observation that in her study, contemplating on how the notions of ‘blackness’ and the black culture are constructed and represented in different socio-political and cultural contexts is important.