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Jennifer Nash: Unsettling the Romances of Black Feminism

Part of the Welcome the New Faculty, 2020 Series
Jennifer Nash
Jennifer Nash: “I’m interested in thinking about how and why intersectionality has become the primary program-building initiative at every women’s studies department in the country."

“I am fundamentally committed to Black feminism as a theoretical and political project,” said Jennifer Nash, who joined the Duke faculty as Jean Fox O'Barr Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies this year. “That’s where my heart is.”

By following that guiding star, Nash has created an acclaimed body of work that includes two award-winning books and a third book coming next year. But her research is also deeply personal. “For me, every project has come out of the experiential,” Nash said.

Since her undergraduate women’s studies major changed her “at a cellular level,” the theorist has examined the way that “the Black woman gets taken up as a symbol by a host of actors, including the university, academic feminism, the hospital and Black feminists themselves.”

Drawing from an eclectic array of disciplines alongside her own life experience, Nash’s collected writings point toward a Black feminism fit for a world that is defined by both the popularization of Black feminist ideas and the ongoing need for Black Lives Matter protests. “I’m really interested in unsettling certain romances that circulate around Black feminist theory and practice,” she said.

After college, Nash first trained as a lawyer, attending law school at Harvard University in the hopes of working on feminist legal issues. But while she found the training useful and some classes on women engaging, much of her coursework “left her cold,” she said. “There were social and cultural questions about the law that were not answered by my classes.”

Knowing that she still wanted to write and research, Nash decided to complete a Ph.D. in African American Studies, also at Harvard. In her dissertation—later turned into her first book, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography—Nash “moves beyond black feminism's preoccupation with injury and recovery to consider how racial fictions can create a space of agency and even pleasure for black female subjects,” as the book jacket phrased it.

“It was a desire to think about how and why pornography representing black women was so often framed as a problem for Black feminist theory,” Nash said. “I wanted to think about how Black feminism itself had imagined representation.”

Because pornography was thought of as “the outer limits of what could be politically redeemable,” Nash added, analyzing pornographic films featuring Black women allowed her to argue that pleasure—and our ideas of pleasure—are “a crucial way in which race maintains its hold on our collective imagination.”

Nash’s tendency to question long held beliefs within Black feminism also guided her second book, last year’s Black Feminism Reimagined, which took direct aim at intersectionality. Coined by legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, the concept of intersectionality refers to the idea that we must be attuned to the ways that race, gender and other identities intersect in important ways. It is often thought of as a foundational tenet of Black feminism.

But while directing the women’s studies program at George Washington University, Nash began to wonder how the concept became the essential criteria for the subject. “As we tried to garner resources, I was compelled to say: ‘We are an introductory program training students to be intersectional,’” Nash explained. “I was like: Why am I saying this? Why must I speak this language to get resources from our institution?”

By looking at the work Black women have performed within universities—and in women’s studies departments in particular—Nash argued that intersectionality’s popularity had begun to limit Black feminist possibilities.

“I’m interested in thinking about how and why intersectionality has become the primary program-building initiative at every women’s studies department in the country,” she said. “And in particular, I’m trying to think about what that has done to Black feminists. “I’m trying to argue that we, Black feminists, should let go of our territorial grab on intersectionality and let it move in ways that might make us uncomfortable.”

Next year, Nash will publish her third book, which will examine Black motherhood in the Black Lives Matter era. The project was born at the same time as her daughter, Nash said. “Never when I wrote my first book did I imagine my third book would be about motherhood. If you had asked me then, I would have said there’s nothing more boring.”

But while in a self-described baby-friendly hospital, Nash found herself negotiating the racial and gender politics of breastfeeding, and the question of Black motherhood took on a new urgency. “I’m thinking: How do I understand this situation? What is baby-friendly,” she said.

In the resulting work, Birthing Black Mothers, Nash turns her critical eye to the way that longstanding problems—like racial discrepancies in breastfeeding rates and maternal mortality—are being raised as if they are new.

“I’m trying to think of that as a result of Black Lives Matter,” Nash said. Through the focus on police violence, typically against young Black men and boys, Black mothers have become “symbols of their sons.”

“Black maternal bodies are seen as vessels of Black life,” she added, and in becoming symbols they are turned into “political commodities.”

Now at Duke, Nash will begin work on a new book about the style and aesthetics of contemporary Black feminist writing produced in those spaces. But she will also bring her feminist commitments into the classroom. “Fundamental to my approach to Black feminism is embracing vulnerability and risk as a Black feminist ethics. My struggle with my students—and our collective project—is to figure out how to talk to each other.”

In practice, that means aiming for classrooms where students don’t “feel like they’re supposed to rehearse a certain kind of political credential, rather than ask questions or get to places where they feel unsettled,” Nash said. Her books offer proof of how productive that can be.