Q&A with Salamishah Tillet

Salam is an Arabic word meaning “peace,” as in the Islamic greeting, As-salam alaykum, “peace be upon you.” Shah is Farsi for “king” or “leader.”

“I’m a ’70s baby so my parents were really inspired by the black power movement,” says Salamishah Tillet, an assistant professor of English and Africana studies, explaining the origin of her first name. “They interpreted the [syllable] ‘mi’ as black. So of course to my parents, it’s ‘peace, black, majestic.’ But etymologically, it’s ‘peace, majestic.’ But they made up the name, which is ultimately African American.”

Originally from Boston and Orange, N. J., Tillet spent her middle-school years living in Trinidad, the land of her father. She spent her undergraduate years at Penn. A 1996 alumnae, she arrived at the University wanting to be a lawyer, before taking an English seminar on women writers.

“African-American literary studies was really vibrant at Penn, and I had the good fortune of taking a class with a professor named Farah Jasmine Griffin who taught here,” she says. “She now teaches at Columbia.”

Seeing an African-American woman in academia left a lasting impact on a young and impressionable Tillet, who used to visit Griffin in her office regularly. 

“I didn’t even know you could become an academic,” she says. “I didn’t grow up with that as a model. It was taking English classes and African-American studies classes here at Penn, and loving literature so much that I was able to see that I could do this for the rest of my life. Also, having African-American faculty or white faculty who were interested in African-American studies really encouraged me to continue this as a lifetime pursuit.” 

The Current sat down with Tillet, fresh off maternity leave, in her office in Fisher-Bennett Hall to discuss feminism, liberal arts degrees in today’s economy, African-American representations in pop culture, and 20th century black authors reimagining slavery. 

Q. Why did you decide to come to Penn as an undergrad?
A. My freshman year of high school, I was on the track team and we came to the Penn Relays. I didn’t even know [Penn] was an Ivy League school, I just knew this place was fun and it seemed really diverse. That was my first introduction to Penn. When I started applying to colleges my junior year, my cousin was here at the time, so I had family here. I wanted to be in a city. I wanted to go to a school that was considered rigorous. I wanted to be in a place where I felt like I could get a good education but also a place that seemed urban. That was important to me. And it was bigger than my high school. My high school had 500 people; Penn had 10,000 undergrads.

Q. Where does your interest in English come from?
A. As an adolescent—as a tween and then as a teen—I really loved mystery novels, and I would read Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys, and Agatha Christie novels, so that’s where it started. You read these books and you’re trying to figure out the whodunit, or why this thing happened. That was when I was in Trinidad. When I came back to the States and I went to a private school in North Jersey, I actually had two different phenomenal English teachers and I was able to take the passion I had to figure out the mystery in a detective novel and ask why does a writer make certain choices? Aesthetic choices. Thematic choices. What’s the mystery of literary texts? I really fell in love with fiction and writing at an important moment in my development. When I was able to take all of that and then apply it to African-American studies, African-American literature, I really found a home, a mental home and a creative home for myself.

Q. With the current state of the economy, would you major in English or African-American studies today if you were a student? Liberal arts jobs seem hard to come by.
A. I would because I probably would want to become an academic, or I probably would want to go to law school. I’m especially proud of the African-American studies degree because I do think it taught me how to be someone who is an interdisciplinary scholar on one hand, but it also gave me a vocabulary to understand my place in this world and to also understand race relations in American society, which I think is something most Americans still grapple with and don’t understand how to talk about, or how to interact, sometimes, with people who look different than them. I think both disciplines gave me a really strong education and really strong critical-thinking skills. If you think about any profession that you’re in, you need to know how to write, and you need to know how to write decently. I think English and African-American studies provide you with a much better foundation for that. But I also think the world has fundamentally changed and the United States has changed, and African-American studies gives you the tools, vocabulary, historical context to understand why that matters and how to fit in to that new world. I don’t think there are a lot of disciplines that can do that kind of stuff.

Q. In the past, you taught ‘Race Films: Spike Lee and his Interlocutors.’ What did you discuss in the class?
A. That was really fun. I taught it with Professor John Jackson, who’s at Annenberg and Anthropology. John and I have been friends since my first year of grad school. When I was in undergrad, I was able to take a class with a professor here named Donald Bogle. He taught ‘Blacks in Film and Television’ and I wrote my final paper on Spike Lee’s films. I’ve always been into Spike Lee because I think he’s one of the most important American filmmakers of the late 20th century, definitely the most important African-American filmmaker. I wondered if this generation even knows who Spike Lee is. We wanted to use the class as a way to think through Spike Lee’s career, but also to think about the larger history of race in American film, and Spike Lee’s such a perfect figure to do that. We started with his first film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ and we ended with a film called ‘Miracle at St. Anna.’ Each week we did two things that I think were really great. Spike Lee’s so diverse in the themes he chooses to put on film, but he’s also really diverse in terms of the kind of issues that he’s wrestling with, so we would teach something like ‘He Got Game’ and then invite Wharton professor Kenneth Shropshire [director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative] to lecture, or ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ and invite [music] professor Guy Ramsey to talk about music in the film.
It really was a class about Spike Lee, but it was in many ways a class that showed African-American studies at Penn, and also dealt with race and the way that it informs how we think about gender, sexuality, class. And then Spike Lee came to the class, so that was great. He came and he spent the afternoon with our students and he was amazing.

Q. You occasionally comment on race, or the lack thereof, on television and in film, such as your column in The Nation about the HBO series ‘Girls’ and your column for CNN about the film ‘Django Unchained.’ What do you think these TV shows and films are missing?
A. It depends on the show. On one hand, a show like ‘Girls,’ it wasn’t even a part of [creator Lena Dunham’s] imagination to have a multi-racial New York, which is troubling because I actually really like the show and I think it’s funny. But then you have these other things on network TV that I think are giving us new representations. It just depends on what network you’re watching and it depends on what show you’re watching. It’s not a structural change, it’s incremental. I think if there’s any way to really think about it, you have to look back at the Civil Rights Movement and figure out how much has changed. It’s all incremental. I think television is reflecting the kind of slow wheels of racial equality in America today. I don’t think it’s behind or ahead, I think it’s really just in step with some of the problems that we have in society. Film, I think, is actually more troubling. ... It’s kind of a crazy moment where you can have a film like ‘Django Unchained’ do so well at the box office, but you also know that an African-American filmmaker never would have been able to get the funding to direct a film like that.

Q. A number of publications have described you as an ‘activist’ or a ‘feminist activist’? How do you define feminism?
A. I’m a little more expansive than most people. I think I was a feminist at such an early age that for me, to be a feminist, at its most basic level, means to believe that you are not inferior to boys or to men. Early on, my mother—she would not identify as a feminist—really talked often about gender inequality in the home or in the workplace, so there was the language of anti-sexism that I was kind of born into. But then also my dad ... he didn’t have boys, he had two daughters, so he would race me all the time. I think that was such an important lesson, because when your dad is racing you, you’re kind of equal. I’m mean, you’re going to lose but I think a really important thing that fathers can do with their daughters is to not treat them like they’re somehow inferior because they’re girls. My father never really treated me differently than I think he would have treated a boy child. In my early years, I was the only girl amongst a lot of boy cousins, and I always had to fight for my space, fight to be heard, fight to play games with them, and I just kept that up. When I became a teenager, and then when I went to college, I channeled my instinct for gender equality into having a vocabulary to talk about it. Feminism for me is both a place where you can find freedom, and also a political project to make sure that all human beings are treated fairly.

Q. Has feminism changed much since the 1970s?
A. Yes and no. There’s the mainstream feminist movement, which is seen as not diverse. At least in the ’70s, that’s how it was understood. I think that tension still exists. I think that there is a feeling that to be a woman in America means that you’re not a woman of color. You can see it from the most recent presidential campaign and the war on women, which obviously effects all women in America ... and really Planned Parenthood defunding, which would specifically effect working-class white women and women of color. But the faces of the war on women, the women who were being most disaffected, were white women. The other way in which women of color aren’t the faces of these movements is they’re not the faces of victimization. But I think there are a lot of different sets of issues. I think young women and men today are differently savvy about how to get their voices heard. There’s a lot more space for certain kinds of communities. On the blogosphere at least, there’s a lot more space to get your information and your issues out there. At the same time, every day black and brown girls in the United States are completely ‘invisible-ized.’ There are very few funding sources that focus on their specific issues. There are very few programs that are there to push them from being a victim of violence to becoming a leader of a social justice movement. I feel like some things have stayed the same and some things have changed. Technology has created a lot more room, but the intersection of racism/sexism/classism has also ensured that certain communities are still overlooked, whether it’s by the federal government or foundations.

Q. Do men have a place in the feminist movement?
A. I really do believe in the capacity for boys and young men to be agents of social change around gender issues. I’m one of the people who think men are/can be feminists. Men and feminism are not at odds with each other. I think feminism is so open; it just means that you have to believe that girls and women are not inferior to you. And as long as men don’t take these issues seriously, it just keeps on happening over and over again.

Q. Are men who support feminists comparable to what the gay community calls ‘straight allies’?
A. Yes, but I wouldn’t call them allies, I would say they’re feminists. You can be a man and be a feminist.

I think young women and men today are differently savvy about how to get their voices heard. There’s a lot more space for certain kinds of communities. ... At the same time, every day black and brown girls in the United States are completely ‘invisible-ized.’”

Q. You are the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a non-profit organization that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end violence against girls and women. Can you talk a little bit about the organization?
A. It’s really about using a feminist model of activism and art to end the very real violence that girls and women experience every day, particularly black girls. It was cofounded in 2003, when I was in graduate school. The beginning story is pretty simple, but difficult. I was sexually assaulted when I was a student here at Penn. It happened my freshman year with someone I knew, and then when I went to study abroad in Kenya, I was sexually assaulted again. After that experience, at first I was really silent just dealing with the repercussions of sexual violence but not sharing my story, not going to therapy. The experience in Kenya was so violent that when I came back to the United States, I felt like I had to deal with it. That was in 1995, and then two years later I started really heavily being in therapy and I published my personal story of dealing with sexual violence in the feminist newspaper on campus here that no longer exists. My sister happened to take a social documentary photography class around the same time—she was a junior in college—so she asked if she could photograph my healing process. So that’s the beginning. She went on, during her senior year, to turn that photography project into a multimedia performance called ‘Story Of A Rape Survivor’ [SOARS] and then she went on after that to get a master’s in art therapy at the Art Institute of Chicago and she became a rape crisis counselor, so it completely transformed her trajectory as an artist and as a professional in the world. We started touring with SOARS and it has a cast of women who bring the photographs to life, who tell my story from being a rape victim to being a survivor. We were doing it for years, and then we realized in 2009 we wanted to work with college students. But we also realized that high school students have so few resources, and high school girls are the most at-risk population for sexual violence and dating violence and they have the fewest resources. Rape crisis centers tend to treat adults or young children, but adolescents are kind of left out there without a safety net. We wanted to create a program specifically for adolescent girls, but not one that just treats their problems, but actually trains them to help other girls. The other thing with teenagers is that they’re their No. 1 resource. If there’s a problem, they’ll go to another teenager. They’re not going to go to their parents. They’re not going to go to a teacher, so that’s when Girl/Friends began. It’s grown a lot in terms of visibility and in terms of infrastructure of the organization. Having this college program, SOARS, and this high school program, Girl/Friends, it’s like my third baby. I have the real baby, and then I have the book baby, and then I have this activist baby. It’s amazing. We work primarily with working-class African-American and Latino girls in Chicago. All the Girl/Friends programs have therapists who work with the students, as well as professional activists and advocates and artists who work with them. They’re being trained to be leaders as they’re being healed.

Q. Your most recent book, ‘Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination,’ examines why and how contemporary African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals remember antebellum slavery within post-Civil Rights America. Why were you interested in the topic?
A. This project started in my head when I was an undergrad. My senior year I did an independent study on slave narratives. I was drawn to the issue of slavery for two reasons. One, because I’m half Trinidadian, half African American, so there are many cultural divisions in my family, but there are also things in common, and a lot of the stuff that is in common has to do with the fact that both sides of my family were descendants of the slave trade, and that slavery was a thing that shaped blackness in the Caribbean and the United States. The other thing is, as a rape survivor, I was going through the process of dealing with my own personal trauma, and [contemplating] what does it mean to be a people that are in the United States and have this original trauma? And then not only what does it mean to have this original trauma, but also instead of being able to grieve once emancipation came, [slavery] was quickly replaced by an equally harsh system of segregation. There’s actually no moment in time when African Americans could really mourn, transform, and overcome slavery. In my own personal experience of going through therapy, I’m dealing with flashbacks, and then I’m reading these novels written in the 1970s and early ’80s in which African-American writers like Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler have their characters reliving slavery. They’re contemporary characters going back to the past. It was a really weird experience in therapy to be going through this on my own level, and then seeing how African-American writers were rendering that as kind of allegory of how black people were today. Literary critics like Ashraf Rushdy have called it the neo-slave narrative. It really starts with Margaret Walker’s ‘Jubilee’ in 1966. But in the ’70s, almost each year you get a new contemporary novel on slavery, and then again in the ’80s. It kept on going until the mid-’90s. By the time I got to grad school, I wanted to study why contemporary African-American writers were revisiting slavery so much ... There’s this way in which African-American citizens seem to be really preoccupied with slavery at the very same moment when we are so far away from it and we seem to have all the legal benefits that we never had before. Why would you go back to this moment of complete disenfranchisement at the same moment you’ve become full citizens? That’s the question my book was really trying to grapple with, because it almost seems counterintuitive. You’re ‘thoroughly American’ and you’re going back to the moment when America was founded on your back.

Salamishah Tillet-slideshow