Dispatches from Shondalandia by a Slavery Historian (Vol. 1)

“This is what happens when black feminist scholars from across the disciplines come together in love and solidarity to debate, critique, and appreciate a text, a body of work. Still reeling from the joy and the fury of conversations at our kitchen table. Thank you Laurent Dubois and Mark Anthony Neal for the invitation and for a format that (as Karla Holloway mentioned) is very different from the traditional academic panel or roundtable format. The opportunity to truly dialogue with such brilliant thinkers and an excited, engaged audience–it was breathtaking. And thank you ladies for pushing me and pushing scholarly thought on black women forward in such provocative ways: Anne-Maria Makhulu, Natalie Bullock Brown Joan Morgan Lisa B. Thompson and Karla Holloway, Blair Lynne Murphy Kelley Brittney Cooper Martha Jones. You challenge everyone you encounter to hit the archive running, to respect our stories, and to carve out “new adjectives” (as Treva B Lindsey stated in the first session) not because it is what academics should do but because this work, our knowledge is also our survival. And our survival is a liberatory project that impacts everyone. Thank you Shonda Rhimes for blazing a trail.”

I wrote the reflection above in the afterglow of a warm weekend with friends, colleagues, and black feminist thought. Our time together reminded me of a few things, and these reminders never come too late, always arrive right on time.

Our time together reminded me loving black people is a sacred act. It is intentional and, in a world of black terror, requires skill, sacrifice and risk. To declare black lives matter is to stand in the face of history and scream with superhuman pain while Death’s soldiers march around you.

But it also reminded me loving black women is more than a sacred act nestled within the terrain of loving black people. Loving black women is a profane art. It time travels and tesseracts across worlds, bringing Harriet Tubman in conversation with Kara Walker, and Sally Hemmings in conversation with Olivia Pope. It rejects gender binaries which exclude trans and gender non-conforming folk, remaking the category the black woman (as Karla Holloway challenged us to) into something dynamic and inclusive. It embraces intimate desires and chosen kin curving straight alienation by requiring acts of love not states of power as proof of community membership.

This kind of love is promiscuous. It cavorts across disciplinary boundaries never meant to contain this thing, this body, this premonition—the black woman. At its most quiet, it unstitches. When it is loud, it is a raging storm.

This kind of love, too, is a skill. And, yet, all it asks is that we choose each other first.

As I arrived at the symposium, I reflected on how and why this work is important. Shonda Rhimes, Shondaland, both as a fantastic universe and a production company, and the shows to emerge under Rhimes creative direction or in association with her (from on-going hits like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder to the now off-air Private Practice to one-season wonders like Off the Map) deserve to be engaged with, theorized, researched, and written about by scholars. Of this, there is no question. Academics who look askance at popular culture, the contemporary media landscape, or Shonda Rhimes’s role in both do themselves a disservice. As with Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, you need not enjoy the text or the creator to see the impact both have had and continue to have on our everyday.


A symposium on Shondaland and Shonda Rhimes is work the academy can and should support–and yet it is not work that should be accountable to the academy. That this symposium occurred at Duke, an institution with a complicated relationship to its non-white students, is one side of the coin. The other resides in the laps and laughter of black women, women from across the diaspora who entered the conference room from a range of lived experiences. Black women dominated the symposium and filled the audience and they did not hold back their joy and pleasure in each other. This, alone, was a revelation, a necessary act of healing, and a challenge to do more.

In addition, rigorous intellectual production by black feminist thinkers (those who are university-affiliated and those who are not) continues to play a singular role remapping, constructing, and deconstructing who and what we are.

It became clear, for instance, over only two days of discussion, that there is addressing and then there is engaging.

Engaging includes curating the text, a task, as Treva Lindsey and Joan Morgan noted on the first panel, that occurs every week on social media as viewers respond in real-time to plot twists, gender presentation, word choice. It also includes rich conversations at symposia and pages on pages of reflection. As there is a part of me that remains tied to the published word, it includes, I hope, anthologies, monographs, fan fiction, memoirs from the Shonda generation, spin-off novels, zines and digital archives.

Engaging is the real work. It is the difference between seeing black people (die/love/fuck/dance/make touchdowns/get degrees/read books) and loving black people while loving black women.

At the symposium, we loved black women. And it was good.

Our engagement wasn’t perfect. Although referenced, briefly, the conversation did not delve into black queer lives or futures (i.e. the lack of) in Shondaland. Our conversation about class, encouraged by Anne-Marie Makula felt…incomplete, nascent. And for a time, the narrative of black womanhood seemed to center on a particular straight African-American, Afro-Protestant  identity and history that did not reflect the spectrum of queer diasporic black people–Afro-Caribbean, African, Afrxlatinx and more—present in the room, much less the many more who tune in to Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder every week.

I walked away wanting more, in the best way possible. I walked away feeling what Alexis Pauline Gumbs has described as black feminist lust.

I want so much:

  • I want us to revisit and build the archive. Example: Blair Kelley initaited a thrilling conversation on respectability politics but WHAT are the artifacts of respectability that we think we see in the three shows? This is a different question from HOW gender or race performances constitute or promise the power that respectability politics was created to confront (during the 19th/20th century) or constrain (new respectability politics of the late 20th/21st). We also often forgot Bailey and Naomi in our discussions; what do they have to tell us about how black women operate in what Brittney Cooper called Shondaland’s “post-moral” universe?
  • I want us to rebuild theory. Example: What is this black woman that you ask us to speak about or to? Is she queer? Is she trans? Is she able? How is black womanhood a body of knowledge that Rhimes challenges, tears apart, throws away, and draws on to build a woman like Bailey, Naomi, Olivia, Annalise or Michaela? Treva Lindsey suggested we need new adjectives. In diaspora studies, Kim Butler has also asked us to think up new theories, drawn from the black experience of migration and displacement, to understand relations across and within the African diaspora. How should we interrogate black singularity as the science of the modern world and move through that into theorizing a woman like Annalise? Natalie Bullock Brown suggested Olivia Pope may be the first polyamorous black woman character on network TV. What does our archive of black sex and intimate encounters look like in the 21st century? How do we learn to comprehend what this even means?


  • I want us to respect method. Example: What do we know about the casting calls Shonda Rhimes sent out (referenced by Joan Morgan) and what happened in those rooms? How does that process work? What do we know about doing and using social media during the shows and the history of that and the role social media played keeping a show like Scandal on the air? Lisa Thompson challenged us to uncover where real power lies—who green lights shows? Who owns the mechanisms we make memes on, gets ad-clicks from our think pieces and archived tweets?

But, most of all, I want to reinvigorate praxis. I want us to start from telling our stories. Martha Jones’s story of click-clacking shoes was a perfect way to describe the sliding scale and moving target that is dressing for power. When black women tell our stories we  respect ourselves as theorists and scientists who have more to offer than the methods we were trained in during our time in graduate school. When we tell our stories, we allow methods and modes of survival we learned around our kitchen tables, in laundromats, on buses, and in dancehalls to take center stage. We have so much to give if we remember to tell our stories! And I reject any path to black womanhood that doesn’t swing through real bodies, hearts, minds, and histories.

To be continued…


One thought on “Dispatches from Shondalandia by a Slavery Historian (Vol. 1)

  1. Pingback: Dispatches from Shondalandia from a Slavery Historian (Vol. 2)

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