Jonathan Fenderson is an assistant professor of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He recently answered some questions about his new book Building the Black Arts Movement: Hoyt Fuller and the Cultural Politics of the 1960s.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
When I was in graduate school at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University there was a room named in honor of Hoyt Fuller. Inside that room there was also an incredible portrait by Jeff Donaldson, which is now featured on the cover. Before entering that room and seeing that portrait I had never heard his name, but as I started to do research on him, and understand his importance to the Black Arts Movement, I said to myself, “someone needs to write a book about this guy.” Luckily, I was fortunate enough to gain entry into the graduate program at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass, where they encouraged the idea. Subsequently, the more research I did, the more I realized the singularity of his role in the Movement.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
In regard to the project, my biggest influences would have to include the faculty of UMass’ Afro-American Studies program. I would also have to include Carole Parks, Abena Brown and Angela Jackson, who were colleagues (and friends) of Fuller. Collectively they made sure I had everything I needed to complete the book. Robert Harris also went above and beyond, when he allowed me the opportunity to access his personal papers, which had yet to be archived. In terms of my intellectual influences, more broadly, they may be too many to mention by name. I was particularly moved by Black scholars that have wrestled with questions of intra-racial class conflict within African-American society. In particular, scholars like E. Franklin Frazier, Amiri Baraka, and Adolph Reed. I was also very moved by the work of David Levering Lewis, Lawrence P. Jackson and other scholars that have written provocative Black literary histories.
Q: How did you conduct research for your book?
My experiences conducting research for this book has been a tremendously rewarding journey. My primary archive was in Atlanta at the Woodruff Library in the Atlanta University Center. I made regular trips there and was fortunate to build a really supportive relationship with the archive staff. I also spent times in secondary archives in New York City, London, Lagos (Nigeria) and a number of other places. I also made regular trips to conduct oral history interviews. In hindsight it is safe to say that the research for this book has taken me around the world. I have ventured to places I never could have imagined when I first chose this project. Throughout the entire process I remained committed to deep archival research, which I felt had been lacking in much of the scholarship on the Black Arts Movement.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
I think the most interesting discovery is the story I try to tell in the final chapter of the book, regarding Fuller’s sexuality and the creation of the archive. For many years I wondered how I was going to write about Fuller’s sexuality without having much to reference, yet still remaining true to an approach to Black Studies that situates history as foundational. And while, there is still very little reference material in the archive, the story about why so many silences exist in the archive is fascinating. Very early in the process I knew that Fuller engaged in same-sex sexual relationships with men, but that reality—in and of itself—was not a very interesting or compelling part of the story, in my opinion. However, when I learned that individuals had worked to “clean” Fuller’s papers after he died, I felt that was an important story that needed to be told. I had to come to terms with an expression of homophobia that was rooted in notions of love, protection and devotion for marginalized LGBTQI subjects.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
There are a few myths that I hope my book dispels, or at least troubles. First, there is a widely held (and frequently circulated) idea that the Black Arts Movement was unrelentingly hyper-masculine and dogmatically patriarchal (and by extension homophobic) due to the Black nationalists impulses that resided at its core. And while there are very sound critiques to be made of black nationalism—particularly along the lines of gender and sexuality—the history of the Black Arts Movement is far more complicated than the scholarship has suggested. Second, I wanted to challenge Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s contention that the Black Arts Movement was the shortest and least successful movement in African-American cultural history. To the contrary, I wanted to show that the Black Arts Movement was responsible for advancing a notion of “cultural politics” that has remained a core feature of American intellectual discourse. Lastly, I wanted to tell the story of Black Arts institutions. When scholars write about the Movement they tend to reference individuals, like Amiri Baraka, or particular poems, but the story of the era resides in the rise and fall of experimental Black institutions, and the people who found these institutions to be productive spaces for artistic creation. Therefore the book offers a story of important Black institutions, but documenting one persons experiences in those institutions.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope that after reading my book scholars will see that we have so much more to learn about the Black Arts Movement. In addition, I hope that subsequent scholars will see that we can approach the study of the movement with historical rigor and archival attentiveness. In addition, I hope that my book helps to situate Hoyt Fuller as an influential thinker in the Black intellectual tradition. Finally, I hope that Building the Black Arts Movement illustrates the fact that community-rooted institutions laid part of the intellectual groundwork for modern day African-American Studies, and that there was a tradition of popular intellectual engagement that emanated from everyday working-class people in African-American communities. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black Arts was Black popular culture, and even though the study of Black culture is now academically acceptable that was not always the case.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I’ve spent a significant portion of my life listening to hip-hop music, so it has remained a consistent source of fun and frustration. I also enjoy listening to podcasts of all sorts, and watching good television shows and films. And perhaps my favorite thing to do is to spend time with my wife, searching for good food. We’re lucky because Saint Louis has some really good food to offer, but we also love to travel in search of good food.