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E. Patrick Johnson now heading NU's African-American studies
by M. Shelly Conner
2016-09-28

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E. Patrick Johnson, Carlos Montezuma Professor of African-American Studies and Performance Studies, has been named the new chair of the African-American studies department at Northwestern University.

Johnson is no stranger to university administrative posts, having previously served as the chair and director of graduate studies for the Department of Performance Studies. He replaces colleague and African-American Studies scholar Martha Biondi whose work he cites in illustrating the creation of Black studies departments by Black student protests in the 1960s and 1970s.

The history is an appropriate one, as the country currently witnesses universities and communities mired in race-related protests; faculty of color embattled in tenure disputes and continued struggles to integrate predominately white departments; and the ever-present racist and culturally appropriated actions of college co-eds, including blackface, recorded racist chants and slurs. It is a heavy atmosphere for a newly appointed chair to enter, even if the aforementioned incidents are not associated with his particular institution.

As a performance scholar, Johnson's work centers around the lives of Black gay men in the South. ( Note: This journalist first encountered his work in the Black Queer Studies Anthology that he edited with Mae G. Henderson. Also, this writer was inspired by his essay "Quare" Studies, or Almost Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother. ) Johnson's performance work includes Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—both a collection of narratives and a one-man show based on the collection—and its follow-up, Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women.

Talking about the impact of this new position on his work to Windy City Times, Johnson said that it is about "African-American studies is an interdisciplinary field, which means I get the pleasure of working with and learning from colleagues trained in various disciplines such as sociology, religion, literature, anthropology, history, political science and theater. Despite these disparate fields and methodologies, however, what we all have in common is a focus on race as a key category of analysis. I don't take that lightly, as many traditional departments don't [bestow the] privilege or even account for race in the same way. Having a safe space to conduct research without having to justify the importance of race as a category of analysis or demonstrate why race matters is something that I don't take for granted. At the same time, because African-American studies is so interdisciplinary that I still can be pushed by my colleagues to think about different ways of analyzing race and, particularly, blackness."

Yet positions of more authority don't necessarily mean that these analyses can more easily make their way into institutional policies and procedures. Johnson said, "A chair cannot necessarily implement procedures or policies that address social issues due to academic freedom."

"A chair can use the bully pulpit of the office, however, to reach out to communities beyond the university to stand in solidarity against racism and other social forms of discrimination," Johnson added. He said he fully intends to use the office and continued legacy of Black studies scholarship and activism coupled with Northwestern's resources "to speak out against institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and other forms of oppression."

Johnson added that he hopes to facilitate continued discussion among faculty as well as to provide opportunities for students most affected by social and racial injustice to control their own narratives. "Since they are the ones who are most affected by these concerns, I think that it's important to empower them to create their own events that address those concerns," he said.

As for Johnson's legacy for the department, he said, "I never think about such leadership positions as creating a legacy. I believe my job as chair is to build on the success of the past to carry the department into the future. That is something that is done with the good will of colleagues and with resources from the administration.

"The department was in good shape when I became chair and, hopefully, it will be in even better shape when I step down in three years. If anything, I want to create an even safer space for faculty, staff and students to share their ideas and experiences about race without fear of retaliation, threat or condescension. And, I want the department to be a space of laughter—lots and lots of laughter!"


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