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At the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard Professors Discuss ‘Writing Black Lives’

By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Alexander W. Tam, Contributing Writer

On Oct. 11 at the Knafel Center of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, three Harvard professors came together to discuss the importance of and their experience with writing about black lives.

The panelists were Imani Perry, a Harvard African American Studies professor, and Robert Reid-Pharr, a Harvard professor of women, gender, and sexuality and African American studies. Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, served as panelist-moderator.

The discussion material at hand stemmed from the research and writing the panelists had done on 20th century black figures. Perry spoke about the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the subject of her recent book “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.” Reid-Pharr discussed writer James Baldwin, while Brown-Nagin occasionally jumped from her moderating role to talk about lawyer Constance Baker Motley. Both Reid-Pharr and Brown-Nagin have written forthcoming biographies on their respective subjects.

The panel opened with a brief introduction of each historical figure and a discussion of the merits and imperfections of the biography genre. Perry said that a key element of the genre is that biographies “distill a person’s life.”

“They allow you to catch a likeness of who they are in a substantive way,” Perry said.

The panelists then discussed their research processes in the archives, and each selected a few letters from their research to read to the audience. Brown-Nagin spoke about the polar environment Motley faced as a federal judge. She read both a letter congratulating Motley for her ascension to the federal bench, and a letter criticizing her and her accomplishments in racial terms.

As the panelists turned to the ways these three figures had navigated and grappled with black identity in the mid-20th century, Brown-Nagin asked about the intersection of race and gender. Reid-Pharr said that Baldwin consistently struggled with his own identity and with the concept of gender on the whole. Baldwin is a “hard figure to raise as an icon,” he added, “becuase he never used the word gay, he didn’t like it.”

Perry said that Hansberry stood in contrast to Baldwin as someone who saw gender “not as an additive but integral to the struggles of black people.”

Audience members said that they appreciated panelists’ effort to write about black lives and illuminate the internal struggles of these public figures.

“This [event] was very inspiring for me and it should be a continuing process for people like myself and the older generations to see what can be as now people of color take more of a forefront in their own narratives,” audience member George-Angel L. Barreras said. “I think for me it just has to [leave me] a little hungry for more as they talked about the imperfections of these actual writers themselves and the minds that they speak of, really humanizing the perspectives of activists and change makers.”

Some audience members also saw an instructional value to these authors’ efforts to shed light on these three historical figures.

“I think when you tell the story of people’s lives, women who have made a difference and what they were up against and how they dealt with it, it gives young people strategies for doing things that aren’t as conventional or people haven’t paved all the paths really smoothly,” Susan A. Klimczak, who works in youth education, said.

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