After receiving her PhD from Yale in 2011, Sarah Mahurin quickly became one of Wesleyan’s African American Studies Department’s most sought-after professors. She currently teaches “Imagining The American South” and “Postwar African American Fiction.” The Argus sat down with Mahurin to talk about Black History Month, racial diversity at Wesleyan, and her thoughts on the Kanye-Kim baby.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf?
Sarah Mahurin: Right now I’m reading a collection by a Kentucky poet named Frank X Walker, who’s a professor at the University of Kentucky…[it’s] called “Affrilachia.” He coined that word himself, about twenty years ago, and he [thought] about what the word “Appalachia” connoted: rural, white poverty, and various other things, some of which he felt like resonated with his own experience…but some of which did not fit at all, because he’s black. So he made up this word, “Affrilachia,” to talk about the black experience in American Appalachia. It’s a really powerful collection, not only because of its very particular geographical sense, but also he just has a really lovely eye for family and the detail of human connection, and how [those relate] to place.
I’m also reading a critical book called “Alabama Getaway,” which was published in 2011. It uses Alabama as a kind of touchstone for the whole South—what’s wrong with the South, what’s right with the South, what imperatives do people have to escape the South, what are the factors that keep people in the South—[questions in which I am] really invested in my research.
A: What are you doing for Black History Month?
SM: I’m doing a Black History Month fitness challenge with a group of my friends. It’s called “Fitness for Blackness: Can I Get A Fitness,” and we all gave ourselves names going along with the theme. One of my friends is “Rosa Parks and Rec.” There’s “Ba-Rock Abs-Bama.” There’s “Madame C.J. Walk More.” I’m “Tone-y Morrison.”
That started on Martin Luther King Day, and it’s running through all of Black History Month, and I’m already regretting it. We’re supposed to log in what we do every day [in a Google Doc] to inspire one another, but the other people are doing these things that are so intense. Every time I open my Gmail I have emails that say things like, “I spent an hour flipping megatires this morning, and then I ran eight miles!” And I say things like, “I walked on the treadmill for a half-hour and felt really pleased with myself.”
So that’s one of the ways I’m celebrating Black History Month, even though in retrospect it seems like it maybe wasn’t my wisest decision. In a more serious vein, I’m on that [Allyship in a “Post-Racial” Society] panel tonight [Feb. 19].
A: Could you talk about the Martin Luther King Day events?
SM: There were morning and afternoon sessions I was co-facilitating with [Professor of African American Studies] Lois Brown, in which we screened a film about white privilege called “Mirrors Of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible,” and then we had a forum discussion afterwards.
We had two really good sessions, but the thing that was hard was, particularly in my second session, almost everyone in the room was a person of color and a lot of them were students I’d already had. And I thought, “Do I need to be telling my senior advisee, who’s an [African American Studies] major, that there’s such a thing as white privilege?” Even though the conversation was productive and interesting and exciting in a lot of intellectual ways, it did seem to me like some of the people on campus who might get the most out of a discussion on the existence of white privilege, and a reflection on exactly what that means and how it operates and why it’s a problem, weren’t in the room with me. Maybe you could watch that movie sometime.
A: I felt really bad [I couldn’t make it].
SM: I hope people felt bad. I mean, it’s easy to slough off this kind of work onto people of color and [to assume] that’s their street to clean up, and that’s their crusade, you know. “Gosh, we’re really sorry, and we’ll try to get out of your way.” And as a white woman who teaches African American literature…it just seems wrongheaded to me that we would assume that these problems don’t belong to all of us.
It’s a human rights issue, but it’s really easy to think, “Gosh, that’s not really my thing,” you know? “My thing has to do with something that looks more like me.” It’s easy to commit yourself to the stuff that’s familiar, and it’s harder to think seriously, critically, and morally about questions of difference and similitude. But it’s more important.
A: There’s been a lot of new awareness over the past semesters regarding issues of Wesleyan’s diversity. Have you viewed this as a positive shift?
SM: I think it’s been positive. I think race is one of the hardest things to talk about. Human beings hate to be uncomfortable. We hate making ourselves uncomfortable; we hate making one another uncomfortable; it’s a feeling that we all naturally flee. Overpassing that natural instinct to flee discomfort in order to have honest conversations is the most important thing we can do. It’s not perfect, and it often means getting angry, feeling confused, or feeling misunderstood. But the efforts to make those conversations happen are the only way to remedy those problems in the long term, even though it doesn’t always feel great.
A white woman said yesterday in class [that] when she was reading Richard Wright, she started to feel sick to her stomach. At first she thought it was because she was reading on the train, but the more that she read, she realized she actually felt sick to her stomach just because of the content she was reading. On the one hand, the feeling of being assaulted in a visceral way by your literature is just unpleasant. On the other hand, that means that the book is doing its job, and it’s serving a real purpose.
I don’t know that any of us are as good at making each other uncomfortable in as productive a way as Richard Wright, but I have to believe that that’s a valid way of making people understand racial [trauma]…Sometimes there is a necessary amount of difficulty, discomfort, or unpleasantness in order to overpass to a place of understanding and even transcendence.
A: What magazines do you read?
SM: I read all the trashy weekly celebrity magazines. It’s actually the only thing that makes me go to the gym to make me fulfill my sad little “Can I Get A Fitness” sign-in requirement. So I read Us Weekly…while I’m on the treadmill, I’m reading a trashy magazine and learning about Kim Kardashian’s and Kanye West’s upcoming offspring. This was a match I did not endorse. I love Kanye West; I think he’s a true genius, and he’s really punching below his weight class on this one.
I think that man has never recovered from his mother’s death, and he’s just struggling to go through the world, and, as my mother would say, he drove his ducks to a sad pond…His mother was an English professor; he has a really heightened sense of the power of language, and it was something that was brought into him in his environment at home.
I think some of the fair criticisms of Kanye have to do with the limitations of his thinking about gender, and what that man needs is a really smart, tough, able woman. He needs a woman like his mother. Soon I’m sure he’ll call me and ask me to weigh in on his romantic decisions, and then I’ll be able to tell him, “Kanye, go out with an English professor.”