Scholars Talk Writing: Martha S. Jones

Full vitae jones.headshot

Image: Courtesy of Martha S. Jones

I first “met” Martha S. Jones a handful of years ago, after I read a published piece of hers and was struck by the clarity of the writing and the deep humanity of the thinking. She is a historian, a commentator, and an artist. As I sampled more of her work, I was particularly moved by her personal essay/video “Playing the White Card.” I have a fondness for scholars who do creative work because scholarship and fine writing should, I believe, go together — like peanut butter and jelly.

And, so, as I’ve previously confessed is my wont, I sent Martha Jones a fan email. It turns out we share a close mutual friend, and I was not surprised to find Martha to be a warm correspondent. She’s also an obvious candidate for the Scholars Talk Writing series.

At the Johns Hopkins University, she is a professor of history and a Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor. Her first bookAll Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900, examined Black debates about women’s rights. In 2018, Jones published Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. And this month brings her latest bookVanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.

Tell me a bit about your new book.

Jones: Vanguard chronicles 200 years of Black women’s politics, uncovering their long road to winning voting rights in the United States. Early histories overlooked Black women nearly altogether, while later studies recovered the small number of Black women who worked for the vote through suffrage associations.

Vanguard begins in the 1820s as Black women developed a political critique — one that decried the influence of racism and sexism in American politics. That vision carried them through a generations-long effort waged in antislavery societies, churches, women’s clubs, sororities, and civil-rights organizations. Black women envisioned and then waged their own struggle for voting rights. It is a struggle that continues to this day.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. It seems to me that the ideas of critical race theory have finally taken hold. Why did it take so long for scholars in other fields to recognize this important work?

Jones: The field of critical race theory — of late much maligned from some quarters in Washington — developed within the legal academy and was published in specialized journals and books less visible to scholars in the arts and sciences. The field was remarkably interdisciplinary in its sensibilities — drawing upon sociology, history, and literature, for example. But it was most keenly interested in transforming debates within legal scholarship and was not — in my reading — especially directed toward influencing ideas in the arts and sciences.

So the simple answer to your question is that legal scholars did not publish much that was aimed at scholars in the arts and sciences. Nor did scholars in the arts and sciences spend much time reading law reviews, especially before they were cataloged in our interdisciplinary databases. At the same time, it would be unfortunate to overlook how thinkers in the arts and sciences developed theories about intersectionality alongside Professor Crenshaw. Feminist theorists — from Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa to bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins — also worked by way of intersectionality throughout the 1980s.

And while they may not have coined the term, Black women thinkers have been working by way of what today we term intersectionality since the early 19th century. Professor Crenshaw provided us with both a keyword and the research that illustrated its value.

Patricia Williams’s first book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, had a lasting impact on me, especially her effective use of the first person. How does the personal fit into academic writing?

Jones: I am honored to have Pat Williams come up in connection with my work. She was my law-school teacher in the mid-1980s, while she was writing the essays that became The Alchemy of Race and Rights. One of the many things that Pat and other critical race theorists gave to scholars like me was permission to use the “I” in our thinking and our writing.

They urged that when we found ourselves, our experience, our points of view unrepresented in law-school casebooks, we should insert our own narratives. Each time I write in the first person — which I do, for example, in the introductions of my recent books, Birthright Citizens and Vanguard — I am bringing to bear the lessons that Pat imparted to me long ago.

History, the field where I spend much of my time, had for a long time thought itself to be written from a position of objectivity or neutrality. As a field, history claimed to be a social science, with all the theoretical and methodological bridles that this implies. Today those imperatives have partly fallen away out of a sense that, when we elevate our own stories to the subject of historical inquiry, along with those of our families and our communities, we extend understanding to pasts that are interesting and necessary.

There have always been among us those who defied the constraints of “objective” history. Adele Logan Alexander has been mining her own family history since 1992, and just published, in 2019, the magnificent Princess of the Hither Isles (about her grandmother), a mix of history, family lore, and imagination.

Today, many more historians are producing work centered on their families, and even themselves. Consider Phil Deloria’s 2019 Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract, which looks at the life of his aunt, a Dakota Sioux artist, or the cultural historian Tanisha Ford’s latest, Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion — a brilliant blend of autobiography and history that recounts the role of dress and adornment in the 1980s and 1990s Midwest.

To see how a family lens can help us defy simple binaries of, for example, race, read Growing Up With the Country: Family, Race, and Nation After the Civil War from Kendra Taira Field. Forthcoming is work from Leslie M. Harris on her family’s life in post-Katrina New Orleans and Tao Leigh Goffe on her family and what she terms “Afro-Asian intimacies.” My next book looks at the legacy of slavery’s sexual violence across six generations in my own family — tentatively titled A Jagged Color Line — so stay tuned!

How does your legal background, your training as a historian, and your interest in art come together? What have you learned from each discipline that is useful, and what have you had to unlearn?

Jones: I don’t expect to “unlearn” anything — though it has taken time for me to blend my training and interests into work that is legible to readers! At the end of Vanguard, I do a close reading of a photo taken at the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, drawing readers’ attention to the women in the room. It is an example of how my law training usefully mixes with history and an attention to visual culture.

My law studies were thankfully unorthodox. I was in the second class at CUNY Law School, where our motto is “law in the service of human needs.” My professors were critical scholars of all sorts who read law through the lenses of the arts and sciences. Because we were trained as public-interest lawyers, we learned early on to use every and all tools available to make change.

My history training came much later, after 10 years of law practice, and so I was hungry for the sort of deep dive that academic historians take. My first teachers were Eric Foner and Manning Marable, and then later, Alice Kessler-Harris and Farah Jasmine Griffin — all scholars committed to work that also matters in the world. This fit with my lawyer’s sensibilities.

I came to art only later. At the University of Michigan, I won a partner who was willing to teach me a few things I needed to know: Clayton Lewis, graphics curator at the William L. Clements Libraries. Our joint projects included a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at 150, with a scholar’s symposium and an exhibition. It was the first time I saw all my passions come together in a way that also spoke to broad audiences that included schoolchildren and community organizations. Sometimes it all makes sense.

Who are some of the academic writers you most admire?

Jones: My colleague and collaborator, the historian Tiya Miles, is a model for me, from her gentle insistence in the archives and her nearly poetic prose to her adventuresome range of subjects. I look forward to reading whatever she is working on! I read everything that Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, from her most recent book, the serious and soulful Thick, to her real-time commentary on Twitter. Tressie is someone whose ideas, always laced with wit and verve, I want to hear on nearly every subject.

When I next meet up with Imani Perry, I am sure I will fan-girl and manage to embarrass myself. She is a powerfully elegant writer whose pen appears to know few limits, embodying the best of the Black-studies tradition.

My dream writing retreat would be led by the novelist Jesmyn Ward. Her memoir, Men We Reaped, snuck up on me and then shook me to the core. Her work has taught me that as writers we are called upon to gaze unflinchingly at the worst that humanity has wrought and then, with words, must render the awful into the painfully beautiful. What knits these writers together for me is their capacity to make me both think and feel deeply.

How do you balance advising students and being productive as a scholar?

Jones: The question of how to balance all the demands of an academic career persist: research, teaching, training students, service and leadership, and public engagement all tug at our thinking and our time. All of my work would be diminished, I’d say, were I to step away from advising new and emerging scholars.

My style is to bring them along with me — literally and figuratively — as I do my work, so we feed one another. And through their work, I discover that which is new and even cutting-edge. Through our exchanges I learn new facets of my own field and the work that lies ahead of me.

At a time when hope is essential — though also in short supply — my work with students fills me with a sure sense of purpose. Their ideas, and the world they will make, are not things that I can foresee. But I’m reassured that my life’s work has meaning when I recognize that our students are already writing the next chapters, as historians and as human beings.

Advice about writing?

Jones: Write. Revise. Repeat. In my early career, I mistook speaking for the core of a scholar’s life. Along the way, good mentors kindly chided me for all the words sitting on my hard drive, where they benefited no one at all. My mentors emphasized that the key to changing the debate was putting pen to paper, and then publishing those ideas.

This is certainly true for humanists. I spent 2013-14 as a fellow at the National Humanities Center, where, for the first time in my career, I spent eight straight months at a desk, writing five days a week. That discipline changed me as a writer: I lost my reluctance and fear, and I’ve not looked back.

My advice? Write that which you need to say; you will always be satisfied. Publish for those who need to hear your thoughts; they will read you. Stay close to what truly matters to you; your passion will drive your prose. Honor your own voice, always.

Write. Revise. And then let it go.


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