Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”
Terrion L. Williamson is a black feminist scholar who hails from Peoria, Illinois. She researches and teaches in the areas of black cultural studies, feminist theory, media studies, contemporary African American literature, midwestern studies, and racialized gender violence, and she serves as the director of the Black Midwest Initiative. Her current book project, We Cannot Live Without Our Lives, is a study of black women and girls who have been the victims of serial murder throughout the industrial Midwest since the late 1990s.
Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish America, The Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
KLM: So if you could first introduce yourself, and let us know where you work and your title.
TW: My name is Terrion Williamson. I am an associate professor of African American and African Studies, and American Studies, at the University of Minnesota, currently [in fall 2021, when this interview was conducted]. As of January [of 2022], I’ll be associate professor of Black Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies at UIC– University of Illinois at Chicago.
KLM: And where did you do your PhD?
TW: USC, in American Studies and Ethnicity.
KLM: And so right now you’re in Minnesota? How long have you been teaching there?
TW: I’ve been here for about five years. Before I was here, I was at Michigan State.
KLM: So before we get into some questions about trauma and the work that you do, and trauma in terms of community and personal identity and things like that– is there anything you would want to share about your biography, or family, as to how you got into the scholarship you did? What drew you to the themes you work on?
TW: Sure. There’s a really particular reason why I started doing this work. So the project I’m working on is about, specifically, Black women who have been victims of serial killing. Throughout the industrial Midwest.
And how I got started on this work, I certainly… I didn’t go to grad school thinking I would write about violence at all, actually. But when I was in law– I also have a law degree. I got a law degree from U of I [Illinois]. And when I was in law school, Black women started disappearing, and being murdered, from my hometown. Which is Peoria, Illinois.
And I knew– well, first it was just that these Black women were disappearing and coming up dead. But then a woman disappeared who I had known personally. And so, after or by the time I finished law school– I graduated in 2005 and went straight into a PhD program. And by the time I got into the PhD program, started taking classes, the person who killed those women– a Peoria resident– he admitted to killing eight of those nine women. And he confessed and was convicted in, I believe, 2006.
And so, by the time all of that was unspooling, I was in my graduate program and I decided to just start– I felt, maybe the right word, haunted by the case. I knew one of the victims. I didn’t know her really well. It was someone who I went to church with when I was younger. But I was wanting to understand it.
Not just at the level of… I knew who did it. It wasn’t about: who did it, why did they do it? Those aren’t even the questions I was concerned with. I wanted to understand… I thought that there was some systemic reason for why this had happened, and that’s what I was trying to get at.
And so, I started. I did a couple of workshops back-to-back, one with the historian Robin Kelly, one with the anthropologist Dorinne Kondo. And started working on this paper, really just as a way to work through this thing that had happened.
And went into it thinking… well, I talk about it like this: I grew up with a kind of cultural common sense that said serial killing was not something Black folks dealt with. And there was certainly no such thing as a Black serial killer, that I knew anything of when I started the work. Now, it just seems bizarre to me that I thought that. But, that’s what I thought– and there were plenty of other people who thought the same thing.
And when this happened in Peoria and I started doing research about it, which then led me to research about other cases, that’s when I realized: oh, no, actually, this has happened over and over and over again. And there’s no real recording or recounting of it, in academic literature, in any really detailed way.
So that’s where the project comes from. It emerges out of this thing that happened many years ago. Almost twenty years ago now, in my hometown, that I’ve been off and on working on ever since the early years of my grad school program.
KLM: Wow, that’s a very interesting path. So just firstly. You’ve seen a little of the call for interviews, one of the central premises of this project. I’m speaking with people who do something that I’m calling traumawork. Would you say that what you’re doing is traumawork? In working in such traumatic histories of women and violence and murder, and also the intersection with race. Would you call it, would you consider this to do be doing traumatic scholarship?
TW: I have never pitched it in that way. I have never talked about the work in that way. And I think, part of what that has to do with, thinking about it… I’m not saying it’s not an apt descriptor, because it probably is.
But I think– you know, I come from a working-class Black community. I live in a working-class community of color now. And most of my life I’ve lived in communities like this, like North Minneapolis here. And I think that it’s sort of like the thing when they talk about the Depression, or when economic calamities happen. It’s just like: but Black folks, this is just how we’ve been living.
KLM: Ah, yes. Right. I see.
TW: You know what I mean? It’s almost– I don’t want to say I’m just doing research on “life”, as if all of Black life is traumatic and trauma and violence, because that’s certainly not true. It hasn’t even been true in my experience. But. Part of the reason that I want to specifically write about serial murder is because I want to think about how it is part of a larger– what I’ve been calling in my work, thinking about in my work, as an ecosystem of violence. That so many of us live within.
And it’s hard to separate out any of that as trauma, because in some ways it almost all feels like trauma in some ways.
I still want to be very clear that I don’t think all of Black life is traumatic. I don’t believe that, at all. But I’ve never segmented it off to think about it in terms of traumawork. Because so much of it is so directly related to everyday living for Black folks.
KLM: Right. That makes a lot of sense, and it speaks to my very next question, in fact. What would you say about intergenerational racism and trauma? I think that you just kind of answered that, as a start.
TW: Yeah. Because to talk about serial murder…
So one of the things that one of the people I interviewed said, several years ago when I interviewed her– her mother was the last body to be found in the series of murders that happened in Peoria. And she talks about how, a couple of years after her mother’s death, her grandmother died. And she says: this person who did the killing, he didn’t just kill my mom, he killed my grandmother, too. So she’s sort of theorizing the way that that trauma and that harm are being carried, through a lineage.
And I think that that happens with so many different things. I don’t think it just happens in Black communities. But maybe because especially working-class Black communities are less associated with thinking about what we go through as trauma. Less associated with talking about healing. Less likely to have a therapist, and all the resources that can be useful for thinking through all of this stuff.
That it sits with us. It gets carried along. It sits in our bodies, I think.
And so I think the generational part of it is really the… part of the reason I’m interested in the serial murder is because I’m interested in how it’s connected up. We’re not talking about just one discrete thing, one discrete act of harm, that happens to one person or one family. We’re talking about something that connects an entire community of people.
And that includes thinking about it generationally, I think.
KLM: Yes. I think that that is a really powerful answer. I have a later question that I’ll come back to and ask more specifically, but, what you just said also kind of leads into that question.
Which is– you’re working more in the contemporary, in modern life. In the last ten, twenty, thirty years, let’s say, mostly. But doing work, thinking of generational trauma in Black communities, in the US or even in the western diaspora, that’s historical. Then you’re doing a whole different level of work, right? If you’re working on the 1800s or the 1700s, there’s still the lineage.
So, this idea of the historical and the contemporary– they’re blurred by nature, right? These things are passed down generations.
TW: Yes, and I think it’s important. Although yeah, my work is focusing very contemporarily. I’m focused on the last twenty years. Since the turn of the 21st century, in particular, in my work, for various reasons.
But I think connecting it up with that longer history is important. Because of the ways in which what’s happening to Black women and communities like my own is connected up to this whole lineage of trauma and pain and horror. All the way back to enslavement.
And that becomes important because, so often, there’s a disconnect with that in the culture. That you’re supposed to move on, you’re supposed to be over that. We’re past that, we’ve moved past that. And, in some ways perhaps we have.
But in some ways, the legacies of all of the things, all of those historical traumas or historical discrimination or racism and all of it… We see the remnants of it in the ways that our communities function, for one thing. But then, I think certainly it’s a longer kind of generational legacy that stays with us. That even still, even now in 2021, deserves some fleshing out and thinking through.
KLM: Yes. And that’s why I wanted to include epigeneticists in this project, and scientists. To have a scientific perspective to match the cultural studies perspectives. Because, anybody who tells you things like “move on” or “that happened a long time ago”– it’s factually incorrect! I mean, they learn more and more that– you said it yourself: it sits in the body. There are genetic markers, there are things that change. So, without respecting and understanding that aspect of it, people are really missing a big picture. And especially for Black communities in the US, or beyond.
Would you say anything about any times that the work you do, like maybe in archives or looking at images of women who’ve been murdered, or things like that— where the work has actually affected you in a personal way? Where you found it to be a bit much and you had to think about what you were doing. Or it was really upsetting or painful in a way that went beyond scholarship?
TW: Oh well, that happens all the time. You can’t– well, I can’t– do this work without it. I’m constantly… even if it’s not images, it’s narratives. Or it’s the lack of narratives. Sometimes I get just as frustrated and upset by the lack of a narrative, as I do by the narrative itself.
And so you’re always– I’m constantly thinking in terms of death and dying. It’s marked my own life in certain ways. I’m hyperaware. Of myself and my surroundings in certain ways, because I’m always thinking about… Even though I’m differently situated than most of the people who I write about, I’m constantly thinking about the way that people, women, come to harm.
But constantly thinking through, sometimes looking at images, reading these narratives of things that have happened to people. And sometimes, I’ll be going along. I’m reading, reading, reading. And I’m just doing my work. And all of a sudden it’ll be a small detail or something. It’ll be the story of someone’s child. Or it’ll be something that someone dreamed of doing. Or it can be some very seemingly small thing that will just really hit me in a really deep emotional register.
I’m constantly navigating how much I can take in, and when I need to pull back from the work, that kind of thing.
And then, because– to be honest, most of the work on serial killing in the academy, it comes out of often the social sciences. Especially criminologists. And a lot of it is focused on “the mind of the serial killer”, and understanding why the killer does what they do, and that kind of thing. And in popular culture, it’s similar. You know, there’s a similar focus often on the killer. It’s the spectacle of the death as a crime.
KLM: Yes, true crime stories.
TW: True crime. It’s very much about the spectacle.
And in both instances, very often the people who are doing the work and the writing don’t come from the community. And don’t necessarily look like the people who they are writing about.
So, there is work that’s been done, especially in popular culture. There have been some films and different kinds of true crime documentaries and books and stuff, that have been written on cases like the ones that I look at. And, to a one, they’re people who– honestly they’re often white journalists, or filmmakers. People who are very far afield from the community that’s being talked about.
So, for me, to be writing about the community that I’m from, and writing about other communities, that even if they’re not the one I’m from, look like the one I’m from. And or, the people who are the victims look very much like me, have experiences very much like mine. It’s very close. The work is very close.
And so on the one hand, it’s just what it is for me to be doing this work. And the way I have to tend to the responsibility I feel for doing it, in the way I also have to tend to myself while doing it.
But also the frustration I sometimes feel, with people who are telling these stories. Who are not always– sometimes they are– but sometimes are not as responsible as I think they should be, or are not as responsive to or as caring about the communities that they’re writing about.
KLM: That’s… again, it uncannily leads directly into the next question I had. Which was, when I was thinking about people who work with the visual– media, images– I’m thinking about lynching photos or things like that. Or the documentary this year, on the blinding of Isaac Woodard, the soldier from WWII.
[American Experience: The Blinding of Isaac Woodard, PBS, 2021.]
And if you know the history of Madame LaLaurie in New Orleans– it’s the most brutal, brutal real history of a crime spree upon enslaved people in the nineteenth century: torture, medical experimentation. And then they made that American Horror Story, the popular TV show, about it.
[American Horror Story, Season 3, “Coven”, 2013.]
And I remember saying: this is in very poor taste. It was making it a Halloween-type thing, like a grotesque. Like “The Mad Madame”, something like that.
I did not watch it. I would never watch anything like that, just because I don’t like true crime. I have a big problem with true crime as a woman in general. But, I thought, how… insulting is not even the word! To the victims. And just because something is historical doesn’t mean… I just remember thinking that was just in incredibly poor taste.
And I think it’s the same problem, right? That it’s not people who come from the community, clearly!
TW: But that’s the case with so much that’s related to serial murder.
KLM: Yes, it’s true.
TW: It’s part of what I deal with. Like any time I start teaching a new class, for instance. I always tell my students what I work on. And a year or two ago, I was telling– I was teaching in one of these large lecture halls, probably 100 students. And I was talking about the work I do. And talking about working on serial murder. And from the back of the room, somebody shouted: woo hoo! Like they were just so excited.
And the person, the young white man, he came up to me afterwards and said: that was me. I’m just really excited by serial killing.
KLM: My goodness.
TW: And that’s often the response. And that’s not even to pick on him, the one student, because that’s the kind of response you get a lot. Like: ooh, serial killing. Because you think about– again, I don’t even blame individual people for this. My first introduction to serial killing, too, was like, Jason. Freddy.
KLM: Yes, right.
TW: And these things make this sort of fun horror out of the slaying and killing of people, which is a real thing that happens in the world. And so there’s a way that this gets sensationalized.
Like there’s a book out there about this man who gets called– he gets referenced as the Grim Sleeper, in L.A.
[Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., Los Angeles rapist and serial killer of Black women. Franklin particularly targeted Black women sex workers and sex-for-drugs trading women. He died in prison in 2020.]
And the writer says they always had a fascination with serial killing. And that’s part of why they wrote this book about this case. And I’m saying to myself: I’ve never had a fascination with serial killing. I write to do this work because I come from a community where I’m vulnerable to, have been vulnerable to the same conditions that make serial killing a condition of possibility in my own community.
TW: And so it’s a very different way of coming to the work. And so much of serial killing has been sensationalized in that way, in ways that I think people often don’t even recognize.
Even the stories that people know anything about. Samuel Little. That became a story. I had been following Samuel Little’s case for some years. But it ends up in The New York Times because he confesses to killing 90 some women, and it becomes a… now there’s “The 93 Victims of Sam Little”, which is this documentary show. These kinds of things.
And it’s a kind of tension I have because some of these things– I watch all that stuff. Some of it I learn from. And on the one hand… some of these stories don’t get out except for some of this kind of work. But there’s also, as part of it, there’s a deep irresponsibility that happens with so much of it. That I think I’m trying to push back on some, in my work. And I feel a great responsibility to do in my work.
KLM: Well, and I suppose the next logical step to that is… I’m thinking about my own work here, and some commonalities. My PhD thesis was about the history of women in Hollywood, and a sort of #metooing the historical past, the studio era. And it got more and more political. To say it’s not an accident that the casting couch was rampant. It was a very specific choice. So a part of this institutionalized sexual abuse that was just a free-for-all for the men was that at any time they could disappear a woman. If she spoke up, they would just get rid of her. And so somebody like Harvey Weinstein, I said in my conclusion that his only problem was just that he was born too late. That’s the way it was in that system then.
And so, I got into this very similar thing of, what serves that system to keep working as it does is the discourse of something like “beautiful, sexy, dead”. The dead actress. She overdosed. Or she got raped. It’s these lurid tales that everybody’s attracted to, the sexiness of the story. And nobody’s looking at the actual women whose lives were ruined, and whose bodies were destroyed, and who were going through real violence and real assault. And I think it’s the same exact thing: who is served by these stories being sensationalized?
TW: Yes, because the violence gets glamorized, like so many other things get glamorized.
And that’s the only way you can sell the story. I’m talking about– most, not all, but many of the women and girls that I write about are drug-dependent. And they’re involved in prostitution, or sex workers, or involved in sex-for-drug transactions, that kind of thing.
And so you have to dress it up in some kind of way, right? Because people don’t just generally care about these folks, and they don’t come online as people we care about until they’re no longer living.
And even then, it’s got to be a bunch of them. Or it’s not a story. You know, it has to be seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve of them stacked up in a house somewhere. Like Anthony Sowell. For it to be a case that we care about.
[Anthony Sowell, called “The Cleveland Strangler”, was a rapist and serial killer finally apprehended in 2009 after the murder of at least eleven Black women in his local community; he died in prison in 2021.]
And even then! Then what happens, even when it registers as something that is “newsworthy”: then it becomes the fault of the community.
So part of what I’m trying to say through my work is that, what’s happening to these women is an indictment of a much larger ecosystem. Much bigger than “the community”. Much bigger than the scale of any one neighborhood, much bigger than the scale of, in my case, the south side of Peoria, or even Peoria generally. That if we’re going to talk about what’s happening to these women, we have to talk on the scale of the nation, at the very least.
And that’s– you can’t package that for prime time! In the way that you can: here’s the bad guy. We’re going after the bad guy. Now the bad guy is in jail. Right? You can’t package the kinds of stories we’re trying to tell in the same way.
KLM: Right. Another question I have– this one goes in a slightly different direction, away from contemporary media. I know it’s not exactly the field you work in. But I was just curious, in terms of more of the generational and the historical view of Black bodies and trauma. Do you have any thoughts about commemoration, or particular spaces?
So the physical spaces where you can go in the US, have you either done any work with that, or just done it yourself as a person, a Black person, rather than as a Black scholar? Have you gone to any of these sites, that are sort of weighted heavily?
I’m thinking some people go to Robben Island in South Africa. But there are many sites all over the US where you can see trauma of enslavement, trauma of lynching, or anything like that.
And well, that connects with a later question I have for you– which is that you’re in Minneapolis, and I want to ask some things about George Floyd and the last year. So back in the contemporary. You have George Floyd Plaza that is probably not far from you, right?
So is there anything you would say about geographical spaces, and commemoration, that sort of trauma?
TW: Well, part of the deal with my work is that there are no spaces.
The only spaces you would go to, if you want to talk about the kind of people I talk about, is something like a boarded-up house. Or an overgrown lot, or a cornfield. Because these are the places where the bodies show up.
KLM: Wow, yes. It makes sense.
TW: I did some work a few years back. There’s a group called, I think It’s Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murder. This is a group of people, of community folks, mostly led by Black women. One of whom was Margaret Prescod, who’s this journalist in Southern California. And they were doing work back in the eighties, when Black women started dying in a series. And it was, in part, this so-called Grim Sleeper. When they caught him many years later, they sort of reactivated their work.
And so I went to L.A., and did some work with that group. And part of what we did was, they had created these placards. These signs that had pictures of each of the women, who he was on trial for having killed. And just went out in the community where a lot of these women disappeared from– which is actually the same community that when I lived in LA I had lived in. And held up signs and did a sort of an action out on the streets, and then did a commemoration event.
Now, this is years and years later, after most of these women have died. And yet we had people walk up to us and say: hey, I knew such and such, or I knew somebody else who was part of that, that series of murders, that kind of thing. I don’t know how many things like that are still going on, especially, you know, we’re talking twenty or thirty years, that they’ve been doing actions around that case.
And so one of the things that has come up in my work in Peoria is the need for a memorial of some sort.
When I talk to these– the daughters of one of the victims, for example. One of the things they said, one of the things that was hard for them was that– as far as they knew and as far as I had been able to tell in my research to this point– four of the women, their bodies were never found. And ultimately, it turned out that the person who killed them had burned their bodies in a fire pit behind his house. So there were no bodies to be recovered. Just sort of pieces of bone and that kind of thing.
As far as we know, there hasn’t been– there was never a memorial service, of any sort, for any of those women. And so, that’s one of the things they talked about, the people I interviewed. How, why has there still not been this?
Now, there may have been private things that the families did. Probably they did. But in terms of, there ever being some kind of larger memorial to those women, it has never happened in Peoria.
I know in that Anthony Sowell case in Cleveland, there was money raised to create a memorial. I don’t think, to this day I don’t think it’s ever happened yet, a permanent memorial.
[After our interview, the Garden of 11 Angels memorial was dedicated on the site where Sowell’s house had stood in Cleveland, in November 2021.]
So these sort of temporary memorials will pop up.
If these pop up– you know, we could talk about that in terms of George Floyd Square, too, and any number of other places, when someone– especially when they die tragically, these memorials will pop up. But in terms of something permanent… And there’s all kinds of reasons behind that, because these are not the kind– we’re typically not talking about the kinds of victims that anyone wants to memorialize.
We want to get the killer, so that we know the community is safer again. And then we want to stop talking about this.
Not the kind of thing that people, communities, really want to put a lot of energy into memorializing, typically.
KLM: Right. And that leads a little bit to… I think there’s a parallel thread between commemoration or the lack thereof, and what you said earlier that struck me: I don’t do this work because I’m fascinated by serial killers. I do it because we need to do this work.
And so, people often don’t want to remember. There are in fact things people don’t want to see! Like the tension in history between historians doing work that says: no, you have to see, you have to look. And the general public saying: I don’t want to see. I want to watch reality TV and enjoy my life.
And there’s always that– whether it’s about race or it’s about gender and sexual abuse or Indigenous people, genocide. It’s any number of things. But to me, that’s what’s always going on. There are some of us in the world who are sort of compelled to say: hey, look! And then most people saying: no, I don’t like that. It makes me uncomfortable.
[This is what I referred to in the introduction to this interview series as “the Omelas dilemma”– from the societal paradox presented in Ursula Le Guin’s short story of speculative moral philosophy “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973).]
TW: But, you know, there are still histories of trauma, or narratives, or things that have happened that do get memorialized. 9/11! Any number of other things do get memorialized.
I mean, even think about George Floyd. George Floyd Square continues to be a spot where there’s a memorial– even though this tragic, terrible thing happened, right.
KLM: So why some and not others, in a way.
TW: Some do and some don’t.
KLM: Yes, it’s true.
TW: And again, because the kinds of victims I’m talking about are not the kind who can be martyred in the same kind of way. Because they’re thought of bringing it on themselves, or they’re thought of being blameworthy, for what happened to them.
Like we don’t want to look on the face of people who might have been, what we would term prostitutes, or people who were drug addicted. These are not the kind of people who are “worthy” of memorialization or commemoration.
And so it’s very difficult to get people to, to talk about that history. In particular.
KLM: Right. And so, what would you say about your work in terms of intersectionality? And the double layers of– this is work about murdered women. And so the feminist aspect of it or the womanist aspect of it.
But also then, obviously if you’re going back in historical Black studies, you’re looking at the rape of enslaved women, you’re looking at medical experimentation. So how do you situate yourself in the work as it’s not just about the Black community today? It’s about specifically what is done to Black women’s bodies past and present.
TW: Well, the whole function of thinking about intersectionality, and so much Black feminist thinking around intersectionality or what’s referred to as intersectionality, is that you can’t separate those things out. Ever.
So, we’re always thinking about these things … you know, I talk about, I do work on racialized gender violence, as in the race and gender are commingled in a way that cannot be extrapolated from each other.
And where it gets tricky– at a moment when we’re talking more and more, as you know, MeToo. At a time when we are talking about violence against Black communities. We’re thinking about police violence, for instance. We’re talking about Black Lives Matter.
But it’s still difficult to talk about this work I do because what I’m typically talking about is intraracial violence. I’m typically talking about Black cis and trans women and girls who have been attacked by Black men, most of the time.
Not all the time. In Peoria, the person who did that killing was a white man, actually. But that was an anomaly. And so it becomes really tricky.
So then my thing is to say: that the same conditions of possibility that allow for a police officer to put their knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine plus minutes, and that allows for the kind of harm that happens to Black men and other Black people on the streets and at the hands of the state… Those same conditions of possibility are what allow for the women who I talk about in my study to have been killed.
TW: And that we have to be able to think about these forms of violence as intertwined. And that what it is to talk about Black Lives Matter or MeToo or any of these things is to think about them systemically and related.
And that is where, it sort of bumps up into some issues sometimes. Because I think when Renisha McBride was killed in the Detroit area, I was living in Michigan, at the time [2013). And she was killed. You know, this is the one who, her car broke down and she walked up to the porch…
KLM: Oh right.
TW: And he shot her. And it wasn’t a cop, but it was still the narrative of white vigilantism, essentially.
And there was an action or a meeting, at my university, after that. And someone from the community had come to talk, and after they talked I said: Well, how do we think about what happened to Renisha McBride and the relationship to– there were four Black women who were found. Two at a time, who were found in the trunk of this man’s car. It ended up being this man James Brown.
[Brown was a 25 year-old Black man convicted in 2014 of the murders of four young Black women working as escorts in his Detroit community.]
So how do we think about the vulnerability of Black women to these various forms of violence? How do we hold what happened to those four women in Detroit, to what happened to Renisha McBride in Detroit? The idea is to think about violence. Thinking about the continuum of violence, and the continuous precarity of Black women’s lives, in these various locations.
And I was shut down. I was told: well, Sister, you know, we can’t deal with that right now, because that just gets us all off. That takes us into a different place, and we take our focus off of what we’re really dealing with. And I’m saying: well, but this is what we’re dealing with!
That is often the kind of response. This gets dismissed because we have these more important, pressing things to deal with. Particularly when we’re talking about people from outside of the community, who are harming people within the community.
But how do we hold this sort of intracommunity violence? In relationship to that white vigilante violence. And understand that as part of the same structure, not as something that is “taking your eye off the ball” to discuss.
KLM: Right, and so you do have to kind of swim against the current of some cultural proscriptions, in that way, with your work.
KLM: We were talking about George Floyd before. And I have two questions there. The first would be: you lived through this historical moment, being there last year, right? As a Black scholar and as a Black person, and a woman, did you experience the city as a kind of traumatized place? How would you characterize it if you were to write a memoir of the last year? Or last summer, especially?
You know, as far as Minneapolis in a way became a focal point of the whole world. The whole world put their eyes on what was going on there. There are murals all over the world now. I was living internationally last year. I saw them in Europe.
And I remember this past summer, even with the trial. Myself being in the US, by coincidence, for the first time in years. Everybody was holding their breath and afraid that day, because if it went the wrong way, you thought: well, things could get ugly.
So how did you experience all of that, being there?
TW: You know, there was a way in which it felt surreal. When you’re in the sort of epicenter of something like that. I don’t know if I’ve yet unpacked it. And it was COVID.
TW: So I’m the director of this group called the Black Midwest Initiative. And the Black Midwest Initiative existed long before any of this happened. And part of the function, part of what our mission is, is about speaking to the lives of people, Black folks in the Midwest. And the fact that you’ve had this number of uprisings, or these issues that have happened within the Midwest.
Not just George Floyd, but also Jamar Clark, and Philando Castile. And, and, and, and, and, and. Right? Things that have happened, here and other places in the Midwest.
But the fact is that the conditions of the region are such that it’s ripe for this. And that’s part of what we’re talking about as part of the Black Midwest Initiative. That the places that have some of the worst outcomes for Black people are actually within the Midwest. This place that doesn’t even get talked about in relationship to Black people nearly enough.
And so all of a sudden, this thing happens and you have this convergence of interest in this city, Black folks in the city, and throughout the region more largely.
And so those of us who are working in the university, part of what’s happening is, it’s a moment when you’re trying to get your own bearings– not only because this thing has happened in the world, that has rocked the country, and the world, but in your city. On the streets that you know.
But then, as a professor, you have students who have been really, deeply affected by this. Students who knew people involved, students who knew the location and the area. Students and those of us who have had– I had just had a really bad interaction with a police officer not long before that. And so you have all of that.
Then, everybody sort of wants you to say a thing. And so I remember when the Black Midwest initiative got together, part of our gathering was about how you’re constantly being called upon to say something about something you haven’t even had the time– you haven’t been able to process yet. And it’s because it is so traumatic.
But also, you’re trying to keep moving. Myself and a colleague, we did protests, we got out– I just sort of joined into a food drive and started working in the community, doing cleanup stuff. Trying to figure out how to keep your students together.
So, it was just so much all at once. Those of us who lived really at the heart of that. And not even just academics, as much as people who were really all the frontline activists. A lot of whom were very young people, who were doing all of that work.
What it’s going to take to… I don’t know if it’s still been reckoned with. And I certainly don’t think the city has fully reckoned with all of that yet.
And so, part of it is about… this is the thing about being in the kind of media environment when it’s like one thing, then the next and the next and the next. It takes time to process all of that. And I think a lot of us are still processing.
And I still deal on a daily basis with trying to think through how to engage with students in the classroom. I’m teaching a class on violence now. And we had a long conversation the first day of class, a grad course. About how to move the class forward, and what to do if something else erupts in the world again. How do we manage it? How do we continue to function?
Because I think all of us are still living in the afterlife of what happened to George Floyd. But then also what happened to our communities, after his death.
KLM: Right. And this is a follow up question on George Floyd and last year, too. But also, going back to something we were talking about already about media– and the need to put histories in people’s faces, whether they want them or not. Or to do the work, whether we like doing it or not, sometimes.
I’m thinking about how we’re living in a time where all of this– these things with police violence and white supremacy– have been coming to light because we finally have the media. That’s a common trope these days, right? That with camera phones, it changes everything.
And it’s not that any of this is new. It’s that now people finally are seeing it and how powerful that is. And how, if it wasn’t for a Black teenage girl on the street filming what happened, it would have just been another case that has happened thousands of times in history.
And so I’m thinking: there’s always been this undercurrent in American history in the abuse of Black people and Black bodies. So if you think about Emmett Till, and his mother saying: we need an open casket because people need to see what was done. And photos of enslaved people, whippings.
So, this idea that the keeping things hidden, under wraps, is what allows them to perpetuate. And that this media spotlight– or in this case, a girl with a phone– is actually making a cultural moment change. This idea of media bringing things to light is… at least there’s something good there, maybe?
TW: Yes– but as with everything, with most things, it’s double-edged. This again is one of the things I talk about with students. Especially in the context, because I write about violence and talk about it a lot in my classes.
I think what a lot of my Black students are dealing with is the repetition of the violence, the repetition of the images constantly. You know, at any moment you’re seeing a Black death occurring someplace. And because it’s so ubiquitous now, because media is so ubiquitous, never really being able to completely shield yourself from it.
And then also, I think what can be frustrating is: yes, there’s this media now. But it’s not as if it wasn’t happening before there was the media.
It’s not as if police officers were not killing Black people before they started being caught on camera phones.
It’s just that we weren’t believed.
TW: And so it makes that that much more poignant. I think that somehow people need this visual evidence of something that Black folks have been talking about, that kind of harm, for forever.
So in the context of my work, it’s like people need to see a Black woman’s body violated and spread out, with stab wounds or strangled, before they realize that there’s this brutality that’s happening to Black women. Why? The need for the image.
And again, it feeds into the spectacularization of Black death. That is the other edge to this. Like, yes, media, especially social media, has been a necessary tool in telling these kinds of stories. Just like in the fifties and sixties, being able to finally show police officers spraying hoses on people is what finally got the public consciousness working. But it had been happening well before that! Right?
It’s like you’ve got to see the Black body harmed, before you believe that the Black body is being harmed.
KLM: Yes. Right.
And then also, when you say a double-edged sword, I think about last year. How every news channel, every day, all the time, was showing this man die. And people just became used to it. I would be at the gym in the afternoon, in the middle of the day, and they’d be showing the video again, and I would just be looking down because I’m saying: this is obscene.
I mean, I understand the need to show it, to make people understand. But you’re just showing this over and over again now, and it becomes quite gratuitous, and it becomes a violation in a way, right? So I never did watch the video at all because it was too upsetting to me. But it was just running casually while the talking heads were talking.
TW: And I think part of the issue with that is that– once you run that image over and over and over and over again, once people get adjusted to seeing it…
I don’t know if folks always recognize the harm that that still does, especially to the people who have some kind of affiliation with what that is. So people who are Black. People who have been assaulted by police officers. People who live in that– because I know plenty of them– in and around that community, who live in this city. There is something– you sort of carry that.
And just because a large part of the populace can get “used to” seeing that image, it doesn’t mean that it’s not still deeply harmful and traumatic, for a lot of people in different ways.
KLM: Right. Right.
TW: Including people who are not Black. Like you talk about how difficult it was for you to even watch it. But when you feel like you yourself are concerned about that, that that kind of harm can happen to you at any moment, when you carry the visual markers of that violence on your own person– it can be hard. And there are certainly people– I have students, I know people– who really have struggled around it.
KLM: Right. Well, and I think it connects back to that same thing we were saying at the beginning of the conversation, about true crime and serial killing. That it’s so easy for things to become gratuitous. And the need for a human being– of any race, of any gender– to stop and say: this is a person who was alive, and now they have been killed by violence, and they are dead. And treat that with respect, whether it’s in the 1800s or it’s today, whether it’s on YouTube or it’s…
TW: Right– and it’s not just entertainment! That’s people’s lives. Death is not just entertainment. But it has become entertainment.
I have two closing questions. They’re a bit dovetailed together.
The first one would be, overall in the work that you do. This is kind of getting at the heart of the matter to me. Like I mentioned, I assumed that when I was going to do these interviews with people, that they would be pretty grim, you know? That people would say: yes. This work is terrible and it’s hard, and I am traumatized all the time, but I do it because I feel a duty to my ancestors. Or: I do it because someone has to do it, and I’m doing the dirty work of society in a way.
And instead I’ve found that there’s always some hopefulness, or there’s always something that keeps you going. A lot of times in much more positive ways!
I’ve talked to a therapist who works with children who are amputees from mines, war crimes in Southeast Asia, and she would go and work with these children. And she said: but they’re still children. They laugh at you and they say: Auntie, you look old. You’re getting gray in your hair. You’re going to die soon. Dye your hair so you can stay and play with us.
So she said to me: if it was grim all the time, we couldn’t do it, right?
So in other words, what keeps you going with the work you do? Is it because you feel like you’re doing a service to your community? Because you feel obligated? But does it get you down sometimes? Yet there’s a hopefulness in it?
If you could speak to that tension a bit. Of the difficulty of it versus the reward.
TW: Yeah, I mean, there are definitely moments where it’s just hard. Like I just have emotional collapses. There are– you know, you’ve been taking it in in your own work– story after story of violation or harm. And it gets really hard sometimes.
But– and this is also a part of it for me– I don’t feel an obligation. Nobody told me I had to do this.
But I do feel a responsibility to tell the story as honestly, and completely as I possibly can. Especially since the work originates out of my own community. And I do feel a really deep responsibility to honor my community, in the work. And by honoring them, that doesn’t mean covering up the bad stuff. It means being as straight up about what it is as I can.
But it is the case, yes. I get asked this type of question every time I speak on my work, about how I do this. And I think the assumption of the question often is very similar. That this has to be the most terrible, horrible, awful, no good, very bad thing that one can do in the world. But, I’ve written about it– there is joy in the work.
Because for me, what doing this work has required is that I understand my home and my community in a way I never did before.
When I left Peoria, I think that… I believed the narratives that I now critique. About coming from a place like the ‘hood, the south side of Peoria. One must get out. The only way to be successful is to get out of those places and never look back. That it’s just this place of destitution. And that’s all that is there.
And it took the deaths of nine Black women in my community to force me to look at my community in a real way. And to fall back in love with it. And to understand what was so significant and important and special and wonderful about being from that place.
It shouldn’t have taken that. But part of it is the narratives you’re fed when you’re from a place like that. There’s nothing worth salvaging here.
But when I sit down and talk with family members who say things like: you can try to label her however you want to, but who this person was to me was my mother. And a grandmother. So when I sat down to do my interviews, there’s more laughter than there are tears. They’re narrating a story of someone that you otherwise don’t get to see.
So I get to learn about people. I get to learn stories about this place I come from, that otherwise I never would have known about. And I get to see a kind of sociality, a kind of Black sociality that is so deeply rich, and meaningful to me.
And what I do in my work, I think it’s disingenuous to talk about it as “giving back to the community”. Actually, what happens is there’s a kind of relationship that’s built. And I receive so much from doing this work.
It’s learning about the people I come from. It’s learning about myself. It’s learning about how people, in even the deepest, darkest moments, figure out a way to make a life, and to narrate a story. Even of the people who society has invisibilized and has rendered valueless.
How the people who I write about and talk about and think with cause rethinking of the meaning of value altogether. Throwing out the idea of “value”. And disrupting the notion that some people should be valued, and others are valueless.
And that has been some of the most meaningful… the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my life, actually, I think. Is to embark upon this work.
So I think I’m in agreeance with many of the other people you’ve talked to. About how as devastating and difficult as it can be to do this work– I’m moved to it not just because I feel like I’m obligated to tell some story. None of these people told me to come and do this. In some ways, in some instances, I’m intruding on people’s lives, doing this work! But because it teaches us all– me, namely– something about the world that we come from. Even the people who get the least amount of shine in the world, I think have the most to tell us about what liberation and freedom look like.
KLM: Wow, yes.
And going back to this theme that we’ve had come up several times, on the lurid and the sensational. That when you’re sitting with people’s families and they’re laughing, it’s like– their death is one moment in their story. And they are not only a drug addict, or only a sex worker, or only a murder victim. They’re a person who had, as you say, family. And was a good cook, or a good dancer, or a good friend…
TW: And those are the stories. You know, those are the stories people want to tell. They want to tell these stories because there are only fragments of these people’s lives that we see. And it’s the worst possible fragments of their lives. And the family members and people and loved ones are instead like: there’s a whole person here! Who came from a whole family, and a whole community.
And when you start looking at that, you realize, that there’s such a bigger story here. Than can ever be summed up in one true crime narrative of one death. Or one series of deaths. It’s a much bigger, more compelling, more necessary story than that.
This has been one of my greatest conversations. I’m really pleased with it.
But is there any last bit that we didn’t cover, anything else you want to say?
TW: No. I appreciate that you’re doing the work because, the place where I’m in in my work now– I wrote my first book, and the first book is the first time I really wrote about what happened in Peoria. This next book is taking that and expanding it, into thinking more broadly beyond Peoria. But I’m now in a place as I’m sort of in between, done with book one, on my way into book two.
But I’ve become associated with this work. People know that this is what I do. I think that’s how you found me actually. Somebody said: this is someone who does that kind of work.
KLM: Yes, exactly.
TW: But I’m only getting now to the place where I’m really sitting back and reflecting on what it means to do it.
I think sometimes, especially– you know– grad school. You pick a project: what’s your project? You do your project, and your project is a thing. But the grad course I’m teaching now on violence is called “Racialized Gender Violence and the Politics of Care”.
And what I have my students thinking about collectively each week is not just about these various iterations of violence. But also, what it means to do this work, and what it means to care collectively. Not just how do I care for myself, do I do my bubble baths and stuff like that.
KLM: Yeah, “self-care”.
TW: Not the neoliberal version of self-care.
TW: But more like what do collective care practices mean in doing this work? And how am I as a person who is a researcher, who is situated in a very particular way to the communities that I work with, what does it mean for me to do that work? What does it mean to be in a caring, not just a researcher-subject kind of relationship, but to be in a kind of caring relationship, to and with the people whom I work with.
And I think as researchers, we don’t always stop to think about our own place in the work. And what it means for us to do it– to look inward. About what it means to do the work. And I think this interview series is an opportunity, is asking people to do that.
You can feel isolated, doing this kind of work. It’s also the reason why I’m teaching this class, because I was trying to bring together people who are also trying to think about this really difficult stuff, and willing to do it together.
And so, knowing that there’s something I’ll be able to read eventually, in which there’s different people who are also involved in very difficult work, such as what I’m doing, and the kinds of conversations that might be evoked out of that– I think it’s a really useful, generative, and important project.
KLM: Thank you! It started for me because my PhD research went to a pretty grim place. My entire last chapter was essentially Hollywood as this field of institutional rape in the 1930s and ‘40s and ‘50s, and no one doing anything about it. And all these women– the minute they spoke up, they were disappeared. The violence against women was completely ingrained. And then there’s money and power and class in it as well.
But the last chapter was all about sexual assault. And as a woman, like many women, most women, I have assault in my history. I have domestic violence in my history. So I’m asking: why am I picking at this this scab?
KLM: Why am I doing this? I used to joke with my best friend who’s a gay man, and he’s working on some particularly difficult stuff in the gay community. And we used to joke: why do we do this to ourselves?
And so I had that question sitting in my PhD research, and it was sort of sleeping. And when I graduated and came to my parents’ house to visit and I went back and looked at things, I went: oh right, this was a meta project I wanted to do all along. Of why do we do the work that we do?
KLM: So, I guess I still have to reckon with it– for me it was a painful time! And I was grappling with things I didn’t necessarily want to, but I felt the need to.
But I think, as you say, the sense of isolation, sometimes, that was a big part of the bad time for me, I think. But doing this project is finding the positivity and the hope in it and connecting with people who say: yeah, it’s tough! But it’s good, too.
TW: Right, right. Absolutely.