5 Questions: Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor, African and African Diaspora Studies

Browne Picture

Today we share with you an interview with Dr. Simone Browne, Associate Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies department and affiliate faculty member of the American Studies department. Dr. Browne and American Studies senior Rebecca Bielamowicz discussed teaching in the public school system, black feminist thought, the politics of creative expression, and her new book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015). And, you’re in luck: the conversation was so engaging that we expanded it beyond our usual five questions. Read on for a fascinating discussion!


What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

Oh that’s a good question – nice – and I like that you put teaching first because that’s so important to me. So my scholarly background, I grew up in Toronto and I went to school at the University of Toronto for undergrad, master’s degree, and PhD. In between that I got a teaching degree, and so I actually have background teaching kindergarten and the second grade as well, too. And so one of the things that was important in my graduate studies was that in the program that – so I’m a sociologist, but the program that I was in was sociology and equity studies, and so it wasn’t like an add on, it was something that was really important to the department’s political project, and I think that comes in to how I think about how we can see the world sociologically, it’s also about equity as well, so I think that kind of influences my teaching.

After I did the teaching degree, I wanted to go into a master’s in education in the field of education. I was interested in pursuing those issues around social justice and equity in the public school system and so – but when I went there, sometimes you get a little sidetracked with some things, and I was kind of interested in those same things but as well as a cultural studies approach to looking at sociology and so that’s how I ended up in more of the, I guess more of the academic track as opposed to public schooling.

How was teaching the younger kids?

It’s hard. That was the hardest job I’ve ever had. A different type of hard because you’re on every day, there’s so much prep work to do, of course there are always, and I’m sure it’s changed a lot now where it’s been ramped up, but there’s always these metrics and benchmarks and testing and everything that you have to do. There’s oftentimes that you have to create spaces for them to learn through play or other things, and so it was tough, I’ll tell you that. My mother was a teacher, so I have a great – she was actually teaching at the same school as me for one time – but it was a great appreciation for the labor that they do. It’s no joke. They are really putting it in and they’re often not given the respect they deserve and the schools are not given the money they need. It is the toughest job but so important. And they’re great – to see the students, some of them are finished with university now, you know, that was such a long time ago.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

In terms of projects, if we think of black feminist thought [such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Katherine McKittrick and Ruth Wilson Gilmore] as a political project around intersectionality, around equity and centering the work of creative, academic, social, of black women and girls, I think that’s been a project that’s been inspiring to me in the kind of research that I try to do. And some of the other work that’s been inspiring to me within surveillance studies work, I really enjoy what David Lyon has brought and created in a field in that, and so for me to put those two things into conversation to each other, like what happens when we center the conditions of black women in the city when we want to think about surveillance, what kind of other questions does that lead us to? Maybe different types of answers. And so those are two things that have been inspiring to me and have been fruitful in my own writing and work.

What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I feel like I only have one project, actually. I enjoy doing dissertation work because there’s, well I had a guide on the side which was my dissertation supervisor Kari Dehli and that was really good because sometimes you don’t know if you’re doing things right, but that was a project that I had the time to work on and to do archival work or to do work with Access to Information, which is kind of like your Freedom of Information documents, and that was exciting to me. Coming to do a book project, which was not my dissertation, it was liberating because I didn’t have anybody to tell me what to do – what not and what to do – but in that sense sometimes you do need that kind of guidance but I was able to find an entire dissertation committee of like 100 people, from my colleagues to my students to help me get that together and so in that way, the work that I did towards that book was probably my most fun work in terms of research, at least.

What was your dissertation/how did it differ from Dark Matters?

My dissertation was looking at Canada-U.S. border security at the site of the permanent resident card, which is basically like a Green Card that you would have in the U.S., but it was the first card post-9/11 said to be the most secure card in the world, so it was chip ready, ready to secure our borders with fingerprints and whatnot. And so I looked at the way they rationalized this card through criminalizing immigrants as terrorist threats, as economic threats, as refugee threats, all of these types of things that built up around this immigrant body as bogeyman to rationalize a large securitization of a border. And so when I was doing that work and thinking about surveillance studies, I noticed that there was a long absence of how black people were surveilled and continue to be and so that was kind of an absented presence in the literature and so I wanted to make an intervention in that space, and so that’s how it was a bit different. It was not the same project but a lot of the questions and the skill sets that I got from the dissertation project allowed me to get this one going.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

I probably shouldn’t say that – I don’t know if I’m that interested in academia to tell you the truth, but I guess you don’t write a book for one. What’s kind of interesting for me is there’s been a lot of take up of the book from the high school debating circuit. It sold out in like two weeks, and I think it has a lot to do with them. The theme this year is surveillance, and even before the book came out I had students emailing me if they could get a copy and I’m like I don’t even have a copy. And so to see that kind of excitement coming on a national level from high school students is amazing. And I get invitations to talk at different universities and whatever and people find the work exciting but what I really think is good is when people in the community who are outside of academia – I try to write in a way where the language was accessible to everyone, you don’t have to know about you know, epistemology or some word that people kind of throw around or use quite successfully and importantly, I don’t want to minimize why we have to have shorthand and big words in academia, but that people can find use for it in different kinds of spaces and communities, I think that’s been kind of exciting for me.


What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

There’s a lot of art in this building and in one of the classrooms downstairs there is a display of this woman [Jackie Ormes] who was the first black woman who was a comic book author in the U.S. and so I was kind of interested in her work because she was surveilled by the FBI, so I wrote to the FBI to get her, to do a FOIA request [Freedom of Information Act] to get her documents, but she wrote about domestic work, she wrote about the color line, and so I want to kind of look at those artistic works, creative works and production and think about that around surveillance at that time, and so that’s something that I’m excited about now. Now I’m also writing a short piece of work on this artist Zach Blas, I think we looked at some of his face cages, and so looking at some of the work that he’s done in a project called Face Cages on the biometric cage, and I’m kind of linking it to metals and aluminum, so you know in class we talked about metals in the slave trade – like chains, cuffs – and some of that kind of violence to link it to some of this violence around biometric technologies. So looking at the site of this material site, like aluminum or iron and these things, so that’s something that I really find artist’s work, creative practices, inspiring – because they’re doing the heavy lifting, really, for us, and so those two projects I’m excited about.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

Oh, I should have planned that one… well, I’ll give you a story, and then I’ll have to think. So the American Studies students I work with are so smart, they are like human Wikipedia. They always have these long reading lists and they just know so much about the history of the country and the works that came out of it, written works that I really don’t know. But one thing about American Studies is it allows us to question empire in really critical and important ways and from their conferences to the department here, there’s a kind of critical generosity around how they critique America as an economic, and a social, and a political project and its practices, and so if I were to say what is American Studies in one sentence, it could be a discipline that is not disciplined but is kind of unbounded, and so it allows a kind of, it can allow for a kind of to think like what does Canada have to do with the American project, and I think that’s where my intervention in that is… And that’s American Studies – these people are a vast archive of the question of what is America.

Tell us about your new book.

I think the book is kind of like a mash up of a few things, but first it could be a love letter to surveillance studies but also putting it into conversation with some stuff around the Black Diaspora, around women and gender studies, and I think that’s what the book is. And so I look at various spaces and segments of time, so it could be, I look at the airport, or I could look at a runaway notice, or I could look at or I do look at post-9/11 or the American Revolution, so those different ways of thinking about space and time and asking what are the various ways in which black people were subject to surveillance, contended with it, resisted or just dealt with it. I wanted to make that archive available for people to think about so that we don’t see surveillance as something that only comes around with drones or Edward Snowden, that there were people resisting and theorizing surveillance long before September 11, 2001.

So I think that’s what the book does and so I look at what happens when we think about the experiences of black women at the airport. I look at biometric technology, but earlier iterations of that within branding or so, and I look at the formation of the Canada-U.S. border at the site of this document called The Book of Negroes, and that was interesting archival work for me to do because it gets us to think maybe there’s another kind of genealogy of the Canadian passport or the Canada-U.S. border and what it means to cross the border.

How did you get interested in archival work/where did you end up traveling?

I think it was you just had to go where the archive was and a lot of it is online now. I went to London to the national archives there to look at The Book of Negroes. I went to New York City to this bar, but it was very important during the American Revolution, and so to see what it is now, it’s like a brewery/a restaurant/a pub, but a museum was still there. I did some archival work at the Beinecke Library at Yale, looking at documents of this diary of a planter in Jamaica, a planter is like I guess a code word for slave owner and plantation owner, and it was his diaries, and so I wanted to look at how he recorded a particular woman’s escape – she would continually run away even though she was so brutalized from him, but she still found her way, and I wanted to kind of tell us what was absent in discussions around surveillance. I thought I could find them in certain archives and in certain moments, and some of that was things online like that Mendi And Keith Obadike, their “Blackness for Sale” and looking at some of that or some people’s art – there’s Hank Willis Thomas.

I think each chapter has some kind of expressive practice or creative work there or sometimes it was reality television, too. So I guess I went to a few different spaces but I find there’s like, you know there’s also – I was talking to a librarian in information sciences about security theater at the airport and earlier on in my talk I discussed going to the National Archives and how you have to put on gloves and you can only bring in pencils, not pens, and it’s a kind of performance, and she was like that’s a security theater too – like who does not feel a sense of belonging in those spaces of the archive? It was actually a really generative discussion – that concepts that we might use to think about an airport, a border, a street – that they can apply those things like security theater to academic spaces or to a national archive, so there’s a performance in that, too.


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