Tiffany King will join the American Studies Department as Anschutz Distinguished Fellow for the spring 2022 semester. King is currently an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGS) at the University of Virginia.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, King discusses her upcoming spring seminar “Black and Indigenous Feminist Survival and Experimentation in the Americas,” her work within the intersecting fields of Black, Native/Indigenous, and Feminist studies, and her 2019 book The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: You are a scholar of Black studies and Native/Indigenous studies along with being an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Virginia. Can you speak about your work within these fields and how you feel they intersect?
Tiffany King: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for the question. I’ve been in the field of WGS for the past eight years, and it’s been wonderful to be in an interdisciplinary field that’s focused specifically on gender and sexuality. [The field] helped me bring in my interest in Black Studies and Indigenous studies together at these critical pressure points of gender and sexuality, specifically how power works on a body. This can tell us a lot about how blackness and indigeneity get mapped in the Americas, so thinking about Black Studies and Indigenous Studies in the Americas as a geography helps focus your attention in a critical way to map power.
I think that’s the beauty of Gender and Sexuality studies, particularly queer and trans critique. They map power in the spaces of the intimate and at scales that we often don’t think about that are often felt yet unspoken. So you get to do a lot if you bring all of those fields together, so Black studies, Indigenous studies, American studies, and Gender studies.
DP: Can you talk about that seminar you’ll be teaching in the spring — “Black and Indigenous Feminist Survival and Experimentation in the Americas” — and how it reorients American studies through the lens of Black and Native feminist histories?
TK: I really wanted to think about rooting American Studies through histories of Black and Indigenous feminists and certainly queer and trans literature, art, and other forms of cultural production to think about how it has us think about new questions about geography. Considering Native/Indigenous and Black feminist land-based practices might give us a different kind of mapping system — our topography, understanding of the planet, and understanding of how we come to know things might be different.
I want to use traditions coming out of Black feminist and Indigenous feminist thought as a starting point. We’ll be looking at some performance artists, we’ll be thinking about our own bodies, and hopefully in the spring when it gets warmer, we’ll be doing some land-based pedagogy and some land-based movements, experiences, and thinking about what our bodies and what the land can tell us. And we’re going to be talking to some folks who are doing some land back projects and also Black land projects.
I’m excited to think with folks, and I’m really interested in tracing the Black and Indigenous decolonial work that has happened in the past and that’s going on now so we don’t always imagine the decolonial as something that is in the future far from us. We have to get to something that we can actually experience in the present.
DP: It sounds like a really fascinating seminar. You talked about the idea of the body, and I know you’ve had a lot of experience working with this concept, in particular the Black female body. Can you elaborate on this area of your scholarship?
TK: In the field of Black feminist studies, particularly for Black feminist scholars who have studied slavery, there has been much attention paid to what happens to the body. Certainly people understand enslavement as requiring the labor of black bodies. But if you look at the body, other forms of violence — sexual violence, symbolic violence, particular forms of humiliation — emerge. For instance, in Caribbean slavery, there were certain codes that prevented Black women from wearing certain fabrics or colors to make them less than human or certainly not “true women.” If you pay attention to the body and literally how they’re physically disciplined, the kind of sexual violence applied to them, and also how they could appear in the public space — literally what you could put on your body — that tells you a lot about power. And so the body has been an important unit of analysis within Black as well as Indigenous feminist studies.
Studies of the body make certain things that we typically don’t think about or consider more visible. We think about — perhaps, on a very abstract scale — racism and Black racism, anti-indigenous racism, genocide, and slavery, in the macro-political, economic, and geographic, but the body lets us be a little bit more nimble and careful in our analyses of these larger kinds of analytics.
DP: With regards to your book, “The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies,” could you talk about your writing process and the metaphor of the shoal? What does the metaphor mean to you and how did you develop the concept?
TK: I started working on the project as a Ph.D. student in American Studies at the University of Maryland. The dissertation really came into form in thinking about critical texts like Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and the work I had done with Black and Indigenous women in the Toronto Chapter of Insight. Writing about those two things told me there was actually a way of bringing fields of Black and Indigenous studies together.
When I was trying to transform the dissertation, I was trying to bring these really interestingly rich but different texts together, but I realized I needed a different kind of metaphor to help me do that. After years, I paid attention to the road I was on — I live off of a row called Black Shoals in Atlanta. When I went to do more research [into shoals] I was like, “this is perfect.”
The shoal is a particular space where the ocean floor meets the surface of the water which can’t always be mapped. If you think about a shoal as a sandbar which could be limestone, coral, and other kinds of material that accumulates over time — a number of different things — those materials move and shift over time. And so they’re hard to capture — in the ways that shorelines are often captured, shoals cannot be. Sometimes they appear one year and then decades or centuries later, they’re gone, so they’re these shifty things that are conditional and contingent. And that’s also something I was tracking in Black and Indigenous relations. There are moments when the political moment is right for that kind of coalition and then moments where the coalition isn't as active. In tracking this dynamic I needed a more dynamic kind of metaphor. The shoal had the dynamism that I was looking for.
DP: As an educator yourself, I was wondering if you could talk about what you think the role of educational institutions is in combating historical narratives and ways of thinking that are rooted in white supremacist and colonial traditions. How can institutions take an active stance in dismantling those systems?
TK: Institutions are not the best at asking themselves hard questions. One of the hardest questions to address and be accountable to is the issue of land back. That particular kind of demand is something that Princeton will have to grapple with. That issue is never going away.
Eventually there will be questions of land tenureship and ownership. The adoption of the practice of land acknowledgment is ever-shifting and changing. This is something that certainly universities are going to have to pay attention to.
Universities have also started to attend to issues with some kind of reparative redress with descendants of enslaved people. There needs to be a conversation about reparations in terms of universities’ role and slavery. What we’re just starting to really grapple with is how to take reparative action in relation to Indigenous roles, which literally may mean that the university will not exist in the physical space that it’s currently in and has to reimagine that. So it’s a critical time, it’s a time in which we’re gonna have to use our imaginations and be incredibly flexible and experimental to how we relate with one another. Which is so exciting to me about teaching in these fields of Black feminism and Indigenous feminists, to think about their tradition of experimentation. It’s not just about law. It’s about what’s possible, and what’s beautiful, and what we can hope for. I think universities need to look at these deep and serious challenges that are going to require some redistribution of sacrifices, opportunities to do something new and better and that’s actually sustainable and joyful for everyone. It’s going to be hard to look through this period of deep shifting and perhaps something that feels like an overturn and be hopeful about it. You’ve got to be in conversation with these communities that are making demands and take those demands really seriously.
DP: How have you seen your work evolve over time? How have current events and your observations of the world shaped the trajectory of your work?
TK: Over time, I’ve been compelled to make my work a little bit more grounded. When I entered a Ph.D. program, my work was a bit more theoretical than the work I had done for 10 years before I became an academic. I feel like I’m coming back full circle to privilege the work that I’m doing with organizers and community. The next book project will be focused on folks that I have a relationship with outside of the academy who are doing land-based work in Black and Indigenous communities. I’m also fortunate to be working with two of my colleagues at UVA — two Indigenous feminist scholars — and we’re trying to build a Black and Indigenous Feminist Futures Institute to actually bring scholars, artists, practitioners, and organizers together to talk about how to work at the intersection of anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity. I really want my work to facilitate more relationship building, work where I can focus on being a resource for folks who aren’t necessarily in academia but are trying to bring Black and Indigenous people into conversation and into communities. That’s the kind of movement I’m on.
Alexa Marsh is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.