Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Badia Ahad-Legardy about her multicultural studies book, Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture. Part of University of Illinois Press’s The New Black Studies Series, this book draws on contemporary African American culture and recent psychological studies, revealing nostalgia’s power to effect happiness.
What incited you to write Afro-Nostalgia?
In 2007 I lost my mother to an extended battle with ovarian cancer. That grief has stayed with me ever since. It is easier to manage but that loss is very much a part of my life and it has become a part of who I am. I have often felt that there was no justice in her passing. She sought medical care for her symptoms for almost a year and was dismissed and misdiagnosed by physicians. Yet, she was relentless in her pursuit to find out what was wrong with her. It wasn’t until she sought a fourth opinion that she learned she had cancer. The minimization of Black pain emerges from a broader lack of Black humanity that often results in Black death. This particular experience hit close to home, but we have seen it time and time again when a Black life tragically ends for no reason other than our lives are seen as less worthy.
Nostalgia is a coping mechanism; it is a way to contend with feelings of sadness and discontent. So, writing Afro-Nostalgia was a way for me to deal with my own sense of grief by cultivating an archive of Black joy. Every book, song, painting, photograph that I write about inspires “good feelings” in the form of either humor, hope and a sense of racial/cultural pride. But Afro-Nostalgia is also an intervention in the way we talk about African Americans and the historical past; it traces a way of remembering that isn’t necessarily tied to trauma and oppression. The book takes seriously the question, what does historical pleasure and romantic remembrance look like for Black folks?
What makes this the right book for right now?
When I started thinking about this project in 2012, I could never have imagined that it would come at a time when nostalgia would play such a central role in our lives. Right now, nostalgia is everywhere and it is deeply felt by everyone. The twinned pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-black racism have created ripe conditions for nostalgia as a way to cope with an unprecedented sense of loss and grief. Popular media certainly has picked up on this—The Last Dance, Cobra Kai, Sylvie’s Love, One Night in Miami. I’m not at all surprised about the popularity of Bridgerton which really captures the imaginative aspects of nostalgic remembrance by offering Black people an esteemed place within 19th century Britain. That Bridgerton has been so positively received by Black audiences points to a desire for alternative historical narratives in which Black subjugation does not form the center of experience. This is precisely the work of Afro-Nostalgia—to create an archive of Black historical pleasure.
What surprised you the most about this project? What surprised you while researching? What about during the writing process?
There were a few surprises that emerged as I was writing this book. I was surprised to learn about the long history of nostalgia and enslaved Africans. 19th c. physicians thought that they were incapable of experiencing nostalgia despite the frequency of suicide among the enslaved which was prompted by a desire to return home. Though nostalgia carries a different meaning for us now, it was originally classified as “homesickness” and regarded as a legitimate and serious medical condition. Returning to my earlier point about the dismissal of and disregard for Black pain, it was really interesting to learn about historical scientific attitudes surrounding nostalgia and blackness.
I was also fascinated about the way that nostalgia morphed from a medical condition to a psychological one early in the 20th century. This transition also shifted the belief that nostalgia was a negative emotion to something more positive. For example, recent psychological studies have shown that nostalgia promotes feelings of happiness and hope, it boosts self-esteem, and it can engender a sense of optimism. These revelations are a far cry from the 18th and early 19th c. symptoms of nostalgia, like melancholia, loss of appetite, disorientation, for example. These psychological studies provided a lot of momentum for the project because I wanted to trace how more recent analyses of nostalgia as an emotion that inspires “good feelings” was showing up in the works of contemporary Black artists. Specifically, I was compelled by how so many different forms of Black artistry (literature, visual culture, performance, food) were engaging the Black historical past in new and creative ways.
How do you feel about the term “Americana?” What is your definition of Americana?
What is fascinating about this question is how immediately my mind turns to racialized tchotchkes. Lawn jockeys, mammie ashtrays, picaninny postcards.
There is a really great documentary, Ethnic Notions (1987), that I still show in my African American literature classes. I want students to see how Black people have been represented within the American popular imagination and treated as objects because of these broader cultural perceptions. From that perspective, the term “Americana” doesn’t read as particularly inviting or inclusive. From my vantage point, Americana is term that is bound to a particular kind of white Americanness that is disguised as a nationalist neutrality. For example, “Make America Great Again” is a branding of white nostalgia that projects a unified and uncomplicated view of American history, which is an act of violent erasure.
I think about a series like Lovecraft Country that draws on the ethos of Americana by nodding to key trends across a number of eras. But for the Black protagonists, all of these very American touchpoints are experienced as horror.
What would a Museum of Afro-Nostalgia look like? Could there be a positive, joy-filled intersection of the two?
Ahhhh…..a Museum of Afro-Nostalgia sounds so inviting right now. It would be a living, breathing, evolving romp through actual and alternative histories of blackness in which joy, love, pleasure and bliss form the connective thread. I’d love to spend an entire day at the Museum of Afro-Nostalgia where “artifacts” like Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry, soul music of the 1970s and the 1898 film, “Something Good-Negro Kiss,” take up a common residence.
I’m not sure about a “joy-filled” intersection partially because unabated Black joy doesn’t primarily, or arguably, ever, happen in the presence of whiteness. Part of that project would seem intellectually dishonest. But I could be persuaded otherwise.
Musical artists Lauren Hill and Beyoncé and their invocations of nostalgic memory figure prominently in the book. You mention other powerhouse artists in relation to the Block Party documentary. Did you listen to music when working on this book? What music inspired you with this project?
Absolutely! I created an Afro-Nostalgia playlist on Spotify and it includes artists that range from Nina Simone (Young, Gifted and Black) to DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince (Summertime) to Beyoncé (All Night). The selections are a bit all over the place. The primary criteria for inclusion is that the song “takes me back” and brings a smile to my face.
Speaking of inspiration, I can see this book inspiring a podcast series. Where do you see this project going from here?
I don’t have a path for the book but I’m intensely curious to see how it gets taken up and by whom. I explore so many diverse aspects of Black culture in Afro-Nostalgia so I hope that this book will open the space for conversations in spheres that I didn’t anticipate. Exploring the range of Black emotional life has always been at the core of my work, and I have a couple of essays on leisure and idleness both in the works and circulating for publication so I’ll see what lands.
A few years ago I read a beautiful essay by Chandra Manning entitled, “On Not Writing a Book Right Now.” I recently returned to that piece and it has given me permission to take what she calls an “asterisk moment.”
But now that you mention it, a podcast sounds intriguing…
Badia Ahad, Ph.D., is a writer and professor of African-American literature and culture and author of Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture, out in March 2021, from University of Illinois Press – New Black Studies Series. Follow her on Twitter @BadiaAhad.