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July 6, 2020

Examining the power of pop culture to shape perception, issues and trends

Kinitra Brooks grew up connecting ideas, asking questions and demanding the freedom to do so. Today, the associate professor in MSU’s Department of English continues to push boundaries through her study of Black women, genre fiction, popular culture and the work of conjure women as intellectual history.

“Basically, I teach and research Black women creating weird stuff,” Brooks said. “That includes Black women writing fantasy, horror and science fiction as well as research into spiritual practices that aren’t often talked about in public.”

Brooks examines how Black women use genre fictions to recreate their own realities and to define places of spiritual power and reclamation. To make it immediate, she’s embraced the study of contemporary Black women artists like Beyoncé, popular films like Black Panther and the work of horror filmmakers like Jordan Peele.

Her classes, which explore movements like Black Lives Matter, Black feminism and the intersection of African pride and sci-fi known as Afrofuturism, fill quickly as students seek to build context around the themes and images they perceive in pop culture and to understand the effects those portrayals have on human interaction.

“I tell my students that people think the study of pop culture is easy and it’s not,” Brooks said. “What we now consider amazing literature was pop culture way back when. Langston Hughes was pop culture. Jazz was pop culture. Beowulf was pop culture. The British Romantics were the bad boys of that time. We have to respect that and we have to respect the rigor that comes with that.”

Brooks currently is working to re-establish and expand Afrofuturism’s presence at Michigan State University, which was home to the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop for 34 years and hosted science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler. Brooks intends to build upon that history by bringing in writers such as NK Jemisin and strengthen the work of Afrofuturists at MSU to what is now an international arts movement.

Early Influences

Born in New Orleans, Brooks often refers to her hometown as a “city of the dead,” citing the myriad connections to African, European and Indigenous spiritual practices. The teachings of Catholic and Protestant churches also overlaid community identities, providing a shield for some spiritual practices perceived as “voodoo.”

Brooks’ passion was fueled by Black women who applied their talents and intellect to represent their life experiences. Some created pages of prose or verse. Some crafted skillful fantasy, horror and science fiction. Others performed and raised their voices. Still others comported spiritual practices that foretold futures, provided healing, transformed sickness into health and served as a medium to other worlds.

Brooks detected the cultural norms that felt unjust and blocked economic or social opportunities for people of color. She began to see how those norms affected her identity and focused her scholarly work, teaching and research into understanding the portrayal of Black women within pop culture.

“It’s important to rediscover the ties and what happened in the past,” Brooks said. “I try to push back at the idea of nostalgia since the past wasn’t perfect, and people did some crappy stuff. We have to reckon with that. We have to heal that. And then we have to move forward with the knowledge we glean from that.”

The Power of Pop Culture

Brooks continually reflects on the multitude of factors that sparked her interest in pop culture. On her mother’s side, she hailed from generations of teachers with strong ties to the Black church. Her father grew up poor, teaching himself to read through discarded comic books pulled from dumpsters. Over time, he built a collection, passing it along to Brooks, who immersed herself in the sci-fi, superhero and horror stories he loved.

“From my mom’s side, I get the church and the agency to speak and ask questions,” she said. “And from my dad, I’ve got all these texts in sci-fi, horror and the like. It’s all joined together now in this really cool and awesome way in my work.”

When Beyoncé released her audiovisual project, "Lemonade," in 2016, that project struck a chord with Brooks who said it “walked right into my area of specialty.”

“I took advantage of her portrayal of an updated contemporary conjure woman to energize my students in the formation of a course centered on the audiovisual project,” Brooks said. “I also co-edited The Lemonade Reader to provide scholarly context for the larger public to highlight the theoretical intricacy of the piece.”

As a pop culture educator and scholar, Brooks sees urgency in the study and analysis of marginalized groups and false hierarchies. Her hope is to give rise to different voices, to break down and question barriers and to address the countless issues that have been handed down or ignored for generations. Pop culture, she said, can play a role, by piquing curiosity, grabbing attention and causing people to analyze or uncover histories they may have never thought of before.

“I don’t think we can underestimate the power of pop culture,” she said. “Think of HBO’s 'Watchman' and how those first scenes were of the Tulsa Massacre. Almost immediately, you had people Googling it, talking about it in social media and questioning why they hadn’t learned about it before. It’s really interesting to think of what people will write, think or create as a result.”

Intellectual History of Conjure Women

Brook’s current manuscript, "Divine Conjurers: Recovering Black Women’s Intellectual Histories of Spirit Work," examines various conjure women across multiple centuries and continents and insists that their work represents a period of intellectual history for Black women. She questions why their practices were regarded as “bad” or “dismissed” when their work was often aimed at helping those both inside and outside of their own communities.

“I’m asking why these women weren’t considered intellectuals,” she said. “And you see it’s because of their identity. They were Black. They were women. They were Southern, poor and uneducated. They did not have access to resources. My goal is to explore who they were, to name them in ways that respect who they are and to honor the knowledge that they passed on to us.”

Her monograph, Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror (Rutgers UP 2017) provides a critical treatment of Black women in science fiction, fantasy and horror and has helped create new fields of research.

“I used my familial knowledge of traditional healing morays,” Brooks said, “and interweaved them with the intellectual pursuit of centering rootwork and the figure of the conjure woman to actively revise the problematic portrayal of Black women in horror as dangerous ‘Voodoo’ women and the demonically possessed, if not the demon themselves.”

Endowed Chair in Literary Studies

Brooks is the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair in Literary Studies in the Department of English, a post that reflects her commitment to promoting the transformative potential of literature.

“By offering me the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair position, Michigan State has shown that my mix of recovering the old ways in hyper-contemporary fictions in my research and my teaching style that centers Black Popular Culture are welcome here, and that I will be supported in all of my efforts to grow my field and grow in my field,” Brooks said. “The Leslie Chair has already become integral to my research and programming agenda, and I am also using the knowledge gleaned from research funded by the Leslie Chair directly in my pedagogical praxis."

“Through their estate, Audrey and John Leslie have made themselves a part of my history. And as I continue to uncover my people’s past and figure out how and where it fits into the present, I am honored to be bringing the Leslies’ legacy along as it contributes to so many different futures: mine, my students’, Michigan State’s and the future of a people whose roots are so deserving of our respect, recognition and preservation.”

By: Kimberly Popiolek

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