Left of Black: A Treasured Archive of Black Life

by Alexis Ligon Holloway

“Left of Black is so vital for connecting Black academics, artists, and activists with wider communities interested in the work we do. Dr. Neal has created and maintained a platform that is informative and accessible to so many. It was an honor and a pleasure to talk about my work with him.” –Shanté Paradigm Smalls, Ph. D.

Left of Black, the longest-running video series at Duke University, has been nominated this year for the 27th Annual Webby Awards, presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences (IADAS). As Dr. Smalls, one of the many fantastic guests on Season 13 of the series astutely notes, the work that Dr. Mark Anthony Neal has done to connect notions that are seen as distinct or at odds—academic and activist, public and private, scholarly and popular—has positively impacted the lives of both viewers and guests alike. Produced at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute since 2020, Left of Black celebrates the vibrant knowledge of the Black community, the will and determination to thrive despite the multiple forces working against Black bodies, and the insistence to find joy and creativity in a world that is hard to live in as a person of color. Left of Black’s 13th season featured several intellectuals from various fields: filmmakers, music producers, performers, singers, scholars, activists, poets, fiction writers—and many of these guests occupied more than one professional and political category.

What stands out about Season 13 is the clear relational aspect of the show—Dr. Neal has forged close intellectual and interpersonal connections with many of the guests featured. The ease, trust, and sense of safety can be felt through the screen by the viewer. Sophia Chang, the first Korean-Canadian woman in hip-hop, exemplifies the amicable nature of the interviews in the episode about her recent publication, Baddest Bitch in the Room (2020). In this conversation, Chang discusses how her identity was formed through her parents’ struggles escaping North Korea and having to face discrimination at many points in their lives. She shares intimate details about her father, like how he loved cooking and was adept at learning different languages, and how that inspired her to appreciate the small joys in life despite true hardships. Chang passionately critiques misogyny, racism, ageism, and sexism in the music industry through the recounting of stories involving famed rapper Method Man and other big names in the business. She also highlights the work that she has done to lift other women of color through her mentorship program, “Unlock Her Potential.”

However, what was most palpable in this particular episode was the sense of mutual respect and understanding between Chang and Dr. Neal. Chang has clearly taken the time to understand anti-Black racism, noting that the bigotry she has experienced as an Asian woman is certainly not the same as anti-Blackness—both in their historical origins and in their present-day manifestations. However, Chang expresses how anti-Asian hate is still an incredibly potent form of violence. This conversation around these difficult topics between a Black man and an Asian woman is important and desperately needed. It demonstrates that attempting to understand and listen to different communities is a form of solidarity. In a world where racial division is insidiously maintained and even promoted in certain contexts, Dr. Neal and Chang directly challenge this through their ethos of care, and mutual love for great music and important political work.

Left of Black also challenges institutional gatekeeping by celebrating the intellectual contributions of both established and newer scholars, putting them on equal footing. In his conversation with Dr. Julius Fleming Jr., Prof. Neal underscores Fleming’s brilliant contribution to Black time studies by thinking about the mobilization of “patience” as an anti-civil rights mechanism. Fleming interrogates the temporality of the U.S. as a nation and contrasts it against the prevalent narrative that Black people must remain patient and waiting while trying to survive in oppressive geographies. Due to his deep-seated and expansive understanding of Black studies, Black history, and radical Black sensibilities, Dr. Neal fully recognized both the scholarly and political significance of Dr. Fleming’s work, especially in his contributions to expanding our temporal understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Neal has an incredible ability to not only understand the significance of these contributions, but to also translate them for the broader audience. For instance, Dr. Neal brings up Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam as a “sonic side eye” to the rhetoric of patience. Dr. Neal keeps it real through his use of vernacular, creating a space of mutual comfortability for both the viewers and the show’s guests.

Reflecting upon his time on the show, Dr. Fleming comments,

“One of the great tragedies of living in a world that was rocked by the violences of slavery and colonialism is that the thoughts, feelings, and lives of those victimized by these systems were strategically devalued and erased. Left of Black is one of the most pivotal contemporary efforts to restore and center the complex textures of those lives as well as the multiple futures that their descendants have continued to eke out, while navigating the ongoing effects of these systems. Curating a broad public consciousness through careful engagements with Black scholarly discourse, Left of Black is one of the most treasured archives of Black life.”

In, thankfully, a decreasingly rare moment, Black labor, life, and livelihood is being promoted on a global stage through the nomination of season 13 for a Webby People’s Voice Award. The show is a top five contender in the category of Science and Education Video Series & Channels among nearly 14,000 overall entries received by the Webby Awards team. Left of Black is the only finalist in that category to prominently feature Black creatives and intellectuals, competing against two BBC-produced entries, another from Al Jazeera Media, and a fifth made at Stanford University. The aim of Left of Black is to place Black creativity and scholarly discourse at the forefront, thus making the show’s Webby nomination all the more politically significant. Blackness is now front and center, taking up space and making itself known.

As the intro music, written and performed by Grammy-nominated artist Rapsody, states, Left of Black is “all Black everything.” Dr. Neal and his production team have the chance to receive their roses now—which is long overdue considering the vast number of guests that have been on the show and the growing audience over the years. This season demonstrates that the colleagues within the Black intellectual community who are doing the work are still a dynamic and spirited force in anti-racist and liberation struggles. Reflecting on her time on the show and her friendship with Dr. Neal, Sophia Chang meditates:

“Mark Anthony Neal is one of the few people whom I trust implicitly as a thinker, scholar, and surveyor of culture. So, to be deemed worthy of inclusion in his opus Left of Black is an honor and deeply validating.”

The production team here at Left of Black is excited to continue supporting Dr. Neal’s mission of celebrating “all Black everything.”

 

 
Dean E. Patrick Johnson being interviewed by Dr. Mark Anthony Neal at the From Slavery to Freedom Lab at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute
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