Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I spent the past few days in North Carolina, enjoying the beautiful spring temperatures and flowering trees that seem to have popped up there.

Last Thursday evening, my cowriter and I gave a book reading and a signing in Durham at one of my all-time-favorite bookstores (after prepping for it over gelato at the incomparable Francesca's.)

The next morning, the two of us headed over to Chapel Hill for a conference on Civil Rights and the Body. For two days we listened to the papers of many young scholars--about the pleasures of the body, about gaze, about illness, about violence. Our paper was the final one of the meeting.

It felt so...good? comfortable?...to be with other scholars who are also enmeshed in horror. So often we as a society--or possibly we as a species?--shy away from this kind of intense focus on difficulty and pain. Here I was with others, equally obsessed with racial violence and its very specific affects on individual people. Many of us spent a lot of the weekend on the verge of tears about our own projects and about other people's work.

I sometimes wonder how people who deal day after day with immediate pain in others incorporate it into their lives. How do doctors, for example, handle having patients who are dying or who are in intense pain? Clearly, being on the fringes of violence or illness is nothing at all like the pain felt by the actual victims and patients--but on the other hand, the historian or the social worker or the doctor or whatever is supposed to leave the archive or the office and go back to the perfectly normal world where there is no space carved out for their own emotional devastation.

I raised this question with a few of the other historians there, joking that my next project will be on the history of birthday parties or something. One, who studies lynching and Jim Crow violence, told me that after his lynching book, he wrote about utopian communities. This kind of change is something in our bodies calling for self-preservation.

* * *

I returned home with a big sleep deficit and a massive sore throat. Now, instead of obsessing about the violation of people's bodies in history, I'm thinking about phlegm. Cough, cough.


Jennifer Jeffrey said...

I can only imagine how difficult that must be, to immerse yourself in such painful subject matter. I become so affected by what I'm working on that I'm not sure I could handle that.

Thanks for sharing this part of your journey...

NeedleDancer said...

I don't do terribly well with pain. I can't imagine immersing myself in something that painful for so long. You're a brave and strong woman to do that....
And I'm glad you did, because now I can read your book, one bit at a time, in pain-bites that I can handle.
May your phlegm leave soon, and may you enjoy a pain free day or two before the world finds you again.

Specs said...

This is in no way an adequate comparison, but when I was in school all of my research (and probably my diss, if I'd gotten that far) was focused on Medieval concepts of Hell. After writing my fifth or sixth paper on hell, torture, torment, the concept of the soul, etc, I wrote really "sexy/pop" papers for my other classes. Fitzgerald and feminism? You got it! Earl of Rochester and authorship? Yes, please.

It does make me wonder how scholars of things like Jim Crow, racial violence, the Holocaust, etc, can have such long and prolific careers working on the same dark material. It would completely wear me down.


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