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10 Questions for James Smethurst

“If Amiri Baraka had never published anything but Blues People, he would still be an important cultural critic. The appearance of the book in 1963 is a plausible beginning for when and where cul­tural studies began in the United States, a starting point that, in fact, antedates the founding of the Centre for Cultural Studies by Richard Hoggart in Birmingham, England.” —from “‘Formal Renditions’: Revisiting the Baraka-Ellison Debate”, Spring 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 1)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written.
Though I am sometimes thought of as a scholar of literature, one of the first shorter pieces I published was "How I Got to Memphis: The Blues and the Study of American Culture." I guess what moved me to write it was musing about how popular music materially situated in particular milieus provides an avenue for analyzing how race, class, and nation are mutually constitutive categories in the United States. That idea was not really one of startling originality, but it was surprising to me how seldom such analyses were carefully historicized and grounded in the material conditions of a particular place, say Memphis, TN or Newark, New Jersey. So, my current project on how Amiri Baraka drew on black music as an index of black ethnogenesis and the creation of a black working class, of which the piece in MR is a portion, has a long foreground.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
That’s a hard question. There are so many, and I always find it hard to narrow down my influences to a workable number. I am terrible at top ten lists. In terms of critics and scholars, I suppose that Baraka, Frank O’Hara, E. P. Thompson, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, and Lorenzo Thomas are a few writers who inspired me in different ways early in my career. However, I wouldn’t want to blame them for my style. Also, if you asked me tomorrow, I might give a very different list.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
Someone who writes shorter, more direct sentences.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I began thinking about it around the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Blues People. As I considered Blues People, it occurred to me how important Ellison’s review was for both our understanding of the work Blues People did or didn’t do and of Ellison’s own legacy.

Are you particular about your workspace or can you write anywhere?
I can work pretty much anywhere. One very positive result of having a six-month-old child when I started graduate school was that I learned to work in short increments of time in any sort of location while my son napped.

What other professions have you worked in?
Laborer in a couple of factories; machine operator in a garbage dump, television listings editor; editor in business publishing; switchboard operator; dues and membership coordinator for a labor union.

Is there a city or place that influences your writing?
Right now, Newark, New Jersey.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you perform when writing?
Not really. I used to listen to music, but as I have gotten older I do that less. Maybe it is because I feel that my sentences get too convoluted as it is without being distracted by music.

What is your favorite food and/or drink to have while writing?
Coffee in the morning; seltzer in the afternoon. I have been known to drink a beer or a glass of wine or two, but generally after I have finished writing.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It depends, but most often my partner Carol Forney. (I’m a dreadful proofreader of my own work.)


JAMES SMETHURST is professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-–1946, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, and The African American Roots of Modernism: From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance. He coedited Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States; Radicalism in the South Since Reconstruction; and SOS—Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader.

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