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Kaila Adia Story (Ph.D., African American Studies & Women’s Studies Temple University M.A., African American Studies Temple University; B.A. Women’s Studies DePaul University) is an associate professor and currently holds the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in the Departments of Women’s & Gender Studies & Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville.
Dr. Story’s research explores the intersections of race, class, and sexuality in identity performance, mass media, body politics, and the like. Currently, she is looking at how reality television posits Black and Female identity and reinforces past controlling images of Black women.
Her other research interests are Gender Socialization, Transnational Sexualities, Black feminisms, and Transnational Feminisms. Dr. Story was recently quoted by Tanzina Vega in “A Show Makes Friends and History: ‘Scandal’ on ABC Is Breaking Barriers” in The New York Times and by Akiba Solomon in “Smart People Talk Beyonce So I don’t Have to” in Colorlines.com (a daily news site offering award-winning reporting, analysis, and solutions to today’s racial justice issues).
TFW: Let’s begin at the beginning: Where are you from? And what were some of the moments and events in your life that motivated you to take up an academic career?
Kaila: I’m originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was definitely my father who motivated me to become an academic. Both of my parents wanted me to be whatever I wanted, but I saw how much my dad loved teaching and mentoring young students of color at the University of Michigan and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. He showed me through his own work how knowledge has the ability to transform.
When I was completing my Bachelors degree in Women’s & Gender Studies at DePaul University, I was introduced to Black Feminist theory and praxis through the teaching and activism of my mentor, Dr. Ann Russo. Through Ann’s mentorship and my study of Black Feminist Theory, I understood that (1) knowledge was both formal (academic) and (2) knowledge was experiential (lived). I wanted to make sure that when I reached my scholarly goal of becoming a professor that my teachings, writings, activism, and life reflected the overwhelming truth that knowledge can truly effect social change.
TFW: It is not at all by mistake that you presently hold the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville. Your work and life embody the beautiful and complicated interrelated identities taken up in the title. Can you say a bit about the chairship and the work that you have been able to do on your campus per that role?
Kaila: Awww, yes! The chairship was created by Carla Wallace, longtime Louisville activist and one of the founders of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, KY. Carla’s monies were matched with monies from the Buck for Brains initiative in Louisville to create the chairship. Angela Y. Davis, who had taught at the University of Louisville and who was longtime friend of Carla’s named the chairship after Black feminist activist, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde. The Chairship was designed to have a professor come to the University and through their scholarship, teachings, and activism create an ideological bridge between the departments of Women’s & Gender Studies and Pan African Studies, and also develop LGBTQIA curricula.
I have been at the University of Louisville since 2007 and in the fall of 2009 the Department of Women’s & Gender Studies launched the LBTGQ minor. I created the Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course, which serves as a required course for the minor. I also created Black Lesbian Lives, Queer Perspectives in Literature & Film, and in the spring of 2014 I will be teaching a 500 level course on Drag called Queer Performance. The Audre Lorde Chair has allowed me through my publications, presentations, forums, talks, and workshops, to create more visibility to my position, my departments, the University, and, ultimately, the larger Louisville community.
I am one of two co-coordinators of the Fairness Campaign, Louisville’s premier LGBTQ Rights organization and just recently the campaign passed the Fairness Ordinance in the Kentucky city, Vecco. Most recently, I was also offered by WFPL (the local NPR affiliate here in Louisville) to co-host, along with longtime Louisville activist and co-founder of the Louisville Ball Scene, Jaison Gardner, a weekly podcast for the station titled: “Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Popular Culture, and Black Gay Life.” We have been taping since June and the show has created quite a buzz with students, faculty, staff and the larger Louisville community.
TFW: How do you define feminism and, more specifically, a black lesbian feminism? How is your scholarship and activist work shaped by your black feminist politics?
Kaila: I define Feminism as the intellectual and activist articulation of a gendered analysis of the world’s relationship to women, both cis and trans. More specifically, I define, Black Lesbian Feminism as the thought and praxis of an intersectional gendered and sexual analysis of the world’s relationship to queer women of color specifically, both cis and trans.
While the racism of white feminists is a huge concern to us all, it should not be the main objective of the Black feminist movement. My research and activism, I hope, in part, lets feminists of color know that there is a space for them within feminism and Women’s and Gender Studies. That their foremothers’ feminisms and theirs have changed, shaped, and challenged the discourse of feminism and Women’s and Gender Studies to such a degree that it has literally and figuratively “brought the life into feminism” as Barbara Smith has said.
Feminists of color should continue to make their presences felt and known, particularly as we engage Hip Hop and Third Wave feminisms. Feminists of color should continue their fight for space within feminist communities where there is room for agency. And we need a racial consciousness that elucidates how our oppression has functioned primarily through the racialization of our gendered and sexual identities, and our relationship to the state. Indeed, this is great challenge, but hopefully, our ancestral legacy of survival and maintenance will aid us in this quest.
Thus, our work should be interdisplinary and intersectional. My research has always been interdisciplinary in scope and has always been framed utilizing a Black Feminist analysis. To me interdisciplinary studies reinforce the value of broadening skills and experience beyond the boundaries of a single concentration and involves a range of thought that engages various areas. Meaning in my work, I merge the discourses of queer theory and black feminist theory to illuminate the many ways that both of these theories can create an alternative epistemology and experiential lens by which queer women of color can live their lives.
This interdisciplinary approach helps, I think, other scholars in my discipline and others to deconstruct and construct various phenomena. My interdisciplinary research practices encourage students and other scholars in the field to be innovative, creative, flexible and adaptable, rather than adhere to old methods and approaches. Thus, because my scholarship is intersectional in nature and interdisciplinary in spirit, it allows me to publish in multiple disciplines, particularly in the disciplines of Women’s and Gender Studies, Pan African Studies, and the newly emerging Queer Studies.
TFW: Who are your feminist sheroes and in what ways have they inspired your movement in the world?
Kaila: Oh there are so many! First and foremost, Joan Morgan, author of the book Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks it Down. I was introduced to Joan’s work through a Black Feminisms in Action course taught by another mentor of mine, Francesca Royster of DePaul University. I was 19 and the book changed my life. My thoughts about my blackness, femaleness, queerness, and my own eroticism that embodies all of those identities was changed. I created the Black Feminisms in Action course at the University of Louisville and had my students read her book. Like me, they have been changed in the same ways I have and it is an absolutely breathtaking experience to witness it.
Also my comrade, sister, and intellectual companion, Dr. Yaba A. Blay, principal researcher for the One Drop Project and consultant on CNN’s “Black in America 5” with Soledad O’Brien. I met Yaba when I was a graduate student at Temple University and if had not been for her I probably wouldn’t have finished graduate school. She is one of the smartest, bravest, funniest, and kindest women I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, working with, speaking with, and loving as my comrade in struggle to create more visibility for issues that effect Black girls and women.
Then of course, Dr. Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University and cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, whose brain is a glittery reservoir of knowledge, inspiration, passion, and all that is necessary to uncover the true facets of Black women’s lives. Dr. Treva Lindsey at the University of Missouri, who is currently publishing and speaking about some of the innovative and fundamental elements of the Black Feminist project. Treva is a powerhouse of intellect, passion, and all of the necessary ideological and activist tools we need in this movement.
Then lastly, the heavy hitters, Audre Lorde, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, June Jordan, Claudia Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the many others who fought to bring about change through their writings and activism.
TFW: I’ve been waiting to see this publicly, but congratulations on receiving tenure and promotion at the University of Louisville. First, how do you feel after having crossed that threshold? Second, what are your thoughts about the work and plight of black women in the academy?
Kaila: It feels absolutely spectacular. Freeing. It has been one of the first times in my life when I have actually been proud of myself. Currently, there is a huge disparity in academia across the nation. Black female professors are not being granted tenure and promotion. This is an overwhelmingly disturbing state of affairs to me and I am currently finishing a piece called Embodying Diversity: The Consequences of “Other Mothering” for Black Women in the Academy, which explores this idea of work life strain black female professor experience within the academy because of their embodied diversity and the exploitation of their “other mothering” skills.
The tenure track process is hard enough to navigate as an assistant professor. For Black women who hold this position the task is even harder, particularly for those who embody multiple axes of “difference” such as race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Representing diversity within one’s embodiment often times represses one’s productivity. The pressure to publish at institutions of higher learning is paramount, but the most grueling and exhaustive work does not come from one’s attempt to publish. Indeed, the service aspect of our jobs has proven to be the most arduous, and at the same time, is not given the same weight in terms of promotion or tenure. Working with students, being at events, and serving on boards in the larger community does not matter to our institutions as much as it does to our students and/or to the communities that are Universities are a part of.
“Other mothering” refers to the care for a child not biologically our own. As Black women in the academy, we engage in “other mothering” through giving our time, mentorship, and visibility – and these efforts magnify the internalized pressure for Black women faculty to be the all and everything at their Universities. Black women’s hypervisibility/invisibility, embodied diversity and “other mothering” intersect to create work-life strain and this has direct relevance to the recent debates surrounding tenure and promotion for Black women at Universities.
TFW: Fun question: What is your favorite past time?
Kaila: Indulging in anything ratchet, yet Feminist! Smiles. No, seriously watching Drag, dancing, laughing, and listening to music.