The Welcome Table: Brittnay Proctor
In this episode of “The Welcome Table,” literary journalism students Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Brittnay Proctor, visiting assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies.
Sydney Charles (0:10–0:17): Hi, everyone, welcome back to another episode of “The Welcome Table.” Today, we are joined by Brittnay Proctor. How are you doing today?
Brittnay Proctor (0:18–0:19): Good. How about yourself?
Charles (0:20–0:39): Doing good. Doing good. Professor Proctor is a visiting assistant professor in the Gender and Sexuality Department. She focuses on Black studies, gender and sexuality studies, Black feminist theory, and Black popular music. So we’re so excited to be talking to you today. I think this is our first time talking about Black music, right?
Tatum Larsen (0:39–0:40): Yeah, I guess so.
Charles (0:40–0:42): So I’m super, super excited.
Larsen (0:43–0:57): But before we get started, we’re going to do a little show and tell, so we’re going to go first this week. And considering that you are a Black music fan, I brought this record. It’s the Fifth Dimension.
Proctor (0:58–1:00): Oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. That’s so cool.
Larsen (1:00–1:40): Thank you. They’re so cool. And I love the cover. They’re wearing black turtlenecks. I’m wearing black turtlenecks, matching, and I love this part of it, like the outside cover. And one of the songs on it, obviously probably one of their more well-known songs, “Aquarius, Let the Sun Shine In,” reminded me of “Les Fleur” by Minnie Riperton. And that was a song that you dissected during an event that I actually covered that we’re going to talk about later on. It’s the transitionary nature of the song, really. It reminded me of that, so that’s why I brought that today. What did you bring?
Proctor (1:40–2:09): Minnie Riperton’s “Come to My Garden,” so yay albums in the house today, but it’s an album that I personally love and that I’m currently writing about and. In the fall of 2021, I will hopefully have a book published about so it’s a very near and dear album to me and I, yeah, I really love it.
Larsen (2:09–2:32): It’s a great album. You actually put me on it at that event because I only knew, like “Loving You” by Minnie Riperton before, but I’m like, “Oh dang, she has a lot more.” So, our first question today is when you graduated from Northwestern University with a Ph.D. in African American studies, how did you end up taking an interest in gender and sexuality studies?
Proctor (2:32–3:51): That’s a good question. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside, I had the fortune to double major and one of my majors was African American studies. A lot of my, I just think the coursework that I took was always thinking about the relationship between Blackness, gender and sexuality.
In particular, I got to take course work with Jane O’Brien, she’s a faculty at Pratt Institute in New York now, but she was faculty at the time at UCR and she just was doing research on Black feminism, gender and sexuality studies, on Black performance at the intersections of gender and sexuality. So, I think I’ve always thought about, you know, Black studies as in conversation or at least, trying to deal with some of the topics and concepts in the field of gender and sexuality studies. So, I really had the opportunity in graduate school to try and bring these fields together in my own work.
Charles (3:52–4:00): So that’s amazing. That’s awesome. How does that coincide with your passion and interest for Black music, Black popular music?
Proctor (4:01–5:08): I think that always interested in the way that and for a long time, probably since I’ve been listening to music, I’ve always been interested in the way that Black music and Black popular music in particular has always taken up or tried to deal with questions of gender and sexuality, and I think that’s always been something that is just piqued my interest and it’s something I’ve been really trying to always, even in my undergraduate thesis, trying to write through some of that.
How can we turn to Black popular music to think differently about universal concepts like man and woman, for example? Or how can we think differently about gender and sexuality when you think about the ways of many of these artists are trying to work through or at least incorporating something? I would say gender theory in their work, so that’s how I see those related.
Charles (5:08–5:30): Yeah, I can think of a whole bunch of artists that like combined, they’re sort of like, not like I don’t want to say combined their gender, but for example, when you speak of gender and sexuality, I think of like Prince, you know what I mean? And he’s one that has always piqued my interest. My mom loves Prince. I love Prince. So yeah, we’re probably talk more about that later.
Proctor (5:30–6:03): Yeah, I think an artist like Prince was definitely, so weird to talk about him in the past tense, but to think about how a lot of his work is interested in Black masculinity and is trying to articulate a different relationship to one, to this, to the notion of Black, what it means to be a Black man in particular. So, yeah, I totally think that his work is always thought about gender and sexuality in interesting ways.
Charles (6:03–6:04): Yeah, yeah.
Larsen (6:04–6:15): I’m just visualizing some of his music videos and like the, I don’t know, the line between gender and sexuality is so blurred within them and it’s so beautifully done.
Charles (6:15–6:17): Almost androgynous, right?
Larsen (6:17–6:39): Right! So the next question is, I actually got to cover one of your events and it was really, really cool. Back when I was an intern at New U, I was really interested in one of the talks that you gave about Minnie Riperton, specifically about her, her album that you actually showed for your show and tell. So it’s called Come to My Garden, right?
Proctor (6:40–6:41): Yes.
Larsen (6:41–7:17): Super, super cool. As I said, I was only familiar with “Loving You,” and that was basically it. But then you analyzed this album and you played excerpts from this one particular song, “Les Fleur.” And I just thought it was so beautiful and your talk was beautifully done. So I just wanted to ask you, can you, there was one phrase that you use called the Law of Genre, it was just really interesting to hear you explain it. Can you explain it a little bit to our audience as it pertains to that album and to Black music in general?
Proctor (7:17–9:56): So the law of genre is a term that I’m borrowing from Jacques Derrida, who’s a French philosopher. In an essay titled Law of Genre, he’s thinking about how is the concept of category of genre is and rooted in the notion of that mixing types or kind, so that’s across genres, right? And so I’m trying to think about on one in this kind of anxiety around mixing in the context of Black popular music and the kind of racial antagonisms that are tied to this notion of mixing, which is, it’s heretical, but it’s also and we can say it’s not, or that the notion of mixing in particular mixing Black with white and in this instance, Black sound with white sounds, is not necessarily, it’s a kind of hysteria that is posited by white folk in particular.
And I’m trying to think about why why there is this preoccupation with the genre in this particular moment. So in the album’s release in 1970, and there’s this new genre, genre music emerging called fusion music, and there’s a lot of folk, particularly white men, that are writing about jazz at the time that are not happy with the emergence of fusion music, are pretty pissed that people are taking jazz standards and jazz compositions, infusing them with popular sounds.
And I’m curious as to why there is this kind of hysteria around fusion, even if we understand that fundamentally Black popular music is intersectional and is always thinking about, always coalescing itself across space and time and isn’t rooted in that genre, so in one way, I’m trying to think of the genre as a way of policing Black popular music. But I also am interested in thinking about how the law of genre is also related to gender.
And the etymology of the word genre comes out of a French for the word gender. So to market a kind or type in that instance around the sex gender binary. So I’m trying to take some of my thoughts around gender, a genre and think them in relationship to the kind of use of genre to codify and police Black popular music.
Charles (9:56–10:08): Codify and police Black popular music. That’s such an interesting concept, especially because you took a phrase from someone else’s work and you applied it to your own, grabbed your own conclusions. That’s amazing.
Larsen(10:09-10:21): No, that’s super, super cool. And I remember that you used the garden as an analogy for Black femininity. So can you kind of go into that a little bit more? I’m sure you can explain it much better than I can.
Proctor (10:21–11:52): Yeah. So she’s in a garden on the album cover and obviously it’s titled “Come Into My Garden.” So I’m returning to some of those ideas that were initially presented in the talk and thinking about Black women’s relationship to gardens and then in general, just thinking about Black people’s historic relationship to gardens and how this idea or this the place-ness of the garden in this album is very important. And now I’m trying to think about the ways that the garden gets personified as a kind of cultivation of Black womanhood in the album. So not presuming that, you know, Black women are biologically produced and that the things that we produce and create are somehow tied to biological phenomenon, that we naturally can say and that’s there, that we naturally are performers or that we’re naturally on this earth to entertain people, particularly white people. What I’m trying to think about is how can, how does this album discursively so it’s not that Minnie herself is saying, “Hey, this is what this album is up to,” but how can we take some of the things in the album and particularly the garden and think about the Black woman’s historic and black people’s historic relationship to the garden and think differently about Black women subjectivity.
Charles (11:52–12:18): Beautiful and I’m a little bit jealous that Tatum went to the event. Yeah, I know you’ll probably hosting some more events and things like that in the future. So, thank you for sharing that with us. Going back to the music industry as a whole, right? What are some of the most pertinent issues that you see for Black artists currently and also in the past?
Proctor (12:19–15:41): So I think why I’m interested in writing about Black popular music is that sometimes I think that I think larger concerns that are emerging in Black studies and gender and to some degree in gender and sexuality studies. I’m just trying to think about this concept of dispossession and think about the ways of Black people because of the ontology of Blackness, meaning being Black, the being of, or how Blackness gets to be in function in the world is intimately tied to dispossession and Black people being dispossessed of their life, the things they create.
So I’m interested, I think in thinking about the industry of the music industry, which is a pretty broad term, but they’re thinking about how music industries are kind of conditionally based or can only exist by way of dispossessing Black people, the things they create and innovate. And I think one of the biggest issues, we can see this in so many ways, but one of the biggest issues that Black artists face is being overworked, underpaid, but being dispossessed of the innovations that they make in music writ large, but in popular music in particular.
And it is kind of a free for all, where you know, folk get to just steal and take from Black artists, don’t have to credit them in the same in the way that the kind of capitalistic enterprise was tied to the way that we consume music is so much tied up and wrapped up in, you know, stealing from Black artists and accumulating capital off of the Black backs of artists’ labor and you know that the artist, Black artists historically not being given the rights to their masters, not having, you know, being kind of trapped into, I won’t use the word, a really messed up recording deals.
And just I mean, it’s so pervasive. And at every level, it’s and even if we think about who gets to write about Black popular music and make careers out of like writing about Black music in general, about Black popular music, I think a lot of critics of and writers about Black music often are white men or in general people that aren’t black and it’s another insidious way that we can continue to kind of steal and mine the thoughts and ideas and creative work of Black artists, because it’s kind of a free for free for all everyone. So I think that’s, dispossession is one of the biggest hurdles that Black artists face. And I don’t know how we can fix that per se but I think that’s really, yeah.
Larsen (15:41–16:21): I think that’s really the line between admiration and imitation is very blurred and it’s to the point where, like, I mean, sometimes I look at Ariana Grande for instance, I’m like, “That is a light skinned woman.” She is Black, but like she’s not. Well, yeah, it’s definitely imitation and theft is very pervasive within the music industry. So when you say that, like lots of songs and people are like kind of ringing in my head and seeing the unseen faces of the Black artists who came up with those concepts and styles of music.
Charles (16:21–16:35): It’s super, super unfortunate. Most people don’t even know that many, many pop artists have stolen, you know, and it’s a crazy fact of the music industry in my opinion, but yeah.
Proctor (16:35–17:38): Yeah, it’s pervasive. I mean, I’m sure folks are well intended if that even really matters. But it’s just so pervasive that, you know, even drawing attention to it, it’s like this knee jerk kind of reaction. It’s very reactionary, right? When folks try to name what’s happening. Folks are like, “What do you mean? What are you talking about?” And I think that to, not to belabor the point, but I think there is a way that we talk about music as it’s places like democratization and it’s an even playing field.
And, you know, in many ways, if we think about the lives in Black art, music artists, that has not been the case, right? It hasn’t been. It’s been an even playing field to steal in, dispossess folk of the things that they create, but it hasn’t been an even, democratized space. And we shouldn’t, it’s ok to not talk about music as this transcendental place where everyone’s in harmony together and, you know, loving on each other. It can be. There is a politics to music.
Larsen (17:39–18:21): Definitely. Yeah, it’s very political. There’s so many messages within music, covert or overt. So I think it’s very interesting to listen to it intentionally like you do and really consider what it means and not just listen to it on a surface level.
And your passion for music actually, you know, it boils down to the written form as well. Several of your works have been published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, the Journal of Popular Culture and the American Literature Journal, and many more. How is it writing your passions out? Like what is it like to have you work published? And what is it like to write about your passions for music?
Proctor (18:21–20:09): To be honest, it’s kind of antagonistic. I really struggle with writing, and in particular, like I said, I struggle with writing. It’s really hard for me. And in the end, it feels rewarding, but it’s very hard for me to write in general. And it feels nice when something is like out in the universe and if people find it useful, that’s a good feeling. But I think the actual process of writing for me is, I deal with writing anxiety, I’ve gotten much better because I also because I don’t ever want…
A lot of the times I’m writing about elders or folks that have transitioned off of this earthly plain and so I never want to be disrespectful and I never want to be writing in a way that is not honorific of their their labors, honorific of the masterful ways that they were able to create. And I don’t want to ever use their work in a way that feels like, is out of my own self-interest for something. All of those things make me feel like, I probably obsess way too much over getting things on the page but and that’s probably why I have writing anxiety. I enjoy what I get to do and I feel very fortunate, but it is hard to write about the things that I write about sometimes
Larsen (20:09–20:29): Yeah, that’s a lot of pressure to, I mean, not speak on behalf of but write about people who have passed on, who can’t speak for themselves obviously. But you do it so well and I think you do it very intentionally. I think they’d be ok with it; they’d be proud. So I’m speaking for them now.
Charles (20:30–20:37): What are your top albums and why are they significant to you? And I know this is a hard question, but we’re so, so interested.
Proctor (20:37–22:32): Well, this album is like top, one of the top. Yeah. I mean, I guess in general I just, I relatively I have older parents in comparison to folk my age and I was just fortunate for them to hit me into a bunch of really good music. And so I do listen to a lot of R&B and soul of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yeah. A lot of the things that I write come out of that like the night from those decades. I just love Black music. I think that, you know, just across genres, I don’t like using the word genre, but across genres, Black folk don’t get credit enough for the wonderful things that we’ve been able to sonically create. It’s just so pervasive and you hear, you can’t listen to the Beatles without hearing Little Richard or hearing Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all these Black rock and roll musicians and Chuck Berry. It’s just so, so pervasive. I’ll take the easy way out and say “Come Into My Garden” is one of my favorite albums because it is, it does such a masterful job of playing up this idea that that Black music is intellectual and that Black musicians across again, across space and time have always been disavowing this idea of genre.
Charles (22:32–23:17): I love how you said the 1950s and ’60s because Tatum and I always talk about like the dramatics like of that era. I just love it.
And also, I think that’s also interesting because how you mention, like the taking of certain Black artists’ work, because it’s really important for people to understand where music comes from and for Black folk, our music comes from I feel like, a very different place. It’s rooted in struggle, right? So, it’s just it’s so powerful.
Proctor (23:18–24:25): Yeah, no, I agree. I mean, yeah, no, I think you’re right. I think that, you know, Black music is trying to deal with it and antagonism that still with us to this day, it’s like, what does it mean to live in a world that didn’t really anticipate that at least in the new world, didn’t anticipate your survival or that your survival wasn’t part of the plan basically, right? You know, either you were colonized or colonized people or people that were enslaved and sometimes those go hand in hand.
So what does it mean to be a part of a world that didn’t plan? I would say plan is a pretty bad word, but they didn’t anticipate the survival of Black people across the globe. And so I think most Black music, whether explicitly or not, is trying to think about that antagonism and also trying to not center white people in this way and the same may not center whiteness or white people. So, yeah.
Larsen (24:25–24:30): Definitely trying to make sense of this, a concept that really doesn’t make sense.
Proctor (24:31–24:34): Yeah, right. Yeah, right. Absolutely.
Larsen (24:34–24:28): Yeah. So you’re really, you’re early on in your professional and teaching career. We wanted to know what are some of the things that you learned so far, that you plan on taking with you throughout your professional life?
Proctor (24:49–29:04): Realizing early on that who I am as a person is not who I am professionally or not that the conflation between the two doesn’t have to exist. And for my own health and well-being, I believe that I am outside of what I do matters more to me.
So that’s been a really important lesson to learn. As a young Black scholar, you’re coming up against institutions that never maybe imagined that not only you could be a part of that institution, but that you would be doing a particular kind of work that doesn’t really make sense to the kind of institutional objects. So, for me, that just knowing that, OK. I’m probably going to be antagonized in certain ways and I’m probably going to feel alienated in some ways, and that doesn’t have to do with anyone’s intention per se, but it’s just the institutionalization of higher education in this country and elsewhere.
Trying to hold on to myself, like I know that sounds vague and weird, but truly I’m just trying to hold on to who I know that I am outside of the work that I do has been very important, and then also, I think building which I really kind of suck at, because I’ve been bouncing around the past couple of years and I’m like not on the tenure track yet, so that’s been a struggle. But building community with other Black scholars and emerging scholars.
It is really important to me and building with colleagues that I know that I can trust and have my back and that I don’t have explain my plight to is really the foundational to me surviving the past couple of years, just being contingent faculty and trying to find my place and the kind of hardship that comes with that, which when you find yourself, you are also, they’ll reassure you and remind you of who you are and why you, not only why you do the work that you do, but what the particular ethics are around the work that you do and what your commitments are to not just yourself, but your commitments to other people are. There’s a way to do research and there’s a way to write about this stuff. There’s a way to treat colleagues. There’s a way to look out for other emerging Black scholars in particular, and not gatekeep. All that stuff I had to kind of learn the hard way.
Not that I had investments in it, but it happened to me, so it’s like, ok, this is what I don’t want to do or be, right? I don’t want to antagonize. Why make it harder on a Black scholar that’s, a young Black scholar when they’re already facing so many challenges and antagonisms? How can I, you know, when you’re a Black person in an industry or in a profession, sometimes you’re meant to feel like you should want to be the only one, that you should want to be the kind of singular tokenized figure that gets all the praise and glory for what you do. And I just don’t.
And I’ve seen that kind of anxiety plays out like folks feeling like, well, if I don’t have this thing singularly or if I don’t have all the things then I’m not going to have anything and it sucks, but it’s sometimes a part of like a Black professional class, if I guess I could say that. I just do not believe that it has to be that way, that we can, across class, because that’s the whole another thing I don’t want to get into, but Black people can look out for Black people and still have what they need and still be successful, however you’re defining that, and still have the things that you need in order to not only survive this world, but to fundamentally change the conditions under which we all have to live and work and be on this planet.
Charles (29:04-29:08): That’s important. That’s super, super important
Larsen (29:09–29:18): Space for each other and creating spaces for each other and inviting other people is very, very important. Heard that.
Charles (29:18–29:35): For the people in the back! We’re almost done. Going back to your professional career as an instructor, what are some of the things you hope to bring to the world of academia?
Proctor (29:36–30:58): Oh, I just hope that I can bring generosity and kindness, because that’s not always a part of academia, which is a funny thing. I always feel like, not that I’m mean. I’m a very shy person and I’m not standoffish, but I’m good at hiding away and just trying to do the work that I’m doing, and I know that doesn’t always serve me. But I just hope that, you know, I can always extend kindness and generosity and be there for folk. I hope that people think that they can come to me. I don’t know that people can feel that way about me, which is a total insecure thing that I have. I want people to not think that I’m awful or that I want people to like me, which I know it’s like my own little like anxiety and hysteria around that. But I do I do think that one thing I wish is anything I could bring to academia apart from the work is just kindness and generosity and honesty to a level of care. Like those all those things are very important to me as a person, and I hope that professionally I can extend that in my field.
Charles (30:58–31:08): I love it. Yeah, that’s so nice. I love that you’re saying that because, you know, for your future pupils or your future coworkers, you’re going to be amazing.
Proctor (31:08–31:09): Thank you.
Larsen (31:09–31:20): Yeah, exactly. That’s a sweet thing to say, because usually you think about academia and sometimes it seems very like self-serving.
Charles (31:21–31:22): Maybe they cutthroat.
Larsen (31:23–32:09): Yeah, very cutthroat but generosity and kindness, that kind of gets to the root of what learning is and being a teacher is. That’s so sweet. And I don’t see how anybody could think that you’re awful because you’re wonderful. And I get the same way sometimes because I’m shy too. I’m like, “I’m the goblin king. Nobody likes me.” You’re wonderful.
Thank you so much for coming on the show today. We had such a great time and you’re so nice. You’re so nice. You’re so kind. So awesome to talk to you and I’m glad I got to talk to you again after seeing your chat, like I think that, I called it a chat.
Proctor (32:09–32:13): It’s fine. It was like a chat. Totally, I’m with it.
Larsen (32:13–32:22): So great to talk to you. Really appreciate your time and we hope to be able to take one of your classes or see you talk again because we learned so much.
Charles (32:23–32:36): We did, we did. And adding on to that, you know, you’re beautiful person, such a beautiful soul. So, I enjoyed this, you know, and also lots of things that you said about the Black music industry got like wheels in my head turning, so yeah, Tatum and I will probably discuss that later.
Proctor (32:39–32:56): Thanks so much for having me, really thank you for having me. You guys are awesome. Continue to do the work you’re doing. And yeah, hopefully, who know what’s going to happen, in the future, maybe you’ll be able to take a class with me somewhere, sometime.
Larsen (32:56–32:57): We hope so.
Proctor (32:57-32:58): Alrighty. Have a good day. Bye!
Larsen (33:03–33:25): Thank you guys so much for watching this episode of “TWT.” It was so fun to talk to Dr. Proctor. So nice, so smart for sure, so yeah, definitely looking forward to listening to that album, “Come to My Garden” again. Minnie Riperton. Look it up. Also, this one is good too, Fifth Dimension, “Aquarius.” Look it up.
Charles (33:25–33:28): Bye you guys! See you next time! Bye.
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