Hortense Spillers ’74 PhD receives alumni achievement award

March 1, 2019

Provost Lisa Lynch presented the Alumni Achievement Award to Hortense Spillers ’74 Ph.D. for her work as a literary critic, black feminist scholar and pioneer in the development of African American Studies.

Spillers, who is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, spoke about how black studies as a field was not unprecedented and how, from a young age, she remembers first learning about black history from her brothers. Black Studies as a discipline has a long history, Spillers said, explaining that black studies “is novel only in the context of predominantly white institutions.”

Spillers also spoke about her participation in Ford Hall 1969, a sit-in and protest to create the AAAS department that commemorated her and its 50 years at Brandeis on Feb. 8 and 9.

“I was among the occupants of Ford Hall, and I have always been happy that I overcame what fear I had,” Spillers said, echoing the Ford Hall panelists who spoke about similar fears just a day before Spillers.

“I was actually afraid that the building would be invaded by police power, and I know that police power in the United States is not in love with people who look like me,” she continued. “So I was afraid of that, enough to break out in hives. I’ve had hives twice in my life.”

“That’s the kind of fear we had. Because the word was out that National Guard and a few other folk were raring to get in that building.”

Spillers also spoke about the growing forces of race hatred and racial divides that have recently been renewed. “But,” Spillers said, “We pledge today and repledge today 50 years later to run on toward the future and all the openness of possibility and potential that future evokes. So, what is to come?”

“Are we bound for the day when Black Studies are everybody’s studies?” she asked the audience.

Spillers spoke about the future of African and African American Studies as a discipline, describing it as a study that has made race lose its “unspeakable character.” She said, “It has made race visible and accountable to critique.”

Spillers also echoed questions from the earlier Ford Hall 1969 alumni panel about what efforts Brandeis has taken to improve diversity on campus. During a question and answer session, she spoke about Brandeis’ lack of a diverse faculty.

“But I’ve been told that Brandeis has one percent indigenous black faculty here? Is that right? One percent. Come on, y’all.” According to 2016 data from the Brandeis website, the university has one percent Black or African American full-time instructional faculty.

Spillers also took a question from a student member of the Brandeis Asian American Task Force, about the fight for an Asian American Studies major at Brandeis. Spillers spoke about the importance of pushing for change, speaking about her own experience in African and African American Studies.

Spillers also spoke in response to Randy Bailey, a participant in Ford Hall 1969, who asked about the exclusion of black studies from other disciplines. “What your work shows me is that the university’s ghettoizing of our work and our studies and giving us space to do that becomes a way of keeping the rest of the university from critiquing itself,” he said.

Spillers responded that black studies, women’s studies and other disciplines are increasingly becoming more involved in other areas of study, despite some resistance.

“I think that’s coming. So that women and minorities, that those positions are not simply add-ons, right? But that you have to talk about the whole structure in a different way. That’s happening. That’s coming. And I think we’re in the midst of it right now,” she said.

Professor Faith Smith (AAAS, WMGS, ENG) introduced Spillers’ work in the field of black studies and its intersection with literature and language. Smith thanked Spillers, saying “Thank you for making us proud to be connected to spaces that have felt so alienating, so unhomely, and congratulations on receiving the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award.”
Spillers is most known for her article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” which many students asked her about throughout the talk. Smith described the article as one of the most powerful accounts of enslavement and gender.

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