Audaciously Black: Ajuan Mance celebrates the “wonderful complexity of African American lives,” past and present, through literature and art

Through her literary scholarship and artistic pursuits, Professor Ajuan Mance reveals a vibrant history of black intellectuals in America, explores the complex roles of gender and race, and confronts the challenge of expressing individuality in the face of stereotypes.

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By Dawn Cunningham ’85   

Piles of books and overflowing files—the functional clutter that often signals a creative mind—surround Professor of English Ajuan Mance in her office on the third floor of Mills Hall. She is dressed conservatively, in a navy blue wool sweater, crisp white button-down shirt, and jeans. Along one wall, bookcases hold the tools of her trade, from the Riverside Chaucer to the Oxford Companion to African American Literature.

One of the weightiest volumes on the shelf is the 700-page book Mance published last year, Before Harlem: An Anthology of African American Literature from the Long Nineteenth Century (University of Tennessee Press, 2016). She affectionately calls the tome “my own custom door stop.”

Others describe it more favorably. Kerry Larson, an English professor at the University of Michigan, says, “Before Harlem is an invaluable work of archival recovery, bringing to light authors whose works have been either neglected or shunned by past traditions. Anyone interested in the history and worth of the African American literary imagination owes Professor Mance a lasting debt.”

Vying for attention, several vividly colored portraits of black men enliven Mance’s office space. Strong graphic lines outline bold blocks of vermillion and emerald green. A flame-red painting depicts a man whose outsized Afro flows over the canvas, engulfing tiny pop-culture artifacts—plastic peace signs, toy army men, flowers, a cassette tape. These portraits are also the work of Ajuan Mance, whose art has been featured in galleries across California as well as on and Buzzfeed. Curator Dierdre Visser ’94, who organized an exhibition of Mance’s series of drawings entitled 1001 Black Men at the California Institute of Integral Studies, said, “It’s been galvanizing to discover how deeply resonant this work is for our audience, across ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation.”

Despite the radical contrast in form between her groundbreaking literary scholarship and her comics-inspired drawings, both reflect a singular passion. “I have this thing about making visible how regular black folks live their lives as opposed to how black lives are represented in the popular imagination,” Mance explains. “There are so many different ways of being black, but we only hear about a very small percentage of them.”

Mance has made visible, for example, the existence of “Afrogeeks and nerds with soul” (in 1001 Black Men), the experience of straightening one’s hair (in her comic zine Requiem for a Hot Comb), the literary strategies used by northern black writers of the 19th century to undermine the myth of white southern gentility (in Before Harlem), and the ways black women poets in the 1960s responded to the androcentrism of the Black Arts Movement (in her book Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self-Representation, 1877–2000).

“I love everything about being a black person in the US,” she says. “I just can’t get enough of it—our history, the way we walk in the world. I’m amazed and humbled by all that black folks do. My work comes out of my love of black people.”

Mance’s work also comes out of a life shaped by numerous talents, from writing to programming, but above all by her desire to make art—particularly as a way to reflect on African American experiences. “The only thing I’ve been longer than I’ve been an artist is a black person,” she says.

Mance grew up in Freeport, a multi-ethnic community on Long Island, New York, where her father worked as a chemistry teacher (he later became the first African American director of the Tennessee Education Association). “I always gravitated towards art—my mother has kept drawings that I did when I was three or four years old. My parents would take me to stores where art students bought supplies and to museums in Manhattan, where I’d walk around with a notebook writing down the paintings that I liked best. I was very serious,” she says.

She took art classes throughout high school, but once she started college at Brown University, never again pursued formal art training: “Like a lot of black people, or people who don’t come from privilege, art as profession felt inaccessible to me, like something that only rich people would do.” Nevertheless, she kept sketching and drawing on the side, and even worked as an illustrator for a semester.

Initially, Mance planned to study computer science—an interest that has stayed with her throughout her university education and academic career. “But I really loved writing creatively, so I majored in English with the intent of getting an MFA degree.” After she graduated from Brown, she made another switch. “My advisor encouraged me to apply to PhD programs in literature. She said, ‘I think you’d enjoy this. You’d be good at it.’ Teachers matter a lot to students, so when she told me where I should apply, I did what she asked.”

Mance was admitted to the University of Michigan, and her advisor turned out to be right. “For my dissertation, I read a lot of 19th-century women’s magazines. Michigan had a great library, and I was able to hold these old volumes in my hands. I fell in love with archival work and 19th-century literature— American literature in particular. I was interested in what the people of the time thought was important, what they valued.”

Her dissertation later evolved into her first book, Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self- Representation, 1877–2000 (University of Tennessee Press, 2007). The book, which was named an Outstanding Academic Title by the American Library Association, begins with an exploration of the popular understanding of the role of women in the 1800s. Mance writes, “True Women were distinguished by their sweet acquiescence, pious humility, and moral virtue,” as well as by their confinement to the home. “African American and poor white (mostly immigrant) women’s labor outside the home… was cast in the popular imagination as evidence of their innate inability to conduct themselves appropriately, as True Women.” Ideal womanhood came to be associated with the figure of the middle-class white female, she argues, and this notion persists in American society even today.

On the other hand, beginning in the late 19th century, the African American struggle for racial justice aimed, above all, “to make a place for black manhood within a social order that sought to limit the exercise of male power—especially male power within the public sphere—to those men who were white,” writes Mance. Blackness came to be associated with the figure of the African American male, even in African American literature. Black women, meanwhile, were rendered essentially invisible in the popular imagination.

Each subject in Ajuan Mance’s series, 1001 Black Men, is a real person: a relative, friend,
or someone she spotted in a café or at the BART station or on the street. In January, Mance completed the series with drawing #1001: this portrait of her father, whom she describes as “the most inspiring and influential man in my life.” The series is posted on her website, 8-

Inventing Black Women explores how African American women poets resisted conventional notions of gender and race that limited their visibility. Mance traces the changes in the literary strategies used by these poets, from the late 19th century to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It ends with the late 20th century, when African American women poets successfully situated the black woman “at the center of her own socio-political and aesthetic landscape,” transgressing traditional notions of race and gender.

After completing her PhD., Mance taught English at the University of Oregon for four years. While there, she says, “I had this overwhelming feeling that I needed to take art seriously. I wanted to pursue a line of artistic inquiry into how black people inhabit their identities, how the culture and power of the African American community is written on our bodies. I was also interested in how you could represent someone as clearly of African American descent in as few lines as possible.”

She continued this line of inquiry after she came to Mills in 1999. In 2010, she began the artwork for which she is best known, the 1001 Black Men series of portraits. “I’ve always found African American manhood and masculinity interesting,” says Mance, who describes herself as a “gender-nonconforming woman who feels more connected to male clothing and stereotypically male stuff.”

She began the series, she says, because “black men are highly objectified by the media, including black media. Their images—their bodies, in particular—are used to sell products, to sell ideas, and sometimes to sell fear. There’s a stereotype that black men are more masculine, that they are stronger—and that makes them scarier. I’m interested in counterbalancing that stereotype because it shapes how black lives are lived and lost. That stereotype is deadly.”

A year and a half after Mance began the series, the shooting of an African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal of his killer led to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter brought global attention to a reality that African Americans have long known: a pervasive, irrational fear of black men places their lives in danger every day. A few of Mance’s portraits reference this directly; #931, for example, depicts a young man in a hoodie. “I saw this man and his friend walk past,” she recalls, “and I had the same thoughts I have every time I see an African American man or boy with the hood on his sweatshirt pulled up on his head: I wondered how anyone could think this man was dangerous, and I hoped he got home safely, that night and every night. After all, an awful lot of people are afraid of black men, and scared people with guns have ended an awful lot of black lives.”

Mance observes, “Some black men are hyper-cognizant that they are being gazed upon. They know that meanings are being projected onto them. That’s part of the reason they are so fascinating to me: how do you move through the world when the world is obsessed with you? What does that feel like? How do you manage to still be yourself?

“Working on 1001 Black Men has made me conscious of my own possible complicity in perpetuating stereotypes, of how narrow my own perceptions of black manhood have been,” she says. “Far too many of the people in my first 500 drawings had suits and briefcases or V-neck sweaters. They looked like people I grew up with, like my friends from college and grad school, like my dad…. Halfway through the series, I realized I didn’t have any drawings of black men who were gender nonconforming, and very few of young, working-class black men. It made me aware of how my gaze as an artist is determined by my own power, privilege, and comfort level.”

Mance made a point of seeking a more diverse range of subjects in the later half of the series, and despite her continuing misgivings about the effect of her own biases on her choices, 1001 Black Men has been well received. “Black men, in particular, have embraced the work,” she says. “They’ve told me, ‘Wow, you see us!’ or, ‘Oh, I know this guy. This looks like the guy who lives down the corner.’ It looks true to them, and I love that.”

While Mance deepened her artistic practice, she also continued to pursue her love of archival research and literary scholarship. Before Harlem: An Anthology of African American Literature from the Long Nineteenth Century represents 10 years of work. “I gained access to a database of 19th-century newspapers, including a wonderful collection of black newspapers, so I decided to focus on this literature by black writers and foreground the free urban experience of northern black people.”

Unlike canonical anthologies on the topic, which typically comprise texts by black writers that have achieved mainstream recognition—texts that were written with white readers in mind or that subsequently became popular with white readers—Before Harlem features poems, short stories, sermons, newspaper articles, and other works that reveal the concerns and interests of black authors writing for black readers of the time. Before the Civil War, Mance points out, almost 90 percent of black people in the United States were enslaved, but a black literary culture flourished “in those cities and towns in which African Americans had stable and defined neighborhoods, well-established churches, access to education, and employment opportunities providing greater than subsistence-level incomes.” These communities were mostly located in northeastern and mid-Atlantic cities, a few towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and in San Francisco; they were “safe havens for black artistic expression and intellectual inquiry.”

“One of the big things I learned while doing this research was that there was a community of black people who were nerds and writers, like me, beginning almost 200 years ago. Some of the literature they produced was really audacious. When they were writing for other black people, they were irreverent about black people, irreverent about race. And the black gaze on whiteness was fascinating.”

In a magazine called The Colored American, for example, Mance discovered a serialized novella about a white couple that attends a fancy ball wearing blackface created by their black maid. “On their way home, they can’t get the blackface off, and so they get on the train. The blackface is so good that nobody believes they’re white, and they experience what it is to live under Jim Crow.” Mance was surprised to find that black writers of the time could play so boldly with ideas and the written word. “I think it’s empowering that these people refused to let the horrible institutions that were pervasive then keep them from being fabulous.” One of the mid-19th-century “nerds and writers” that Mance is particularly fascinated with is William J. Wilson (pen name “Ethiop”), the Brooklyn correspondent for Frederick Douglass’ Paper. With wit and erudition, Wilson’s articles examined racial injustice and other issues facing black people in New York and beyond. In a series of essays entitled “The Afric- American Picture Gallery,” published in another black publication, he envisioned a gallery filled with art representing African American experiences and history. He described each imagined artwork using an experimental blend of reporting, alternate histories, and social critique to convey the horror of slavery, the hubris of his white contemporaries, and the achievements of black writers and political figures.

Two of Wilson’s essays are included in Before Harlem, but Mance is planning to do much more with him: she is building a website that will use his writings “to give people an experience of immersion in the black New York of the 1850s. We always look at black urbanness as a new thing—but Wilson shows that it isn’t. The website will pose a series of questions: What would you do if you were a black New Yorker? Where would you go? Who would you know? How would others see you? What landscapes would you see? What would you read? In answering these questions, I’ll provide links to other influential authors and texts.”

The William Wilson website is just one of many that Mance has built as a way to explore her interests and share her work—and it provides further evidence of her abilities as a polymath. Mance dabbles in computer programming, and recently completed a bootcamp in programming for the web. These skills have enabled her to integrate digital techniques with more traditional classroom teaching. For instance, for her course on Race, Class, Wizardry this semester, she has set up a website that will allow her students to collaboratively create and publish an online guide to the Harry Potter fan culture of queer and trans people of color and other marginalized groups. “Our students are doing creative, critical analysis with digital tools. They’re engaging in meaningful ways with all the information that’s available on the web,” Mance says. She’s particularly impressed by her students’ ingenuity in using videos, game software, Tumblr, and other platforms to tell interactive stories and draw connections between ideas.

Mance sets a high bar for her students’ academic work, but she takes no credit for their creativity in the digital realm. In fact, she says, “I hope my work can be as good as theirs. They’ve pushed me to grow out of my comfort zone. I’ve never been in a place with livelier, more engaged students.” Mance also says she’s never taught a more diverse student body. “I’ve had to develop my awareness of students’ differences and think about how the words I use will be heard by those with very complicated identities.” Mance’s teaching, scholarship, and art convey a lesson that is especially relevant to the challenges her students face in the United States of 2017—a nation that has become “People at the margins… need to take charge of our own history and images and tell all those stories about who we are that are glossed over in the master narrative.” distinctly less welcoming to people of color, LGBTIQ people, immigrants, and others who make up a significant part of the Mills community.

“I’ve told my students that what’s important now has always been important,” says Mance. “People at the margins need to take charge of how they’re depicted in our culture. For a lot of groups who have a long historical experience of marginalization and invisibility—especially people of African descent— nothing’s really going to change in what we need to do, but we need to step up the intensity of it. “We need to take charge of our own history and images and tell all those stories about who we are that are glossed over in the master narrative. Art and scholarship and digital media present the means to do that. All of these ways of creating new knowledge and images—and especially disseminating them— are critically important.”

As Mance writes on her website, her own work seeks to accomplish this by reflecting “the wonderful complexity of African American lives—our history so deeply embedded in our present, our celebrations so often tempered by grief and, yes, the pleasure and danger we find in so many of the people, places, and activities that give us joy.”

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