Episode 2: Davarian Baldwin Blends Ideas and Narrative

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In this episode of Drafting the Past, I talked to historian and American Studies scholar Davarian Baldwin. Here’s an excerpt from his bio: “Dr. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College and is a leading urbanist, historian, and cultural critic. His work largely examines the landscape of global cities through the lens of the African Diasporic experience. Baldwin’s related interests include universities and urban development, the racial foundations of academic thought, intellectual and mass culture, Black radical thought and transnational social movements, the politics of heritage tourism, and 20th and 21st Century art, architecture, and urban design. 

Baldwin is the author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities (Bold Type Books, 2021), Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (UNC, 2007) and co-editor, with Minkah Makalani, of the essay collection Escape From New York! The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minnesota, 2013). He is currently finishing Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America (Oxford University Press). He recently wrote the text for a new jigsaw puzzle, “The World of the Harlem Renaissance,” releasing June 2022 in the United States.

His research, writing, and commentary has been featured in numerous outlets including NBC News, CNN, PBS, SIRIUS XM, The History Channel, NPR, BBC Radio, TIME, Washington PostThe Guardian, The Business JournalsUSA Today, and The Daily Beast.

In addition to teaching and writing, Baldwin sits on the Executive Council of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE). He serves on the Editorial Boards for the Journal of Urban History, The Journal of African American History, and The American Studies Journal. Baldwin is also co-editor of the Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy book series for Temple University Press and was appointed a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.”




Davarian Baldwin 0:00
Don’t get caught up in this notion of the individual genius. It’s never, it’s never that. It has to be a community for this to work. And I think that we need to be more honest about that, as colleagues, and as academics, and as historians.

Kate Carpenter 0:17
Welcome to Drafting the Past, a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history. I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. And in each episode, I talked to a historian about their approach to writing. This time. I’m talking to the brilliant historian and American Studies scholar Davarian Baldwin.

Davarian Baldwin 0:33
Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kate Carpenter 0:35
Dr. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. He is the author of two books. The first, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration and Black Urban Life, came out in 2007. The second, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering Our Cities, came out last year with Bold Type Books. We’ll talk more about both of these books along with Dr. Baldwin’s many other projects, including essays, lectures, and a few surprises you’re going to hear about. Dr. Baldwin has appeared everywhere from CNN to The Washington Post to The Daily Beast. Among his many honors, he was awarded a Logan Nonfiction Writing Fellowship from the Carey Institute for the Global Good, and was appointed a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

Davarian Baldwin 1:25
Yeah, it’s interesting, because I didn’t start out as a quote unquote, historian. My undergraduate degree is in philosophy. I took history classes and hated them. They were, it was I just felt like it was a bunch of facts and dates. And then my last semester of undergrad, I took an intellectual history course and it was driven by stories, and I was like, this is history, you can do this? And then I went on to get a PhD in American Studies, which is a more interdisciplinary engagement with, you know, literature, history, cultural studies, particularly where I went, to NYU. So it’s, it’s I’ve always from the writing side, have always been confronted with the reality of figuring out how to appropriately layer archive, theory, narrative, idea, in different ways, you know, trying to figure out different approaches, the scaffolding has always been something of a challenge. And some of this is rooted in my growing up years. And since that, for various reasons, I was incorrectly slotted into a second or third tier writing class as a young person, and I had to fight to be put in the advanced level courses. And that happened after taking the courses that we’re supposed to receive based on, you know, like, on the writing fundamentals and infrastructure, and I was doing spelling bees and things of that nature. So when I got to the advanced level courses, I didn’t have the training. And so I felt like even to this day, I’m still trying to play catch up to that lost, those opportunities to think about in a methodical way, the nuts and bolts of writing. I’ve always written the way I, I’ve always felt like speaking was my strong point. And so I’ve written the way I speak and lecture and I’ve kind of had to reverse engineer an approach to writing.

Kate Carpenter 3:06
How have you done that?

Davarian Baldwin 3:08
I think, you know, by reading a lot, reading other people’s work that I really like, talking about writing. And teaching and figuring out, you know, in the ways that I try to convey to students what I consider to be good writing, that has been a mechanism whereby I have taught myself how to become a better writer. I also think that when I shifted from, shifted from being from an academic press, to a trade press, having different editors that have discussed with me, the craft of writing, or different orientations of the different kind of presses, has made me sort of self aware and self conscious in a positive way, in a productive way, about the craft of writing and the capacity to convey ideas in a compelling way.

Kate Carpenter 3:58
What kinds of things have you found that editors respond to or draw out that have have changed the way you think about writing?

Davarian Baldwin 4:04
So, so from very, you know, basic things like strong, captivating opening sentences, to how to convey the experience of a character, how to build tension, how to place… the relationship between like placing direct quotes versus summation, and there, you know, and it’s, you know, in some ways, it’s a struggle between like the academic side of the compelling nature of your writing comes from the bombardment of facts as compared to crafting sentences that try to generate an emotional response. And so in that case, the facts are important, but how are you delivering them? How are you, how are you building up to a conclusion, become more interesting and more vital.

Kate Carpenter 5:01
I’m really interested that you sort of talked about how in academia, often we think in terms of this bombardment of facts. And one thing that really struck me when I read Chicago’s New Negroes is that you tell beautiful stories in that book, while also presenting such a strong argument and theoretical, theoretical argument, I guess. And, you know, I was struck early on you were talking about the challenge of layering those things together from different disciplines and stories and argument. Can you maybe talk a little bit about how you do that, or how you approach it?

Davarian Baldwin 5:35
Yeah, it’s funny, I’ll say a little bit about that, you know, because there’s a big difference between my first book, Chicago’s New Negroes, and my latest book, In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower. And in that early period of my writing, and coming out of cultural studies, Birmingham School cultural studies, and having a philosophy undergraduate degree, I was very arrogant. And I saw narrative writing as a contrived crutch. And I’m not doing that. I’m a theorist, and I’m about the, the purity of the ideas. And you know what, while I had these great figures, like Jack Johnson, and Madam CJ Walker, and Thomas Andrew Dorsey, I was like, you know, they’re only there to the degree that that they can convey my point about how everyday people produce ideas. I was less interested in kind of offering these mini portraits of the scholars. And thank God, my editor at the time, Sian Hunter, who was at UNC, who’s now at Florida, was saying, you know, she did it in a gentle way, but said, “Can you say a little bit more about these figures?” And so I’m definitely thankful for that. But in the moment, it’s, I think it’s important to understand where I was coming from that, you know, I wanted to reconstruct experiences, through, of the making of ideas, how people made ideas, everyday people, not academics, made ideas through these dense composites of overlapping experiences. And I think very quickly, and so the the key, the key approach to me in the writing was density, speed, agility, and word bending, those were the things I wanted to do. And those come out of the fact that I have a background in spoken word. And I said before that in times of writing anxiety, I fall back on writing the way that I speak. And at the time the way that I spoke living in New York City in the spoken word, you know, moment of the early 90s, was density, speed, agility, and word bending. So that’s the way I wanted to convey and it was, it was further I guess, compounded or encouraged by this desire. For me, I wanted readers to see the messy architecture of my thinking, but but also, you know, the working out of intentionality and the intellect of everyday people. So, so I wanted the writing to reflect the degree to which people were processing experience and ideas, I want that to be reflected in the writing itself. And that came out of my spoken word background. And it took me a long time to realize, though, that in spoken word, I can augment the speed and tone of my conveyance with voice and performance, but when it’s on the page, it’s on the page, it’s left to the, it’s left to the to the reader to do that. And so, you know, I had a mix, it was a mixed experience. People that read that book, love it to a certain degree, and because of the density, because of the, the messiness of it, because I was purposefully trying to be experimental, to invoke, to channel the culture of the folks that I was talking about, I didn’t want to just show I wanted to tell, I wanted to, I wanted to, you know, show and tell that what I was showing, what I was talking about, was reflected in how I was writing about it. And I think that it was, you know, mixed results, you know, I had to it took me a long time to realize that maybe the text for what I wanted to do text wasn’t enough, that there are ways in which sometimes the meaning of the text came out more clearly in my lecturing about it, or in my engaging about it. Also, I think that because of the density, and the speed of the writing, it’s just taken a long time for people to actually process what was actually going on. So like, that book came out over 10 years ago. And you know, thank God, people still read it. And people that knew me, then they’re saying, you know, you know, now I get what you were doing. I think, also part of it was at the time when I was writing it, it was at a moment where cultural studies, was direct, was beginning to interface with history in a more direct and pronounced way. Now that’s become more normalized. And so the approaches that I was taking in the book don’t seem as foreign or difficult, but at that early moment, it was a challenge. And so it was mixed results in terms of conveying that element. But you know, there are people like, I could say it was the text, but I still could say, maybe it was me, you know, I was still growing as a writer, and I’m fine with that. Because when I think of somebody like Greg Tate, rest in peace, the amazing cultural critic for years at the Village Voice when I was in New York, he was able to convey both the messy and the clean, the intentionality and the emotive force. I mean, I think it requires a certain kind of capacity to be able to balance all that, the scaffolding You know, it’s really a skill to learn over time. And I don’t think, I think that my mentors in graduate school, they were experts at doing it. But only some of them were experts at teaching it. You know? I also think that books, as compared to essays are written for a season. And I think that writers need to understand that, yes, the books can be timeless, and we all have that ambition for a book to be timeless. But we also have to embrace the fact that maybe books, all books, they can become timeless, but what they actually are at their base is they are written for a season, for a moment. And for me, I can look back now with greater narrative chops and say, maybe I would have written that, Chicago’s New Negroes, differently, I would have, I would have leaned more on the characters and character building. But at that moment, I wanted, I was grappling with this interface between the theoretical engagement of cultural studies and the archival richness of history and trying to speak to fields, trying to speak to, you know, that was my dissertation. So I was trying to speak to fields, trying to make in social history, confront this different way of thinking about the work that you’re doing. And so showing how culture work, popular, mass culture, things that historians think are corrupted by the marketplace, trying to show them, you know, in my work, that these things may have been quote, unquote, corrupted, but they also became these amazing vehicles, for especially African American working class migrants, to think through their world to, to develop a political understanding of their surroundings, and to create an intellectual life. And, and so it was written for that purpose at that moment, and I don’t have regrets about that. I’m happy with that. And I think that for, for students, for graduate students, it serves a purpose to see someone thinking through a process without the fear that it doesn’t demonstrate perfection as a published work, but it is an experimental piece, it’s, it’s more the composition than the performance, it’s the notation and being okay with that.

Kate Carpenter 12:13
So as he mentioned, there’s a big difference in style between Dr. Baldwin’s first and second books. And I asked him to tell me more about how his writing has evolved over time.

Davarian Baldwin 12:23
I think the nature, number one, I knew that because of the nature of the story, and the politics of the work that I was doing with In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, I wanted it to reach a wider audience. And so I purposely went to, you know, a trade a trade press or a boutique trade press, if you will. With that, I knew that it would be a different genre of writing. And I was very aware of that. I mean, but even in my, even in my, you know, leisurely slash academic life, because we never have a fully leisurely life, you know, we read books, but I love you know, I, I read a ton of novels and my favorite kind of novels are science speculative, and police procedurals. And I read them for pleasure, but I also read them as a writer, how to build you know, build out narrative. And my editor at the press was very clear, she was like, this is gonna have to be a narrative driven project. And I knew that going in, but I, I embraced the challenge, you know, of that. But at the end of the day, I’m, I am a thinker, I’m a, you know, I am a scholar. And I think that that comes back that comes out, too. It took me coming to terms with the fact that no matter what I write, and how narrative I write, that other part of me is never going to go away. So it might, it might seem overly narrative to me. But for the lay reader, it’s gonna read as pretty still scholarly, no matter how hard I try to be something else. So the balance that I’m that I’m fighting for, will be there. But I do appreciate you, I appreciate it. This book in the sense of like, you know, there weren’t as many there was, there were more footnotes than most trade books. But there weren’t that many footnotes that it was about the text. You know, writing this book has also kind of frustrated me with the academic writing world. My newest project, there was a piece of it that I submitted to a to a major journal, The Journal of American History. And I didn’t, the response to that piece was pretty harsh. And the biggest concern with it was I didn’t spend enough time on the literature review, what we call the historiography. And it just hit me in the sense of after I’m coming out of this more narrative oriented writing project and this public facing work. And the idea that I had to catalogue all the things that have been said and written on this topic before I could get to the actual topic was so frustrating to me. And I kind of made a statement to myself that you know, not probably unless it’s commissioned or invited, I’m not going to submit any more work to an academic press anymore, to an academic journal anymore. That’s not the way I want to write right now. Now that might change later is like I might go through a different season, but at this point in my in my career and my life right now, that’s not the way that I want to write, that I don’t want to have to demonstrate. I want to of course I want to acknowledge the work that has been done. But I don’t want to have to go through a catalogue of all the things that have been written to to give me the legitimacy or the capacity or the ability to then say what I want to say. And and so that was just really striking for me. I never thought that I never thought that would happen. But that’s happened in the afterlife of this book.

Kate Carpenter 15:18
So I want to back up a little bit and ask you some of my my nosy questions about just the basics. Where and when do you do your writing?

Davarian Baldwin 15:27
When I was younger, I definitely gravitated toward writing at night, I’m a night person. So for me that even though the morning is quiet, there’s a certain kind of quietness in the night, where I felt like I was the most productive, because I went to grad school in New York and like office space was a high premium, I wrote and worked in coffee shops. So even to this day, I’m more productive, in the daytime, in very dense, noisy coffee shop environments, even if I have my headphones on just that, the energy around me. So it’s that, as I’ve gotten when I had started having kids, my kids are older now, but but they still have, you know, schedules that are more involved than mine. So now, I write anytime I can. It’s hard for me to do, like, there’s some people who have the everyday grind, where there’s certain hours a day where they write, and I wish I had that kind of discipline. I don’t. I, I still hold whole paragraphs in my head and try to, you know, narrate perfect phrases and you know, in my head, and then let them, hope they spill out. You know, that’s that, you know, that’s, that’s the ambition. That’s that’s what I that’s my, I guess my mechanism for procrastination. But it’s still, at the end of the day, it requires me, okay, sit down with with a blank screen or page and just grind out. I think in phrases. And I think in terms of titles. I’m, because of my backgrounds in philosophy and big ideas, that’s the way I think. Before I can start writing narratives or crafting sentences, in a more detailed way, I like to have titles or concepts that will drive my thinking forward. Everybody’s not like that. But that’s what works for me. That’s what keeps me excited. That’s what propels me forward. And then I build it out from there.

Kate Carpenter 17:14
How do you approach organizing your sources?

Davarian Baldwin 17:17
Yeah, so I, I, most of my writing career, life has been in the in the days before Endnotes, as a program. So early on, my sources were just a hot mess. And I did what other people had to do in terms of like, I would have sources, I would write, and then not keep a good catalog and have to go back and find stuff. And it would take the, the time of writing a whole new book to go find the sources again. And as time has moved forward, I’ve gotten better with keeping track of sources. And, you know, as I’m going into a writing project, and I’m doing research and talking to people and going to archives, you know, organizing, I still don’t I still don’t use programs, I still do it the old school way, I’ll have a Word document or whatever, keep sources, but I also catalog pictures. I’m like, Oh, this would be a good picture for the book. I’m doing that all those things as I’m researching as compared to with the first book that it all came after. So I definitely recommend you know, so there are these amazing programs that are available now to catalog and keep track. And I will say I recommend use those. But even if you don’t use those I would say take note and organize your notes as you’re researching. And I also think that it enlivens, there’s ways in which you can enliven your writing, when you can be in direct conversation with your sources and your materials with your with your images versus waiting till the end. You know, another great writing, probably one of the best, greatest writing tips that I’ve ever received, which was very useful to me, because I’m a, you know, serial procrastinator I keep trying to keep I keep all in my head. And it comes with this relationship between notes and sources and writing is that, you know, many, many historians, many scholars have this, this this other anxiety that you don’t want your argument to overwhelm or shape the sources. You don’t want to over determine the findings and make them fit to your conclusions. And I totally understand that. But one of my colleagues, it was a great advice. And it happened later and later in my career was like, okay, you’ve done all this archival work, so you know what the sources say. And in your head, you kind of have an idea about what you want to say about the sources. So it’s not just about an imposition, or or, you know, shaping the source to meet your conclusions. The sources have spoken to you, you’ve done the archival work. So after you’ve done the archival work, outline the story you want to tell in 10 pages, build it out in 10 pages, just write it and then from there, build out the architecture of documentation, of imaging, of source material, and in, despite what you may think it’s not cherry picking. It’s not shaping to meet your argument because you’ve done the archival work. And that’s been so helpful to me. So now, at the beginning of a writing project after I’ve done the archival work, and I write those 10 pages I just throw it out there with the story I want to tell. And because I’ve just been to the archives a lot of the story I’m telling is actually driven, I’m actually referencing sources. And then I build that out to, you know, 30 or 40 pages. And that, and that was a lifesaver for me just in terms of time, in terms of being able to spend more time on this the scaffolding that my kind of thinking and writing requires in terms of, you know, theoretical, theoretical engagement, methodology, narrative. So, yeah, that that was a lifesaver. And I continue to use that approach and share that approach with other people.

Kate Carpenter 20:31
And then what is revision look like for you, then?

Davarian Baldwin 20:34
Yeah, I try to write a whole draft. Before I even think about revising. I mean, of course, you know, as you’re writing, and for me, because I’m big about, you know, the sentence, the sentence craft, I’ll go back, and I’ll, you know, keep a notebook by my bed. And I’ll, you know, sentences will come to me. And I’ll write down the sentences not so much about the fact of the sentence, but it’s the phrasing. So I might go back and rephrase sentences as I’m writing a chapter. But the big revision, I won’t do that until after the chapter is done, I have a full draft of a chapter. Also, I, over the years, I’ve been blessed with, you know, teams of friends, that, colleagues that will read. And so after I finish the draft, the first draft, I’ll send it out to them. And at the same time that they’re offering revisions, I’m revising, and then I’ll get their revisions, and it allows me to pick and choose the things I like and don’t like about their comments. And then we’ll be in conversation. And that’s, I’ve been really, you know, really, really grateful to people that have been able, that have taken time. And I think that’s another thing as well people need to understand is that even though the public facing side of the academy will, will not just communicate, but will celebrate the notion of these individual great geniuses, it’s never that. I know writers who have who hire editors, separate editors for notes, for line editing, for concept, like have separate editors for each one of those things. I know, individual writers, you know, many award winning writers who have a writing team of colleagues that they may or may all they’ll pick one of their one of the one of the members of the team. And they’ll circulate that project through the whole team. Don’t get caught up in this notion of the individual genius. It’s never, it’s never that. It has to be a community for this to work. And I think that we need to be more honest about that, as colleagues and as academics and as historians.

Kate Carpenter 22:26
In your process, at what point do you get other feedback on it?

Davarian Baldwin 22:29
Yeah, after the first draft. I mean, I might talk to my friends about, you know, this is what I’m thinking, what do you think, ideas. But the actual feedback from the work comes after the first draft, I want to, at some level, have some sort of good sense of completion, to write that chapter, and then send it out to friends. And that’s really helpful because sometimes even as I’m doing revisions, myself, it’s too close to me, I can’t see outside of it. And so even as I’m revising, I’m glossing over assumptions that need explanation, because I wrote it. I know what it meant to me. And that’s something that that that was really important to me, as I moved from the first book to the second and from academic to trade presses is that that spoken word ethos that I had, it took me a long time to even know where that what that was, when that came from. I want, you read the first book, and so you know, talking about talking about independent filmmaking and gospel music and all these things, I wanted it to be dense and complex and, and fast paced, and I wanted there to be conversations between the different figures and their, and their work. I wanted the writing to reflect that that pace, and that that messiness, if you will, but with this book, it was a different kind of desire, intention. I want people to be compelled, I want people to engage, I want people to act, from the work. By the nature of the press that I was working with, they gave me the chance to rethink and to revalue the notion of slowing down, of letting sentences breathe. One of my tendencies, even to this day, is I love series, you know, in sentences, this, this, this and this, and in this book, I still think I probably do it still too much. But I was very intentional and methodical about taking every series that I put in a sentence and turning each one of those clauses into its own sentence. I think that’s been good and effective, and just also just giving the reader because I think, very quickly, so giving the reader a chance to think with me, instead of, again, trying to hit them with all this stuff. I think I still do that. And I think that it works orally in a way that it doesn’t work textually.

Kate Carpenter 24:31
Did you know for this piece going into it that that you were looking for a non academic press, a more public facing press?

Davarian Baldwin 24:37
Yes. Nope. I did. I knew that I wanted to go to a more general audience, general audience press. I mean, the funny thing about it is that when I sent, submitted, everybody in academia was like oh, yes, this is definitely gonna be trade. This is gonna reach a wide audience. When I sent it to some of the really big trade presses they were like, nah, it’s still too niche. So even so it’s funny because even what we as academics think about as being broad might not, probably won’t be broad to the publishing world. But then there were those middle kind of boutique presses that do like social justice work, that do academic and general audience presses, New Press, Free Press, Nation Books which is now Bold Type Books, which was who I went with, presses like that, they totally got it. And they actually said to me that, which I was at first against, they were like, you know, I was like, I don’t want any footnotes, I just want to just tell the story. And they were like, No, this, this is rich enough. And it’s, it’s wonderfully researched enough that it can still have an impact. We wanted to have a general audience impact, but we also think it can impact in the in the scholarship. And the way to do that is to have the footnotes. So again, even though I’m living it, I’m now being confronted self consciously with, you know, the architecture of different genres of writing, you know, that for, for general audience readers, for them, academic press, in one in one level signifies the footnotes, because that generates your bona fides with your academic community. And so they’re like, we want it to be to be narrative and, you know, shorter sentences, giving the reader a chance to, to learn with you to show and not tell, to not necessarily hit the reader over the head with the conclude, with the conclusion that you want them to have, but to build the story so that they come with you to the conclusion. So there’s all those things, but then for them it’s okay, but we want this to have academic legitimacy, too. So we’re going to let you have more footnotes than we normally would. And so that was just funny to me, I just I didn’t think about it that way. And it was it was it was a learning experience for me,

Kate Carpenter 26:37
You write in a lot of ways. So like you said, you have a background in spoken word, you have written books, but you’ve also written essays for a more public audience, including op eds. I think you’re also working on a digital based project. Maybe you could talk more about, but I’m wondering how you think about all those different forms of writing? And if it’s hard to move between them?

Davarian Baldwin 26:59
That’s a great question. Actually, one thing I’ll tell you about, I’m actually writing the text for a puzzle.

Kate Carpenter 27:05
Oh, wow.

Davarian Baldwin 27:06
Yeah, it’s a puzzle of the Harlem Renaissance. And I’m writing the text. I’m really excited about that. And the reason why I mentioned that is because it came with a certain set of writing challenges, you know, so you know, capture, like 60 landmarks of the Harlem Renaissance, both institutional landmarks and figures, in a compelling way, in 1200 words.

Kate Carpenter 27:27

Davarian Baldwin 27:27
Right? So. So someone like me, who loves series, I could have easily fallen into the trap of just making everything like, you know, sentences with like, twelve commas, you know, right? And I was very hyper aware of not doing that. So this became, this became a challenge of scaffolding in a different way, not method, theory, you know, lit review, but you know, institution, figures, overview, context, argument, you know, because in my work, I talk a lot about how the way we understand that the Harlem Renaissance is limited. It’s not just Harlem, it’s all these other places, it’s international. It’s not just literature and art, it’s also you know, mass culture and politics. So how do you do all that, and still highlight the figures in 1200 words? That was the challenge, and I think I did pretty good, you know. But it is, it is a, it’s an amazing, a wonderful writing challenge. And, and I joke, I’m, like, you know, my kids don’t read my books, but they’ll probably read the back of this puzzle. And that’s what drives me and makes me recognize, you know, the power. Like I said, when I was first was academic, like, oh, all this public facing stuff, this narrative stuff, this is all a contrived crutch, it’s smoke and mirrors. But now I see it as the, the the capacity to, to communicate, and to reach people that you actually want to reach. But there, but at the same time, there are certain things that you, you won’t be able to say, because you don’t have the space or the time, or the people that are that are your audience. And that in that in that forum, or for that writing piece, don’t have the, the contextual background in the arguments. So it would take too much to get them up to speed if they’re even interested in that part of it. So you know, how you, the challenges are trying to do some of that work, and making decisions about what really is important and what’s not, what can be said and what can’t, and how can you say it in a way that does more work with fewer words has been really, really interesting and exciting. And inspiring, you know, like you mentioned, you mentioned, you know, lectures and keynotes and things of that nature to that gives me the chance to kind of go to my spoken word bag. You know, I think at the end of the day, I you know, I think I’ve I’ve become a decent writer, but I think I’m still a performer, a performance intellectual. So that allows me those, that, those kinds of writing allow me to do that. This comes up and so then, in the digital things that I’m doing so this is what I’m doing a 12 part course for Great Courses, so it’ll be like a streaming platform or where, adult education learners will be able to learn about the Great Migration. And again, because I have to write scripts for each course, and then perform them. This allows me to combine both worlds.

Kate Carpenter 30:12
How do you, or do you? But how do you think about teaching writing to your students?

Davarian Baldwin 30:16
I’m pretty dogmatic about it. Because, because I didn’t get it, you know, or I shouldn’t say I didn’t get it, I missed it. And no matter, and I wonder if I really missed it, because the students that come across my classes, they learn writing a certain kind of way. And I think the last great, big piece of writing that they wrote, coming to me, is that that college essay to get into college? Talk about trite, like, you know, and we laugh about it now. But you know, with these big phrases like since the beginning of time, and no one has ever done, like, they learn these things about how to write these college essays. And it’s horrible. And so I introduce them to a certain, certain set of markers, they have to hit in their writing. So I tell them, you know, every piece of writing you write, for me, has to have an opening vignette, a story, whether it’s pulled from your own experience, but I discourage that, but going to the archive, going to newspapers, find the story of a person, the micro level that embodies the argument you want to tell and build out your intro, your conversation with the reader from that story from that person from that, from that event, or whatever, build it out from there. Then you have to have a clear thesis statement, we all say that, right? And then I want you know, I go back to the old, you know, five, five, paragraph essay form. And like, You got to have three themes, three sub themes, and you have to tell me what those are, after your thesis. And I tell them, you know, like writing is like a contract, you are making a claim. And you’re saying to the reader, that you are going to deliver that. That’s your contract with the reader and the reader has to go in, the reader goes in saying you’ve told me this, and I’m expecting you to deliver this. And I talked to them about transitions, and you need to have like, you know, something, sub subheadings are not transitions. And you have to look at readers in an adversarial way, you have to convince them to keep reading. So you need transitions to tell them what you’ve done and where you’re going and why they need to keep, stay along with you. You know, in a way, you know, I talk about writing like a contact sport, like, you know, it’s it’s dynamic, it’s, it’s something that you have to compel, convince people to come along with you for this ride. And why? And because I’m American Studies, the archive, or the source material, the data, whatever you want to call it has to be interpreted. And some, you know, and my social science colleagues, they’ll have like a separate section on theory, like a theory section. And so somebody who’s come with come with that training, I’m like, no, in American Studies, you want to integrate the theory, within your paragraphs. A theory is a tool by which you extract meaning from your data. Right? So you’re not going to say, Michel Foucault or Frantz Fanon said this and have, and quote their theory. You’re going to read their theory, you’re gonna, you’re gonna, you’re going to engulf their theory. And then you’re going to demonstrate your understanding of a theory, by the way, once you apply it, to your materials. That’s how you demonstrate knowledge of the theory. By the way you use it to extract meaning from your material, from your sources, there’s no greater demonstration of your capacity of the theory, then to take it out of its original context in which you learned it and apply it to a new setting to and that’s your material. And so I try to teach that. And that’s kind of my version of scaffolding. And I hope it’s been helpful, you know, I mean, but it’s hard. In one class, it’s, it’s, it’s a writing class, it’s an archive, it’s a fact gathering class. It’s a theory class. It’s all those things. And then I’m saying, Okay, now put it all together in a writing, in a writing exercise.

Kate Carpenter 33:40
I wanted to ask Dr. Baldwin about a quote from a speech he gave in 2017 for the African American Intellectual History Society. So I looked for a recording of the speech, but I couldn’t find one. So I’m just going to read this quote to you. But I am definitely not doing justice to his words. I’ll link to the whole speech in the show notes so you can read the larger context. But here’s the quote that I was interested in: “Brilliance, intellect, and the profundity and blueprints of possibility fester and grow firmly within the living archives of our full range of everyday experiences, no matter where these wellsprings are found…even in unexpected places.” And I was just wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about that quote, in the context of your writing sort of how you see how your full range of experiences informs your writing.

Davarian Baldwin 34:29
Yeah, number one, you can definitely see I talked about alliteration, right? So I have, “the profundity and possibility,” you know, that’s my that’s my thing. Right. So, and I delivered that speech. But yeah, my context, my unexpected places. Yeah, I, you know, I’m a child of the Great Migration. I’m the first generation to grow up in the north in my family. Chicago’s New Negroes came out of, as I said earlier, the experiences of you know, growing up in the world before the internet, living in a small town, but it was a factory town, Beloit, Wisconsin, 35,000 people, but having broader visions and dreams, of big city life, etc. And that being delivered to me through, you know, my mother’s fashion magazines and album covers, and but also having but even still being at home having a sense of community like in festivals and in language, you know, being kind of, Beloit being kind of an up South community. And so being northern but still very southern. And all those things directly impacted the way I wrote and why I wrote Chicago’s New Negroes. Because I went to New York to go to graduate school. And the smart thing to do is you write a book about where you’re, you know, based on the material, you gather it from where you’re going to graduate school. But I was so frustrated in New York with, living in Brooklyn, and kind of the capital of the Black world, but how much the vision of Blackness in Brooklyn was predicated on either being West Indian, or being a New York, New Yorker, I found out about being a New Yorker was more so about migrants being from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia. And the degree to which my Blackness was shaped by being from the Midwest, which meant Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee. And so just how those migration chains influenced what Blackness meant. And that’s directly what shaped what I wrote in Chicago’s New Negroes, that our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance has to be regionalised. It’s not a national story, the Renaissance is a national story but the Harlem part of it is not. And then if we go to Chicago, the focus is not on literature and art, it’s on these commercial venues, because Chicago is a factory town. So it’s about commercial culture, it’s about filmmaking and commercial music and beauty culture, and, you know, sport, things like that. And so my personal biography directly influenced that work. I’m also a child of hip hop. So album jackets, and, became my gateway into a certain kind of politics that I didn’t know about, by reading the album covers of Public Enemy or X Clan in a period of black consciousness and hip hop music, but also being from Wisconsin again, going going to the east coast as a spoken word artist and getting no respect because we weren’t, we didn’t have New York City accents. And so you know, again, all those things about album jackets, and politics and region. And the relationship, all these things shaped my notion of, there is this connection between culture, ideas, and identity. And that’s been a thread throughout all the things that I’ve written, I’ve written and the way that I think from an academic standpoint. And then finally, I’m a citizen of higher education. And I think that, like, as you mentioned, from that, from that, quote, I’ve always tried to write from the standpoint from where I, from where I sit. I just found it, I mean, I didn’t directly find it ironic. But I’m like, you know, we’re talking about politics. We’re talking about, you know, as scholars we talk about foreign policy, we talk about injustice around housing, but we’re silent about, you know, one of the key sites of all these issues where we work, you know? At most we might talk about labor issues on campus, but there’s this the influence of higher education institutions, which is way beyond what happens on these campuses, and people aren’t talking about it. What’s going on? And I don’t know if it’s naivete, some people call it call it courage. I just follow the logic of my own question. And I think that’s what I’ve been doing throughout is that I didn’t come from an academic family. I come from a family of domestics and factory workers from the Midwest. And so I didn’t have the, the elite training of professionalization that some of my, my peers got, had gotten before they even went to graduate school. I was amazed coming to graduate school, how many people’s parents or had family members that were academics. Or in their families, that being an academic was a step down, that most of their their family members were doctors, lawyers, financiers, etc. Oh, that’s cute, you’re going to be an academic. For me, being an academic, we made it right. It’s a step up. And so because I had not been professionalized, I think there’s certain kinds of etiquette, spoken and unspoken, that I didn’t learn. And so there’s ways in which I just follow the story.

Kate Carpenter 38:25
Before I let you go, I want to ask you if can you talk a little bit about what you’re working on next?

Davarian Baldwin 39:03
Yeah. So when I was writing the first book, and every book that I write has a Chicago piece in it. I’m not directly from Chicago, but it’s the biggest city in, where I grew up. And as I was writing Chicago’s New Negroes, a lot of the material that I gathered to write about that experience, because these folks didn’t write about themselves, was taking Chicago School sociology studies. So the Black community in Chicago has been arguably arguably the most studied community in the country because of Chicago School sociology. But a lot of that writing is just trash, it’s horrible, it’s it’s borderline minstrel in its renderings. It’s caricature, it’s stereotype. It’s, it’s racial trauma. And so I had to deploy the approach of my mentor Robin Kelly, through you know, EP Thompson via my mentor Robin Kelly to read the sources against the grain, right? To read the sources of power against the grain. But as I was reading these materials against the grain. I was like, wait a minute, these materials have a story within themselves. You know, for so long sociologists had been very proud to say that they were some of the first social science, the first to talk about race. And to craft that idea about race. I was like, Well, wait a minute, what’s actually happening here is that their anxieties about race and racial difference are crafting them. And so the story for me is like not so much about what does it mean for sociology or social sciences to produce ideas about race? But what is, how did anxieties about race and racial communities produce American sociology and American social sciences. And so that’s the story that I’m telling in my next book called Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America. That was supposed to be the second book. When I was crafting, what I call my urban analysis trilogy, it was supposed to be Chicago’s New Negroes, Land of Darkness, and then In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower, so moving up in time and genre. But [In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower] became so urgent after the summer of 2020, with George Floyd and policing, and then hence my connection to campus policing, that this book moved to the front. And I had some regrets about that early on. But now I think that experience from a writing perspective is going to make this book a better book from, it’s going to be more of a narrative history, now that I’ve come to terms with that and talked about how these narratives of these different thinkers and figures, both Black and white, can become windows into something that I’ve always wanted. I’ve always been obsessed with the kind of materiality of knowledge making, the infrastructures of ideas as political economy, as community building, as interpersonal conflict and reconciliation, that all these things can be routed through the individual figures and the ideas they produced. I wouldn’t have been able to say, say that until now, you know what I’m saying? That this, this arc of 20 years, as an academic has brought me to that point. So it was I think, was meant to be, ultimately, in this order of writing. And so I’m excited now.

Kate Carpenter 41:51
I’m excited, too. It sounds incredible, I can’t wait to read it. Well, thank you so much for your time and talking about this.

Davarian Baldwin 41:56
Thank you, thank you for, you know, giving me the chance to talk about these things. And thanks for reading the work. And for putting me in this pantheon of amazing writers.

Kate Carpenter 42:05
Well, that pantheon is certainly a place he deserves to be. Thanks again to Dr. Baldwin for sharing so much about his writing with me. And as always, thanks to you too, for listening. You can find links to the books we talked about in this episode at And if you want to buy books by our featured writers, and you can support them and the podcast at the same time by shopping through the links you find on our website. Until next time, happy writing!

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