Episode 35: Tanisha C. Ford Builds the Story’s Layers

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For this episode, host Kate Carpenter interviews Dr. Tanisha C. Ford. Tanisha is a writer, historian, and professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is the author of three books and many articles on subjects at the intersection of politics and culture, and especially on Black fashion and social movements. Her first book, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, was published in 2016, and in 2019 she released her second book, Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion. Her newest book, Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money, and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement came out just last month. It’s a fascinating biography of famed Black fundraiser and activist Mollie Moon that takes readers into the world of an overlooked aspect of the civil rights era. Kate’s conversation with Tanisha covers how she brought the world of Mollie Moon to life, her methods for organizing her sources–the “oldest of old school”–and why she’s glad she was an English major.

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Kate Carpenter 0:02
Hey there. This is Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. And for this episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tanisha C. Ford.

Tanisha Ford 0:13
Thanks for having me.

Kate Carpenter 0:15
Tanisha is a writer, historian and professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is the author of three books and many articles on subjects at the intersection of politics and culture, especially on Black fashion and social movements. Her first book, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, was published in 2016. In 2019, she released her second book, Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion. Her newest book, Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money, and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement, came out just last month. It’s a fascinating biography of famed Black fundraiser and activist Mollie Moon. It takes readers into the world of an overlooked aspect of the civil rights era. In fact, there’s a pretty cool website,, where you can learn more about it, including book tour events, and even recipes from the era. First, though, enjoy my conversation with Dr. Tanisha Ford, about how she brought Mollie Moon’s personality and world to life.

Tanisha Ford 1:25
Okay, so I say that my writing career began in first grade, when I wrote my first story, back where I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana, we had this annual conference called the Young Authors conference. And they would invite K through 12 students who were selected from their class to present a book that they had written and illustrated at the young authors conference. And so I wrote my first story in first grade, I was not selected, but second grade. I had my chance, and I made it and I think Shel Silverstein, if I remember correctly, was the keynote speaker at the young authors conference that year. So I would say my my writing career launched in elementary school. And like a lot of angsty adolescents and teenagers, I think I dabbled with poetry and song writing or writing raps. In my case, in middle school, I was terrible at both of those things. So that never really went anywhere. But it was in high school, particularly in my senior year of high school, when I decided that I wanted to be an English literature major after reading an essay by Gloria Naylor. And I’m really appreciative of this track that I took to pursue a degree in English literature, the skills that I learned of close reading, critical analysis, literary critic, criticism have really served me well throughout my career. And even on a master’s level, I’ve received a master’s in black studies, but I was focused on literature. And I still thought at that time that I would go on and get a PhD in English literature. Eventually, of course, I decided to get a PhD in history. And in that time, I then decided to put aside a lot of the English literature training, I stopped really reading novels and develop this thirst for nonfiction and seeing nonfiction as like real texts. And it wasn’t until I started writing for magazines and Fairtrade presses in my career as a professional historian that I realized, oh, wait, now that training in English literature was really important. And we must return to that. So I think of myself as an interdisciplinary historian, and it’s largely because of the training I’ve had in English literature, but also in ethnography. And those things really come to bear in my writing, I think it gives it dimension and layers and texture, which is really what I’m going for when I write, well, let’s talk practical stuff. When and where do you like to do your writing, I can work anywhere. Really. I like to travel. I am a SERIOUS traveler. I love international travel. I like to be outside of the country as often as I can be. I’ve written a lot of my books from the road. Well, I’ve written all of my books and good portion of all of those books from the road. And what that means is that I’ve had to learn how to make any conditions work. So I’m not precious about writing rituals in any way. I can be in a noisy cafe I can be on a bus or a train somewhere. I can be in the quiet of my my home. Right now. I’m sitting at this like island that connects my kitchen in my living room and I wrote a lot of a lot of our secret society from this perch specially during the pandemic when I couldn’t really go to write other places so I can make it happen anywhere.

Kate Carpenter 4:56
Do you have any sort of routine when you are doing your writing by job

Tanisha Ford 5:00
I don’t I can write during the day I can write well into the night. Again, because I travel so much, who knows what timezone I’m going to be in. So my body clock has just learned to adapt to wherever I’m at. So I can write pretty much anytime a day. Although I do have to admit that as I get older, my ability to pull, like the all nighters that I could in grad school, I mean, that is pretty much non existent anymore.

But otherwise, yeah, I’m not one of those people like I do, you know, 20 minutes of writing at 5am. Every day, I don’t have that kind of routine. I do the writing as necessary when necessary. So when I’m writing a book, I’m typically writing every single day, for several hours every day, and I just adapt to that reality, when it’s necessary.

Kate Carpenter 5:57
How do you like to organize your materials resources?

Tanisha Ford 6:00
One of the things that I do in terms of creative organization is I keep a notebook or journal or writing journal where I write myself questions, I jot down notes from interviews I may have conducted with interview subjects, I doodle. So this is something especially as I’ve moved more into creative writing and narrative nonfiction that I’ve started to do more, where I’m really trying to visualize ideas or concepts. I map my books visually. So I started doing this with liberated threads. And I thought it was really helpful to see like, how I was triangulating from the US to the UK to South Africa, and what I was doing in terms of time, how time was working in the book, what kind of arguments each chapter sets up, meaning the structure of those arguments. And it’s really been good for me to be able to visualize. So I do that in my notebook. And I create a separate notebook for each book project. And I go back to that notebook sometimes just to see where my mindset was, throughout the course of the project and how my ideas or thoughts have evolved. I mean, for me, especially as a historian who loves archival material, having this notebook is like my own, like, primary document of my writing process. So that’s one of the major things that I do. I work closely with research assistants, I’m very grateful for them. For our secret society. I’ve had four different research assistants. And then those folks have organized my digital archive, you know, and I allow them to choose what they think works best. So I’ve worked with Google Drive, or Milla note or my many images that I’ve had, especially for this last book. And I’ve also used Evernote, so I work with them to figure out like what would make most sense. And it also means then that I have some projects on Google Drive, so projects on Evernote, but no matter what they do, I’m a student of what one of my good colleague friends cause the oldest of schools, meaning I still write down each note on white note card with my citation. So if it’s Molly Moon was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi that’s on one note card. And then I have my citation. Where did I get this information from. And I do this for every piece of information for every book for every article, even my magazine articles that I’ve written since grad school, and I just have boxes of note cards in my office. And friends who have seen this or even heard me talk about this make fun of me for using this very old school method, but I got it from my dissertation advisor, Claude Clegg, who is still how he writes his books, and he’s written massive books. His most recent was a biography of Barack Obama. And it makes him very proud when I tell him that I still use. But I find that it makes the sources stick in my head so much more than when I put pen to paper, especially because I have something of a photographic memory. Now, I don’t want to oversell this photographic memory of mine, but it helps me see the notecard in my head. And I think for me that makes the information stick. It helps me remember dates, more efficiently. It helps me connect pieces of materials across chapters. And then when I’m actually going to draft said chapter, I can put the note cards down in order of the subsections within the chapter and I can move the note cards around and for me that that kind of tactile process is more productive than looking at a computer screen with notes that are just kind of typewritten on the computer screen. Now I know I haven’ Digital friends who have their digital ways of doing this, but for me, my oldest of schools method works. So since it ain’t broke, I won’t fix it.

Kate Carpenter 10:08
Absolutely. To where then in the research process do you start writing

Tanisha Ford 10:13
in the very beginning, the very first day, I am, if I’m in the archive, searching for something, and I find something, I’m drafting it up, I don’t wait until I’ve done all the research bursts. For me research and writing go hand in hand. And I have been doing it this way since grad school. It’s another one of those like, old traditions that I’ve created in terms of my research and writing. So yeah, I go immediately in and I might draft the thing many, many times. I love kind of keeping a different draft a different file for each version of the draft. So I can go back to those earlier versions. But it helps me to conceive of a project by writing it as soon as I start the research.

Kate Carpenter 11:05
So then what is your revision process look like? Is it sort of repeated drafts? Or do you have a way of tackling revision?

Tanisha Ford 11:11
I do write many drafts. The revision process for me is one where I think the book comes to life. I do. I’m one of those people who definitely believes that writing is revision. So yeah, I spin once I have those initial like early drafts, I then dedicate the bulk of the writing process to revising them. And through that revising process, the story starts to come alive. It may involve working with a developmental editor, who helps me take my ideas and my thoughts about what this argument is, and decide how it should unfold on the page. It might be me working with my writing groups and giving them drafts and saying, hey, you know, let me basically present this material to you and you give me feedback on what you think is working or is not working. And then I go back to my woodshed, and just spend those hours just, you know, really tinkering with the thing.

Kate Carpenter 12:16
So I’m interested in you know, you’ve written three books now, and they’re all quite different in terms of genre and and tone. Were you deliberately making those choices? Or did it just change over time? How did you sort of find the voice for each project?

Tanisha Ford 12:32
It wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t deliberate at all. Honestly, I didn’t even realize there was another voice or genre. Beyond the one I learned in grad school. I was one of those, those graduate students and assistant professors who really grasped a hold of the training that I received in graduate school and considered myself an academic historian, and was deeply committed to a black studies model of doing academic history. So it wasn’t until I was approached by an editor at St. Martin’s, to write dress and dream that I really started to think an artist about creative writing and narrative nonfiction again, from those early days of a master’s program where I was really deeply steeped in African American literature. And Elizabeth really sold me Elizabeth disregard that was my editor for dressing dreams, she really sold me on the idea of writing this book, because I thought I would never write another book on fashion. After liberated thread, the way she sold me was saying, you can learn how to write in a different voice. And I was like, Ooh, write in a different voice, like, Okay, say less, say less, all right. And that allowed me to learn a different way of connecting the skills that I had acquired in graduate school, to this new kind of thinking about creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction. Even then, though, this idea of voice or what I wanted, the voice of the book that would become dressed in dreams to sound like didn’t emerge immediately. I’ve discovered that finding the right voice for a given project usually comes midway through the writing and research process. And I really allow the sources to dictate the voice that’s necessary for the project. So with dress and dreams, it wasn’t originally conceived, at least in my mind as a memoir. But as I started to see that Elizabeth was really helping me guide the book toward more of that intimate memoir s style. Then I had to create a voice that really sounded intimate, one that allowed readers into the most personal aspects of my life. And that was something that was very foreign to me as someone who had really become invested in a career as a historian that’s really about a certain kind of objectivity, and you know, historical distance from a subject matter to really try to craft a voice that was soft and impersonal. And like I was combining in the reader, like the reader was my best friend. And I was really letting that reader know intimate things about me. The tone for our secret society, by contrast, was one that was more public facing. I mean, it was really about this woman who had a presence, she was a something of a celebrity fundraiser activist. And so I wanted to kind of write that book from the stance or the purview of, you know, a gossip columnist or a society writer who would be enamored with this figure and kind of following her as she moved through the world. And, you know, so that took on a slick, shiny, kind of tone or voice. And that meant for each of those projects that I had to figure out how to develop the techniques that would allow me to really give credence to the voice that I wanted to create on the page.

Kate Carpenter 16:09
I’m curious from a sort of business side of publishing perspective. So it didn’t realize that you had been approached by an editor for trust and dreams. And I know that you also signed with an agent between the first and second books. What motivated you to want to work with an agent at that point in your literary career?

Tanisha Ford 16:26
Well, once I started having those initial conversations with Elizabeth about the book that would come become dressed in dreams, she asked me like, do you have an agent? Do you have representation because most of the deals with the big commercial publishers require a literary agent. And I didn’t have an agent at the time. And because Elizabeth is a very conscientious and upright upstanding editor, she said, before we move any further, I want you to have representation. And she gave me a list of names of people that she had worked with in the past that, you know, authors that she had worked with in the past have been represented by and I ran those names by some trusted colleagues. And I met with one time Tanya MacKinnon. And I signed on with her, I felt she got the project, she understood what I was trying to do. She understood the timeliness of the project, that this wasn’t just something about fashion, that it was really a way to use the dress body to help us understand the political turmoil of the moment. I mean, this was happening and 2015 going into 2016. So Black Lives Matter was at you know, a peak those protests. I mean, we were about to elect Trump into office. Oh, my goodness. So she understood the political stakes of this book. And I think, in saying that this was that 2015 2016 moment, it’s important to know that this was a time before most academics were seeking out agents and writing for trade. So it wasn’t like there was tons of people that I could go to talk to about this mean, there were a few and at that point, on when I looked at Tanya’s roster, I mean, she was representing Robin Kelly. Farah Jasmine Griffin, Salem, Misha Tillet, Brittany Cooper. I mean, those were people I admired people whose work I respected people whose judgment I trusted. And so I felt if they saw her as a guiding force in their writing careers that, you know, I could work with her as well. But I did a lot of that learning on the ground. And so I would definitely suggest to other up and coming writers, people who are pursuing careers in trade publishing, that now that there are more of us who have representation and have been through this process, that you should meet with as many agents as you can to really learn the landscape and to find the person that’s the best fit for you. So don’t succumb to the pressure of just having an agent any agent will do really do the groundwork to find the agent that’s best for you and your project.

Kate Carpenter 19:11
Let’s turn to here to focus more on Tanisha his new book, our secret society, and dive into how she developed the voice of this project on the page. To help with that, here’s Dr. Tanisha. C. Ford, reading from the introduction to our secret society.

Tanisha Ford 19:27
Westchester County, New York 1964. National Urban League guild fundraiser Molly Moon survey the grand room of the Rockefeller families, but Conoco Hills estate, sizing up the classic floral centerpieces that sat atop tables covered in crisp white linen. The Classic Gold chiavari ballroom chairs added an opulent touch, robbing Rockefeller, son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a trustee of the Urban League of Westchester and spared no expense for this luncheon. However, the food was never require a sumptuous as the decor Molly bought as she watched the guest next to her slice into a roasted chicken breath and medley of winter vegetables. She could hear a roomful of sterling silver forks pinging lightly as they struck the fine porcelain plates. The sound crescendoed into an orchestra with a melodic humming of voices as people merely ate, drank champagne. It was February 26 1964. And Robin had invited an interracial group of 90 celebrities, politicians and civic leaders to his family sprawling Westchester County estate to raise $500,000 to support the local Urban League’s economic empowerment initiative. Molly hadn’t planned this event. But over the past 25 years of her illustrious career as a premier fundraiser for the National Urban League, she had planned and attended many affairs just like it. Molly had built a career by bringing the right people, politicians, artists, European aristocrats and philanthropists together in the right rooms. And in fact, her reputation as the doyen of Harlem society was solidified once she proven time and again, that she hosted black New York’s most extravagant galas. The savvy Mrs. Moon had a knack for getting potential donors jazz lubricated enough on expensive imported champagne that they would open their family coffers to give generously to the National Urban League. The parties Molly staged were the stuff of legends. Every black newspaper from New York to Los Angeles and even some mainstream papers in the 1960s Spilled tons of ink, covering Molly’s annual costume affair, the Bose arts ball ever since the inaugural ball in 1941, it had been a major winner social event. tickets were sold by vendors across the city and were priced on a sliding scale so everyone from weary black subway workers to the rising stars of stage and screen could attend. The guilds far more exclusive summer party was an invitation only fundraiser designed to fit the Urban League’s most loyal ageless donors, including the men of the Rockefeller family, who were Molly’s personal friends, Molly was pulled out of her reminiscences by the sound of a butter knife tapping a champagne glass, the events Toastmaster Wall Street investment maker Carl forte timer, the second was politely gesturing for the room to quiet down. So he could bring the featured speaker to the day is

Kate Carpenter 22:28
I love the scene, it comes so much to life. I love how all of the senses are sort of employed as a reader in in reading it. How did you bring this to life in that way,

Tanisha Ford 22:39
there are many layers to telling a story like this. So I’m going to do my best to try to explain like how I do this thing, which I think involves a certain degree of artistry. But I’m going to try to break it down as best as I can. So part of it is understanding the structure of how you want the story to unfold, and then pairing that structural desire with source material that can help bring the sensorial detail to it. So one of the things I did throughout the writing process was read tons of Molly Moon’s personal correspondence, which allowed me to step into her her mind to understand something about her interior life. And that’s really the often the quest of the black woman’s historian to find that interior space in her subject world, and reading her letters to understand how she communicated with her closest friends when the public wasn’t looking really allowed me to get at that interiority. So that allows me to make claims about how she would think about organizing an event like this and the food and the decor, because I was able to sit with her letter so closely and intimately to understand her thoughts. But then I kind of pare that knowledge I gleaned from the archival sources, with the novels that I read by black woman authors, many of whom were her peers like Dorothy West, and Jesse Redmond, Fossett. I also read novels by Anne Petrie Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Jasmine Ward and dish affiliates short stories to understand how these women wrote about race and class and gender and sexuality, but also to get at how they structured the stories. So for me to have this introduction open in a setting with a in a large room, to allow the reader to orient themselves in a space of this nature. Add in a state of you know, a multimillionaire, something that most of us will never ever get to experience in our personal lives. So I needed the reader to understand the vastness of the space, who would have been in a room like this, what these people would have been eating. I wanted them to taste the food to hear the sounds and that’s why I tried to make make visible if you will, the sound of hearings someone’s paying, you know, a fork against a plate or, you know the sounds of people chewing and chomping on food. And I think a lot of us can relate to that even if we’ve never done this at a Rockefeller estate, I mean, many of us have been to a family dinner or, you know, a church dinner, or a gala or fundraiser dinner. And so I wanted to kind of use those details to bring a sense of familiarity to the reader, and then take us from that of large open space and into the thoughts of Molly mu. So that we’re clear that we are experiencing this event through the lens of a black woman fundraiser, who plans events like this, who knows this space intimately, to know that she’s, it’s her perspective that I want us to trust the most, not the Wall Street banker, not the Rockefeller family, not even the Urban League, but this black woman that she’s going to be our guide through the narrative that will unfold over the course of the book. And I found that to really get at those granular details of what’s being served, what people are eating, the society pages are a great source material. I mean, the society editors love to tell readers what was on a menu, what so and so was wearing, you know, the gossip of like, oh, so and so. And they’re their rival, we’re in the space, ooh, we wonder what went down, you know. And so this society pages are really a creative playground for a writer like me, who’s always trying to get at those details.

Kate Carpenter 26:41
There’s a detail here that speaks to what a great job you’ve done sort of framing and setting the stage here. So for reader sake, I’ll just explain that the introduction opens with the scene. And then in the first chapter, you take us back in Molly’s life, when she’s a younger woman, and we sort of see her development. And I love that in this opening, you mentioned how she plays people with expensive imported champagne. And then in the first chapter, there’s this wonderful detail where she’s offered champion and doesn’t even know what it is or doesn’t realize what she’s been offered. And it speaks to the great framing you’ve done here. Could you talk a little bit about how you thought about framing Molly’s story, and what what it was like to write a biography, maybe as opposed to other types of books.

Tanisha Ford 27:24
Okay, I love that you were able to make that connection using the story of the champagne. You know, because for me, champagne does become a certain kind of motif throughout the book. Champagne is its own character in certain ways. Yeah. So it was important for me to show that the woman that we meet in the intro, she was really cultivated, you know, she and she cultivated herself. Molly was someone who to use this kind of like, self help guru language, she was a self actualize her. She was a young woman, who was born in Jim Crow, Mississippi, into a working poor family, who was able to imagine a life for herself, where she would always be in service to marginalized black communities. But where she wanted the luxurious things of life, and champagne became one of those things. So when she’s first one to introduce to champagne, as you mentioned, she has no clue what it is, you know, but she acquires a taste for it, not just because she likes the taste of champagne, I’m sure perhaps she does. I know, I definitely do. But because having a taste for champagne and recognizing quality champagne, when you taste it becomes part of the high touch that is central to her work as a fundraiser, who’s who’s planning these large scale fancy fundraising events. So I wanted to take readers on a journey to understand why somebody like Molly moon, who comes from such humble roots, and who has, you know, black radical political leanings, especially early on in her life, would have been so deeply invested in luxury and leisure. And that we can understand these things as coexisting right that we can have a deep commitment to racial justice and black freedom, and also believe that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of fine champagne. And I think that the craft of biography allowed me to get into those details, and really sit with them and allow the reader to sit with them in ways that the more analytical historical writing that I did in a book, like say, liberated threads would not have allowed for I can really sit there and almost delight in telling Mali stories, and in so doing allow readers to see the complexities of her life. I mean, this is a woman who live within a set of political and personal contradiction. And, and her life wasn’t neat and perfectly packaged. She wasn’t someone who, politically speaking, she wasn’t someone who was deeply invested in respectability. But also personally her life was far too messy for it to be one that was even publicly about the guise of respectability. I mean, she was married three times, she had fallings out with, you know, close personal friends at various points in her career. She was loved by some hated by others, she was mocked in the press, she was criticized for the fluctuation in her weight. And then today, we call this fat phobia. But the black press, particularly black male writers, dogged her for her weight gain size. So this was a woman who had endured a lot and writing her biography or using the tools of the biographer allowed me to explore those things, while also telling a very complicated history of the civil rights movement and funding for the movement and the money and the fraught kind of political ties and relationships behind the scenes that went into funding large scale events like the March on Washington.

Kate Carpenter 31:13
Amazing. So you’ve just summed up, I mean, so much about what what is so great about this book, and just like the nuance and layers that we’re talking about here. And I love that this introduction is very different than like a typical academic book Introduction, right, which sort of lays out the argument, the stakes and the historiography. And yet, this introduction really does present your argument and gives context for readers. So in many ways, it’s still accomplishing those same things. How do you strike that sort of balance?

Tanisha Ford 31:44
That introduction, writing that introduction, really, it came with time to find that perfect balance, I drafted several versions. And as I’ve said, I, I write throughout my research process. So I wrote a version at the beginning. In fact, now that I think about it, Tanya, my literary agent, had me write the intro as my book proposal. So I wrote a version of this at the very, very beginning of the project, before I’d even finished all of the research. So there was a version that I drafted at the very beginning, I drafted another version, I took another stab at it in the middle of the writing process. And then I wrote what appears in the book, at the very end, or I guess, I should say, I wrote a version of what appears at the very end of the process, because that final introduction, is really an amalgamation of all three iterations of the introduction that I drafted across time. So in that sense, they bear the markings of, you know, however, I was thinking about the project and 2019 2020, in 2021, you know, the height of the pandemic going into 2022, when I finish drafting the book, so it’s like, kind of like this, you know, layered historical document of my own writing process, you know, and I think that there were elements in that very first draft that were so strong that they deserve to be in that final draft.

Kate Carpenter 33:20
So I want to talk a little bit about the fact that at the end of this book, there is something that I don’t see in very many books, but you have this tremendous essay on method, it is so good. When I read it, I thought this should be assigned in every class that should be required reading for every historian, I think, Oh, it’s just it’s a wonderful look at how you’re thinking about your subject changed how the practicalities of how you did your research, and how you wrote through this. And I will just tell listeners, go go get a copy of the book and then read this essay, rather than try to even uncover it all. But what I was curious about was, why was it important to you to be transparent about your research in this way?

Tanisha Ford 34:01
Well, first, thank you for saying that. I appreciate it. It’s good to know that it’s a value that other people will find it useful. I thought it was a brilliant way to show your work. You know, as we’re taught in math class, math teachers always saying show your work, show your work. And as academic historians, we do a lot of this heavy lifting in the introduction and in our footnotes. But as you’ve mentioned, trade intros are quite distinct from academic introductions. And across the board, whether it’s trade or academic publishing publishers are asking us to even cut down on the footnotes. So I remember when I was in graduate school, we were trained at the footnotes were like a wall. It was just like this kind of massive block of notes and that that’s where the conversation happened. That’s where the debates in the field happened. That’s where you could trace the history of gaff dysuria graphical threads, you know, in those footnotes, but today, you know, now it’s like basically just Just a quick and dirty of what you actually cited. So I thought, Well, if that’s the case, if I don’t have my traditional introduction, and my footnotes can’t live in the ways that I’m accustomed to them living, particularly in my dissertation, right, then I have to find another way to show my work. And honestly, I drew inspiration from Taya miles. She has a similar Sal method in her book, all that she carried her multiple award winning book, all that she carried. And I remember reading that and thinking, wow, this is smart. This is a smart approach. And it was important for me to find my version of doing this for two main reason. One, because trade histories aren’t just a bunch of stories, as some academic historians think. Right? Some people think that, Oh, it’s so narrative driven, you’re just telling a bunch of stories in that in their minds, for some of them that this equates to it being easier to write or less or less rigorous research process is kind of undergirding this, you know, narrative driven book. And I really wanted to demonstrate that no, in fact, that’s not the case. And in certain ways, well, I don’t want to say that one is easier or more difficult than the other, I would just say that they are, they are different. But what was very clear to me after having written one of these trade histories, is that the research process doesn’t really change. I mean, my research for this book was even more rigorous than my research in liberated threads. I mean, it was just dealing with just far more source material. And then I also had the process of like, writing this thing in a way that readers would want to keep reading. I mean, with academic history, you’re assigning this to your students, your peers are reading it, they’re assigning it to their students, people feel like they must read the book, you know, but with the trade book, people will put it down if it’s not entertaining, and it’s not interesting to them. So there was a way that I had to spend a lot of time working on the craft of the book. So in that ways, I’d say that there’s like this dual layer of writing a trade history that I wanted to make clear for people. And then the other piece of this, which is related to this, like second point of like, the quality of the writing is that I wanted people to understand the structural elements of the book, Carla strand, who writes for Ms. Magazine, when she reviewed the book for her best October reads, column, she said that I write with signature finesse. And I really appreciate her for saying that that’s like really high praise. But I wanted people to understand that the there’s serious work that goes into making something read with cinematic flair or to read like a novel is one of the reasons why, you know, we praise someone like a Toni Morrison, not that I would ever like it myself that Toni Morrison the legend, but just to say that there is an artistry that goes into this, and that it’s really quite difficult to take 1000s of pieces of archival material, and transform them into something that goes down with that kind of finesse, right that that takes you on a ride that, you know, in ways that you don’t you might not even realize until you put the book down. And so I thought that this essay could be a way that I could both show my work through, you know, a detailed explanation of my sources and how I use them and why. But then to also have you see how that work was in translated into this very narrative driven book with so much scenario detail that you’ve just read.

Kate Carpenter 38:42
So I want to ask, in addition to three books, you’ve written quite a bit for publications like The Atlantic, New York Times, and many others. How do you think about writing those pieces versus writing books?

Tanisha Ford 38:54
Even my writing for publications is different from one another. So let me think through this, because writing for The Atlantic, for example, is different than writing for the New York Times, writing a book review is different than writing a profile. And both are different than writing a long form investigative Deep Dive. And fortunately, I’ve been able to try my my hand at all of those genres at least once. So they’re all quite different. And they require a different approach. I would say that as I’ve figured it out, one thing that was important for me to do is to read several pieces in each genre published via by the particular publication that I’m writing for, so that you can understand something that, you know, in the business they call the house style, right. So what do Atlantic pieces have that are similar across authors, you know, are what really makes up a New York Times op ed, you know, what kind of characterizes that thing? And I’ve been really fortunate to work with some incredible editors who’ve helped me along the way. And most of those editors have been women, and many of them women of color, I’m still not the best pitcher. But I tried to establish relationships with these editors who know what I’m capable of are very familiar with my skill set and my my approach to writing pieces, even if my pitch isn’t perfect, they can see the potential in the story. And I find that, you know, with those pieces, what’s constant in those pieces, and in my academic writing, and in my trade writing, is that I like to write with a lot of texture and complexity and nuance. And I’ve really found ways to take that kind of thick, textured approach to writing that I think, is part of my signature for this and apply that in short form and long form,

Kate Carpenter 40:56
I have to confess that I was looking at all of your guidelines, and also the fact that you are an accomplished academic, and Professor, all I could think was that you must have zero time and maybe don’t sleep at all. How do you balance all of these things? Your work as a writer, your work as an academic? I’m sure having a life also?

Tanisha Ford 41:15
Yes, you know, I do think that early in my career, it was all about the grind. And in fact, that was the language on social media, you know, basically, we grind, you know, grind culture, hustle life, you know, and I think that I really took on those mantras, a lot of which were coming from hip hop culture. And I really took those things on like, yeah, you know, I’m out here grinding, and I’m doing my work. And, you know, I’m about that work. And, you know, I had that mentality. And I think that that notion of grind culture is what helped me get through life on the tenure track, and helped me make my way through my first, you know, publication, my first book. And as I got on the other side of, you know, the series of book events that I did for liberated threads, I was really physically exhausted, I was mentally drained. And I thought that this is no way to live. And it was around that time that I started working with an incredible black queer woman therapist, who was like, girl, you need to get your life together, like your life is out of balance. And so we started working to like, do some deep therapeutic work to bring my life into a shape that was tenable for me, and not just that I could survive it, but that I can really find joy and pleasure in my life. And so it’s, I’m a work in progress. I will say that, like, I’m still trying to figure this out. But I’ve really started to only say yes to projects that speak to me projects that I think I really have something I can, I want to lend my voice to not just that I could because I have the expertise to, but that I really want to that I really, really want to one of my big sisters and mentors, John Morgan, to told me once, ask yourself, do you really want to do it and then ask yourself, do you really, really want to do it and then ask yourself do you really, really, really want to do it. And unless you really, really, really want to do it, don’t do it. And that has really become a mantra for me now do I really, really, really want to do it. And if I don’t, then I don’t do it. And that has allowed me to take great joy and pleasure in the things that I do commit myself to doing. And it’s allowed me to reconnect to some other interests outside of Friday, like dancing, I love to dance. As I mentioned, I love to travel. So in this stage of my life, I am doing more of those things. And I find that my work is more creative, my writing work, my teaching is more creative, because I have these other outlets, and because I’m only occupying my time with the things I really, really, really want to do. So that’s how I approach it. And it also helps that this notion of grind, culture has become less popular. And now we’re in the era of soft life and rest and rest as a radical act. And I’m fully embracing that language as a way of life.

Kate Carpenter 44:18
I’m glad Glad to hear it. Before I let you go, I want to talk a little bit more about inspiration. So the first thing I’d like to ask you may have just answered, but what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Tanisha Ford 44:31
I’d say that the best writing and advice I received was early in my academic career, I think was on my first year on the tenure track and the renowned historian Robin Kelly came to visit us at UMass where I was employed at that time as a scholar in residence for the week. And through that relationship. I was able to write an essay for a collection that he co edited on the Civil Rights movement in the US and the UK. And when he read my draft, first of all, what an honor to receive feedback from the robin Kelly, who was one of the most humble people on the planet were the most humble and gentle, generous scholars. He said, Don’t hide behind your sources. Don’t hide behind your sources. Allow your voice to shine, I want to hear more of your analysis of the sources and unless of just that you found these 20 Amazing sources, I want to hear your voice. And so I’ve continued to just build on that piece of advice. And it’s advice that I give to my students is advice that I give to other up and coming and even established writers who have been trained to allow their own voice to recede and allow the the sources to be at the forefront. I want to always trust my read of the sources trust that I have a value will perspective that allows me to read those sources in a way that I should allow my authorial voice to guide readers through a project. So I thank Robin Kelly, for that don’t hide behind your sources.

Kate Carpenter 46:09
That’s advice I really needed right now. So thank you, to you and to Robin Kelley for that. Who do you like to read? Or maybe watch or listen to? But who do you look to for your own inspiration?

Tanisha Ford 46:21
I draw inspiration from many places. Now, this might sound strange to some, but it makes all the sense in the world to me. I’m a storyteller. That’s how I see myself first and foremost, no matter what form or genre I’m writing in, I’m aiming to tell a story. So I like to look at other people who are master storytellers or who are masters at craft. So I watch a lot of YouTube videos where I watch barbers like Master barbers do fade. Fade haircuts are so hard so when you watch how a barber connects the different layers of the fade to a perfect blend. Oh my god, it’s incredible are watching master hair cutters cut a Bob Bob haircuts requires so much technique. So I like to watch master hair cutters cut, you know, hair cuts very difficult hair cuts, to help me see how they are connecting, you know the elements of the hair cut. So that helps me find connections in my storytelling so that my intro blends into, you know, the chapters that blend into the conclusion. So I do a lot of that kind of watching. So again, connecting the visual with the written word for me, is very important. And then there are also just amazing writers that I love to read like Jesmyn Ward is one of my faves. I think she is just such a master at storytelling. And I teach her memoir, The the men we reaped, and my race, gender, and the art of memoir course. And I also love reading her novels, so to see how she moves back and forth between those different genres for me is very helpful as someone who although I’m not a novelist, at least not yet, like seeing how she does that is very helpful for me to understand how I can translate my skills and my unique approach to storytelling, regardless of the genre or mode I’m operating in.

Kate Carpenter 48:19
Boy, I could talk writing with you all day, I think, but I will not keep you forever. Before I let you go though. Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about?

Tanisha Ford 48:27
Well, I’m working on a biography. I see it as an eclectic because that’s the way I do things and eclectic biography of Augusta Savage, the famed sculptor, who I think has fallen out of our historical purview in ways that are a shame, I think we need to know her not only because she was an amazing sculptor, but because she was such an important and essential institution builder, and the early to mid 20th century. So I’m working on that book, which is part of the series that Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Skip Gates, as we’ll call him, has created for Penguin Random House. So that’s the project I’m working on now experimenting with biography now that I’ve done it once. I really want to take my eclectic archiving approach and experiment with biography to tell the life story of Augustus Abbott

Kate Carpenter 49:22
Marvelous, I think I think people are gonna love Our Secret Society. And it sounds like that will be one to love too. Dr. Tanisha Ford, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past and talking more about your writing process.

Tanisha Ford 49:33
Thank you again for having me.

Kate Carpenter 49:35
Thank you again to Dr. Tanisha Ford for joining me on drafting the past. You can find links to her books and more from our conversation at drafting the As always, thanks to you for listening. You can support the show by telling a friend about it. After all friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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