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Episode 44: Kellie Carter Jackson Puts Black People at the Center

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In this episode, host Kate Carpenter speaks with the brilliant and delightful Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson. Dr. Carter Jackson is a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, and a prolific speaker and writer, with essays everywhere from The New York Times to the Atlantic and Los Angeles Times, and appearances in documentaries and countless podcasts and news programs. She is executive producer and host of the podcast You Get a Podcast: The Study of the Queen of Talk, and a co-host of the podcast This Day in Esoteric Political History. Her resume is extensive, so we’re just hitting the highlights here! 

Dr. Carter Jackson’s first book was the award-winning Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Her newest book is We Refuse: A Forceful History of Black Resistance. It’s out now, it’s incredible, and it’s going to have a lot of people talking.

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Transcript:

Kate Carpenter:
Welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I’m Kate Carpenter and I am so pleased to be back here with you. I am even more pleased about my guest for this episode, the brilliant and delightful Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Thanks for having me.

Kate Carpenter:
Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson is a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and a prolific speaker and writer, with essays everywhere from The New York Times to the Atlantic and Los Angeles Times, and appearances in documentaries and countless podcasts and news programs. She is executive producer and host of the podcast You Get a Podcast: The Study of the Queen of Talk, and a co-host of the podcast This Day in Esoteric Political History.
There honestly is a lot more I could tell you about her but for the sake of time, I’m just hitting some highlights here. Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson’s first book was the award-winning Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Her newest book is We Refuse: A Forcible History of Black Resistance. It’s out now, it’s incredible and it’s going to have a lot of people talking.
I was thrilled to get the chance to talk with Kellie about what went into writing this book and her other work. Enjoy my interview with Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
I’m always and I literally mean always since I learned to write, I have been telling stories, making up stories, probably plagiarizing stories as a kid. I feel like I was always just trying to write and shape an idea and think about characters and people and problems. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t really doing that.
But obviously as I went to college and I majored in journalism, I thought for a while, “Oh, maybe I’ll be a journalist.” And it wasn’t until my last year or two of college that I realized, “Actually, I think I want to tell more long-form stories. I want to do history. I want to be a historian.”
But I didn’t want to change my major because I wanted to graduate on time. So, I stuck with journalism, but I took a lot of history classes towards the end. And then I applied for graduate school, got into handful, chose Columbia because Eric Foner was there and my advisor at Howard was like, “Listen, you might be one of Eric Foner’s last students. He’s amazing. You have to go there.”
And so, yeah, it was kind of a no-brainer. And then Eric Foner taught me a lot about writing and the importance of brevity and what it means to say your point and be clear about it. And that is sort of like how I have tried to model my scholarship ever since, really after him and other scholars that I saw as what Eric Foner calls scholar activists. These are scholars that are invested in the work, deeply invested in the work of, for me, Black liberation. And that’s really what I enjoy writing about the most.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, I like to start just with the practical questions. So, when and where do you like to do your writing?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Oh, I’m best between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. I hate getting up. I tell people all the time, “I’m not my best self before 10:00 a.m. I’m just not. If I have to get up, it’s not going to happen. And normally because I have kids, I’m up early anyways, but when my mind is fully percolating and all of that, 10:00 a.m. And my mind starts to crash right about 3:55, 4:00. I cannot really do much more after that.
And then, there was a stretch when I would have a second shift where after my kids would go to bed, I would write probably between 8:00 and midnight. That would be my second wave or second wind. But as I got older, it’s become harder and harder for me to do that. I get in the bed with my laptop which is not good and by 8:30, I’m like [inaudible 00:03:55]. So, I can’t. It’s funny. I don’t like to get up early. I don’t really like to stay up late. I don’t know too many people who are like that, but that’s sort of my groove.
But where I write, it’s usually my office. I have a bay window in my office which I love. It is my happy place. I love to look outside our backyard. We sort of back up to a forest and so it’s nothing but trees. And I have a hummingbird feeder and in the summertime, hummingbirds come right up to my window. It brings me so much joy. When the kids are outside playing in the backyard, I can see their swing set, I can see everything and it just makes me feel inspired.
Rarely do I ever really write in my office here at Wellesley’s Campus. I’m almost always at home when I’m doing the real deal work.

Kate Carpenter:
Do you have a routine for your writing? Do you try to write every day or do you balance it with teaching?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
I need big chunks of time to write. But if I’m trying to knock out a chapter, if I’ve got a major deadline, I need big chunks of time. I need that 10:00 to 4:00 and I’m only getting up for bathroom breaks. And I don’t even like that. I don’t want to even be bothered by my body. I just like to write. I usually drink a lot of tea or coffee and I just like to go for it.
Sometimes though, I find that I just don’t have those big chunks of time and so I will write little memos in my phone. I’ll do voice notes to myself. Maybe once or twice a year, depending on how big my deadline is, I will do a personal writers retreat where I’ll go somewhere sometimes for a weekend. Sometimes if I can really get away for a week which is what I did with this last book and just write and write and write and write and write.
I did a writers retreat and I literally wrote from 8:00 in the morning till midnight for every single day for a week. I broke to take walks or to eat. But yeah, I really need those long stretches of time, otherwise it’s just really difficult to flesh out the thoughts that I have.

Kate Carpenter:
How do you like to organize yourself? Are there tools you use for your research and your writing?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
What I normally do is I read a lot, a lot, a lot. And every time I find something that I like, I have sort of a draft in which I just put in all the quotes that I like. “Oh, that’s a banger. Oh, that’s good.” I will pull as much information as I can. And then sometimes, I’ll put little tags like, “Oh, I want this to go in Chapter 3,” or, “I want this in Chapter 2,” or, “This has got to go in the introduction,” or something like that.
And then when I actually start to write and I have all of my research and all of the talking points or the things that I want to say, then I will start to outline a little bit so that I have some structure of where I want to go like a little bit of a roadmap. But I hardly ever stick to it. It’s there to give, I don’t know, faux structure, but mostly I just start to write and I tend to write and research at the same time.
So, it’s really hard for me to get all of the research and then come back to it like two months later and write. I really need to be taking that information and processing that thought and then my draft will just be this long sort of compilation of ideas.
Most of my writing though is just rewriting. I edit and edit and edit and edit relentlessly. I think 80% of writing is editing. You know what I mean? 20% is that initial draft or whatever, those initial thoughts. And then you’re constantly tweaking. And so, all writers are editors. We have to be, right? We just constantly have to hone and hone and hone and that’s what I find myself doing a lot.

Kate Carpenter:
Absolutely. What does that editing process look like for you? How do you tackle it?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
I have a bunch of friends that I trust that will tell me my children are ugly. You know what I mean? People that will really be honest with me and I send them drafts, I send them chapters. Sometimes I send them, “Here’s 10 pages. Here’s my intro.”
Sometimes I’ll call them on speed dial like, “Hey, can you just listen to this sentence to this paragraph? Does this make sense?” I need a lot of feedback when I write. And I’m glad that I have three or four friends. We all do this for each other. “Yeah, sure, send it, send it.” And we will edit in real time whatever it is that the person is working on.
So for me, I really need that feedback because sometimes it’s so easy to just get caught up in your own thoughts and you think you’ve put it down on paper or you think you’ve explained it well enough and then someone else can tell you, “No, no, you haven’t. No, you’re not there yet.”
So that for me is really helpful. But I read out loud a lot because I find that if I read out loud what I just wrote and I stumble, then I didn’t write it correctly or there’s not enough flow in there. I love forceful writing, so I love writing that punches every single time. You’re like, “Oh, oh my gosh, I’m getting beat up.” I like that kind of forceful, sometimes brief sentences that pack a punch. That’s sort of been my process.
But I think each book is a little bit different depending on what you need to get done. And sometimes you’re writing a book, sometimes you’re writing an op-ed, so sometimes you don’t always have the kind of time or the flexibility to do what you would like with your editing. But if I really have time, that’s what I try to do.

Kate Carpenter:
Does your writing process look different depending on whether you’re writing a book or an op-ed or an essay or podcast?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Absolutely. If I’m writing an op-ed, it’s fast and furious. There was a point where I was writing op-eds a ton and I could bang an op-ed out in a matter of three or four hours, maybe six hours if I really needed to refine it. I could get it done in a day, especially if I knew what I wanted to say and how I was going to say it and all of that stuff.
Op-eds are just they’re tough because we’re in this 24-hour news cycle and so in a day or two, it’s like, “Oh, that’s old news.” It’s, “Wait, what? I’m still writing.” So I love and hate op-eds. I love them for their brevity and I hate them for the fast breakneck speed of it all. I kind of wish we had a week to sit with something, but we don’t. A week, it’s ancient news.
So it’s definitely a different process when you’re writing an op-ed and there’s a lot of things that just get cut, a lot of nuance gets left out because you just don’t have the space to give all the historical context that arguments needs and that a reader is going to give their attention to, quite frankly. Usually, most op-eds are read in the first paragraph and then people sort of scam and then that’s it.
But for books, I mean, gosh, books take years. I mean, years. I mean, they really do. Force and Freedom took me nine years, granted I was having kids and all that stuff and living life in the midst of that. But books just take a lot of time. You’re not going to bang out a book. I don’t know anybody that can just do that. And I’m always in awe of these authors that every year or two, they’ve got another book out. I’m like, “What? What are you doing? You have a clone.” Yeah.
And then articles, I think scholarly articles that I write from my field, those usually take about a year or so depending upon when the press is trying to publish, but they take a lot of time as well. Sometimes I think articles can even take more than books because I feel like a book, there’s a lot more freedom and flexibility to get your ideas on the paper, whereas when you are writing for your peers for other fellow historians, you have to be so specific and so tight and so clear that I think that’s the hardest kind of writing to do.
Our biggest critics are our peers. The public is not going to be informed at every single level and so they’re going to be okay with a lot of the stuff that gets published in a book. Journal articles or scholarly articles, because they’re peer-reviewed, sometimes two, three, even four times. And we are perfectionists. It’s really difficult to get those articles out. I get much more joy writing for the public than I do writing for my field.

Kate Carpenter:
You’ve touched on it just now talking about the public versus other academics, but how do you think about audience when you’re working on all these different kinds of pieces?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Audience is everything. I got critiqued a lot in grad school and even as a junior scholar because my writing was very simplistic. So, I never really engaged in a lot of heavy jargon and using words that I don’t know how to spell or using words that I’m just like, “Wait, what is that? Why don’t you just say opacity? What is opacity? Just say it wasn’t clear, okay? Say it wasn’t clear.”
I’m very much of the Malcolm X School of Make it Plain. Just make it plain. I appreciate that kind of frank, honest writing. And that’s not to say that I don’t like and enjoy reading Toni Morrison or people that are much sort of a harder-to-digest read.
I think that work is necessary and good. But for me, I think because I want my audience to be as large as possible. Because if I’m saying something important, I want as many people to hear it and understand it and grapple with it as possible. I think it’s so important that you’re writing clear and understandable and enjoyable and even forceful. That matters to me. And so, I get a lot of pushback sometimes from maybe older scholars or other scholars, literary critics that are much more intense on writing for the field and writing in this sort of theory-based kind of way. That’s never really appealed to me.
Historians, we tell stories, we make sense of stories. I don’t think you can make sense of something if you’re not using language that’s accessible. That’s what the reader really needs to be able to access what you’re saying.

Kate Carpenter:
So, We Refuse, your new book emerged out of an op-ed that you wrote for the Atlantic, but we’ve talked a little bit about how writing an op-ed versus writing a book, these are very different things.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Yes.

Kate Carpenter:
So, what was the process of turning an op-ed into a book?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Oh man, that was hard because I’ve still not gotten back to the original project I wanted to do. In 2020, I had started … Actually, before 2020, towards the end of 2019, I was on a fellowship writing about this book about the Titanic and Race and the Titanic and Joseph LaRoche. I had gone down this complete early 20th century rabbit hole and I was like, “This is going to be my next project. I’m looking at race in the Titanic.” I’m still looking at race in the Titanic although that project is probably going to take me a lot longer to get to.
But in the midst of the pandemic and in the midst of this racial reckoning in George Floyd, I wrote this op-ed largely from a place of anger and grief and frustration. And I did not intend for it to be a book at all. And matter of fact, I gave the op-ed to my husband and I was like, “Hey, this is about to get published. What do you think of it?” And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s all right. It’s not your best writing.” I snapped, “Tell me how you really feel.”
So, when it got published, it went viral. It just went crazy. And right after that, maybe five or six publishers emailed me and said, “Is this a book? Is this a book?” And I was like, “Sure.” I was not at all trying to make it into a book. And it sort of just snowballed on me.
And then I realized, “Well, actually, I do have a lot more to say about this,” especially when we started seeing the rest of 2020 unfold and then into 2021 and January 6th and there was so much that could just be said about the times we were living in that I kept getting more and more ammunition to write the book. So that’s how that kind of unfolded.
Although for me, the process was very quickly. It took about three years to write We Refuse and that’s drastically shorter than it took for Force and Freedom. But writing for a trade press is different than writing for an academic press and I enjoyed this time around writing for what I hope will be a much bigger audience.
I still wrote Force and Freedom in a way that I think is really accessible. I still wrote it in a way where a lot of people who are outside of the academy have read it and said to me like, “Hey, this is good. I get this. And I’m not even interested in this and I get it. I appreciate it.” And that’s what I wanted to do for We Refuse but on a much bigger scale with much bigger themes.

Kate Carpenter:
So, I love that you’ve talked about how you really forceful writing and that is very clear in We Refuse, which makes sense that it came out of an op-ed. It is a powerful argument in addition to a history. I know there are some historians out there who sort of shy away from making strong contemporary arguments and I really love that you don’t. How do you find the right voice to do that in?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
I go back to this essay that I often teach when I’m teaching Black women’s history at Wellesley. It’s Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger. And in it, she talks about how we shouldn’t dismiss anger. That’s sort of a stereotype of Black woman that’s been used to sort of silence them, “Oh, you’re just an angry Black woman so I don’t really have to hear what you have to say. Your anger is not legitimate. It’s not valid. It’s not full of information.”
And Lorde says quite the opposite that anger is packed full of information, that anger is useful. There is a utility to sort of deconstructing where someone’s grief or rage or anger comes from. And so, that is where a lot of We Refuse is fueled by my very strong feelings about racism and white supremacy and the way that Black and white people have operated.
And I also feel like I take a lot of inspiration from Barbara Fields. Barbara Fields was one of my readers and one of my advisors when I was in grad school at Columbia. And I remember she wrote this essay about race as an ideology, probably came out in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
It was one of the most powerful essays I had ever read about race. And it was snarky. It was like defiant. The tone was just like, “Oh, she mad. She big mad,” all of the way in which she was writing. Very, very professional though. Very, very professional. Very scholarly but every single sentence pounded and pounded and pounded and it questioned sort of the rationality or looked at the irrationality and the absurdity of racism and race in America.
And that article stuck with me. I was like, “When I write, I want to write like this.” I want to write in a way where you feel hype, where you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, go in, yeah.” But not in a way that’s so passionate that you … I don’t know. It’s not just pure mockery or pure trying to punch down on anyone, but really trying to explain how power works and how violent power can be and how white supremacy is violent power. And how we should really grapple with that, take seriously that premise because lives are absolutely at stake.
I’m not talking about some puff piece that’s like, “Well, maybe you can agree or disagree.” When I think about white supremacy, when I think about capitalism, when I think about mass incarceration or these really big structural systems that harm people, lives are very much at stake. And so, there’s a gravity that I have in my writing that I always want to be present because I never want people to minimize the harms and violence of racism.

Kate Carpenter:
To learn more about how Kellie translates her work to the page, I asked her to read an excerpt from her new book. Here’s Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson reading from Chapter 1 of We Refuse: A Forceful History of Black Resistance.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Revolutions are complicated. Americans venerate the American Revolution and the French Revolution, but other revolutions, particularly ones that involve violence committed by people of color are rejected and feared. There is a tendency to think that revolution is scary, full of merciless violence akin to Armageddon or some other apocalypse. But when I think of revolutions, I think of new beginnings. I think of Frantz Fanon’s hope to combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction.
Revolutions do not necessarily ask for consent. They demand cooperation. American society has trained people to believe not only that white supremacy is the natural way of things, but that white supremacy is the savior that ends revolutions begun by people of color and the poor. Racism has blinded Americans so that they cannot see white supremacy as their own racial Armageddon against Black people.
How might our thinking change if we considered mass incarceration as an apocalypse or economic inequality as a catastrophe instead of the status quo? For Black people, the state of Black health, wealth, education and housing is the end of the world in slow motion.
Revolutions are birthed from oppression. And thus, revolution is first and foremost a response that seeks change for the benefit of humanity. Revolutions are not needed to improve a system. They are needed to create a new world. And unlike an uncontrollable asteroid headed toward earth, white state violence is neither natural nor unstoppable. Equality, equity and reparations are not impossible. They seemed that way only when we believe that white people are omnipotent.
Revolutions are how the powerless pick your power and transform it to work to the benefit of everyone instead of a select few. Whether a revolution succeeds or fails, the attempt to gain recognition, insurance and protection for human rights is at the heart of the struggle.

Kate Carpenter:
What goes into writing a passage like this?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Oh, man. So, when I first started writing this book, my agent said to me, “You have to define revolution. And what is that? I don’t think people know what it is.” I was like, “Well, everyone knows what revolution is.” But I don’t think we do. I think that we have two sort of different ideas of what we think revolution is.
When we think of revolution in the hands of white people, we think of the American Revolution, we think of George Washington, we think of Patriots, we think of Founding Fathers. When we think of the French Revolution, maybe we think of off with their heads and things like that. We have these semi-romantic ideas about what revolution is for white people.
But when we think about a Black and Brown or poor revolution, a revolution literally coming from the bottom up, that is terrorizing to a lot of people. That is frightening. It is we have all of these stereotypical ideas of looters and burning buildings and chaos in the streets.
And I wanted to tease out those two ideas and sort of say, “Actually, it’s neither of those things. It’s not the American Revolution and it’s not burn it all down. It is literally striving to create a better world, to replace a broken system with a newer one, a better one, one that benefits all people that we can all be in support of something like revolution, particularly when the status quo is violence and harm.”
And so, I wanted to really talk about that because I remembered I think it was AOC, Congresswoman AOC was giving a speech and she was like, “Revolution looks a lot like the suburbs for white people. It’s basic housing. It’s clean water. It’s good schools. It’s public health. It’s all of the ordinary, regular, mundane life for middle-class white families. That’s what revolution would look like for poor people and people of color.
And so, I really wanted people to understand that revolution is not violence just on its own, that it ought not be something that we’re terrified of. And that if we don’t recognize how Black and Brown and poor and marginalized communities are being harmed, if we don’t realize that that harm looks like an apocalypse to them, feels like an asteroid to them, then we’ll never really get at the need to change the system that we live in.

Kate Carpenter:
We’ve talked about that. You make some really strong and sharp arguments in the book. And one of the reasons that you do that so successfully is that your writing is so clear. You never hide behind excess language. Is that something you have to work towards, you have to edit for that kind of clarity?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Mm-hmm, all the time. Anything that you like in the book, anything you’re like, “Oh, that’s great,” that had help. That had lots of help. This is where I feel like my friends, my writing circle, my people that are honest with me will say, “You don’t need this, Kellie. Cut this. Take this out. This is extra. This is filler. This says nothing.”
And having that sort of whittling down process is really helpful. I’ve gotten better. The more I write, the better I am. It sort of cutting out that access language or finding ways to sort of cut back on that. But I feel like strong writing isn’t necessarily a long sentence. It isn’t necessarily like this long-drawn-out explanation.
I think about Mark Twain who had this quote and I’m probably going to botch it, but he said something to the effect of, “I wanted to write you,” what does he say? “I wanted to write you a letter and I want it to be brief, but I didn’t have enough time so I wrote you this long thing.” It was like his way of saying, “I wrote a long letter because it takes more time to be brief actually.”
And I find even in my emails, I have to edit my emails because I’m like, “You’re putting in too much information. Just say, yes, I approve or proceed or whatever. You don’t have to give a whole long explanation about why you’re coming or not coming or whatever or when something’s going to get done. Just say, ‘This is when it will be done.'” I’m trying to practice brevity even in my emails, like a text message almost.
But I think, I don’t know, I think people appreciate that. I think there’s something very efficient about getting to the point quickly, about being clear about what it is that you need. I hate passive-aggressive language. I hate when people play guessing games with me and they act like, “Oh, sure, fine,” and they don’t mean it. I don’t like that sort of … I’m from the Midwest where we are sort of, “Use this very passive-aggressive language where it’s like, ‘Are you mad? Are you not mad? Do you want this? You don’t want this.'”
I don’t want to play guessing games with my … Even I grew up partly in the South, the whole, “Bless your heart.” No, say what you mean. Do you hate me? Do you not hate me? I need specificity. So I think that need for specificity is where a lot of my writing perhaps comes from.

Kate Carpenter:
That’s fantastic. This passage in particular, this is really highlighting your theoretical analysis in this section. And then it sets up the way that the history that comes after this serves your argument. How do you keep that balance between assessment and argument and history when you’re writing?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
It’s really hard, but that’s what we’re trained to do as historians that when you look at a story, and I tell this to my students all the time, you have to look at a historical moment like say the Civil War because that’s not contested. You look in the Civil War and you have to look at who is speaking, who is not speaking, what is being said, how is it being said, where is the conversation starting, where is the conversation ending?
Timelines matter, they’re not arbitrary. All of the things that we include or don’t include are political. And I teach my students that all the time when they’re looking at a textbook. I stopped using textbooks a long time ago, but I had a textbook that had the history of Western civilization and it had two whole chapters on the history of Christianity and then two paragraphs in the history of Islam. And I was like, “What? Come on now. These religions are both old.”
So, when I look at history, I am always looking at not just the moment or the thing or the fact, I’m looking at how people are responding to that fact, reacting to that fact, being marginalized or erased from that story and whose voices are sort of the loudest in that story, and trying to counteract and make sense of meaning of those things.
So, for example, with Force and Freedom, my book on Black abolitionists, I was very intentional about saying, “When I talk about the abolitionist movement, I’m talking about black people. I’m talking about the people who I see as the leaders of the movement.” Yes, there were white abolitionists, but for too long they’ve gotten way too much attention and attention in a movement that really wasn’t created, founded or for them.
So, shifting that conversation to say, “This whole story will be about Black abolitionists.” And when I write about Black abolitionists, I want the readers to assume that every person I talk about is Black, so that when I write, I would say abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, yada, yada, yada. And then I would say, white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, because I’m letting the reader know this person’s white. You assume everyone is Black.
Because I think the reader has a tendency to always assume that characters are white. And so, sort of flipping that script and being very intentional about how a reader envisions a person in their head when you’re talking about them, there has to be a level of intentionality behind that kind of writing. And so, that’s what I’ve tried to do a lot.
It’s hard to do. Sometimes I fall into my own traps or their own sort of societal traps of minimizing or marginalizing those voices or giving white people too much credit because it’s habit or because it’s what we are so used to seeing. And that’s why I have my group of friends that call me back like, “Hey, hey, you’re giving too much. You’re giving much to this right now.” I’m like, “Okay, let me reel it in. Let me re-center myself again.”
But for me, I write with Black people at the center always, with women at the center always, with the poor, with the marginalized at the center. Because if I don’t do that, I feel like if we don’t do that, their voices will never be heard.

Kate Carpenter:
You’re also an incredibly gifted public speaker, whether TEDTalk or podcast or other talks. How do you see the relationship between speaking and writing?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Man, they don’t always go hand in hand. I can tell you that. I have had some people that I have read their work and I’m like, “Oh my God, they’re brilliant, they’re genius, they’re amazing.” And then you go to hear them talk and you’re like womp-womp.
Not everyone can do both. Not everyone can sing and dance. You know what I mean? Not everyone can act, sing and dance. There are some people who are really good actors and dancing just it’s not their ministry. There are some people that can sing and dance and that’s just their gifting. There are some people that can do singing, acting, dancing, you name it, directing, whatever.
For me and this is not me trying to brag, I’ve always been verbose. I’ve always been someone that likes to speak, likes to talk. My sister and I, when we were little girls, we had our own talk show called Wake Up that we would do in the bathroom room when we were like, I don’t know, six, seven. I’d be like, “Wake up. Hi, I’m Kellie Carter Jackson.” I would do these things all the time. So for me, speaking and writing is just a part of my gifting. It’s a part of my talents. And I’m grateful for those talents.
I can’t sing, I can’t act, I can’t dance, but these are things that I can do. And everybody has things that they can do, their strengths and their weaknesses. And so I’ve always been so grateful that I can do both of those things. I think it makes me a much more effective professor and teacher in the classroom that I can get students excited about what it is that they’re reading and what it is that they’re learning.
But it’s not a talent that I think everyone has nor do I think it’s a talent that everyone has to have. There are some people that are just fantastic writers, hands down, and they’re never going to want to be in front of an audience. They’re never going to want to give the big lectures or anything like that, but their writing is still part of their gifting that matters and it’s huge. And there are some people that are just really, really good speakers.
What I care about a lot though is that I don’t just want to be someone who is a good speaker but doesn’t really have anything to say. You know what I mean? There are people that like, oh, man, they’re dynamic, they’re charismatic. What do they say? I don’t know. Is what they’re saying matters? No.
There’s some people that are just not going to bring anything to the table even though they’re charismatic. So, I don’t want to just be charm without any balance, without any substance. And so that is hard to do, but everyone has their gifts and talent.

Kate Carpenter:
In the last part of our time here, I want to talk a little bit about inspiration. Are there other writers who you look to and read as inspiration or maybe other forms of media, TV or podcasts or movies?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Yes. I love Toni Morrison. I absolutely love Toni Morrison. I know that I cannot write like Toni Morrison. I cannot. I mean, when I think about just how heavy she is, how powerful she is, I quote her a lot in We Refuse, she is just like hauntingly brilliant. I absolutely love her.
I love W.E.B du Bois. I love Frederick Douglass. I love James Baldwin. Whenever I read Douglass or du Bois or Baldwin, I am just like, “Man, these are banger after banger.” There’s so many … What, To The Slave, Is the Fourth of July, Frederick Douglass’s speech, it’s like it’s prophetic. He wrote it almost, what, 200 years ago and it still slaps. It still hits every time you read that.
When you read the Souls of Black Folks or Du Bois’s description of double consciousness, you’re like, “Oh my gosh.” So, I absolutely look to them for a lot of my inspiration, a lot of my quotes that spark other thoughts.
But I like good writing for TV too. I love a good, well-developed TV show. Lately, I’ve been loving The Bear Season 1 and Season 2. The Bear is fantastic. If you have not watched The Bear, watch it. The Bear is the only TV show that has had a Season 2 where the Season 2 for me is better than Season 1. You always have those shows that are phenomenal and then Season 2 comes out and it’s kind of like womp-womp, it will get better in Season 3 or whatever.
But The Bear Season 2 was so good, just thinking about family dynamics and people’s personalities and having to work together, that that show just stuck with me for a long time, long after I finished watching it. And then I would say maybe the things that I’m also inspired by is just art. I really, really, really love art, even art that doesn’t make sense to me. Even art that I look at, I’m like, “What is this? A three-year-old could have done this,” or whatever.
The more I talk to people who are in the art world and the more that they can explain to me and show to me why something matters or the more that I read and then can look at a piece of art and be like, “Oh, I get why that makes sense,” Art inspires me a lot. So I have a lot of art books in my home. I have a lot of art in my home. I just like pleasing visual aesthetics.

Kate Carpenter:
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
I would say the stuff I tell my students a lot is probably not good advice, but I’m always like, “D is for done.” Not because I want them to get a D or anything like that, but because I think my students at Wellesley struggle a lot with perfection and they just want their writing to be Pulitzer level. And I’m like, “No, no, writing is never perfect. You can always perfect it, always. You can always tweak a sentence. You can always change a sentence. What is important is knowing when something is done.” Really saying like, “Hey, this is good. This is good enough. This will do what it needs to do.”
And sometimes I think even really good writers get stuck because they can’t relinquish themselves from perfectionism. Even I had a hard time relinquishing We Refuse from because I’m like, “Oh man, I would have said that in another way. Oh man, I want to add one more line to this.” Especially when you look at it from a distance, you can see things that you want to add all the time.
But you have to be able to relinquish your writing. You have to be able to say, “Listen, it’s good enough. I made the point.” Is it understandable? Did I set out to do what I set out to do? Then okay, leave it alone. There will always be more opportunities to expand, to write, to build that conversation. But if you don’t get your writing out in the world, if you don’t turn your paper in, then I can’t help you.
Yeah. And I think that’s something that a lot of writers I think struggle with is releasing the project and being okay with the vulnerability that comes from putting yourself on the page and letting other people read it, judge it, critique it. You have to be okay with that. And yeah, that’s been my hardest lesson is being open to letting other people read my work. Whether it’s good, bad, or benign, you have to be open for feedback.

Kate Carpenter:
I know we talked a little bit about the friends that you rely on to read your work. Do you have a formal writing group or anything like that that you rely on to?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Yes and no. So, I have about two friends that are my core group of readers, and we’ve been doing this for years, we just swap all the time. Then I’ve had other reading groups or writing groups that I’ve been a part of where we have met for a semester or we’ve met for a season or things like that. So, I have a lot of seasonal writing groups that I sort of pop in and pop in out of.
I do try to spread my wealth around a lot because you can burn out a friend just constantly giving them work. They’ve got their own stuff to do. So, I try to give other pieces to other people to get different kinds of feedback on what it is that I am writing, whether it’s a chapter or an op-ed or things like that.
Sometimes I even try to give my writing to people that are not writers because if I feel like if it doesn’t make sense to them, then I’m not writing in a way that’s accessible enough or clear enough. But I do try to circulate it around a lot because it takes a lot for people to edit. I edit people’s stuff all the time and I’m happy to do that, but there’s some times where I’m like, “No, I really need to focus on what I’m doing. I can’t help you right now.” Or it’s going to have to wait for the week or, “Okay, I can’t read the full chapter. Can you send me 10 pages? Just tell me the paragraph you’re struggling with and I’ll get you that right now.” There’s that too.
But I think that’s also because I’m not just a writer, I’m a professor, I’m a podcaster, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m all these different things. And so, I have to create pockets for writing and pockets for rest and pockets for play, and all of that is really important. That’s why my writing groups are not always set. They rotate.

Kate Carpenter:
So, We Refuse is out now. It’s an incredible book. I think it will get a lot of attention and have you pretty busy. So, priority number one I realize right now is promoting the new book.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Thank you.

Kate Carpenter:
But before I let you go, do you want to talk at all about anything else you’re working on?

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Oh gosh. Aside from We Refuse and raising three kids that keep me really busy-

Kate Carpenter:
Those little things.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Those just little things. I feel like I am really proud of my latest book. I put a lot of myself on the page. I tell a lot of personal stories which makes me feel even more vulnerable, but I’m really proud of my family’s history and legacy and my ancestors and just what they fought for and what they were up against. And so, I have a lot of pride about We Refuse in ways that are different and deeper than Force and Freedom.
But other than that, other than promoting the book, I’m always on podcasts. This Day in Esoteric Political History brings me so much joy. Three times a week, we’re always dropping new episodes. And I’m trying to get to this next project on the Titanic and Race. I’m making slow but steady progress and that will be down the road. But for now, finding ways to make sure that my kids are healthy and happy is what I’m focusing on immediately.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, that sounds like plenty.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Yes, it is. And making sure I have rest.

Kate Carpenter:
Yes, yes.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Plenty.

Kate Carpenter:
Good. Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past and sharing so much about your writing process.

Kellie Carter Jackson:
Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Kate Carpenter:
Thank you again to Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson for joining me on Drafting the Past. You can learn more about We Refuse, the rest of Kellie’s work and everything else we talked about in the show notes at draftingthepast.com.
Thanks to you for listening and for hanging with me while I took a short break to work on my dissertation. I’ll be back soon with more episodes. Until then, remember, friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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