At the Table – A conversation with Allison Janae Hamilton and Joan Morgan
In conjunction with Waters of a Lower Register, award winning feminist author, cultural critic, journalist and current Program Director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at the NYU Institute of African American Affairs, Dr. Joan Morgan interviewed long-time friend Allison Janae Hamilton.The following is an excerpt from their conversation, edited for length.
Watch here or read the complete transcript here.
DR. JOAN MORGAN: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with Allison Janae Hamilton. To confess, Al and I have deep decade long roots. We were part of the same cohort at NYU. So we’ve watched each other’s work develop and change drastically, in many ways, for a long time. Al, that complicates things because things that seem fairly simple to other people, for me, are actually far more complicated when it comes to you. This is a perfectly sane question from Creative Time, but I’m going to ask you to complicate it because I think it’s much broader than what might appear to the eye. How did you arrive at Waters of a Lower Register? I want you to answer that in the obvious way, and then I really want to take it back to your commitment and ongoing fascination and advocacy for the rural South.
ALLISON JANAE HAMILTON: Creative Time allowed me to put together a work that put resonance toward this particular year. I’m always looking at landscape, but I chose to lead in a more heart-centered way allowing myself to have a more emotional experience. I went out, like I always do, and gathered images from my area. I chose to spend the quarantine and the pandemic down here [in North Florida] with my family. I started looking at the images as emotional snapshots almost and threaded them together that way. So there are moments in the film where you feel like you’re drowning and there are moments in the film where you feel like you’re flying. There are moments that are so chaotic.
Here in the gulf region, we were getting beat up by these hurricanes. Even in the last few years, we’ve had a lot more storms than usual. A lot of the facilities in the areas are not as stable as they have been. The communities that are already vulnerable are dealing with COVID, the health and economic fallouts from the pandemic, and the traumatizing images daily on the news of people who look like us, look like me, getting murdered by state sanctioned violence. It was just a lot. So I put all of that into the film, collaging and taking everything in and putting it all together. That’s why I chose to do the multiple channels. I really wanted for the viewer to be dropped in the middle of this moment in a way that I felt like I was kind of in the middle of everything.
We use these words, and it’s hard to understand what they mean. Like the word “urban” really just means city. It means things about the city and the concerns of the city. But really, that word in our common connotation of it means Black. My family is mostly in the rural area, and my cousins are in what people would call Trump country. They’re Black but they’re not urban. They actually live in rural areas. So it’s this erasure that I find that happens where we’re looking at a Black American experience through a narrow lens a lot of the time.
JM: I think one of the most moving moments for me in the presentation was seeing the installation against the backdrop of New York City at night. We are in a moment of multiple crises – the pandemic, climate change. When we think through things like structural racism and inequality, we often leave the land out of the equation. Can you talk about the consequences of that and the costs of not dealing with geography?
AJH: That’s the question that I explore in this lifetime of work I have ahead of me. The main thing that is missed when landscape is ignored is the story of people. The land is so much a part of my experience growing up, part of the experience of my family, and part of the Black American experience as well. For example, after the end of slavery, after reconstruction, state by state there was the Black question. Where are we going to put these people? And in state after state, the land that folks were put on was often the worst land. For hundreds of years you farm the soil and then you’re pushed to parts that cannot be farmed. Now, the southeast coast — Georgia, South Carolina — is like prime beachfront property, and people are constantly moving here.
In an urban context, we talk about gentrification. We’re very familiar, very intimately aware of what’s happening. New York City is a perfect example. We have the ability to look at a picture of the same block and see how it changes over time. Well, there’s a counterpart to that down here. It’s called St. Simon’s. It’s called parts of the Louisiana coast. It’s called Alligator Point. You see the history of these shifts, these migrations, these forced migrations, economic forced migrations. Putting New York City right there with this rural landscape, to me, shows how these crises are not just in communication but they’re part of the same experience, part of the same longer story.
JM: You and I have spoken about the nation’s tendency to ignore rural America and certainly what that has meant from Trump’s election in 2016 to now. In terms of Blackness and Black America, rural populations and the way of life and culture and thinking is often either erased or ignored. Can you talk about that?
AJH: That’s been part of the conversation in this discourse a lot. Okay, we’ve ignored these rural voters. But Black folks live in the rural areas too. You’ve also ignored the Black folks, the Indigenous folks, the artists that are in the rural spaces too. At the beginning of 2016 and even during this most recent campaign, I saw a lot of my progressive friends with these memes cutting off the southeast United States and letting us slide into the ocean. I look at those and I’m just kind of like wow, that is really a kind of privilege.
For the past six weeks, since the November election, all eyes are on Georgia and thank you Black women in Georgia, thank you, Stacey Abrams. But you all wanted to slide us into the river. Even during the democratic primary that just passed, I remember people saying, why are we even looking at a state like South Carolina? So it’s interesting the way these ideas of southern-ness and ideology are digested and re-imaged in certain spaces where the voter that was considered a low-information voter is now, at least until January 5th, the prize of the party. So to me, it does speak to a disconnect between ideas of the region and the reality of people’s lives. What are we looking at and why? Who are we ignoring?
JM: I was looking at Florida Water. Florida water is used in ceremony. It’s used as a cleanser. It’s used as a purifier. It’s used to draw the sweet things in and repel the negative things out. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you title things?
AJH: Thank you for catching that. I think you’re the first person in conversation who’s caught that. I’m looking at a very southern Black experience, at least mine. I’m connecting to the diaspora. Hoodoo is like the cousin to all these other systems. When it comes to the American experience, people think, oh, Black Americans, we left everything on the other side of the ocean. Everyone else, Caribbeans, they retained but because we’re in America, we’re not part of the diaspora. But the way that I grew up, things that my aunt, my grandmother passed down have been passed down throughout my lineage. I grew up in the Black Baptist church. People are falling out, in trance, all that stuff. That’s not church of England stuff. There’s like a surplus that’s beyond straight Christianity. I’m growing up watching people dancing at funerals, passing out, dancing. That is completely connected to the rest of the diaspora and somehow there’s an idea that Black Americans didn’t retain anything. That just couldn’t be further from the truth.
JM: As a practitioner of traditional West African based religion, land is so important. There’s a real problem with urbanization and gentrification if I can’t access a river or I can’t get freely to the ocean. It actually impedes my ability to pray and do the things that I need to do. I think that COVID has brought that into sharper relief in many ways. I think about the mass exodus by the elites in the city to their houses out in the Hamptons. Everyone’s gone to their crib in upstate New York to get closer to the land. It is this idea of having a space to escape to and cultivate, regardless of what you actually have on it. The land has become so prized. I have to bring it back to your piece because it’s rooted in water. I think someone told me that water is about to be traded on the market as a commodity. Your piece conveys such a sense of water and freedom. So what are you thinking about water these days?
AJH: So much. The folks here just beat back Nestle. They were trying to come to our area and at least for now they’ve been held off. Going back to the spiritual, water is healing. And you can drown in it. It’s terrifying. What was once a peaceful moment is now a dangerous moment. There’s so much to water that is mercurial and inconsistent and uncontrollable. And yet, it’s also a source of peace. It’s also a source of spirituality and ritual. It’s also something that everyone doesn’t have access to equally. It’s such a metaphor for so many different parts of life, past and present, that I keep coming back to it. I always come back to the power and presence of water as part of the landscape.
Joan Morgan, Director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at the NYU Institute of African American Affairs
Joan Morgan, Ph.D. is an award winning feminist author, cultural critic, and journalist. A groundbreaking writer and scholar of Black culture, Morgan is the author of several award winning books including When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down (1999)—in which she coined the term “hip-hop feminism” and She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (2018). She has taught classes as a visiting professor at Duke University, Vanderbilt University, Stanford University, and the New School. Morgan is currently the Program Director of the Center for Black Visual Culture at the NYU Institute of African American Affairs, which works to expand scholarship and criticism on global imagery focusing on and produced by Black people.
Morgan received a B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1987, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University in 2020. She is a recipient of the 2015 Woodrow Wilson Women’s Studies Dissertation Fellowship, the 2015 Penfield Fellowship, and the 2016 American Award.