Sins Invalid Interview: Terry Rowden

by kris bishop on February 9, 2010

Rowden coverSins Invalid’s Leroy Moore recently interviewed Terry Rowden, an Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York, Staten Island. Terry is the author of The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness and coeditor of Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: As a Black professor and author teaching and writing on topics of popular culture, transnational cinema and philosophy, do you have a personal connection to what you teach and write about? Please give some background on why you teach and write on subjects that you do.

Terry Rowden: My interest in disability emerged primarily from within my teaching and research interests in African American and queer literature once I began to realize that all marginalized social identities reproduce to some extent the dynamics of disability as both a social construct and a lived condition. Disability has a special force as a means of rewriting normalizing narratives because it occurs across all social groups and categories. My overall project as a scholar is to reveal that abnormality is really just a political construct used to ground social hierarchies. For instance, all people who live into advanced old age, simply for that reason alone, will eventually experience some lessening of physical functioning significant enough to remove them

from the privileged space of normality and necessitate some type of social accommodation. Normalization is the watchword for conventional social politics and, as the word itself implies, disability is one of the most obvious forms of abnormality.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: As a Black professor and author teaching and writing on topics of popular culture, transnational cinema and philosophy, do you have a personal connection to what you teach and write about? Please give some background on why you teach and write on subjects that you do.

Terry Rowden: My interest in disability emerged primarily from within my teaching and research interests in African American and queer literature once I began to realize that all marginalized social identities reproduce to some extent the dynamics of disability as both a social construct and a lived condition. Disability has a special force as a means of rewriting normalizing narratives because it occurs across all social groups and categories. My overall project as a scholar is to reveal that abnormality is really just a political construct used to ground social hierarchies. For instance, all people who live into advanced old age, simply for that reason alone, will eventually experience some lessening of physical functioning significant enough to remove them from the privileged space of normality and necessitate some type of social accommodation. Normalization is the watchword for conventional social politics and, as the word itself implies, disability is one of the most obvious forms of abnormality.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: In your work and in your book, The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness, I see a lot of parallels with disability and the work of Sins Invalid. Can you elaborate on these parallels?

Terry Rowden: My work relates to the work of Sins Invalid primarily because of my commitment to the celebration of difference and to revealing the difficulties that difference can create. In ways that I like to believe are congruent with the important work of Sins Invalid, I try to reveal in The Songs of Blind Folk the ways in which popular culture and performance can be particularly dynamic sites for the project of bringing often mystified and misunderstood differences into the light and rewriting the negative scripts that have positioned those differences as either substandard and unworthy of positive recognition or as evidence of miraculous transcendence of mundane realities.

I try to help my students understand that people who occupy marginalized positions must accept their conditions whatever they may be before they can celebrate them or present them as deserving of celebration or even just respect by the very people who may be consciously or unconsciously committed to either denigrating or condescendingly “tolerating” those differences.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: We are both music historians, and in The Songs of Blind Folk, you touch on the invisibility of Black blind female Blues artists. Can you expand on this for our readers?

Terry Rowden: As I wrote in The Songs of Blind Folk, the fact that blind and other disabled women were perceived as being particularly vulnerable made and continues to make the image of a blind woman on stage an uncomfortable one for audiences that have been much more willing to accepted disabled male performers. One of the things that I would like to do at some point is to more closely consider the career of Diane Schuur, the one blind female musician to achieve significant popular success. Over the course of a decades-long career that overlapped with those of superstar blind performers like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ronnie Milsap, Schuur’s sporadic periods of real visibility as a jazz singer and musician have reinforced my sense that regardless of the form, blind female performers are alienating for audiences in ways that blind men simply are not.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: From your essays, The Songs of Blind Folk, and your upcoming book, Difference and Desire in African American Popular Music, 1890-1940, it seems to me that you are critiquing popular images of people who were oppressed and lacked the avenues to tell their stories, including African Americans who have more than one identity, such as those who are gay, lesbian, transgender and/or disabled. Is that correct and if so, how does it fit in to your goals as a writer?

Terry Rowden: That’s true. I believe that all types of oppression are interconnected. The play between visible physical disabilities and invisible differences like sexual preference, cognitive disabilities, and the disabling force of present or past states of incarceration is central to my work as a cultural critic.  Central to the marginalization and abuse of any group of people is some narrative that positions them as not just “different” but also as lesser and, more often than not, as unnatural. A major part of the work of progressive cultural critique is resurrecting or constructing counter-narratives that can delegitimate the standard narratives that do that negative work.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: In the abstract of your upcoming book you wrote “Although increasing amounts of work is being done on the sexual and gender dynamics of black women’s expressivity in blues culture, less work has been done on early black popular music as a specifically sexed and gendered phenomenon from male and transgendered perspectives.”  Why do you think that is so, and has the research process for your books been frustrated by of this lack of information?

Terry Rowden: Actually the information and material is there in droves. It’s just been a question of accessing it and revealing why it is relevant and what it has to teach us. Because most of the influential early writers on the blues and jazz were white heterosexual men, there was a tendency to either ignore queer performers or normalize them. Some writers like Gunther Schuller and Paul Oliver were so committed to establishing the manhood of jazz and blues performers that their work, while progressive and laudable in many respects, was woefully deficient in actually presenting a well-rounded picture of the social world that gave rise to these performers and to the real dynamics of their lives and music. When one revisits the body of musical work from that period, the number of songs that reference homosexual desire and/or transgendered identities is startling given how few of these songs have been considered and circulated as significant cultural documents.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: We are very interested in your essay, “A Play of Abstractions: Race, Sexuality, and Community in James Baldwin’s Another Country.” Why did you pick this story to critique and what was your conclusion?

Terry Rowden: Another Country was really the first Baldwin novel in which he tried to present a picture of social difference in which American racial and sexual minorities were in dialogue with each other. The fact that Rufus, the bisexual black man, is presented as being irrecoverably alien to the image of modernity that the author develops in the novel is troubling and reflects anxieties about black male homosexuality that I don’t think Baldwin ever quite overcame or reconciled with his self-chosen identity as a spokesman for black America.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: You recently showed the class you teach some of Sins Invalid’s video work. What were the some of your students’ reactions to it?

Terry Rowden: I showed your video “Forbidden Acts” and a range of Sins Invalid videos in class and then directed my students to the Sins Invalid website for a follow-up discussion. Over the course of the two discussions some of the students were obviously taken further outside of their comfort zones than I expected. Their reactions made it clear to me, and more positively to many of them as well, that when it came to physical difference and especially to the sexuality of the physically impaired, they were conservative and even prejudiced in ways of which they weren’t aware. Fortunately, the discussions also suggested that their responses were often the results of surprise and lack of familiarity rather than deep-seated resistance to the issues that Sins Invalid’s work brings to light. After the initial shocks, the aesthetic beauty of the performances often served as their way of entering into a dialogue with the cultural politics.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: When I was told about your book, The Songs of Blind Folk, I was thinking, “Finally, African American and Disability studies are coming together!” As a professor who is Black and not disabled, do you see that coming together happening more now in academia? And as an ally of the disability community, how do you see your role in this happening?

Terry Rowden: As an ally of the disability community, I see my role as to make sure that as disability studies becomes a more legitimated academic space, the particular issues of people of color and sexual minorities will be recognized within that discourse. It is important to make it clear that disabilities are not just conditions that some people have. They are conditions that have different ontological, cultural, and political specificities and histories. Organizing my teaching and research around those differences is my way of crafting a disability studies perspective that will, hopefully, avoid the sentimentalism and homogenizations that have bedeviled much identity based research and pedagogy.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: This is a question that I ask many writers/activists, both in and outside the walls of academia. How can we break down these walls to make a highway of learning, publishing and shaping the next generation using a combination of street knowledge and paper credentials?

Terry Rowden: As cultural studies and engaged forms of scholarship become more accepted as valid forms of work in the humanities, I think many of these walls will fall under the weight of their own obsolescence. This interview itself is, I believe, a sign that this is happening.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: What are your next projects and will they include a focus on disability?

Terry Rowden: In addition to the book on sexuality and gender in early black popular music, I’m working on a book on the use of pornographic narrative structures and images in African American men’s fiction.

Leroy of Sins Invalid: Any last words?

Terry Rowden: I’m grateful to you and Sins Invalid for the opportunity to discuss these issues and for the interest that you have shown in my work.

Original Interview posted on sinsinvalid.org on Febreuary 3rd, 2010.

About the Book 

"How America has constructed the figure of the visually impaired black performer over the last 150 years."

184 pgs. 13 B&W photographs. (2009)

Paper: 978-0-472-05064-2, $22.95
Cloth: 978-0-472-07064-0, $65.00

  • Interesting interview with an amazing person. Sounds like a groundbreaking book.

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