Salamishah Tillet discusses cultural criticism and historical healing at Poynter event
Salamishah Tillet spoke to the Yale community on Thursday, February 23rd at the Leitner House in Pierson College.
Jane Park, Contributing Photographer
Scholar and writer Salamishah Tillet grew up reading British detective novels.
While reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” Tillet said she was eager to analyze the reading and “outsmart the pace of the writer.” In 9th grade English class, she learned how to apply these close reading habits to literary criticism assignments. Tillet would go on to write Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism pieces for the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
On Thursday, Feb. 23, Tillet visited Yale for a Poynter Fellowship-sponsored event introduced and facilitated by lecturer in English and Pierson College residential tutor Margaret Spillane. Speaking with members of the Yale community, Tillet discussed her work in cultural criticism — specifically her interest in “the cultural afterlife” and retellings of African American works.
“If I’m using this idea that the detective finds a pattern and the critic pursues the pattern, [my pattern is] that the words I always choose have many different iterations and they may spark another generation to create their own response to it,” Tillet said.
In 2021, Tillet authored “In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece,” a cultural critique and analysis of Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple” and its subsequent adaptations. “The Color Purple” follows the story of Celie, a young Black girl, through the letters she addresses to God. Since its publication in 1982, the novel has received critical acclaim for its portrayal of Black queer romance and discussion of solidarity and resistance among its Black female protagonists.
Tillet discussed the series of adaptations that have followed from the initial novel, as it “becomes a movie that becomes a musical that is now becoming a movie musical.”
“What I wanted to learn is what created the possibility of the novel in the first place,” Tillet said of her research. “Why would someone come along and want to change its form? What does that change in form mean? What are the anxieties, controversies, celebrations of the new form, say about the society at the time?”
In particular, Tillet touched upon a controversial moment in Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of the novel — the kiss scene between two female characters, Shug and Celie. While Walker explores Shug and Celie’s romantic and sexual relationship in greater depth, the Spielberg film only features a singular kiss between Shug and Celie.
“[Walker] sees the film for the first time and she gets a headache, she feels like the kiss is the censor’s knife,” Tillet said. “But what was interesting for me is that the artist Mickalene Thomas, as a young girl, sees this movie with her mom. And that kiss gives her permission as a Black queer child to become an artist, but also to embrace her identity. The very thing that we can critique and say doesn’t do the [novel] justice, something like Mickalene Thomas finds so much possibility in.”
In addition to her discussion of “The Color Purple,” Tillet also spoke about her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault. Connecting her experiences to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Tillet shared her understanding of broader themes of healing within African American art — further discussed in her book, “Sites of Slavery.”
Tillet discussed the “ghost” that haunts the main character in “Beloved” through flashbacks, likening it to her own experiences dealing with trauma and its recurrences while in therapy.
“You have a whole body of literature in which African American artists are telling us that slavery is the thing that’s haunting us, these flashbacks are, in fact, the things that haunt the nation,” Tillet said.
After Tillet elaborated on her work, Professor Spillane opened the floor for audience members to ask questions. With the Q&A session making up more than half of the event, Tillet responded to multiple questions and often engaged in follow-up conversations.
Isa Dominguez ’24, who is also an opinion editor for the News, said that the format of the talk allowed her to interact with Tillet in a more casual, intimate setting.
“I’ve been to several talks, where [speakers] talk extensively about their work, so much so that there’s only some time for questions,” Dominguez said.” But what I really, really appreciate from this [talk] was exactly this format, in which we could talk about anything and everything.”
Jane Nowosadko, head of public programs at Yale Center for British Art, asked Tillet about her interest in art and the curatorial questions that Tillet engages with in her upcoming project, “Pulling Together.” Working with historian and curator Paul Farber, Tillet will co-curate an exhibition that showcases experimental monumentality and the role of public art in civic movements.
“I’m interested in how what we see in public gives us new relationships to ourselves, the histories of those places, and how it gets activated and reanimated based on what’s put there today,” Tillet said. “[Pulling Together] is the first public exhibition that’s going to be in the National Mall. It’s the 60th anniversary of the march in Washington and so we invited six artists to think about what stories remain untold in the mall.”
Currently the Henry Rutgers Professor of African American studies and creative writing at Rutgers University, Tillet has studied at institutions such as University of Pennsylvania, Brown University and Harvard University.
When Tillet was asked about her positionality as a Black woman in historically-white elite educational institutions, she reflected on how “lonely” it was as one of few Black women in privileged spaces. Specifically, Tillet referenced the “ridiculously low” composition of Black women in full professorial positions: nearly two percent. Yet, Tillet hopes to use her relative privilege to empower others.
“The higher you get into these fields, the more lonely, the rare your presence is as a Black woman,” Tillet said. “So how do you both create opportunities for other people so you’re not alone and how do you fight within those spaces to open them up immediately? As the more access and privilege you have, that’s your responsibility. You don’t want to maintain it as an elite space, that would be counterproductive. That doesn’t excite me, what excites me is changing the space [of academia] to be more open.”
This event was held in the Leitner House of Pierson College.