Joshua Bennett


On his book Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man

Cover Interview of July 29, 2020

The wide angle

My book elaborates upon the ongoing, centuries-long reality of anti-blackness as a structure of feeling; the recent ecological turn in black studies as an inter-institutional, intracommunal response to the fact of white supremacy as an environmental catastrophe; and the indomitable truth of black freedom struggle in the face of unthinkable devastation. It is a book about how we love each other. It is a book about the astonishing breadth of the each other at the end of that last sentence. And thus, the depth of our love. It asserts that our dead are always with us. In that sense and others, it is also a book for my grandmother, Charlotte, who passed at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and her mother before her. The same woman who prayed for her grandchildren’s children in a South Bronx tenement, speaking words over the life of a boy she would never meet in the flesh. I live and breathe in the wake of her words flung to heaven. When I sit down to write, I aspire toward the power of her conviction and her meditative tenacity.

The professional path that led me to the book was being raised by black people that loved black people, and who taught me from a young age to believe that our stories were worth telling. Our tradition worth studying. Our people worth language lovely enough to approach, if only at a distance, the transcendent joy that is made possible when we are gathered together. I was trained as an undergraduate in an Africana Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. As an eighteen-year old, I understood the program—now a department—as first and foremost a haven for black students trying to make it through the institution with varying levels of success. This, of course, was a pivotal moment in my development as a writer and thinker. The habits of study we learned were inextricable from a commitment to taking care of the most vulnerable among us. We were taught the mission and methods of black studies so that we might better understand the truth of the world and how we might improve it, no matter our professional trajectories or individual dreams. My time as a graduate student at Princeton, and as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard after that, only concretized my sense that the power of black studies was in its capacity to enhance our social and political imaginations in this way. I learned who I was in the order of things, and my sense of what was possible only grew from there. Additionally, through the generous mentorship of Saidiya Hartman, Gregory Pardlo, Imani Perry, Josef Sorett and others, I came to understand myself as someone who did not have to relinquish my sensibilities as a poet to become a literary scholar, but could instead embrace the language, the liveness, of black poetry to enhance my approach to the lifelong work of literary theory.