Lynn Nottage’s 2011 satirical play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark stages the life and legacy of the fictional Vera Stark, a Black maid and struggling actress during Hollywood’s golden age. Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, was inspired in part by the career of African American actress, singer, and dancer Theresa Harris. A play about Black women’s cinematic representation and social erasure, Nottage’s fabrication of film history extends beyond the staged plot to also include a digital archive documenting Vera’s celebrity and career. In this talk, Samantha N. Sheppard examines how Nottage’s play and paratexts produce a speculative fiction and archive about Black women’s media histories, staging what she calls a phantom cinema—an amalgam of real and imagined film histories that haunt, trouble, and work with and against cinema histories to creatively illuminate archival gaps in visual culture and the public imagination.
Samantha N. Sheppard is an associate professor of cinema and media studies in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. She is the author of Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen (University of California Press, 2020) and co-editor of From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry (University Press of Mississippi, 2016) and Sporting Realities: Critical Readings on the Sports Documentary (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). She has published on film and media in academic and popular venues such as Film Quarterly, The Atlantic, Flash Art International, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She was named a 2021 Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
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Sulafa Zidani 00:49
I want to introduce first of all the Colloquium for those who don’t know or who are attending for the first time. It’s a weekly event hosted at CMS as part of the grad program. So I will see our dear graduate students here today, and I just want to plug next week’s Colloquium is going to be a talk about non-binary binaries, and unreal metahuman by Eric Freedman, who’s a professor at Columbia College Chicago. Today’s speaker is Samantha Sheppard, who is an associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Department of Oerforming and Media Arts at Cornell University. She is the author of Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory Onscreen and co-editor of From Medea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry, and Sporting Realities: Critical Readings on the Sports Documentary. Professor Sheppard has published on film and media and academic and popular venues such as Film Quarterly, the Atlantic, Flash Art International, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and she was named a 2021 Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. In today’s talk, Professor Sheppard examines how Lynn Nottage’s satirical play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, and the paratexts produce a speculative fiction, that and archive about Black momen’s media history, staging what she calls a phantom cinema, an amalgam of real and imagined film histories that haunt trouble and work with and against cinema histories to creatively illuminate archival gaps of visual culture and the public imagination. Usually our talks about 50 minutes, and then we’ll have 30 minutes for q&a. So I’ll see you for q&a. And now I pass the mic to Professor Sheppard.
Samantha Sheppard 02:51
Thank you so much, I really appreciate that generous introduction, as well as it’s very kind invitation to join you all virtually. It’s wonderful to be with you, while also being separate from you. And also to speak here a part of this great colloquium series, and I wanted to say thank you, even though she’s not able to be here to Heather Hendershot for the very generous invitation in the beginning to join you all today. I am going to PowerPoint the hell out of this talk. So be ready for some visuals. So one second as we do that awkward thing where I say don’t remember how to share a screen. I’m on sabbatical. So I got real sabbatical energy here. How how do I? I really should probably just double check with Andrew before we started. Share Screen. Yeah. With all panelists.
Samantha Sheppard 03:48
Yes. Okay. Okay, let’s go to slideshow. Okay.
Samantha Sheppard 04:01
Okay, so here we go. My talk today is derived from a new book project called A Black Hole,: Phantom Cinemas and the Reimagining of Black Women’s Media Histories, which attempts to critically and creatively address the narrative voids in cinema and media scholarship about black woman’s creative presence, practices, histories, traditions and discourses. There is a critical black hole in film studies about black women in media in general. I take heart and direction from scholar and critic Michele Wallace, who suggests that the cosmic trope of the black hole, however, is useful for examining black women’s cultural production, denoting that black holes are not empty celestial spaces or phenomenon but rather dense in a cumulative spaces and walls explicitly states, quote, It is still difficult to apprehend black feminist creativity as continuous in and as a continuous incoherent discourse, because of the failure to read the gaps, the location from which black women do not speak as part of a whole spelled w h o l e and h o l e. End quote. Now, my work with my book of black hole searches for black woman’s film and media narratives and counter narratives and the glare and gaps of Film and Television scholarship, physical and digital archives and screen and stage performances. And so my talk today is as you can see, changing the subject Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark in the making a black woman’s film history. Lynn Nottage’s 2011 satirical play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark stages the life and legacy of the fictional Vera Stark, black maid and struggling actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Nottage is a two time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter who was inspired in part by the career of African American actress singer and dancer Teresa Harris, labeled the maid of Hollywood on a 1952 cover of Jet Magazine. Harris shared the screen alongside white leading ladies such as Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow and Bette Davis, in dozens of credited uncredited roles from the 1930s to the 1950s. A Tale of black women’s cinematic representation and social erasure, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark examines racism in the film industry and contemplate the concerns of black actresses like Harris, as well as others like Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, and Louise Beavers, those who were cast in stereotypical servant roles. In particular, the play explores the impact of the actresses professional choices on their personal lives and their legacies in popular culture. And her research on Harris, Nottage observes quote, for a lot of black actresses, the trail ends cold they just sort of disappeared from Hollywood and you can’t find out the trail for others is that they ended up destitute and forgotten, end quote. The play’s incidental title, By the Way, not only gestures towards these careers and live scene as an afterthought. The title also captures a figure of speech’s very meaning. It introduces a new subject into a conversation, signals to events along a journey, and suggest a methodology or process. It is in this multifaceted design that knowledge fashions her forgotten black actress from cinema historical threads, weaving a patchwork persona that is, as she notes, a composite of a lot of actresses on and off screen experiences. Inspired by their circumstances, and their stories, various tablet life and career, or the subject of knowledge is to play set in Hollywood over the course of 70 years, and imagining their life By the Way, Meet Vera Stark entwines back in myth into recombinant historical fiction about black actresses, to borrow a phrase from Miriam Petty, limited and limiting stardom in 1930s. American cinema. As I will discuss with you today, not just fabrication of film history extends beyond the stage plot to also include a digital archive, documenting their celebrity and career comprised of websites dedicated to rediscovering Vera Stark and finding Vera Stark. The websites are maintained by the play’s characters, Herb Forester and Carmen Levy-Green. Now Forrester is described as a filmmaker, entrepreneur and musician from Oakland. And Levy-Green is characterized as a stout and stylish academic, which I can obviously see the resemblances
Samantha Sheppard 08:49
and the author of a book on Vera called Hollywood Dreams. The site’s digital contents include a short documentary titled A Leading Lady in a Maid’s Uniform: A Closer Look at the Belle of New Orleans, that explores various first and career defining film. It also includes a trailer for a 1933 film for the for that 1933 film. It includes an excerpt from the documentary Lost and Found: Refinding Vera Stark, a robust filmography of 57 films that starred Vera and an excerpt from her autobiography It Rained on her Parade, as well as ephemera from her final performances, and select images and fragmented narratives about her life, her controversial career in her mysterious disappearance in 1973. And I’ll highlight these aspects in greater detail later in the talk. Not to just play in paratexts produce a speculative fiction and archive about Black women’s media histories, staging what I call a phantom cinema, an amalgam of real and imagined film histories that haunt, trouble, and work with and against cinema histories to creatively illuminate archival gaps in visual culture and the public imagination. Using a film and media studies approach to engage the transmedia play, I consider how Nottage’s film history materializes archival absences in order to make meaning of and with black women’s stunted start in Hollywood. And while I consider the play’s plot in Nottage’s phantom cinema, I closely attend to her theatrical and digital tabulation, as well as the black feminist and black film studies historic graphic metrics that undergird her creative practice. In the end, I analyze the motives and the historical consequences of knowledges extant digital archive which is Rediscovering Vera Stark, which I argue does not recover nor repair black film history through additive inventory, but calculates losses through invention. This website cum phantom cinema manifests an archival apparition that prompts consideration of lost material and material evidence documenting major and minor black figures subtracted from American cinema history and our popular memory. Also, these speculative digital artifacts offer phantasmic possibilities, where black woman’s contribution to film hot both the erasure of cinemas past and the public imagination with what could have been and what never was. As a counternarrative and shadow archive of black women’s film history. I argue that knowledge is intermediate play and transmedia paratext or a black feminist film origination and intervention that in Terri Simone Francis’s terms, quote, is responsive to the idea of black women as both consumers and producers of cultural text at the center of the specificity of film history is a figure of Vera Stark. A creative commodity, Vera’s extensive multimedia and intertextual star images given elusive form through the play’s casting obviously, but also the website’s visual paratexts. And so I want to put this character’s intervention in conversation with a positive media texts, specifically Cheryl Dunye and Zoe’s Leonard’s documentation, this fictional film, the fictional Faith, or Fae Richards in the Watermelon Woman from 1996, as well as the Richards photo archive that was created alongside as well as Turner Classic Movies short video, Teresa Harris, a forgotten and overlooked star from 2020. And doing so I want to suggest that knowledge is playing paratexts for groundless specific, textual archival and speculative strategies for historicizing and reimagining black woman’s presence and absence both on and off screen. So, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and as an aside, this is and is not about Theresa Harris, just so you know. Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark premiered on May 9, 2011, at Second Stage Theatre in New York City with film and television star Sanaa Lathan originating the eponymous role of a 28 year old budding black actress living in Hollywood in 1933. And Vera works as a maid for Gloria Mitchell, a white starlet known as America’s little sweetie pie. The audience meets both women as they rehearse a scene from the upcoming southern epic melodrama The Belle of New Orleans. Now Gloria plans to audition for the lead role of Marie, an octoroon stricken with scarlet fever, who falls in love with a white merchant who she must burn in order to protect him from the truth of her racial identity. Obviously. After reading the script for the film, Vera covets the part of the enslaved character Tilly, a minor but meaningful role that she desperately wants because the film includes slaves with lines, honey.
Samantha Sheppard 13:43
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’s biting satire about film industry stereotypes and the paradoxical nature of Black celebrity also includes Vera’s two friends and fellow aspiring Black actresses — Lottie McBride, a once-slender performer who made herself plus-sized to fit into Hollywood’s mammy ideal; and Anna Mae Simpkins, a very light-skinned Black woman who (successfully) tries to pass as a Brazilian woman to get her big movie break. You can see them in the bottom screen and see the bottom image. Now, just to give you an you crash course on the entire play. The first act, which lampoons Hollywood’s casting and marginalization of Black actresses, concludes with a farcical scene of Gloria hosting a gathering to convince Slasvick, the chief of The Belle of New Orleans’ studio Celestial Pictures, to cast her in the film. Vera, working as a maid with Lottie at the party, comically attempts to secure the role of Tilly once the film’s director Maximillian Von Oster arrives. To make the plot summary a bit quick: let’s jump to the second act begins with a projection of The Belle of New Orleans’s final scene where Tilly utters the equivocal last line of 6 the film: “Stay awake, and together we’ll face a new day.”13 To give you a sense of the film, let’s take a look at the film’s trailer.
Samantha Sheppard 15:53
As the lights go up, the audience finds itself in 2003 Hollywood at the academic colloquium “Rediscovering Vera Stark.” Facilitated by filmmaker and critic Herb Forrester, the event’s two Black panelists include Carmen Levy-Green, a professor of media and gender studies, and Afusa Assata Ejobo, a journalist, poet, and performer. The didactic Herb moderates the colloquium as the panelists passionately debate and wildly speculate about Vera’s life and career choices, in particular whether or not she was reproducing or subverting painful Black stereotypes in her career-defining role as Tilly. The play shifts between the colloquium and archival footage of Vera’s last television interview on The Brad Donovan Show in 1973—reenacted center stage. The scenes from the interview detail Vera’s dissatisfaction with how she remains tethered to the controversial slave and maid character of Tilly. Exasperated, Vera states, “But it’s funny I played the role of Tilly, a slave woman bound to her mistress, and here all of these years later and I find myself bound to Tilly, a slave woman. I wish I could shake that silly little wench out of me. But here we are nearly forty years later still… still answering questions about that picture. I’ve lived a lifetime since I made it. But Tilly… Tilly is my shame and… my glory. She birthed me into a career. Perhaps I had to play her to get to where I am. I don’t know.” During the interview, Vera is surprised to find out Donovan’s special guest is Gloria, who, unlike Vera, has had a long and celebrated career following her role as Marie in The Belle of New Orleans. Their strained and clipped exchange on the talk show underscores their complicated professional and personal relationship, leading the colloquium’s panelists to speculate about whether they were employer/employee, cousins, or even possibly lovers. In the end, the panelists debate the cinematic, social, and personal forces that shaped Vera’s truncated career. The staged archival footage is continually “paused” as the panelists discuss and attempt to recuperate Vera’s career choices. As Soyica Diggs Colbert argues, “the scholars resist the incursion of the televisual archive in their speculation about what happened to Vera, but the structure of the play (both acts end with Vera on screen) and the television footage situate the production of Vera’s identity as intimately related to filmic projection.” The play concludes with behind-the-scenes footage from filming The Belle of New Orleans’ final scene. The stage directions describe Vera as “thinking, preparing, questioning,” and the last image is a close-up of Vera’s face “on the verge…” as someone off-screen yells, “Sound. Camera. Action.”
Samantha Sheppard 18:50
That detailed plot summary of the play is to get us to think about this concept of phantom cinemas, which reconstruct, critique, revise, and create film-historical imagination and practice.
Samantha Sheppard 19:10
Now phantom cinemas are meta historical, and they are metahistorical and artistic interpretations that open up conditions of possibility for engaging Black film history and criticism, both in and as cultural production. Phantom cinemas—screened and staged—call on and intervene in cinematic pasts, presents, and futures that have been lost, overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten. They evince and conjure evidence of Black women’s presences even as they are partial, incomplete, and unable to be empirically verified. In so doing, phantom cinemas (re)shape the depictions and imaginings of Black women, specifically, in American popular culture. With her play and its iterative reproductions on stage and screen, I claim that Nottage stages a phantom cinema, a meld of factual and fictional film histories, to creatively explore Black actresses’ stunted stardom and obscured legacy in Hollywood. Nottage emplots Black film histories into a satire about Black actresses starring in subservient roles popularized in the 1930s. The play dramatizes this domestic guise—Vera works as a maid for Gloria and plays one opposite her in The Belle of New Orleans. This double act gestures towards Hollywood’s hyper-stereotyping, and Vera’s meta experiences as a maid also correlate to the material realities of masses of Black women artists in America’s Jim Crow era. While Hattie McDaniel famously quipped “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” Hollywood’s most successful Black movie actress of her time had, in fact, also been a maid in real life at one time. By positioning Vera as a real life and “reel life” maid, Nottage situates her cinematic fantasia in a materialist critique of servant/served and raced labor relations. Vera’s dual roles, like McDaniel’s as Mammy, “are layered palimpsests upon which the contradictions and fictions of identity categories have been written and rewritten” on screen and in American society. Vera as the real and reel maid disrupts singular readings of the iconicity of the servant image. Moreover, the play’s screwball tone captures the subversive ways Black maids “give lip”—biting criticism, sardonic stares, dismissive demeanor, or flippant wise-cracks—to their white female employers on and off-screen that challenge Hollywood conventions, narrative strictures, and popular memory about these archetypes as the dutiful help. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’s Hollywood simulacra not only reconstructs how mainstream cinema marginalizes Black actresses, but it also debates the discourses surrounding their films and cinematic performances. During the comically veristic colloquium dedicated to Vera’s iconic film, Herb rhetorically questions, “Why are WE still talking about it!” in a manner that resonates similar sentiments about controversial “classic” films such as Gone With the Wind. As historians Jacqueline Stewart, Miriam J. Petty, and others have demonstrated, Gone With the Wind is replete with racial stereotypes and racist tropes and yet the film “is also a valuable document of and testimony to Black performance during an era when substantial roles for Black talent were extremely rare in Hollywood films.” As Petty carefully argues, McDaniel’s signature performance as Mammy and unprecedented promotion of the film can be read as an attempt to reframe, complicate, and also refute the character’s iconographic power. Nottage’s play affirms these nuanced readings of Black actresses’ performances in stereotypical roles, with the character of Herb commenting that Vera “is at once in the role [of Tilly] and commenting on it” even as he concedes that the images are still problematic and cannot be apologized away. Vera and her inspired real-life Black film counterparts, as Petty perceptively describes, “create performances that are bounded by the strictures of American racism, yet that resonate and Signify in ways that exceed these same boundaries.” The play’s historical references and character palimpsests intersect with its Classical Hollywood-era setting and Nottage’s own cinephilia.
Samantha Sheppard 23:32
For example, the faux film The Belle of New Orleans derives its name from René Clair’s 1941 comedy The Flame of New Orleans, which co-starred Theresa Harris in a small role as a maid to Marlene Dietrich’s character. Additionally, Anna Mae/Anna Maria’s character and The Belle of New Orleans’s “passing” narrative resonates with John Stahl’s 1934 film Imitation of Life and the character of Peola, played by African American actress Fredi Washington. Along with the screwball comedic sensibility that Nottage appreciates of 1930s films, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark also engages the more audacious production moment prior to the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, using the era’s affordance of more controversial topics to script the miscegenation period picture at the center of the play’s storyline. And it’s to this point, as I previously intimated, Nottage’s inspiration for the play came from viewing Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933), a pre-Code film starring Barbara Stanwyck as seductress Lily Powers, a woman who uses her beauty and sexuality to gain success in a male dominated world. Nottage recalls being “surprised by how progressive the film was, how it showed a relationship between a black woman and a white woman that seemed somewhat authentic.” She was struck by the friendship and conspiratorial dynamic between Lily and the character Chico, played by Harris, whose magnetic and strong performance “stole the show” in Nottage’s view. Nottage recounts: The first time I saw Theresa Harris, I immediately began asking questions … Who was she? What was her life like? Where did she come from? What were her dreams, what were her desires? When I sat down to write the play, it was to answer all those questions I had, not just about Theresa Harris but about a whole generation of African-American actresses like her.” The questions Nottage posits about Harris and Black women’s historical omission underscore the play’s lasting query: “what happened to Vera Stark?” In response to this refrain, the character and colloquium facilitator Herb Forrester obliquely answers that “history is a question constantly being rephrased.” Likewise, the play and its paratexts are Nottage’s intermedia strategy of revisiting her own originary questions about Harris via the enigmatic Vera and the confabulation of a theatrical spectacle and phantom cinema. Herb’s reply-as-riddle destabilizes historical authority and fixed genealogies. History is not an answer; it is a method of seeking and an approach to the lacunae within records of Black actresses’ cinematic and lived histories. By rephrasing these and other historiographic questions—the who, what, where, when, and why— from a Black feminist perspective, a legion of new questions are generated. Invoking Harris and a “whole generation of African American actresses like her,” Nottage’s phantom cinema multiplies historical inquiries about figures at the margins, in the footnotes, and erased from Eurocentric and patriarchal film history, thereby producing alternative ways to (re)view and engage Black women’s cinematic pasts by way of speculation, interrogation, and fabulation.
Samantha Sheppard 27:22
In By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Nottage fabulates a Black film history and, thusly, transforms spectatorship into an intermedia and transmedia act of theatrical, cinematic, and archival reimagination. This process emerges from Nottage’s desire to learn more about Theresa Harris’s life and career and finding scant material evidence of her life outside of her film roles—and so, Harris’s on screen image and off-screen mystery engenders Nottage’s aesthetic reimagining of the actress through the character of Vera, a proxy for her and a host of other Black actresses whose careers and lives are forgotten or only partially documented in Black and mainstream press, creative nonfiction (i.e. memoirs, biographies, autobiographies), and personal or institutional archives. As Nottage details, “[t]he thing that always bothered me is that you’d have these very talented African American actresses who would pop in these bit roles for two minutes, literally, and disappear.” Nottage further fabulates Black women’s media histories, writing Vera “into or out of” cinema history where the fact and possibility of her life and career exists but has gone missing. She materializes a historical record that is both emblematic and spectral, silhouetting the formidability of Black actresses’ talent and interrogating the “there but not there” materiality of their archival records or lack thereof. Reimagining history and its figures from fact and fiction, Nottage “draws from the black feminist historiographical practice of troubling what qualifies as historical” by recuperating and reformulating Black women’s stories from real histories into hypothetical visual scenes and scenarios that can—to lean on Allyson Nadia Field’s phrase “stand in for a usable past.” The fact that Nottage’s search for Harris was stalled by a lack of source materials underscores the historical consequences and motivations of her creative process. Her play is not a undoing of film history with a “morass of misinformation;” rather, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark reauthorizes and sutures together accounts, memories, and myths into elliptical pasts that are oblique but telling (re)visions of cinema history. Nottage’s creative acts can best be understood within broader critical frames and historiographic methods specific to Black diasporic scholarship. Within Black feminist traditions, scholars such as Toni Cade Bambara and Paula Giddings attempt their respective “deep sightings and rescue missions” to locate “when and where” Black women enter society, discourses, and the public imagination. Nottage’s cultural production enacts this process two fold, focusing on African American women “who’ve been marginalized by circumstances and who are trying to assert their presence” on- and off-screen. Despite vastly different historical and methodological stakes, Nottage’s work is in conversation with Saidiya Hartman’s influential and rigorous advancement of speculative attempts to document captive, fugitive, and wayward Black women’s lives via her practice of critical fabulation. Hartman’s writing method innovatively attends to archival absence and violence, reading archival documents (and the lack thereof) at their constitutive limits to reimagine those African American women’s narratives excluded from or obscured by historical record. Even as Nottage—in Wallace’s terms—reads the gaps in film history as part of a w/hole, like Hartman, she practices “narrative restraint” and refuses to describe unrecoverable pasts completely to “respect black noise” that resists legibility. Through the play and its paratexts, Vera shifts in and out of focus, with more unknown than known about the film star because of narrative fragmentation. By The Way, Meet Vera Stark contemplates the life, legacy, and mystery of the fictional actress in a way that resists closure and clarity as it slips off stage into digital spaces, deepening the mysteries and otherwise (im)possibilities of charting Black film genealogies in and through archival voids. And of course, scholars of Black film history have long incorporated speculative strategies in their work to address partial archives, nonextant films, and African American moviegoing experiences. For example, in her study of Black film culture in Chicago during the silent film era, Jacqueline Stewart uses the novels The Bluest Eye and Native Son—to engage African American spectatorial experiences. According to Stewart, the descriptions of Black spectatorship in Toni Morrison and Richard Wright’s novels “open up facets of the moviegoing experience that tend to be overlooked by academic film criticism” and “offer imaginative mediations about the realms in which the academic study of spectatorship tends to become fragmented—between the analysis of ethnographic/historical ‘facts’ and (psychoanalytic) theoretical speculation.” Miriam J. Petty extends Stewart’s speculative interventions in her study of Black children’s moviegoing experiences in the 1930s, turning to first person accounts via autobiography and memoir when faced with a “dearth of pertinent primary source materials.” And, most specific to my reading of Nottage, Allyson Nadia Field examines both nonextant Black films prior to 1915 and more contemporary Black films that fabricate what she calls speculative archives of Black film history. These latter examples discussed by Field include those works produced by Black women film directors like Cheryl Dunye, whose feature The Watermelon Woman included the fictional actress Fae Richards’s archive to highlight the absence of Black lesbians in 1930s’ Hollywood, as well as Julie Dash, whose short film Illusions (1982) dramatizes the invisible labor of African Americans off-screen as executives and talent during the studio era in 1942. Field argues that both Dunye and Dash’s films model speculative approaches to archival work through manufacturing historical images and ephemera that “get at a set of concerns that are hidden by and in history.” As Field explains, both Illusions and The Watermelon Woman instructively offer Black film scholars a way to take on archival absences, the limits of evidence, the stakes of 15 visuality, and the interpretive possibilities of symbolic substitutes. In her own cinematic fabulation, Nottage’s play and paratexts invite similar considerations about the cultural practices, productions, and politics of film-historical re-imagination and its bearing on Black women’s media histories. With By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’s digital paratexts, specifically, Nottage attempts, in Hartman’s term, to “tell an impossible story” about the circumstances and contributions of Black women in American cinema, “and to amplify the impossibility of its telling” through an experimental and fragmented archive dedicated to the fictional film star.
Samantha Sheppard 34:45
Now this play is a transmedia production as I stated that includes websites, the finding they’re finding Vera Stark and rediscovering Vera Stark. These digital archives are fictions of film history that replicate familiar “lost and found” archival narratives shaping preservation practices and popular reception of Black film history, which Jacqueline Stewart goes through in her study of Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection. With Nottage’s play, the media paratexts include nonlinear visual materials and recollective histories that resemble the objects and data, as well as the authoritative form and artifice, of many archives, special collections, and digital humanities initiatives. Intended to be a storytelling tool, Nottage’s paratexts are integral to interpreting the play and, specifically, Vera’s narrative through the appeal and limits of factual evidence. Simultaneously illuminating and aestheticizing Vera’s story, these paratexts paradoxically materialize “the emptiness” of archives and cultural histories documenting major and minor Black figures in American cinema. In other words, the digital repository does not solve issues of Black actresses’ mute archival presence but, instead, it “makes archival silences even larger.” Nottage’s speculative archive exists on two web domains: www.MeetVeraStark.com and www.findingVeraStark.com. Currently, only the former domain—with the website title “Rediscovering Vera Stark” on screen—is still accessible, and is “maintained” by the character Herb Forester (who is on social media but will not accept my friend request). All jokes aside, the loss of the latter site underscores how archives, even digital ones, are “not a fathomless and timeless place in which nothing goes away,” especially if you do not renew the internet domain. The artifacts presented in the digital archive are distinctly fragmented, and the remaining collection of images, ephemera, narratives, and histories works against chronology and wholeness through disjointed snapshots of Vera’s life and career. Eschewing biographical data, the home page of “Rediscovering Vera Stark” describes the actress in declarative, speculative, and hagiographic prose: Vera Stark the actress. The singer. The lover. The civil rights activist. The maid. The housewife. The teacher. The femme fatale. The comic. The tragedienne. The murderer. The murdered. The missing. The performer. The legend. Vera Stark wore a cascade of faces on and off the silver screen and was eventually buried under their weight. Or perhaps she wasn’t. Perhaps she just needed to retreat from the limelight, to live in the shadows behind the curtain, anonymous and beyond scrutiny. With its repetitious “perhapses”, the site is designed as a “possibility…” an imaginable way to celebrate “the life of one of the greatest actresses [,]” being Stark, while also functioning as “a beacon that represents the hope that Vera Stark is still out there, alive and well and willing to tell her story.” The page requests that any viewers, or Stark herself, contact Forrester at his listed email address should they stumble onto the site. “Rediscovering Vera Stark” reconciles the task of archiving as a “search party,” where film traces, fragments, and Black subjects can be retrieved if lost and/or found. The website, like all selective, incomplete, and growing archives, is a contrived collection and collective enterprise. I want to attend to these paratextual contents a bit more closely. First, the home page includes the short documentary A Leading Lady in a Maid’s Uniform: A Closer Look at The Belle of New Orleans, created and narrated by Forrester, that examines Vera’s first film and her most famous role. The documentary is, in Alexandra Jushsz’s terms, a “productive fake” reminiscent of Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, which imitates the documentary form “to make many related claims about history: history is untrue, true history is irretrievable, and fake histories can be real.” A Leading Lady includes footage from The Belle of New Orleans that airs during the play, as well as distinguished talking heads discussing Vera and the film, including director and writer Peter Bogdanovich, Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, and film scholar and professor Mia Mask. Let’s take a look at a short clip from the 9 minute excerpt.
The bell of inception pictures it’s rocky beginnings to the studio and it starts to immortal thing essentially. But was the film in artful masterpiece or a lucky confluence of lesser talents? Three artists are widely credited with its success director Maximilian von Oster.
Stuart Dryburgh 39:51
By design, not quite. Cinematographer mo Talvin shop
style As a writer, and actress Vera stuck a leading lady in a maid’s uniform.
Mia Mask 40:09
In the early days of American cinema, black actors weren’t even casting films, it often have white actors in blackface. And so a film like Birth of a Nation comes to mind or even some of the early versions Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was no accident
that the Battle of New Orleans was produced on the cusp of the implementation of the Hays production code, which enforces certain traditional moral standards, such as banning extramarital sex and miscegenation, the mixing of the races on screen
Peter Bogdanovich 40:48
The whole idea of miscegenation and the fact that the leading character having black blood that was not something that dealt with
Stuart Dryburgh 41:01
The fact that the black or white characters mingle with quite modern sense of familiarity, again. straw that broke the camel’s back and got the code put into place.
Stuart Dryburgh 41:24
So I’m up to the present day feel there are a lot of issues and both enlightening black and white characters in the same scene. Goblins like maybe because he was Brazilian by birth, the time they came for a little background. It never seemed to him a conflict,
The Belle of New Orleans fire emerged as one of the brightest African American stars of the 20th century.
Mia Mask 41:51
She really meant the way along with actresses like waters or Louise beavers, so Trailblazer, opened the doors. For those actresses who came after her
Through the 1950s and 60s, she was an ardent civil rights activist frequently participating in the marches and using her startup pressure, the zeitgeist towards integration.
Mia Mask 42:16
At one point she sang at one of the very fancy hotels in California and tries to use the swimming pool and unfortunately created such a stir among the other white patrons saying the workers had to clean the pool and refill it
As a victim themself from discrimination in pre war Europe, directed by noster claims to understand the plight of African Americans and Jim Russia oppression from birth of human was not known as legendary as his dictatorial style. Max was very didactic go over there and stand there. Von Oster was different with Vera
Peter Bogdanovich 43:06
Vera, we would go over and whisper
Samantha Sheppard 43:13
so in this absolutely sane, historically, insane, but yet convincing parody, Vera is a cipher who shapeshifts throughout the media displayed, interviewee recollection, and scholarly framing. The website also includes navigation links dedicated to different aspects of Vera’s life and career. We’ve got a detailed filmography. We’ve also got, which includes 57 films 1933 to 1966. She’s sometimes credited and uncredited. There is a link to Vera’s autobiography, It Rained on My Parade, that contains excerpts of two disjointed passages that connect to characters in the play. Links to “Vera in Vegas” include ephemera from her two-week performance in Folies Bergère at the Hotel Tropicana in Las Vegas, reminiscent of Josephine Baker’s career turns. The revue’s program features information about the production, and an image showgirls including Vera dancing on stage. The photo, however, does not detail showgirl is Vera exactly. Elsewhere it is explained that Vera inexplicably stripped naked during her final performance and was arrested for public indecency. The site also includes a small image gallery, including a cover of Danish magazine featuring an image of a Black woman (assumed to be Vera), a photo of the cast of Lumus and Larry in which Vera starred (again, it is unclear who she is in the picture), and a photo of Vera’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. These ephemeral and incoherent artifacts give substance to Vera’s phantom form, reminding us of both the immaterial histories of Harris and other lesser known Black actresses and the often material randomness of archival collections. In fact, the digital hodgepodge undergirds the material’s veracity and import, demonstrating how sparse, stochastic, and significant archives of Black film figures are in general. Finally, the link that underscores the play’s animating question, “What happened to Vera?”, chronicles the mystery and legend of Vera following her 1973 disappearance.” In questioning the very truth of Vera’s existence, the webpage’s citation of film scholar Mia Mask’s quote from the documentary A Leading Lady both avows and disavows the paratextual artifice: I’ll let Mask just say it herself.
Mia Mask 45:42
It’s more interesting than the truth is that the question exists in the first place, right that we don’t know what happened to Europe.
Samantha Sheppard 45:51
What an odd thing. But nonetheless, she still says, “What’s more interesting than the truth is that the question exists in the first place, that we don’t know what happened to Vera.” With this quizzical paradox, Nottage’s speculative archive resists the impulse to recover and reconstitute Black film history even as it mimics and utilizes “the tools, institutions, forms, and technologies of history making” in its online repository. Instead, “Rediscovering Vera Stark” is meant to be a proposition of what could have been but never was, or what the play’s character Herb laments at the colloquium as— “Theories! Rumors! Conjecture!” As a paratextual appendage, a palimpsest wherein a phantom limb of the play’s phantom cinema is layered atop real and imagined film histories, “Rediscovering Vera Stark” is a counter-history and shadow archive addressing erasures from our collective imagination whose absences are nonetheless present and real. And to point to that reality, knowledge tells of how many theatregoers did not recognize that Vera was even fabricated, even if they had felt acquainted with the idea of her. As she recalls it, the fictional herb forester was contacted by the New York Film Academy to lecture on the actresses life which is just insane because we visit not that many black films got a you have to go to a fictional person. I hope they didn’t do it during Black History Month. But nonetheless, I digress. It was there her music. Now, this individual institutional confusion is always already racialized and informed by generic and academic ignorance and still Rediscovering Vera Starks bucket of digital archive produces and preserves a counter imaginary, a fantastic possibility filled with spectral sources and subjects produced within and against film history. And in fact, A composite of many actresses, Vera is a stand-in and body double for Black women’s acting labor in Hollywood, and yes, we’re almost done. Stay with me. Beyond Theresa Harris, Vera’s cinematic doppelgangers include unsung talents such as Nina Mae McKinney, Mildred Washington, and Butterfly McQueen. As film critic Manhola Dargis writes, Vera also represents “the other women in women’s pictures: the black cooks, nurses and maids, maids who, breaking out of the margins if only a little, joked with Mae West, fretted about Claudette Colbert and stood by white woman after white woman.” Vera’s fabricated life, career, and legacy are multi-dimensional, and necessitate an analysis of the mythos of her star image. Codifying Richard Dyer’s claim that “star images have histories,” Nottage documents Vera’s legacy in her intermedia and transmedia paratexts, echoeing creative productions that mediate Black women in/into film history, such as Cheryl Dunye and Zoe Leonard’s filmic and photographic fabrication of Fae Richards, a fictive Black lesbian actress who starred in classic Hollywood and race films. In collaborating and constructing their own phantom cinema via a diegetic documentary and the extradiegetic Fae Richards Photo Archive (1997), Leonard explains: Fae Richards is fictional, but her life is historically possible … fragments of Richards’s story were taken from the lives of Dorothy Arzner, Butterfly McQueen, Josephine Baker, and many others…Fae Richards is a star. This work started out as material for Cheryl’s film The Watermelon Woman, but the project became an artwork unto itself—I think partly because the project got so big, but also because the photographs have their own kind of logic and completeness independent from the film. Cheryl ended up only using the photographs briefly in the film, but it became clear to me that they constituted something on their own. Similarly, Nottage’s play’s media paratexts connect to the theatrical production but also constitute “something on their own” about Black actresses. Nottage, like Huey Copeland describes of Dunye and Leonard’s efforts, “attempts to ethically fabulate a history, to get at some reality that is otherwise occluded [,]” a reality that “opens up something else and gets us to a different set of possibilities that we wouldn’t have come upon if we were just hemmed in by what was available to us.” That’s kind of a really key point. I’m just not interested in what we just have. I’m interested in what we can imagine.
Samantha Sheppard 50:16
Nottage gives us Vera, a person who, as Leonard explains about her fabricated actress Fae, a person “could have lived, though even if she had we probably wouldn’t have known about her.” Nottage’s Vera makes Black women’s invisibility visible. Her digital and media archive is a “found” object of “lost” media histories. And this makes sense, because another media work Nottage created was a video titled, Lost and Found, a documentary said to be produced by the play’s character Carmen Levy-Green, Lost and Found’s contains speculative, tragic, and celebratory impulses to capture the legacy of Vera, and, and these impulses are not just examples of Nottage’s creative fiction but are endemic in popular historic interventions about marginalized Black actresses, evidenced most relevantly in Turner Classic Movies’ (TCM) Theresa Harris: A Forgotten and Overlooked Star about Vera’s real-life inspiration. Now this three minute video includes footage of Harris for a range of films along with the epigraph you may have seen her face but you but don’t know her name, I’m just gonna play it for like two seconds. So as you saw, it’s a very long video 23 minutes. The video’s final line is an overt nod to Nottage, but this acknowledgement only serves to overlay how differently TCM and the playwright render the influence and impact of their respective “lost and found” and “forgotten and overlooked” actresss and crafting a story about Harris. TCM was in a similar bind as Nottage with not much to go on about Harris besides her film roles, which are used as visuals throughout the video. TCM’s straightforward video, however, demonstrates a historical resignation (unlike Nottage’s reimagination) to the fact that Harris was statically framed within the racialized moving images and racial scripts of Hollywood. TCM’s brand of film history—much like the scholarship on Black actresses– finds its “forgotten and overlooked star” through her filmography—the fixed moving images that show talent but “no parts” for Harris despite her scene stealing in studio pictures and star-turning abilities in race films. In contrast, Nottage moves Harris to a new stage where she can inhabit a familiar, yet different, role as Vera Stark.
Samantha Sheppard 53:47
And Just as Harris could not shake the typecast roles that dominated her career, Vera struggles to move past her career defining role in The Belle of New Orleans. In the play’s archival footage from The Brad Donovan Show, Vera tries to talk about something other than her role as Tilly the maid, to which the show’s host questions if she is trying to change the subject. Vera responds, “It’s been the subject of my life for the last forty years, of course I’m trying to change the subject.” Like so many actors who were criticized for their on-screen roles, Vera—in Harris’ image and Nottage’s imagination—reminds us that Black actresses’ ambitions and histories are more than their on-screen images, even if those visages are all we are left to contemplate. In these instances, historicizing and recreating their careers for critical and creative purposes requires “changing the subject” in more ways than one. And the player does exactly that. It changes the subject of Black actresses in what could be too easily concluded as a recuperative and reparative act of historical reimagination. I caution against reading Nottage’s phantom cinema in romantic terms even as it advances heartening Black feminist and film historiographic methods of finding Black women where there was none /where they always were. Phantom cinemas are disquieting, and Nottage’s stage play—is a ghost story—and her digital media paratexts—are an archival apparition—that collectively “trouble” our vision of film history more than it clarifies it. In the end, we are not really closer to Harris’s “true” film history but we are–in Vera’s shadow—haunted by Harris’s actual absence from it and our popular memory. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and other Black feminist cinematic imaginaries take shape in (but do not actually fill) the lacunae by (re)making film history. This creative/creation process relies on the inability and refusal to tell a whole story of cinema’s pasts, necessitating both an historically grounded and experimental approach to material and immaterial Black film archives. In tandem, these inventive and resourceful efforts reinforce the historiographic method suggested by the play’s character Herb Forrester on his website “Rediscovering Vera Stark.” In questioning both what happened to Vera and if we are asking the wrong questions in general about the truth behind her disappearance, orrester writes: “Perhaps we can sift some truth out of the rumor mill’s detritus.” The incomplete, fragmented, material, and immaterial debris of unverified and creative histories are, by the way, rife with use and value—facts and fantasies about Black women’s cinematic pasts. Changing the subject of dominant film histories to be about Black women requires and inspires historians, playwrights, scholars, and audiences to excavate, experiment, innovate, and reimagine their lives, cinemas, and archives in stark new ways.
Samantha Sheppard 57:01
Thank you, I will be taking questions and I can imagine you’re giving me this amount of […] energy response. I’ll I’ll stop looping, because it’ll just keep going because
Samantha Sheppard 57:11
she’s really into it. Let me stop sharing.
Sulafa Zidani 57:20
I really love ending on the on that give, you know, if we were in person, that’s exactly what it what the room would have looked like. So really happy to end on that note. Thank you so much for that. Fascinating talk professorship. Oh, it’s definitely got me thinking about a lot of stuff. But I want to sort of extend microphone to students, and attendees, if anybody has any questions.
Sulafa Zidani 57:58
Go ahead, Ambar.
Ámbar Reyes 58:00
Hi, Samantha, thank you so much for your wonderful talk. I have a question actually, about your research, and how you move from what I understand that you were researching on sparks and blackness and how you move? Or why did you decide to move to cinema, women and blackness?
Samantha Sheppard 58:22
So it’s a great question. I mean, I think it’s kind of important to reframe that. So my training is in cinema and media studies. So I’m, I’m not a Sports Studies scholar, I am a person who is interested in and media and sports films is very under theorized. And particularly I’m interested in blackness. So that’s, that’s the larger umbrella frame of all of my work. And so it manifests in sports films, in one way, and then as I was re approaching, and granted, I have to know because that talks about sports all the time. And so a healthy ambivalence has created a problem. But, but now that has sort of shifted because I’m trying to think about sort of questions that animated. Interestingly enough, that a chapter in the sports film book about black women, sports films, and their bodies started off with an engagement with Michele Wallace, his idea of a black hole. I thought, this is really something she’s like, there are no sports films, etc. Like, there’s no like, you know, gotta read the gaps. And I was like, second describe really a lot of things. Because that’s what it’s not even meant to be describing these films. And so it’s, it’s a fun and now, great connection I get to make which is, if you look at that chapter you use that’s the opening really, the opening idea becomes the little liberal book title of this work that is much more invested in questions of Black Women’s Media history a question of archive Like many folks taking a speculative turn, and, and also trying to engage with disrupting the idea of having to recreate chronologies to get at genealogies. And I think that’s, that’s something that this work is trying to do. So thank you. Yeah. Also, like, you know, you learned a lot of things, you just stations, one thing, but you get tired of that you have a lot of things to talk about.
Sulafa Zidani 1:00:33
Srushti Kamat 1:00:35
Hi, thank you for being here. And for that lovely talk, really appreciate it. Um, my question is actually about how you create boundaries and the process of like viewing some of this work that can possibly be traumatizing or cause distress within you as a person. It’s something that I think, in dealing with really complex histories and film history being so inherently racist, like, how do you take care of yourself, essentially, because I think we don’t talk about that enough in academia.
Samantha Sheppard 1:01:04
This is a really good question. I will say, I also going to gravitate to things that I like, did but despite the fact that I also don’t really care for this play, I don’t, I did not find it to be that enjoyable to watch. But I gravitate to things that I also find much more interesting. In fact, the sports film stuff taught me because all of those are just like stories of racism, like they become overcome, like use use for the winning basket, and like racism, assault, but like, you were first like, you know, beat down by oppression. So, which is to I really tried to pick objects that I am, that bring me joy. And to some degree, I really like talking about these, these paratexts, I just sort of came across I, I saw this play on a date. And I was like, it was okay, she knows what it was. But wasn’t all that. But I mean, I did marry that man. So it’s fine. But like, so I saw the play. I was like, it was okay. But then I was, I was like, I really want, I started writing about something else I wrote about Lesley Harris’s attempt to fund her second film via Kickstarter. And it failed. And I was like, There’s something here about all of these black women ideas that I’m just like, trying to navigate. And then when I came back to this, I said, oh, there’s an entire website full of full of fake histories. I am so invested here. So that’s eight. So it’s not answering partially your question, which is that I kind of just picked things that I find really, really joyful. But also, I, I think in reading all the other stuff that I find less like, all of these great black feminists, so many of them have passed away from the academy, like, literally tried to kill you. So also trying to honor that, like, all of this great knowledge exists, like all of it, like we have to write these stories. And so I am in a very, very, very good group of people who are very edifying to the work that I do. And I also it is my month if I get through with them, I just don’t like dealing white nonsense when I don’t have to. And I and, oh, I now have I basically can’t watch any dramas. I live a light comedy life. Thank you every element like I basically cannot engage with, like, I get that I think you may have seen it, but like, this is my face because you know, zoom. And I work to do so like I’m happy to be here. No, no, no, I’m fine. But at the end of the day, I basically have to overly temper in, in enjoy, to, to function as a human in this world. Which means I just wish you all love and enjoy and good comedy and seven seasons in a movie. I love I wish there was a heart function or mouse dragging me out of this world. It’s great. I love it.
Sulafa Zidani 1:04:16
This is awesome. Yeah, I was looking for the reaction to and I’ve learned this year to embrace like trashy reality TV, which I’ve never been super into before. I don’t feel like that’s been a form of like, self care of sorts, or like just trying to rebalance. Yeah, the hard work that can be can take a lot of emotional toll with something that’s like, light and that I’m not super invested in.
Samantha Sheppard 1:04:50
Yeah, I also I mean, because it’s not to keep answering the same same question so sorry. But yeah, like I will do this work. It happens less than my work because I take my work to certain places, it happens really, mostly, maybe you will see this as, as educated me doing teaching, I’m teaching intro to African American cinema. It’s like, it’s the history of racism and also like resistance. But it’s difficult, like you just kind of keep going through, you’re like, okay, oh, we get to the groundbreaking film called do the right thing. Yeah, we get to the Raisin in the Sun. It’s like, you’re really in a happy story, like, rain did a thing, but it is not that kind of, you know, it’s, we go, it’s just like the 20s and 30s. We’re just talking about all this stuff that’s happening in the world. So it’s really telling them to, to feel their feelings, but also to like, laugh, like, just really, if something is funny, that is absolutely just to fill it with Yeah, with laughter. But I find teaching to be the most, because you got to show the stuff. But it’s really, really can be really, really harmful.
Sulafa Zidani 1:06:05
Emily Grandjean 1:06:07
Thank you, Dr. Shepherd. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your work with us. My question is just if you can share a little bit about what future work you’re thinking of are already working on. And whether it continues along some of these same lines or themes.
Samantha Sheppard 1:06:24
Perfect. Yeah, no, this is so this is part of a book. And this is technically part of the introduction. I know, it just it became this sort of like a huge as introduction that is trying to explain phantom cinemas through this example. And then it goes in nine different or maybe six chapter directions. So like I said, I’m interested in doing a history of women of the of reimagining Women’s Media histories by Re engaging black woman’s media histories, but, but not in a chronology. Like there’ll be no, and this person came first and this person came for and next. But I’m, while still attending to like peer review and meeting a chapter that kind of does the work of in search of our, you know, of our mother cinemas kind of situation. So that’s just like a, this is a big book project. This is part of the academy. This is a project that I pitched for them. So I’ll have to finish that sometime. And I plan on it. Technically, I will finish parts of it written like this, like part of the intro and the part on Lesley Harris has a whole section on speculative archives that are all digital. So what do we do with the Kickstarter and Indiegogo is and like what they have, like fully conceptualized idea, what do we do with the spec script? What do we do with all of these? Like is the idea that like, oh, there are no black women medium blue that was like, we haven’t like creating stuff. It’s just like it’s not out there. But it’s out there. It has been it’s been narrative eyes and different, smaller and imagined in a range of ways. So I want to account for that.
Sulafa Zidani 1:08:12
I think Professor Sheppard’s screen is frozen. Let’s give her a moment. Oh, you’re back. I bet your screen was frozen for a bit. So we missed like the last maybe?
Samantha Sheppard 1:08:36
People that bag a little bit. So we’ll just drop that one off somewhere. But it’s a it’s different chapters. It’s a piece on collections and collectivities. So thinking about the formidable city of black woman, film and video makers, which is the book which everybody if you’re going to teach black women filmmakers, you have that book. It’s a huge collection. And things like the collectivities of like the new negros Film Society that exists like what are the connection between these. And technically, despite my general ambivalence about sports, I am contractually obligated, unfortunately, to write a book on called the basketball film a cultural and transmedia history, which was due last year. So I’m working on that. Soon, due soon, the version of this talk will be in feminist media histories. And yeah, and I had just, yeah, yeah, I’m just doing you know how you all just do like little random things like that chapter on documentary films. And so how you got roped into that? It just you get it after a while you first think Well, I have opportunities and you say I don’t want any more opportunities. Make me like let’s stop. Cuz I’m booked to 2023. The future is the The future is bleak. In terms of, I just want to not, I don’t know, if it’s still recording, I do want to work. But I want to break. So so I’m working on two books, a book on basketball, and this women’s media histories book, and teaching and trying to figure out all the fun things that we want our life and legacy to be and develop new courses and, and be in conversation and support younger scholars, which is a great way for me to right now do a little plug for JCMs. If any of you are ever interested in publishing in a journal to them and media studies, we have a great publishing initiative. So please feel free to also reach out to me and check out the website at WWLP. Dot put it in Google because enough key terms you got it?
Sulafa Zidani 1:10:45
And you said you’re sabbatical. So I see you have a very relaxing sabbatical plan.
Samantha Sheppard 1:10:50
Yes. I going to I’m gonna write one of those books, hopefully, eye basketball
Sulafa Zidani 1:10:58
book, on women on black women in basketball specifically, or
Samantha Sheppard 1:11:03
No, just the basketball film as a film and media as a genre. So the history relationship in the history of the sport, and the media around the sport. So
Sulafa Zidani 1:11:14
I mean, honestly, that sounds really cool.
Samantha Sheppard 1:11:16
It’s Yes, I mean, I Yeah, it’ll be it’ll be something it’s gonna come together. i It’s like a good idea a couple years ago. Now, but it’ll be fun. Because there’s a great series. It’s part of a screening and support series. And there’s a book on the boxing film and a book on the baseball films. And it does a really great job of building out the different changes that happen in terms of technologies, culture, and the sport itself, and how that shifts our understanding of the media that’s created, but also our understanding of the sport itself. And as a person who didn’t even make JV basketball, I feel well suited to get to that.
Sulafa Zidani 1:12:02
Okay, we have time for a couple or maybe even a few more questions.
Sulafa Zidani 1:12:16
As folks are kind of maybe thinking about things, I really feel like the talk was fascinating and touched upon, like so many different disciplines and so many different subfields. And I want to hear you talk more about all of them. But specifically, I want to ask you about like the archive and sort of how what your conception of the archive is kind of the relationship of this piece to the archive, like, you know, I think the archive itself can be a place that is sort of determined by dominant culture, in this case, probably white culture and white American history. And so how are you kind of conceiving of the archive?
Samantha Sheppard 1:12:59
Really great question. I mean, part of this has been a trying to engage with what I even mean by the term. So like, you know, you go back and you read your archive fever, you also read your Deus by you know, Carol Steedman. And I was actually reading this different book by Jenny Sharpe called immaterial archives, about African diasporic poet poetics, which I felt was the most that I that I really felt was what I was trying to get at, which is, of course, it’s for some people it in a physical space, it’s a special collection that has particular policies, but I think, in reading Steedman and, and also reading sharp is, is really trying to think about the way in which the way in which it’s really this sort of contrived collective space. And the things themselves are also highly constructed for us as both meaningful and also as material, which is why I really was interested in the idea of fabricating digital material proof, especially in the digital age of needing this kind of evidence, I thought enough just to say she existed, you can literally go and see images that are supposed to relate to her, and then we could print out or save the webpage and see this, you can watch the video essay, which is now its own form of, you know, sort of documentary proof. And so for me, thinking about the archive, particularly when it comes to black film figures, is like is to play with the critique that I think it was best done and ensure donees the Watermelon Woman when they go over to the clit archive, and they’re like, where is black lesbians? And she’s like, Oh, well, we have some photos over here and a box on the side like it’s where we see these, these histories are so not memorialized. So if I take that as a conceit, not saying that I don’t think that archival practices are key, I’m in love with Jacqueline’s do which work. I’m in love with Miriam Petty’s work. I’m in love with Nadia fields work out in love with a lot of the folks coming up who are doing really strong archival work like, oh my god, Haley was your last name right now is that come to me, but who’s at Iowa, people who are going and in doing all this archival work, I am with you in spirit part time. Just Kids can be inside a building for too long. And I feel that because I think that there’s so much important, but if I am just concerned by what exists for people who were not meant to exist, like not meant to really be manifested, that I think it’s it’s not the work of a black feminist practice, which is about producing the form of power that will bring you freedom. So that means sometimes also fabricating those things, fabricating material histories, what if I take the assumption that she was there? What if I say Vera is Harris, but not obviously not Harris, the things we know about Harris to be summed in what we find really in the black press, about her talking about her relationship to an industry that we already understand to be racist and to be sexist. So is that the most meaningful part of her when we don’t mind getting 95 different versions of what was Marilyn Monroe’s inner thought? What did she have in a biscuit? Like, I want to just imagine she didn’t eat biscuits? Right? Like, what if we just took that as the I find that to be useful? So archive itself is also something that we that we must we must make, and therefore it highlights all these issues that we have of the archives. And then when it gets to digital humanities, I should initiatives, which is all about we must digitize, we must digitize must preserve? What does it mean to preserve a reimagination? What does it mean to me to hold on to this, I finally checked the domain name for this website is good for five more years. But nonetheless, I was you know, copy, paste, save, save, save, let me create these free grabs, because lord knows when this book will be done. But because it can be gone. But this existed, this entire fabrication existed. So Vera Stark, the actress, the legend, the comedian, the murder, the murderous was real in a way. And I think that’s really important, we think about digital archives, more so than physical space archives. And I think it’s important to think about immaterial archive, which is that to materialize as a kind of immateriality. Like, I can print this out, but I’m never going to hold that paper because it’s not real anyways. So what does that mean, about our understanding of the past? Which is that, like, it’s gone, maybe it’s just golf, like, but it’s also present. So I’m really interested in the play between those things. And yeah, but I’m definitely interested in fabrication and all the things that we can take from Hartman while also realizing that Hartman has a very different
Samantha Sheppard 1:17:53
ethical and historical project at stake. Very different claims we’re making. But we’re, but we’re all invested in the work that Hartman is inspired by which is Bambara and Giddings and all the people who have gone back and said, where do we exist? Where did we exist? And how do we amplify that existence?
Sulafa Zidani 1:18:21
That’s very powerful. Thank you. We’ve got time for one more question. Or amusing? A comment?
Samantha Sheppard 1:18:36
Yes, these are shoes, little shoes on? Yes. That’s what we were all wondering. So wherever I go people substance with a look. Or any general question or any pitch is no pressure. It’s like to hear even hear it. After hours. It’s nice enough.
Sulafa Zidani 1:19:06
Well, we really appreciate you giving us some of your time and sharing, you know, the spoiler alert of the book to come. Definitely going to be waiting for that. So no pressure, no pressure.
Samantha Sheppard 1:19:18
All right. You keep living piece by piece slowly exist in the world. Yeah.
Sulafa Zidani 1:19:30
Well, if there aren’t any more questions, then join me in a virtual thank you to Professor Shepherd.
Samantha Sheppard 1:19:37
Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you for attending. Thank you for your questions, and I hope everyone is finding sustained and at the very least sufficient Joy during these very, very, very difficult times. And that your work is hopefully very meaningful to you, that you’re that you’re moving along and that we Wait for it eagerly
Mia Mask 1:20:03
Sulafa Zidani 1:20:03
you thank you so much thank you of course bye