This past week, we discussed Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. While I will not and cannot speak for my peers, I will not hesitate to say that the book was an absolute tour de force. Pritchard grapples with the immense pain and hardships of those who lie outside of our heteronormative society’s “acceptable” lifestyles (particularly black people who identify as queer) with both an astute understanding of dense theory and a refreshing, unwavering optimism. While our conversation of the work was soul-stirring (a term I borrow from Rachel’s own reaction to the book), the main takeaway of our conversation was the question we closed on: Can Pritchard’s approach to literacy save lives?
Literacy’s different forms
Our discussion began with a brief exploration of what, exactly, literacy is. We reached the conclusion that traditional perceptions of literacy are outdated and inaccurate: people can be literate in all sorts of subjects and in all sorts of ways, and perhaps most importantly, just because a person is literate does not mean that they will magically be catapulted into a better life. In fact, literacy normativity, as Pritchard calls it, is “the use of literacy to create and impose normative standards and beliefs onto people whom are labeled alien or other through textscapes that are experienced as painful because they do damage or inflict harm” (28). To combat these damaging literacies, Pritchard introduces a concept he calls restorative literacies, a way of using literacy to create a space of one’s own, a refuge away from oppression where one can heal wounds and come to practice self and communal love. These spaces and literacies are not constructed in opposition to oppression, but completely outside of it, creating a space solely for those who have been hurt by literacy normativity.
Love and Revolution
Something that really stood out in Pritchard’s work and our class discussion was his focus on love—not necessarily romantic love and desire, but self care, self-worship, and communal support. While most theoretical texts come from a good place—certainly the texts we have read throughout the semester have been written with the intent of improving the lives of students, educators, and various other communities—it is refreshingly unusual to have a book like this so explicitly and unapologetically focused on self love and care.
Another term that gave power to Pritchard’s work—in fact, it’s the last word in the entire book—was revolution. Pritchard closes his book by writing, “And what this theory might do is nurture, illuminate, and enact the very self- and communal love that fuels the very literacy actions examined throughout this book. In short, a Black Queer Literacies is what I would call a revolution” (252). There are many words he could have used here, but revolution, to me, feels the most powerful. This final line feels like a true call to arms, an invitation to reject literacy normativity and encourage others to do the same to create a world where literacy does in fact live up to its traditional definition—a skill that betters the life of everyone who acquires it, not just a privileged few.
Can This Approach Save Lives?
In regard to the question I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the answer we reached as a group was yes, Pritchard’s ideas of restorative literacies, self love, and communal revolution can indeed save lives. Forgive me if I’m getting too personal here, but as we discussed this question, I was struck by an incredible wave of peace. Here we were, a small group of people with a myriad of different backgrounds, lives, interests, and goals packed around a table on a chilly Thursday night. Most of us are graduate students, not quite yet at the apex of our goals, many of us not yet immersed in the field we are drawn to. As we were discussing how we can heal and prevent damage caused by violent and oppressive literacies, how we can teach our students, our peers, our children, and ourselves, how we can construct our own worlds full of freedom and love and power—well, it certainly felt like the beginning of a revolution to me.