UChicago scholar wins National Book Critics Circle Award

UChicago scholar wins National Book Critics Circle Award

Tina Post, assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Committee on Theater and Performance Arts, and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at UChicago

The following was published in UChicago News on April 25, 2024. 

By Sara Patterson

Asst. Prof. Tina Post’s scholarship delves into racial performativity, especially the ways that Black Americans present their racial identity. For her distinctive perspectives about blackness and expressionlessness, Post recently received the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Criticism for her first book, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression (2022). The National Book Critics Circle recognizes outstanding writing and cultivates a national conversation annually about its winners’ work.

It is unusual that scholars receive such a nationally prominent award for their first books. This award comes after Post received the Association for the Study of Arts of the Present Best Book Prize for Deadpan in December 2023.

“At the broadest level, I want to complicate how blackness is interpreted,” said Post, assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Committee on Theater and Performance Studies and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at UChicago. “Too often, the natural expressiveness of a Black person is thought of as loud, colorful, humorous and excessive. But no one is always loud, colorful, humorous and excessive. I want to emphasize different expressions of blackness, including the most circumspect expressions, in order to carve out a better, more complex space for Black aesthetic production.”

Post frequently thinks about the work of visual and performance artists, dancers, boxers and entertainers. The recently deceased performance artist, sculptor and UChicago Prof. William Pope.L showed her that performance art is more than theater.

“Pope.L’s work expands how we think about blackness,” she said. “His performance art does not pin blackness down.”

In this edited Q&A, Post discusses her hope to reach a wider audience, how she wants to expand Black scholarship, and why masks are complicated.

What makes the National Book Critics Circle Award significant for you and for your award-winning first book, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression?

The ASAP Best Book Prize was an in-the-field award from the people closest to my work. The National Book Critics Circle Award is nationally recognized and reaches a much larger audience. By extension, this award means that Deadpan will reach a wider audience.

What are you most interested in adding to Black scholarship?

In Deadpan, I discuss Black aesthetic registers. Traditionally—and for reasons—‘resistant’ registers of Black aesthetics have been interpreted through the rubrics of fugitivity or opacity. I’m interested in finding the space between those two poles of thinking into the aesthetic strategies that live between these aesthetic extremes.

Why is the mask, which is both a means of visibility and hiding the real expression of an individual, relevant to blackness in theatrical forms? How does it amplify the aesthetics of race?

In Deadpan, I’m not always talking about literal masks. For example, in a photograph, a face can become masklike. (This is according to Roland Barthes.) In this case, a mask acts as a placeholder for a larger symbol—for example ‘the slave.’ Additionally, a mask can clearly represent an emotion, which may or may not be consonant with the expression or feeling of the person behind the mask.

A mask can invite projection or misdirection. When considering masks, I think of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem “We Wear the Mask.” Its first line resonates for me: “We wear the mask that grins and lies.” Is this expression, or isn’t it?

What about experimental forms of nonfiction fascinate you?

Experimental writing can expand what blackness means, or it enlarge what’s possible. Through the expansion of formal narrative, I can push the boundaries of what we understand. Currently, I have only used the experimental form for articles, usually about dance or art.

Here is an example of my writing style in an article about dance entitled “I Will Will Against Your Way: On Black Embodiment and Poetic Discomposure” that I wrote for the ASAP Journal in January 2021. “Sorrow Swag, for example, begins with chiming, and blue atmosphere, a nebulous cloud out of which a white male body surfaces in slow motion, appearing and disappearing in the vaporous ether to ominous space-age sounds. As the soundtrack takes a more melodic turn, the body emerges—a shadow in light, a hint of form, a birthing in blue.”

Is there something that surprised you about how readers reacted to Deadpan?

In the second chapter of Deadpan, I discuss minimalism, minimalist art, and the aesthetics of the Black threat, which is getting a lot of attention.                 

For example, I discuss Brian Massumi’s assertion that “nonexistent” is an important part of what threat is—what makes threat “threat” and not say “danger.”It’s exactly the point that threat cannot instantiate that influences my willingness to connect “threat” to “blackness.” I do not mean that blackness is itself a vehicle of danger, but instead that others feel the possibility of danger and that this creates our shared reality.



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April 19, 2024