Roderick Ferguson navigates the intersections between race, sexuality, and social movements

Roderick Ferguson
Roderick Ferguson

Exploring discourse between feminism, race, and sexuality has been no easy feat for Roderick Ferguson, who joined the Yale Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as a professor in July.

In addition to teaching, Ferguson has spent his career analyzing the unique intersections of his fields. His work ranges from understanding the complexities surrounding revolutionary movements happening at institutions to dissecting black feminist and queer theory.

A great deal of Ferguson’s research has focused on understanding diversity initiatives on college campuses, which have sparked debate about the ways in which faculty who identify as members of minority communities are being asked to pioneer social movements that were once not inviting of their experiences, Ferguson said. “People who are making searing critiques of the exclusions of the university are now being asked to run the university. I had to ask myself, ‘What is this movement and how do I make sense of it?’” Ferguson adds. “Because I don’t know what it is. This is new territory.”

He explored the phenomenon in his second book, “The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference,” in which Ferguson posed the question, “How did the university begin to absorb critiques of race, gender, and sexuality?”

His fourth book, “We Demand: The University and Student Protests,” was Ferguson’s first endeavor to understand administrative narratives in relation to student narratives in the midst of social movements. He said he believed it was important to write a book for undergraduates, who are often at the heart of campaigns for social justice.

When deliberating how to approach his book on social movements, Ferguson considered “What would it mean to write to undergraduate audiences, especially in this moment where students are being activated. Part of the way they express their activism is by reading,” he said. “They had to see activism as an intellectual moment, so why don’t I acknowledge that?”

His research on minority difference on college campuses was a way to illuminate how cultural studies and social movements coincide, yet are constantly hindered by an institution’s willingness to coopt and inject its own objectives into a strategic initiative, said Ferguson.

Following the publication of “We Demand,” Ferguson shifted back to his research on queer critical race studies in “One Dimensional Queer.”

I discovered in the research that there was a deliberate effort to disassociate gay liberation from the anti-racist and also socialist organizations and activism,” said Ferguson, noting that queer liberation movement was not just focused on achieving justice for the LGBTQ+ community, but was a beacon of advocacy for many social injustices, which he believes history often does not acknowledge.

Continuing the conversation at Yale

This semester, Ferguson is teaching two very distinct courses in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department: “Black Feminist Theory” and “We Interrupt this Program: The Multidimensional Histories of Queer and Trans Politics”

According to Ferguson, “Black feminist theory changed how we think about basic categories, like: What is politics? What is knowledge? What is literature? What is migration? What is the law?” Ferguson explains that he wanted to present a course that said to undergraduate students: “Black feminist theory is one of the most important sites that has produced shifts in knowledge.”

We Interrupt this Program: The Multidimensional Histories of Queer and Trans Politics” takes its name from a 1991 television program, which was organized by a HIV/AIDS organization called Visual AIDs. The program was an hour-long cabaret of various individuals addressing sexual politics and HIV/AIDs. Ferguson said he “loved this as a phenomenon and artifact because it showcased, in an hour performance, the multidimensional aspects of queer liberation.” The show, he said, is a model for making the argument that political interventions in marginalized communities can take place through elements of culture — music, dance, and visual art.

Ferguson said he hopes that his students will produce their own version of the television program, and partake in conversations surrounding critical queer theory through the use of media.

Ferguson plans to pursue a new project, which will investigate how contemporary black art is in conversation with the black radical tradition. He not only wants to introduce readers to the power of black art, but familiarize them to the tenants of black radical thinkers, taking the conversation about intersectionality and interrelation to new heights.

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