Confronting History

Assistant Professor of English Salamishah Tillet helps music stars John Legend and The Roots create a window to the past.
July 1, 2012
When Salamishah Tillet befriended fellow student and now-popular R&B artist John Legend while studying at Penn, she couldn’t have known that one day she’d be writing the liner notes for his and the successful Philadelphia hip-hop crew The Roots’ collaborative Grammy Award-winning album, Wake Up! Now an Assistant Professor of English, Tillet’s involvement in the arts goes far beyond personal enjoyment. She is on a quest to examine African-American artists’ take on the sensitive topic of America’s history of slavery.

“John and The Roots were inspired by all the positive energy surrounding the election of Obama,” says Tillet. “Instead of just writing original material, they went back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and covered songs that were really political at the time, famous ones like “Wake Up, Everybody” that were really radical. I appreciated what they were trying to do with the album and I offered up my services. I’ve always been a fan of liner notes—a dying art!”

Tillet accompanied the artists to the studio, went to concerts and interviewed them. Harnessing her experience with the original songs and then their renditions, she created a story of the kind of themes the artists were trying to convey on the album. “It all ties in to the importance of the ways in which the past gets reanimated in the present and what we can do with that. Whether it’s slavery or whether it’s the 1960s political songs, my writing explores the relation between the past and the present in order for us to make a better future.”

Tillet’s new book, Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination, reinforces that mission. She became fascinated with the ebb and flow of African-American artists’ willingness to confront themes of slavery, and the impetus behind starting—or avoiding—conversations about it. She found that, surprisingly, artists from the post-civil rights era were addressing the issue where many of their predecessors remained silent.

“I was really interested in why there were so many African-American novels on slavery starting in the late 1960s, because for most of the 20th century, African-American writers didn’t really think about or write about slavery specifically,” says Tillet. “All of a sudden there was this boom in cultural representations of slavery. It begs the question, why is there a reemergence of slavery in African-American art when in the larger culture when there is a kind of national amnesia—no slavery museums and no national holiday celebrating emancipation?”

"It begs the question, why is there a reemergence of slavery in African-American art when in the larger culture when there is a kind of national amnesia?" - Salamishah Tillet

Tillet says this imbalance began after the civil rights movement, when African-Americans were faced with the challenge of reconciling newly acquired legal rights with that of national identity. This inner debate remains in flux, she says. “Barack Obama is a perfect example. Here you have the first African-American president, the most powerful position in the world, but at the same time people are questioning his birth origins. That’s the contradiction of both being a citizen, but also people questioning whether you’re really a member of society. In the book, I call this ‘civic estrangement’ and argue that many African Americans feel like they partially belong to America—that these narratives of slavery are ways of addressing that paradox.”

Tillet also serves as president of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, an organization that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to help combat violence against girls and women. Her next project will explore legendary performer Nina Simone’s significance in American culture, including her influence on hip-hop. “So many hip hop artists feature her music—everyone from Lauryn Hill to Kanye West—so I wanted to ask why,” Tillet says. “The book itself will look at her career and the politics behind it—the set of choices she made, as well as how she’s influenced later generations.”