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Wellesley Writes It: Dr. Crystal M. Fleming

In case you missed it, I am back editing for Wellesley Underground as their Wellesley Writes It editor. Check out my first piece since taking over the series: an interview with Dr. Crystal M. Fleming, Wellesley ’04 and author of How To Be Less Stupid About Race.

Here’s the beginning of the interview:

Crystal Marie Fleming, PhD, is a writer and sociologist who researches racism in the United States and abroad. She earned degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and is associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University. Fleming writes about race, sexuality, and politics for publications including The RootBlack Agenda ReportVoxand Everyday Feminism, among others, and she has tens of thousands of followers on social media. She is the author ofResurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, which was published by Temple University Press in 2017, and How To Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, which was published this past fall by Beacon Press. Dr. Fleming is also writing a children’s book Rise Up! How You Can Join the Fight Against Racism, to be published by Henry Holt in fall 2020.

Wellesley Underground Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Shelly Anand, and Wellesley Underground’s Wellesley Writes It Series Editor, E.B. Bartels, had the opportunity to speak with Crystal about her new book, her evolving education around race and racism at Wellesley and Harvard, and her thoughts on the state of race and racism in the U.S., France, and the world.

Crystal: Thank you so much for taking the time to check out my book and to feature it on Wellesley Underground.

Shelly: We saw people talking about it on Twitter and both E.B. and I had a chance to read it over the holidays.

Crystal: Thank you for reading it!

E.B.: Of course! I am always excited to read a book by a fellow Wellesley alum.

Shelly: We were both interested in hearing about your process for how this book came about and when you realized that you wanted to write it. How did you make this book become a reality? What sparked the idea of I need to write a book about how people need to be less stupid about race?

Crystal: The short version is after the 2016 election I was feeling a lot of things: disbelief, despair, and anger, but also really motivated to write a book for the general public. My first book, Resurrecting Slavery, was an academic book, which was based on my dissertation. That came out in 2017. And while I was really happy with that professional milestone, I didn’t want to restrict my writing to a small group of academic specialists. So, I wanted to write something for a broader audience but I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. Then, finally, the idea for How to Be Less Stupid About Race crystallized in the aftermath of the 2016 election. As you can tell from the title, it was really about me being fed up with a lot of the racial ignorance I saw across the political spectrum. After I came up with the title and the pitch, I found a literary agent (Michael Bourret of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret), wrote a chapter that spring, and then really completed the bulk of the writing between summer 2017 and early 2018.

Shelly: E.B. and I loved the book’s blend of your personal experiences, pop cultural references, and citations to academic works in sociology and critical race theory. How did you find the balance in what voice to use, as both an academic and a younger black woman on social media?

Crystal: That’s a good question.  I would say that blogging and social media really helped me bring together the academic topics with language that could, hopefully, reach more people. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to write clearly about my scholarly work and interests on social media, where millions of people have read my writing over the years. I wanted to write beyond an academic context so my blog was a space for me to reactivate my creative writing and to share some of my thinking in public and that was very different from strictly academic manuscripts. Once I started writing on my blog, and then eventually on Twitter, I developed a new way of distilling and explaining really complex ideas.

The great thing with social media is that people will tell you what they think about what you are writing. Sometimes folks will ask you: “What do you mean by that?” That helps with that distilling and clarifying. I started getting feedback from people and what I found was that a lot of people understood what I was saying, which was pretty reassuring.

Academics usually don’t receive any special training for writing in an accessible manner, so it took me a long time to develop that skill and find my own voice.  I really wish graduate schools and doctoral programs included more opportunities to learn to write clearly so that academics can broaden our teaching and impact, but instead we typically learn to write with a lot of jargon.

Go to Wellesley Underground for the complete conversation!

P.S. If you enjoy this conversation with Dr. Fleming and you live in the Boston area, be sure to come to her talk at Framingham State University at 4:30pm on Monday, February 4, 2019! I will be there!

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