Professor of history Premilla Nadasen’s childhood dinner table discussions did not focus on feminism, social justice activism, or history, but she spent decades teaching and advocating for justice and equity nonetheless.
"From the time I was young, I think I had a gut sense about injustice, but I didn’t have a language for it,” Nadasen said. “As a child, I never called myself an activist or a feminist."
In a ceremony on January 14, the professor of history was honored with the inaugural Ann Snitow Prize. According the organization’s website, the $10,000 award “recognizes a feminist of outstanding vision, originality, generosity, and effectiveness, whose work combines intellectual and/or artistic pursuits with feminist and social justice activism.”
— Ann Snitow Prize (@AnnSnitowPrize) December 15, 2020
Nadasen said that being recognized as “the first” for her scholarship simply means that she is continuing to build upon groundwork that was laid before. “Recognizing ‘the first’ can be an important temporal marker but it sometimes erases or minimizes what came before. One of the guiding principles of my work has been uplifting collective rather than individual achievement,” Nadasen explained.” When we do recognize individual contributions, I believe we have to see them as part of a broader constellation of actions and ideas. As a historian, I write about how historical agents and campaigns build upon what came before. I am also cognizant of that in terms of my own work. I stand on the shoulders of feminists of color who created space in the academy, the socially engaged scholarship and teaching of others, and the political movements of the women I write about.”
The author of four books (most recently, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement) and numerous scholarly articles, Nadasen has been a Barnard faculty member since 2013. She is also a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, serves on the scholarly advisory committee of the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History, and was president of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) from 2018 to 2020.
Watch her February 2020 talk at the Wolf Humanities Center, below:
Born in apartheid South Africa to immigrant parents who moved to the States when she was a child, Nadasen experienced a memorable turning point at age 17 when a visiting family friend told her about being tortured and imprisoned for years on Robben Island — with Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners — for donating $25 to a “subversive organization.”
“The next day, I went to the bank and withdrew all the money that I had saved from my part-time jobs at J.C. Penney and Pizza Hut and donated it to his organization,” Nadasen recalled. “I invited him to speak at my high school. Out of that came the first organization I ever started — an anti-apartheid group at my high school.”
Later that year, as a first-year at the University of Michigan, the 18-year-old Nadasen joined her student body’s sit-in to pressure their school to divest from South Africa as long as it practiced systemic racism. Having lived on two continents where racism and sexism are ever present, Nadasen’s dedication to racial, gender, and social equity is personal and greatly important to her work as an educator. In 2018, she launched Mississippi Semester and traveled to Biloxi with students to work directly with the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative (MLICCI) — an organization that advocates for low-income working parents to have access to affordable child care in the state.
Courses like Mississippi Semester, in which my students and I partnered with the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, are the most gratifying because I was able to create a model of collaboration.
This year, Nadasen will continue to offer students hands-on academic experiences by partnering with Damayan Migrants Workers Association, which she calls “a remarkable worker-led Filipino organization that has been on the front lines of advocating for and organizing trafficked workers in New York City.” She continued, “At the height of the pandemic last April, Damayan provided material support to hundreds of its members. This semester, my students will be working with them to conduct interviews to assess how the pandemic has impacted this community.”
Below, Nadasen reflects on her inspiring journey and scholarship through activism and what she sees as the necessary next steps.
Did you live in a home where activism or history was often discussed?
I was born in South Africa and came to the U.S. as a child. We moved around a lot. I lived in Bloomington, Indiana; in the D.C. metro area; and in suburban Detroit. My father was a student for much of my childhood, and my mother worked in a factory. We didn’t discuss either history or activism. I knew very few people who were activists. So my stumbling into organizing at the age of 17 came as a bit of a surprise. I was deeply involved in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. In my first year at the University of Michigan, our student organization, the Free South Africa Coordinating Committee, had a sit-in in the administration building to demand that the university divest from companies doing business in South Africa. There were a lot of journalists and television cameras covering the protest. I was deathly afraid my parents would see me on the nightly news. Later that night someone sent us 10 pizzas. Turns out it was my father. He had seen me on TV. I later learned about his own involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. When he attended Fort Hare University in the 1950s, he was part of the movement to resist the implementation of apartheid laws. It was not something he had previously spoken about.
What inspired your research journey into history and advocacy?
There were several threads of my experience that informed my scholarly interests. Race and racism were always front and center in my childhood. There were kids who quite stupidly asked if I had lived in a jungle in Africa or who made fun of the Indian food I ate. My brother was stopped or picked up by the cops several times for no reason, including once when he was taken to the police station and questioned for several hours when he was 11 or 12 years old. Poverty was also a reality. We had very little money when I was growing up, so I was always conscious, and embarrassed, about the markers of poverty — whether it was the clothes I wore or having to pull out my card for the free school lunch program. I also grew up in a traditional patriarchal immigrant household, so sexism was also ever present. From the time I was young, I think I had a gut sense about injustice, but I didn’t have a language for it. As a child, I never called myself an activist or a feminist.
Why is it important to bridge academic and activist work by making scholarship accessible to people outside of academia?
A guiding question for me has been: Why does my academic work matter? I entered academia because I had a passion for and commitment to social change. I was interested in social movements, the agency of ordinary people, and what I could do to uplift their stories. I wanted to understand what we could learn from them and to make my work relevant to organizers, which required using accessible language.
Entering a Ph.D. program at Columbia in 1990, [the turn to postmodernism] was difficult. While theory has a lot to teach us in terms of critical inquiry and can be an invaluable tool for social transformation, we need to find ways to translate that theory in order to dismantle, rather than reinforce, the barriers between those inside and outside the academy. Bridging that divide is more important than ever in a context of growing economic inequality, unhinged racial violence, and deepening political polarization.
We need a more expansive definition of theory. One thing I learned from my research on African American women on welfare and domestic workers is that through their organizing they developed insightful critiques of the welfare system, immigration law, and labor policy. In my scholarship, I have centered their labors, their analysis, and their intellectual contributions. They were what [Antonio Francesco] Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.” Thinking critically about theory raises questions about how we define and value knowledge. Which voices matter? Whose ideas are worthy of discussion? And how do race, class, gender, and other structures of power and inequality influence that determination?
Part of what my experience as an organizer cultivated in me was a commitment to the collective. Courses like Mississippi Semester, in which my students and I partnered with the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, are the most gratifying because I was able to create a model of collaboration. The students and I worked together to develop an index of women’s economic security in Mississippi to assist the organization with their lobbying efforts. By centering expertise and the mission of the organization, I sought to break down the hierarchy within the classroom and between academics and community members.
We have to ask how we can use our research skills, framework of critical inquiry, and intellectual capacity to understand this moment.
What does it mean to you to become the inaugural recipient of the Ann Snitow Prize, especially during a year when national protests over racial injustice were front and center?
There are so many parallels and cross-currents between the economic crisis and the racial crisis — neither of which are new but are long-standing and have deep roots in our nation’s history. Perhaps most important is the perceived disposability of some people and lack of value attached to their lives. Black people are disproportionately represented among care and essential workers and thus are more likely to experience multiple forms of violence. Breonna Taylor is just one example of that. She was a front-line worker who was brazenly killed by police who saw a Black woman and clearly made an unjust and inaccurate assessment that cost her life — not that police murder is ever justified. As tragic as the Breonna Taylor case is, the problem, of course, is not a single individual but the systemic nature of deadly racialized violence by cops and white vigilantes.
The prisons, jails, and detention centers where COVID-19 rates are astronomical is another example of systemic disregard for Black and Brown lives. Alongside that, we have to examine structural inequities of healthcare, housing, public assistance, education, low wages, and environmental devastation that has led to more vulnerabilities and higher death rates for people of color. Many essential workers are living in poverty even as they are putting their lives on the line to ensure that others are taken care of. That is unconscionable.
Have you changed your teaching methods or subject matter as a result of everything that’s happened in 2020?
Although many of us are craving a return to normalcy, I think we have to immerse ourselves in the moment and confront the multiple crises head on. We are living through historic times. It is a moment of disruption. As I know from my study of history, moments of disruption can lead in many different directions. But each of us has a role in shaping how things unfold. It is not a time to be immobile. We have to ask how we can use our research skills, framework of critical inquiry, and intellectual capacity to understand this moment.
The question of what is happening and what we ought to be doing is front and center for students. Last semester I taught a course called COVID-19 and Care Work, in which my students conducted oral histories with front-line care and essential workers.
Rather than creating a façade of normalcy, the students were more interested in taking a deep dive into understanding the challenges, hopes, trauma, and resilience of essential workers [and in] understanding how the hero narrative subsumed the very real concerns about safety, PPE, workers’ rights, and justice more broadly. I think they ended the semester more sure of themselves and how they wanted to move forward.
What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
I just completed a two-year term as president of the National Women’s Studies Association, so I had a very full plate. I will continue to do collaborative and community work but also want to write. I am hoping to devote more time to thinking about pedagogy and community engagement and may write something about that. But I also expect to make progress on my biography of Miriam Makeba, the South African performer and activist. She was an incredible figure who played a critical role in cultural resistance, the transnational Black power movement, and the struggle to end apartheid.