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Ava Purkiss

Interview by undergraduate student Alexis Miettien (2020). Major: History and Political Science.

Ava Purkiss, 2018-19 Charles P. Brauer Faculty Fellow
Marvene Constance Jones, Eating for Health: Food Facts and Recipes for Pleasant Eating and Better Health (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1947).

Can you tell us a little more about the project you’re working on this year?

I am writing a book on the history of black women’s exercise—the first historical project on this topic. I am examining how African American women in the 20th century used exercise to show both how they were literally fit for citizenship—strong, healthy, physically capable—and simultaneously figuratively fit for citizenship: responsible, moral, not lazy, self-sacrificing, patriotic. So I am looking at the ways in which physical fitness and civic fitness went hand in hand for black women in the 20th century.

Why did you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?

This topic interests me because it challenges certain ideas we have about black people and black women in particular, like “black people don’t like outdoor sports” or “black women embrace bigger bodies” or that “black women like being fat.” Or, most obviously, that black women don’t participate in exercise and they never have. Those are all really pernicious presumptions that bother me and I have an ideological axe to grind with them. So using exercise as the central analytic opens up a conversation about those pernicious ideas about black women and their bodies.

What have you discovered in your research? What are some of the key takeaways?

The most surprising thing I have discovered in my research is that black women harbored fatphobia and participated in fat-shaming in the early-20th century. When I first started this project, I assumed that health would be the only motivator for black women to participate in exercise because, in the early 20th century, black women experienced high rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, tuberculosis, and infectious diseases. But during my research, I also found that black women used very alarming language to encourage themselves and others to exercise. They describe fat women as lazy, sluggish, ugly, abnormal—and those are cited in primary sources. There is a culture of fat-hating there. So a key take-away from this 20th century exercise culture is that black people and black women are not immune from fat-shaming and that fat disdain functioned as a way for black women to challenge these racist ideas about black women’s “excessive bodies.” Because, if they are contesting fatness, they are kind of distancing themselves from it. That is a big takeaway: it is not fat-shaming for fat-shaming’s sake. There is a political underbelly to it.

How does being in this environment with other fellows drive your project? What is one thing you’ve learned from another fellow?

Not everybody is doing historical work at the institute but many of us, in indirect and direct ways, are wrestling with the past by either trying to make sense of the past, trying to understand how history is produced with archival material, or using the past to understand our contemporary moment. Many of us are using interdisciplinary methods in the humanities to do this. So the way that helps me is that it gives me ideas on how to approach my work and it makes me aware of some of the gaps in my own research. For instance, yesterday I attended a workshop on Japanese American incarceration in the West. This is something I would never get to read or think about if I wasn’t at the institute. I was at this workshop and I thought about why we do not know more about this history. It is because the kinds of common-sense materials we would use to understand Japanese American incarceration don’t exist in a neat archive—certain historical actors have created a particular kind of archive of internment to blur all the machinations of incarceration. So I was reminded that history is created in a particular kind of way and that pushed me to think about the same issue in my work. Who has created the archive of black women’s exercise? I have these great sources and I think, “Oh, I have all the materials in the world,” but none of my materials are objective. Somebody, particularly middle-class black people, created that archive for me. So that is something that I am pushed to think about and contend with as a faculty fellow at the institute.

What is one choice you’re glad you made during your undergrad?

When I was an undergraduate student, I majored in psychology. So when I started my history PhD I felt alone and alienated because everybody either was a history major in undergrad or had a history master’s degree before starting the PhD. I felt like I was not cut out for the history PhD program because my colleagues had language that I didn’t have. But I’m really glad that I majored in the social sciences as an undergraduate because psychology allowed me to see myself as doing empirical work. Historians and other humanists observe phenomena; we think critically about these observations, analyze them, and then we write about them. I am really glad I have a background in empirical methods because it makes me a better historian. Ultimately, I did a psychology bachelor’s degree, a master’s in Africana Studies, and a PhD in history and now I’m an American culture and women’s studies professor. I have quite a multidisciplinary education and I think that makes me a better student of the past.

What advice would you give to undergraduates?

The advice I would give undergraduates is to do your reading! Particularly in your humanities courses. I am not just saying that out of the frustration professors feel when we try to conduct class and only a few students have done the reading for the day. It is not just about that, but every time students don’t do the reading, they are missing out on a chance at compounded learning. In a similar way that interest compounds and builds on itself, doing close reading builds upon previous close readings and so on and so forth. It produces exponential intellectual benefits. Every time students go into class and haven’t read, they miss out on building a critical skill set that enables them to understand complex ideas and phenomena. I remember reading Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as a junior in an English class. I remember being in my dorm room and reading something to the effect of “slavery is horrible but it is especially bad for the slave girl.” That was the moment I started to think about what intersectionality is. Until that point, my ideas about slavery were very male-centered, focused on Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and Gabriel Prosser, etc. But in that moment in my dorm room when I read that line, I started to think about what it means to be a girl or woman in slavery and what overlapping oppressions look like. I went into class the next day with those thoughts in mind. I built on that, then built some more, and so on. I might have missed that compounded intersectional knowledge if I didn’t do the reading.

Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?

Because the humanities give you language. I don’t have anything really profound to say about that because everyone has heard this since elementary school. But language is power—the ability to express yourself in a way that is clear, precise, and thoughtful is empowering. There are all these moments throughout our lives where we need language to express complex emotions and observations, and some people have more ability, and in turn more power, by mastering language. I am not saying that the hard sciences don’t do that or can’t do that, but in terms of the day to day human experience, the humanities give you the language, and the analysis, to navigate that sphere.