Interview By Tia Williams
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights Dr. Kaila Story, radio host and associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville. Dr. Story also holds the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality Studies at the university.
ELIXHER: Tell us about Kaila.
KAILA: I’m 34 years old and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I moved from Ann Arbor to Chicago, Illinois to attend DePaul University, where I earned my BA in Women’s and Gender Studies. I then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend Temple University, where I earned my MA and PhD in African American Studies, as well as a graduate certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. In 2007, I landed my first job as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville and was tenured in 2013.
ELIXHER: What drew you to academia? When did you know this was the path you were chosen to walk?
KAILA: It was definitely my father who motivated me to become an academic. Both of my parents wanted me to be whatever I wanted, but I saw how much my dad loved teaching and mentoring young students of color at the University of Michigan and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. He showed me through his own work how knowledge has the ability to transform.
ELIXHER: What is “Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture and Black Gay Life”? Was the name inspired by Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”?
KAILA: “Strange Fruit” was a weekly podcast of musings on politics, pop culture, and Black gay life. It operated as a podcast for two years and now we are finally on the radio! We air on WFPL (89.3) right after Tavis Smiley’s show and I couldn’t be more elated about it! If readers miss any airings of the show, all show can found on the WFPL website (wfpl.org) or Strange Fruit’s website (strangefruitpod.org).
The name partly came from the Billie Holiday song in terms of both [“Strange Fruit” co-host] Jai and I being Black people who live in the South, and partly because both of us are queer and a little “fruity.” So the name of the show sort of operates as a double entendre.
ELIXHER: Tell us about an elder that has touched your life.
KAILA: When I was completing my bachelors degree in Women’s & Gender Studies at DePaul University, I was introduced to Black feminist theory and praxis through the teaching and activism of my mentor, Dr. Ann Russo. Through Ann’s mentorship and my study of Black Feminist Theory, I understood that: 1. Knowledge was both formal (academic) and 2. Knowledge was experiential (lived). I wanted to make sure that when I reached my scholarly goal of becoming a professor that my teachings, writings, activism, and life reflected the overwhelming truth that knowledge can truly effect social change. Ann taught me this and she has had a huge influence on my life in the academy.
ELIXHER: You’ve been asked to be a guest on Huffington Post Live many times now. How does it feel to have the work you’re doing recognized and acknowledged on such a platform?
KAILA: It feels fantastic. I could have never imagined being on HuffPost at anytime in my academic career, and to have now been on there at least five times or so feels absolutely extraordinary.
ELIXHER: How does Kaila practice self-care?
KAILA: I have begun to say “no” to many things in order to preserve my sanity, fatigue, and over all emotional, physical, and spiritual help. When I say “no” to talks and/or workshops, I am usually resting and/or working out, which keeps me in tune with my physical body. The physical body is something we as academics often times don’t pay attention to because “of the work.” Audre Lorde said long ago: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” If I give myself the room to be the best me, the world will be rewarded.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
KAILA: [Laughs.] I think the biggest misconception people have had of me over the years is that I am an elitist and/or intellectual snob. I am really down to earth. I am an educator, but this is something I chose to do because I absolutely love knowing things and I want to share this passion with others. At the end of the day though, I am like everyone else. I want to live happy and free, and I am. I am.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
KAILA: Wow. There are so many things that make me proud to be both Black and queer. First, I would say our historical legacy of knowledge decimation and activism. From Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin to Audre Lorde and Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill, to contemporary folks like StaceyAnn Chin and E. Patrick Johnson, Black queer folks stand on the shoulders of those extraordinary folks who paved the way for you, me, us.
Second, I would say the improvisational and innovative nature of the Black queer community makes me proud. From drag balls to pageants and drag shows, from Black queer speak to embodied expressions of self, Black queer folks have a way of being free that goes beyond the freedom most of us imagine for ourselves.
Lastly, I would say that Black queer folks, and being a part of the Black queer community, have helped me examine myself. Examine myself in such a way that getting to know myself and celebrating myself is part and parcel of that ideological freedom that we all seek.
ELIXHER: What’s upcoming for Kaila?
KAILA: So many exciting things are approaching! My first edited collection, “Patricia Hill Collins: Reconceiving Motherhood,” will be out soon. I was invited to do the anthology by Demeter Press a couple of years ago, and I am super excited that it will be out soon. The volume houses several essays that engage Hill Collins’ pedagogical, theoretical, and paradigmatic work. There is also an interview with Hill Collins and me about her Black feminist work. For those who are interested in purchasing the volume, please visit the Demter Press website: demeterpress.org.
There are also several exciting conferences coming up that I am attending in November — one in L.A. and the other in Puerto Rico. And the most exciting thing happening soon for me is my upcoming sabbatical that I am taking this Spring 2015 semester. During sabbatical, I will be able to fully engage with my research, which becomes hard at times when one is always teaching and traveling.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.