On America, Bob Dylan, and Superstition: An Interview with Dr. Taylor Black
I met Taylor Black in his classroom as students headed out from the day’s lesson. I went in with curiosity and a slight sense of vengeance, having tried and failed to secure a spot in his “Single American Author: Bob Dylan” course. Over the 20 minutes for which the chat lasted, our discussion ventured from American Studies to Bob Dylan, Queerness, and the paranormal. I walked away understanding why Black’s classes are so popular: not only are the subjects of his courses so unique, but the professor’s interdisciplinary focuses appeal to students across different backgrounds and fields of study. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: Can you speak about your background in English?
TB: My degree is in American Studies actually, from Rutgers. Duke doesn't have an American Studies program. But American Studies is traditionally comprised of people who do literary analysis and people who are more strictly historical in their approach. My interest in American Studies is more toward the literary. I'm interested in all novels but also in popular music mostly, these days at least. And [Bob] Dylan in particular. I do a lot of my writing about Dylan where I’m sort of treating him as a literary figure without making any concessions for him because he's writing songs as opposed to novels or stories. And then, you know, he won the Nobel Prize in literature and I felt like the universe was justifying me too by giving Dylan [this award]. So it lets me feel like I at least have the license to teach this course.
Question: On that note, could you tell me more about your Bob Dylan course, a particularly interesting offering in the English department?
TB: We move chronologically through his albums and along the way we learn about the worlds that he's living in at the time that he's writing the songs. And then also the worlds that he's imagining as he's writing the songs. He's a songwriter who is very obsessed with history, but he has a kind of superstitious approach to history. And in part because he's preoccupied with old forms of popular expression and music, he always seems to exist in some time other than the one that he said, it seems kind of like an uncanny or untimely figure.
So I try to assign readings, which help to give the students a sense of that world he's imagining to access some greater meaning for references in his songs. We do more genealogical and conceptual work than close reading of lyrics. I think a lot of kids come in here the first day and they don't know what to expect. It fills up really quickly because I understand it seems like a cool class to take. People come in thinking Dylan is great because their dad told them about Dylan and “Blowing in the Wind” and that’s their knowledge. “Blowing in the Wind” is a great song, but we focus more on the strange parts of the catalogue.
Question: I notice that you’ve published on Queer and Gender Studies and are involved in Black Studies as well. You’re currently working on a book titled Time Out of Mind: Style and the Art of Becoming. Could you talk about how these different fields of study are connected in your research?
TB: I'm always interested in style, which is a simple idea that I take as a generative idea. My idea about style is that it's a way of being yourself, but on purpose. It's the opposite of how we think of fashion. Being fashionable means that you've read the recent Vanity Fair and you know what you're supposed to wear or not wear, right? It's ways of accommodating yourself to meet the needs of some set of requirements. And style is exactly the opposite. It's understanding what you can't help but do.
My book centers around Quentin Crisp, who was born in 1908 in England and was wearing women's clothes in England in the 1930s as a young man. He always described himself saying “I was a feminine man in a country that doesn't like if feminine women.” And he decided as a form of self-protection, because he was getting beaten up or harassed in public, to take his feminine features and sort of perform them to the extreme. He started wearing nail polish or dying his hair, wearing women's clothes. People were shocked, but no one questioned him after that moment.
Question: How does that research into Queerness and style impact your teaching?
TB: I'm teaching a class next year, a graduate class, but it's a graduate 500-level class. Undergrads can take it, called “What Was Homosexuality?” And actually it has to do with my work on Quentin, where I'm trying to look at Queer figures in the 20th century who don't seem to fit into contemporary narratives about queerness. They have something about them that seems irredeemable or strange or outlying in some way. They don't fit a narrative, but they exist nonetheless.
I'm also in this paranormal working group. We're meeting tonight. I may teach something about my interest in the paranormal. I don't know how this might result in a class, but I hope that it will. There’s a bunch of us with different reasons for coming to the group. We’re looking at literary and cultural texts, which helps us to conceive of these things outside of the norm. Some people are looking for explanations for paranormal phenomenon. I'm interested in the beliefs themselves as someone who studies American culture. I understand that we have, as a culture, high sentimentality and are prone to exaggeration.
It’s no exaggeration, though, that Dr. Black’s scholarship and courses are fascinating. Students looking to study with the professor should hope for an early registration spot, as his classes fill up fast—and understandably so!