This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2020 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 30th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
As a JCY Scholar, first-generation student and Posse Scholar Lorna Closeil ’20 (Everett, Massachusetts) explored the ways that black mothering and prison abolition serve as necessary practices toward ensuring black futurity.
“I centered the digital maternal activism of black feminist prison abolitionists within the movements #FreeBlackMamas and #Moms4Housing to demonstrate the ways that black women are utilizing social media platforms to teach us what it will take and what we will need to live in just and equitable futures,” Closeil explained.
This research revealed to Closeil just how important the black radical tradition is for contemporary black resistant struggles and anti-violence movements.
“Because we know that our ancestors resisted, imagined and worked toward better futures for us all—that we are reaping the benefits of the worlds that they dreamt about—we are empowered with the knowledge that we can do the same for ourselves, and for those who come after us,” she said. “For example, #FreeBlackMamas is a movement that bails black mothers out of jail and reunites them with their families on Mother’s Day. It is because we know that formerly enslaved African people bought the freedom of their loved ones, that we can buy the freedom of those within the criminal punishment system.”
Closeil became inspired about this topic after reading the essay “Man Child: A Black Feminist Lesbian Response,” by Audre Lorde, where she argues that the goal of black mothers should be to teach their children to love and resist, and if black mothers cannot teach their kids to do both, then their children will not survive.
“After I read that, I thought, well, who teaches black mothers to love and resist? Who teaches black mothers to survive? So, my project became about centering the ways black women nurture themselves and one another through mothering to ensure their own survival—by extension the survival of black communities.”
Closeil said her JCY project was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to write in her academic career at Centre.
“I battled through writer’s block, and at one point, I thought I didn’t love this project anymore, because it certainly did not come easy,” she added. “A good friend of mine reminded me that love is a verb, and because I was still committed towards writing and researching, then that meant I still loved it. That was exactly what I needed to hear to finish my research.
“Research is a labor of love,” Closeil continued. “And the transformation and the learning that occurs through the process—the relationship building, the connections, the ‘ah-ha’ moments—is the real product, not necessarily the presentation or the publication of the project at the end.”
Closeil’s faculty mentor during her project was Jamie Shenton, assistant professor of anthropology, who was encouraging and affirming throughout the entire process.
“In many respects, our roles were reversed,” Shenton said. “I became a student of Lorna’s. Each time we met to talk about her project, she taught me something new. She showed me that we are capable of reimagining the world and that the limits of our imagination are a product of conventional wisdom. She taught me that there are plenty of folks reimagining that world, but their work is not centered. Lorna centered that work. And now her JCY project can enter into that conversation and be used by others’ projects of reimagination.”
Shenton said Closeil’s work is truly interdisciplinary and intersectional, bringing together women’s, gender and sexuality studies, social justice studies, anthropology and sociology, issues in political economy, critical race theory, feminist theory, reproductive justice, anti-racism and prison abolitionism.
“As her project evolved, I could see Lorna pulling ideas from here and there, piecing them together in a synthesis that was so careful, insightful, multi-layered and, at its core, a genuine and original product of black feminist theory and action. Hers is a real contribution to the field. In being able to read across disparate approaches to these issues, Lorna has accomplished what so many veteran scholars only aspire to do. As we witness widespread energy devoted to serious change in the name of racial equity and loss of black life, her work could not have been any more prescient and important.”
More than just teaching Closeil how to be a better scholar, she said Shenton mirrored for her what it means to trust others, to trust their process and to trust their voice.
“She consistently demonstrated to me the importance of educators that are governed by an ethic of care and love.”
To her last day as a JCY scholar, Shenton said Closeil remained dedicated to getting the project right, to not only setting a bunch of ideas at the doorstep of society to consider, but also to materializing the equity-driven change our society needs and to providing folks the resources they need to self-educate and bring about solutions.
“She also has embraced technology as a part of her scholar-activism and, like a pro, facilitated an open online conversation with the public on the eve what would have been her college graduation,” she added. “This will not be the last we, at Centre, hear from Lorna Closeil.”
This fall, Closeil will be pursuing a Ph.D. in women, gender and sexuality at Ohio State University.
View Lorna Closeil’s project here.
by Kerry Steinhofer
June 22, 2020