Lisa Corrigan, University of Arkansas associate professor of communications, director of the Gender Studies Program and affiliate faculty in both African and African-American studies and Latin American studies, is smaller in person than one would expect, given her larger-than-life social media presence and literary voice. The author of the award-winning book Prison Power: How Prison Influenced the Movement for Black Liberation frequently takes to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to espouse her advocacy. Her gaze is direct and lively behind large glasses, and she talks fast -- really, really fast -- during a wide-ranging conversation that covers myriad topics germane to the current cultural and anthropological landscape of America: the state of health care (especially in Arkansas), systemic racism and sexism, the rise of the modern white supremacist movement as backlash against our first African-American president, the definition of "white fragility," the importance of political activism ... and the emotional unavailability of Batman that makes him such a bad choice for a boyfriend.
"Lisa is simply one of the smartest people I know, and she is extremely quick on her feet," says Todd G. Shields, dean of the UA Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. "It would not surprise me to find out that her mind works at twice the speed of everyone else's."
Through Others’ Eyes
“Perhaps it seems high-minded to say, but Lisa is an advocate for humanity, so it should be no surprise that she has a big personality: forceful but warm, self-assured but not self-absorbed, witty without cutting, hardworking but loves a good time, terrific at helping others build their own agency and ‘suffering fools’ is not her strong suit.” — Arkansas State Sen. Joyce Elliott
“Lisa is not just working hard to advance her career, she’s working hard on behalf of issues that she believes very deeply in. There’s nothing phony about it. She has a profound philosophical and moral belief in justice and equality and a really humane approach to the world.” — Sierra Club campaign representative and friend Stephen Stetson
Sarah Huckabee Sanders
Match of wills
Corrigan was born in tiny McDonaldsville, Ohio, a town halfway between Baltimore and Chicago. Her father was a steel worker, and he struggled with industry layoffs throughout much of Corrigan's childhood. When Corrigan hit middle school, her mother took a job at a nursing home to put herself through college. Corrigan remembers long evenings at the kitchen table as she and her sister helped their mother study for her classes. Corrigan pauses her story to sing a snippet of a song that strings together a long bit of economics jargon, a mnemonic tune she put together to help her mom remember information for a test.
"I have no idea what I'm saying," she says, laughing, when she finishes the song. "Still to this day, I have never taken economics. My sister can still recite all of their Spanish dialogues.
"That was really formative because we were going to college with her when we were in junior high school."
Corrigan's precociousness surfaced early. She would later have difficulty getting along with her father when, she says, her penchant for speaking out against social injustice conflicted with his conservative views. But when she was very young, she often hung out with him while he socialized with friends.
"He was a motorcycle guy, a bike dude," Corrigan says. "I spent a lot of time with his biker friends. And I was super charming, extremely funny as a child. So he got a lot of social credibility from the fact that I was fun and his 20-year-old bro dudes loved me."
From the time she learned to read, Corrigan devoured books at a surprisingly rapid pace. This could lead to clashes with teachers who underestimated her intellect.
"I always had sort of an oppositional relationship to my teachers," recalls Corrigan. "My second-grade teacher called my parents because she said my vocabulary was too big, and I was correcting her English in class. And my mom asked, 'Is she correct?' And the teacher said, 'Yes.' And my mom said, 'Then we're done here,' and hung up the phone. We got along famously after that. I used to bring her Christmas cookies all the way through high school. You know, it was a match of wills. I had a very, very firm sense of self as a little person."
Corrigan also started showing a predilection for social justice quite early: When she was in third grade, she chose Martin Luther King Jr. for the first biographical book report she had ever been assigned. She was the only person in her all-white class to choose a nonwhite subject. And when she refused to participate in the part of the assignment that required students to dress up as the subject of their papers -- "What was I going to do, wear black face? That's absurd." -- she failed the assignment.
"I just blackballed the school," she says. "I refused to participate in any of the other activities because this was just racist. That teacher didn't think it through. It was stigmatizing, and so that was a very formative institutionalized experience.
"Anybody who I thought was intellectually lazy or uninteresting, I just wrote off and just refused to work for them. Or if I thought they were racist or sexist, I would not participate."
Corrigan's own father, she says, "was incapable and unwilling to examine his own racism and sexism." But her mother was open-minded and encouraged her daughters to seek higher education. She spoke frequently about issues of gender equality, like the wage gap. Corrigan was also receptive to messages of inclusivity from icons of popular culture.
"I wrote a note to LeVar Burton a couple of years ago when he rebooted Reading Rainbow, and I said, basically, 'You and Michael Jackson were the only black dudes allowed in my household, so you were a big deal,'" she says. "'I said, Reading Rainbow was like an anti-segregationist, civil rights program to me as a kid.' It was so inclusive. My dad didn't participate in those conversations, and as I radicalized, he got more and more fragile and brittle. We don't have a relationship at all, now. He couldn't handle it, as I aged."
Perhaps sensing her daughter's need for more academic challenge, Corrigan's mother suggested she join the debate team in high school. She took to it immediately and enthusiastically, and she excelled in the highly competitive environment.
"I had been interested in politics since I was little," says Corrigan. "I watched the Iran-Contra hearings as a kid, riveted. I would get up on Sunday mornings and watch PM Magazine, the news show, by myself. So policy debate was totally natural for me."
"She was a fierce competitor," says Stephen Stetson, a close friend from the college debate scene who is now a campaign representative for the Sierra Club. "I debated against her directly, and she was good and smart and I think I would also use the word 'crafty.' In a debate, a lot of advantage comes from the element of surprise, and I think when other debaters take the head-on approach, they make the predictable arguments. So much of debate is about preparation, and most good debaters are well-prepared for easily anticipated arguments. One thing I remember is that she was willing to reach deep into the archives to produce surprising arguments to give her a strategic advantage."
Corrigan received a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh based on her accomplishments in debate.
"I spent all my weekends from high school and college traveling all around the country debating all of the smartest kids, who now are federal circuit court judges and who clerk on the Supreme Court and who run all of the major think tanks in D.C.," she says. "So at a very young age, I had access to all of these kids from all around the country and this massive network of people that I still talk to, that I met when I was 14 or 15 or so.
"I read everything. Everything. By the time I got to college, there was no student in any university setting that had read as much as the policy debaters that competed on the national circuit. I mean, we were the smartest kids in America. And I didn't realize it at the time. You don't know what other kids are doing or how you stack up because the only exposure I had were the debate kids. So I just assumed other people had other interests, and they were at a similar place in emotional and social development and workload. By the time I got to college I thought, 'Oh my gosh, these kids can't read, and they have no discipline. They haven't been trained.' So I graduated early. I got two degrees. If I had stayed, I would have had four majors."
Corrigan's pace at graduate school was no slower. She finished her doctorate in four years, teaching classes at both the University of Maryland -- where she was matriculating -- and serving as an adjunct professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She was heavily courted once she started the hunt for her first academic position about 11 years ago, but the University of Arkansas won her over for a variety of reasons.
"I liked the region," she says. "I felt like there was an opportunity to help rebuild the department, and I felt like I would have a lot of freedom here."
Former student Amanda Nell Edgar took Corrigan's "Feminist Texts and Theories" course in 2009.
"Lisa is such a presence, as anybody who has ever met her knows," says Edgar. "The course was amazing. Really, life changing. I just remember the readings were really great, and challenging, and then we'd come to class and Lisa would really bring everything to life. Yes, she helped us understand it, but more than that -- she made it seem so crucially important and at the same time relatable."
"Lisa is an incredibly gifted teacher," says Shields. "Her classes are intelligent, discerning and challenging. She cares deeply about her students, and they, understandably, love her. Her courses are among the first to fill up across the entire campus. Her scholarship is also first class. Her recent book, Prison Power: How Prison Influenced the Movement for Black Liberation recently won the National Communication association's 2017 Diamond Anniversary Book Award."
"It's about the politics of prison in the black liberation movement," explains Corrigan. "I talk about how prison became the central defining feature of the black liberation struggle in both the Southern civil rights movement and the black power movement, and I talk about the way in which activists use prison as a rhetorical and political strategy and the way that prison then was used against them."
Corrigan acknowledges the complicated feelings she experienced when the book won an award.
"It sucks that a white person has to say these things, quite frankly, because if I were a woman of color, I don't know that the book would have won the award," she says. "You know, I see structural institutional racism happen so frequently. At the end of the day, it's a white person who is going to get credit for saying these ideas. And it's a white person who is getting rewarded, and I'm building a career off of this black pain. A black person would not be recognized for doing the same kind of works, certainly not in my field, certainly not in Arkansas. So that's a melancholy kind of thing, doing race work as a white person."
Ebony Utley, professor of communication at Long Beach (Calif.) State University, met Corrigan more than 10 years ago at a seminar on urban studies held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The two made an instant connection. Utley points out that one of Corrigan's particular skills is talking about black issues to white people.
"I think that's really useful," she says. "They can't receive that from people of color, and I'm hoping, at times, they can receive that from her."
"I'm the white person who talks about radical race things and race policy," says Corrigan with a smile. "I think it helps white people to hear white people say black things, so I do that all the time. In my classes, my students asked me a couple of weeks ago, 'Would this class about civil rights be different if you were a black man or woman?' I said, 'You would think that I had an agenda or axe to grind. You would just dismiss a bunch of things I said because I was black.' We have a whole mess load of data that shows people's predisposition about race affects their assessment of knowledge. So I'm happy to be the white person who says things the way people need to hear."
Definer of Issues
She hasn't slowed down since settling into academia -- quite the opposite. In the last 11 years, she achieved tenure, published a prize-winning book and had a baby (her daughter, whom she calls "the Bean" on social media, is 7) and started a podcast with Laura Weiderhaft called "Lean Back" that's in its fourth season and was named the favorite podcast in Arkansas by Paste Magazine.
She's also become more of an activist. Corrigan met Arkansas State Sen. Joyce Elliott when the two were advocating for the rights of young women.
"Lisa is a gifted definer of issues, especially those traditionally relegated to the shadows, those affecting the 'unexplored' and dismissed populations," says Elliott. "She is masterful at calling on our community to go beyond the superficial to facing the hard stuff, expanding who's included in the American dream, so our American community can live up to the meaning of community."
Corrigan is about two-thirds of the way through her second book, titled Black Feelings, that she thinks has the potential of being more successful than the first.
"Black Feelings looks at how feelings about blackness and feeling black created a different kind of moment in the 1960s and early 1970s," she says. "I'm interested in how feelings structure politics and how politics structure feelings -- that reciprocal sort of relationship." A publication date is yet to be set, but she thinks it might be sometime around spring or early summer 2019.
With the news stories about race that are currently taking center stage in the country, Corrigan stays in high demand, often traveling the country to speak at other universities and organizations.
"I think that academics have a particular kind of social responsibility," she says. "If you're the repository of all the knowledge in your field, you can't just keep it in the classroom. I don't care what the political persuasion of the professor is. I just think you have an obligation to share that information as widely as possible."
"With Lisa, there's no ego," says Utley. "For a lot of academics, it's who they are and who they can be in public and building a legacy for themselves and their institutions. There's none of that in Lisa. She's really in it because she believes the world can be a better place than it is. Fundamentally, she believes in justice. She believes it's possible, and she sort of chases it doggedly. A lot of people say, '[Justice] is not a thing. So much history shows this is never going to work.' But Lisa, at the core of her being, is just an optimist. She believes that it can."
Lara Jo Hightower can be reached by email at email@example.com.
NAN Profiles on 10/08/2017
Print Headline: A Quest for Justice