Cynthia Greenlee is a journalist and historian based in North Carolina. After taking part in a Zócalo Live event “How Has Racism Shaped the American Economy,” she called into the green room to talk about the “the best, nerdy adrenaline rush” she’s ever felt, how she’s recreating 19th-century updos in COVID, and the “scandalous” Prince poster her parents let her and her sister hang up—with one stipulation—in their childhood bedroom.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve been told that I wanted to be a firefighter for a number of years. And then, for a hot second, I wanted to be a veterinarian. But I’m not a person who loves to give animals shots or see blood.
I’m not exactly sure how I arrived at writer, except that I’ve always been a writer. When I was 5, I published a small children’s book. Well, my mother really did it—I told her what to do and colored. It was about a chameleon. I’m sure this was really her concept, because, you know, I was 5.
It won a local award, and it’s one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I had to go and read my book. I got up on the stage, and my mom had just bought me new Mary Jane shoes, and the bottoms were slick. I ended up sliding across the hardwood that had just been polished, and my dress flew up. That’s how my writing life started.
I can’t think of better preparation for a career in writing.
Exactly. It’s like you’re going to be exposed, one way or another.
Who’s one person living or dead you’d most like to have a drink with?
Prince. Ever since Prince died nothing has been the same in this country. I’m blaming everything on the fact that Prince is no longer here. It’s disrupted the universe’s equilibrium.
What would you and Prince drink?
Did Prince drink? I know he was a pretty devout Jehovah’s Witness. I’m not sure whether they have any prohibitions against alcohol. I would probably have something on hand for him like a non-alcoholic fruity cocktail, maybe a virgin mojito. I know he loved going down to his kitchen and having a chef scramble him eggs at 3 a.m. So I think I would make him brunch. We could have pancakes, and it would be cocktail optional.
Prince was my icon from the moment I was in elementary school. I had an older sister who loved him. When his Controversy album came out it had a picture in it that was super scandalous by the standards of the day: he was in a shower with a little, itty, bitty bikini and nothing else on. You could see his body hair and there was an upside-down crucifix, and he’s got this sultry pose. My parents let my sister hang it up, but they insisted that we tack a piece of paper over his groin area. So, it was like, there was a little bit of freedom, but just a little bit of censorship, too.
To this day my childhood friends remember the picture. They would look and be like, Can we take the piece of paper off, and peek behind it? It was a perpetual attraction in our bedroom, which had pink shag carpet and pink walls.
You’ve written some great pieces about pop culture, which you refer to as “my not-so-guilty pleasure.” Do you have a pop culture obsession at the moment?
I’m watching World of Dance with J. Lo, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough. I really, really want to try ballroom dancing, even though I’m so not an athletic person. I love reality TV shows. I like the ones that are super-duper trashy.
I’ve also been looking at old 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of the Black women’s club movement—Mary Mcleod Bethune, Ida B. Wells-Barnett—they all have these magnificent updos. So I have been trying to style my hair like theirs. I’m not particularly good at it, but I think I’m going to start doing my own staged photographs.
It’s totally about the pandemic because I can’t get my hair done, and I’ve had super poufy hair. Everyone has some version of pandemic hair right now. So I started thinking about it, and I was like, OK, this is a way for me to engage with history, because I’m a historian, but also deal with my hair.
What’s one of the most challenging things to you about your profession?
As a historian who focuses on the law, I have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. Like the fact that law can both reinforce inequality and dismantle it. And that law makes us less equal sometimes, rather than more.
What’s the thing you miss the most, living through COVID?
Being in an over air-conditioned archive and seeing things that haven’t been seen in years, maybe decades. That feeling is like probably the best, nerdy adrenaline rush I’ve ever felt. The smell of old paper is like perfume.
When I’m holding 19th-century paper, I think of all the people who have held it. Literally, it has traces of their DNA. There’s a whole universe of information on that paper, and paper is so ephemeral.
There’s something about the survival of the paper that reflects the work I do in African American history. It’s parallel to the survival of African American people through the Middle Passage, enslavement, Jim Crow, police brutality. There’s something about the survival of paper and using it to tell the stories of Black people that always makes me leave an archive feeling like a hero.
Last question: What did you and your cat, Marley, have for breakfast this morning?
Marley had Taste of the Wild Grain-Free Kibble and not a fish formula. He had the deer and venison, because, despite the idea that cats like fish, he is like, I am not down.
I had a very large apple, and I also ran out to one of our local Southern fast-food chains, Biscuitville, and got these jalapeño pimento cheese chicken biscuits. I had my mask on, they had their masks on, and it felt like such a luxury at this moment to go through a drive-thru at a biscuit house.