Colin Dayan is the Robert Penn Warren Professor in Humanities at Vanderbilt University and author, most recently, of The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. Recently, she was elected to the American Academy of Art and Science, one of the nation’s most prestigious honor societies. Charted in 1780, the organization aims to elect to membership men and women of exceptional achievement, drawn from science, scholarship, business, public affairs and the arts. Among the 220 new members for 2012 are United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, philanthropist Melinda Gates, pianist and composer André Previn, mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, and actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
Your memoirs of growing up in Atlanta have been cited in numerous publications. Do you have a vivid childhood memory?
My most vivid childhood memory is not a pleasant one. In 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination and Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, Atlanta – “the city too busy to hate” – faced demonstrations for desegregation, while Lester Maddox brandished his Confederate flag and ax handles at his Pickrick restaurant. Black students from Atlanta University staged sit-in protests at the counter of Leb’s Restaurant on Lucky Street. I remember seeing a photo of Charlie Lebedin dragging Reverend Ashton Jones out by his feet, pulling him across the floor, through the door of the restaurant and out onto the sidewalk.
How has growing up in the South impacted your view of the world?
Well, I was born and raised in Atlanta, but I left at sixteen. You have to get back to that time, the 1960s, and understand that my parents were traditional and very authoritarian. Most of all, they believed a woman was made for marriage, country clubs, and tennis. There was no room for thought. So, for me, the South was not only honeysuckle, dogwood, and azalea, the sound of crickets and the husks of June bugs, but a place of tremendous constraint. When I got to Smith College, everything changed. I felt that my life began. But I never really got the South out of my blood. The way I spoke, the curse words, the loose laughter, all that never left me. The ease and frank courtesy, the sense of honor, the telling of stories, all this I missed in the North.
What misconceptions do you think people have about the South?
It’s awful, the misconceptions folks have about the South. Wonderful colleagues of mine, dear friends back East, could not believe that I would leave the University of Pennsylvania for Vanderbilt. They just could not understand why I would return. Much of that is political—a perception that the South is filled with guns, drink and racism. Even in the nineteenth century, New Englanders mocked Southerners, talking contemptuously about Crackers in the mudsills of the South.
Please describe the person in your life who had the most influence on your career.
Lucille, the Jamaican woman who raised me from the age of two, taught me most everything that I cherish. My parents were busy traveling all the time, and I was left alone with Lucille. Her stories were remarkable, and the way she told them, her voice haunts me still. I’m convinced that I would never have been a writer had it not been for listening to her, hearing her stories about ghosts, the white hand in the window, the man falling out of the closet straight across the beds of children. When I heard the train, she would tell me to listen to the wails of the orphans in the night crying as they traveled far from everything they knew. She loved to sing “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill.” And I still have a photo of her imitating B.B. King in our backyard. She never liked cosmetics, thought makeup was for “fool women.” She was proud of her gray hair and never wanted anything unnatural touching her skin. My mother’s desire for me to wear makeup—especially mascara and lipstick—could never win out over Lucille’s disdain.
Why did you change your name from Joan Dayan to Colin?
My mother always loved the name and always called me Colin when I was young. My dad was not amused and put a stop to it. When my mother died in 2005, I decided to change my name. I had just moved to Vanderbilt and figured it would be a good time. Folks warned me that I’d be disappearing most of my career, but it seemed like the right thing to do, a challenge to do more as Colin than I did as Joan. Everything about Nashville reminds me of my mother. Even my house on Whitland. When Keith Merrill first showed it to me, I loved it and could never get it out of my mind. After my mother’s death, I learned from an uncle that my mother and father had moved to Nashville after their honeymoon and before their final move to Atlanta. I had no idea. They lived just a block away at 227 Carden. Talk about ghosts and haunts. You can imagine my shock. My parents never mentioned Nashville. But here I am, living in the neighborhood they walked in the first years of their marriage.
What is the best advice you have been given?
The best advice ever: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
After reviewing the numerous reviews on the books you have written, you tackle complicated issues and many dark subjects. What draws you to these topics?
Sometimes when my father and I were driving on the highway to our cabin in North Georgia, he would tell me not to look. Of course, I didn’t listen. I saw men in zebra stripes working in chain gangs. I never forgot the sight. Although my doctorate is in comparative literature, I have always written about current events, about the harsh treatment of those considered unfit, disposable, or simply too poor to count. In my most recent book The Law is a White Dog, I try to account for the uniqueness of Anglo-American legal history. If I had to boil down to just a few words the gist of this book, I would say that the law deals in what we think of as the supernatural: creating creatures who are alive in fact, but dead in law. You ask why I’m drawn to what might seem depressing topics: Haiti after the earthquake, cruel and unusual punishment and prisons, the excesses of racism and everyday cruelty. I write and teach to think again about injustice, to understand that mistreatment and harm need to be understood now more than ever, especially in the current climate of desperation, fear and mistrust.
Is it hard to keep a sense of humor when your writing puts you face to face with evil in our society?
It would be difficult to keep a sense of humor if I were not teaching. My students at Vanderbilt give me hope.
As the Robert Penn Warren scholar at Vanderbilt, what do you hope your legacy will be?
I feel a trifle modest in the face of questions about “legacy.” But since you ask, I hope that I can pass on just a bit of Red Warren’s remarkable love of language, and the wit and grace that he never lost, even in his darkest writings.
What do you enjoy most about living in Nashville?
What I most enjoy is walking down Whitland on a crisp, autumn day, hiking the red trail in Percy Warner, and just being around the most diverse group of neighbors of any place I ever lived.
What are some of your favorite restaurants?
I’ve always loved Margot’s, just discovered Bistro 360, and appreciate the presence of Wild Cow—a really unique vegetarian restaurant.
Name the three things (besides God, family, and friends) you can’t live without:
- Woodford Reserve
- The ocean
Thanks, Colin! Be sure to check out more photos from today’s shoot with our SB FACES photographer, Ashley Hylbert, here.Related