Deborah Whaley, American Studies

Deb Whaley

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Deborah Whaley considers herself a combination of four things: writer, teacher, artist, and public intellectual. In her four years at the University, the American studies professor has definitely proven to be all of those.

Last spring she worked with communication studies professor Kembrew McLeod as co-curator for the UIMA exhibit Two Turntables and a Microphone, which brought the hip-hop group Public Enemy and graffiti artist Lady Pink to campus. As part of her visit, Lady Pink worked with Whaley and undergraduate students in the studio arts program to create a mural in the Iowa Memorial Union’s Black Box Theater. “Hip-hop is often stereotyped, and Kembrew and I wanted to address the multiple elements of the field, especially as it relates to education,” Whaley says.

When she’s not teaching courses on American culture or African American cinema, she keeps busy on numerous writing projects that cover everything from Aaron McGruder’s television show The Boondocks and its connection to anime, to the racial fluidity of Catwoman, to representations of Chilean, Puerto Rican, and Mexican American women in popular films in the 1990s, to jazz in 1960s British cinema.

Whaley’s first book, Disciplining Women: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Black Counterpublics, and Cultural Politics of Black Sororities, was published last month by SUNY Press. The versatile professor recently spoke with fyi about her new book and the history of Black Greek letter organizations in the United States.

You recently published your first book, Disciplining Women: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Black Counterpublics, and the Cultural Politics of Black Sororities. Could you tell me about the book?

The book is a case study on a historically black sorority. I start the book with representations of sororities in popular films like School Daze and Stomp the Yard. Next, I provide a background history about black Greek letter organizations (BGLOs), colorism, classism, and heterosexism, as a way to situate where Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the book’s focus, fits in with other Greek and black social organizations.

A few of my favorite things…
Grilled salmon and red potatoes
Gatorade (G2)
The Brown Bottle, Formosa Asian Cuisine, and Vito’s
Doris Lessing
Alternative rock, neo-punk, Afropunk, neo soul, hip-hop, jazz, pop, and everything else that is good
Romantic comedies (Everything in life can be understood through a given scene in the 1996 film Love Jones.)
Any show on HGTV

Since it is mostly a case study on one sorority, it provided the opportunity to go into depth and look at the sorority as a subculture. I examine initiation rituals, cultural practices like stepping and hazing, and interweave oral history interviews throughout the book. A lot of the book draws on my ethnography work and oral histories, but the book has a firm grounding in the theories in cultural studies and 19th- and 20th-century cultural history. I try to strike a balance between discussing the sorority as a political group, by outlining their social justice work for people of African descent in the United States and in Africa, with a discussion of what makes the black sorority culturally different, and I engage with the problems of sorority life, too.

Why did you write the book with Alpha Kappa Alpha as your focus?

I wanted to have an opportunity to focus on women’s activism, and AKA was a leader in the suffrage movement, anti-lynching legislation, civil rights work from WWII to today, and transnational activism in Africa. Although the sorority began in the United States, they have chapters in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They were also the first historically black sorority that formed in 1908, so it allowed an opportunity to examine more than 100 years of activism and cultural cultivation via a subgroup. It allowed me to merge a discussion of gender, race, class, and social, cultural, and political issues. They are an ideal case study to understand the dynamics of cultural change overtime and the politics of everyday life as lived by a subculture of Black women. I had to strike a delicate balance of dispelling myths and stereotypes without denying the problems in and with this subculture of women.

For more information about Professor Whaley, you can visit her blog,

For more information about Disciplining Women, visit

Talk about the history of black Greek letter organizations.

It is important that the formation of BGLOs came at the beginning of the 20th century—in the shadows of slavery—when there were very few educational and social opportunities available to people of African descent in America. Thus, African Americans would create, out of necessity, their own social, cultural, and political networks. In general, the black Greek-letter organizations formed at the historically black college Howard University toed the line between conservative liberalism and insurgent activism, but since the student body was predominantly African American, class, color, and other modes of distinction had the opportunity to gain traction in some of these groups during their earlier years. By contrast, the groups formed at predominantly white institutions would use the seemingly neutral space of the Greek letter fraternal to carry on, in secret, bonding, social, and cultural work in an environment that was antithetical to the affirmation of their culture and the cultivation of their intellectual pursuits and development. Their founding place notwithstanding, the nine groups do significant activist and community development work in the African American community today, while providing a social and cultural outlet for its members and for those who are not members.

You have written about everything from the history of BGLOs to black women graphic novel writers, animators, and artists to hip-hop culture. How do these all tie in together?

If there is a common theme to my work, I would say it is a focus on how historically marginalized groups represent themselves (or how others represent them) through cultural production, activism, popular culture, and the practices of everyday life. I merge this with a continual attention in my writing to how such groups also engage in political work in the public sphere to create a more just society.

If you had to choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?


What do you do on days off?

I’m still trying to get to the point where I have “days” off, but when I can carve out free time to do what I really love, I paint (acrylic on canvas), sit outside on my deck at home and read or listen to music, or do yoga.