Mignon Moore has had a thriving career in academia by being decisive. Yet the sociologist’s latest research project has shown her the transformative power of being open to a mind shift.
The result is her forthcoming book, In the Shadow of Sexuality: Social Histories of African American Lesbian and Gay Elders, 1950-1979, which examines the lives of racialized sexual minority elders — mainly women — during the period of the second Great Migration.
“For Black women, that’s a story that has not been well told in LGBTQ+ histories or in African American histories,” said Moore, who is Barnard’s Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Sociology. “I am creating an argument around the importance of Black cultural institutions for Black lesbian women forming communities.”
In the Shadow of Sexuality pinpoints four spaces that were significant to this group in the mid-20th century: churches, all-girls high schools, bars or cabarets, and houses of prostitution. “These are [places] that allow for more expansive ideas of sexuality, where individuals may find others to act on their same-sex desire with,” she said.
Aside from the places where women found community, Moore’s book also looks at the reasons why Black women with same-sex desires did not forge an identity around their sexual attraction and behaviors.
“As a large group, they’re not forming a politics or an identity around same-sex attraction because they already have an identity embedded in race and gender,” Moore explained. “They are trying to create self-autonomy by moving away from family of origin but remaining in African American communities, so the second Great Migration is critical for Black women.”
The book’s origin story goes back to the early 2000s, when Mignon was researching her first book, Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships and Motherhood Among Black Women (2011). While taking field notes, she encountered a group of older lesbians who were selling dinners at a Harlem brownstone party. “Ultimately, I decided to focus on families. But that group stayed with me,” she recalled.
Moore, who joined the Barnard faculty in 2015, is on sabbatical for the academic year and is a Visiting Researcher at the Russell Sage Foundation, a Manhattan-based organization devoted to the production and dissemination of social science research on social inequality. The residency has provided a space for Moore to complete In the Shadow of Sexuality, which required her to reimagine how to tell its story. “This is where I come to write and participate in a community of scholars,” she said.
When Moore initially envisioned the book, its research was primarily based on oral histories she would complete with women, and a handful of men, who entered adulthood in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. She called her original approach a “nice, neat study design.” But after completing interviews and beginning to write, Moore gradually realized that the project required something else.
“There were silences in the data, missing pieces. And I felt that I was not going to be able to really offer a full-picture story based only on the interviews,” she said. “It wasn’t a matter of returning to the people to talk to them again, because some of the places where there was silence were places where I don’t think my interlocutors wanted to share.”
In an essay written for the journal Sociologica and published last May, Moore explained that the solution was to lean into the idea of revision — to see the process not just as revising words on a page but rather revising her entire approach to the research.
“My solution to this dilemma was to supplement my interviews and ethnographic field notes with archival materials on African American sexual minorities who had also come of age during the period I was studying,” Moore wrote. “I scoured African American historical collections and LGBTQ collections across the country and found letters, personal memorabilia, news clippings, lesbian organization meeting minutes and other matter.”
Today, she considers the text to be a richer, more complete retelling of this sociocultural history. Beyond the challenges of research and writing, Moore stepped into a new role in January when she became Special Advisor to the President of Barnard College. “I have a portfolio of four different programs at Barnard, and I’m going to be looking for ways that the faculty can be more involved with programs that were part of [President Sian Leah Beilock’s] contributions during her time as president,” said Moore.
This spring, when Barnard announces a new president, Moore will be active in that regard also. “I will spend the next academic year helping the new president transition into life at Barnard,” she said about the position, which ends in June 2024.
President Beilock created the position for Moore, who was president of the Sociologists for Women in Society in 2021 and is currently vice president of the American Sociological Association. Helping two different presidents transition out of and into Barnard’s administration is an opportunity for her to gauge her interest in senior leadership.
“I have been a professor for 25 years, and I see my identity as an academic and a scholar to be one that encompasses teaching, research, and writing, along with contributions to campus leadership and governance in sociology as a discipline,” she said.
Much like her upcoming book, the entire Barnard community is reaping the benefits of Moore’s expansive view of revision, one in which she continues to transform how she contributes to the academic world.