Julio Capó, Jr.
Associate Professor of History and Deputy Director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab
Florida International University
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
Thanks for asking! I’m currently revising my second monograph, which is based on my dissertation research (and which, incidentally, won the Urban Historian Association’s Best Dissertation Award nearly a decade ago; I’m incredibly grateful for the support the UHA and its members have shown me over the years) on Miami’s LGBTQ history after 1945—or the era when such sexual and gender identities had become more crystallized, and so too had more communities formed around those identities. My first book, Welcome to Fairyland, covered Miami’s queer past before 1940, and that was a brand-new project for me in many ways. It has been such a generative process to return to my dissertation project at this point in time, with fresh eyes and insights (including having curated a major exhibition partially based on that work last year at HistoryMiami Museum). This mid- to late twentieth-century history focuses on the very idea of the city as a “queer refuge” and how Miami, as an urban center of the Americas, has historically served as a space of cultural, political, and social refuge—whether for immigrants/migrants, refugees and asylees, snowbirds, tourists, or others trying to find a home more generally, even if just temporarily. I’m also co-curating a new exhibition for The Wolfsonian—FIU on HIV/AIDS posters from around the world that I’m really, really excited about.
These projects, as with my work more generally, are invested in highlighting voices that are too often ignored or marginalized in the archives or in academic fields. Especially inspired by numerous feminists of color, I have long tried to bring together fields and subfields that are too often viewed in isolation or as somehow disaggregated from one another. I firmly believe that analytical treatments in transnational, urban, queer and feminist, racial and ethnic, immigration, diplomatic, and other specialties and studies have way more to offer us when they are integrated and in conversation with one another.
Describe your current work. How does it relate to your scholarship?
Last year I left my former position at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst to help build a public humanities program at Florida International University in my hometown of Miami. Although a tenured professor in the Department of History, I am now also the Deputy Director of the new Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab (WPHL) at FIU, which serves as the hub for the humanities at the university and also centers public-facing and community-oriented work. It’s such a treat and privilege to give back to the community that raised me in this way. We work with countless community partners and local cultural institutions—from museums, archives, community centers, other non-profits, advocacy centers, and more—to bring together different forms of knowledge and expertise in the service to social justice and to affect meaningful change and impact in people’s everyday lives. There are so many projects I’m involved with at the moment for the WPHL and our many community partners—grants, curatorial work, internships, a weekly webinar titled Coffee & Conversations that highlights how museums and cultural institutions are dealing with the novel coronavirus and how they have historically addressed histories of anti-Blackness, and much more.
I am also working on building a robust “Miami Studies” program with several of my colleagues that, much like the Chicago school of the early twentieth century and Los Angeles school of the late twentieth century, seeks to push urban studies in new and exciting directions. A city of the Americas, Miami is also positioned at the center of so many key questions that are integral to understanding national and global politics today: immigration and detention; anti-Black violence and mass incarceration; affordable housing shortages and gentrification; climate crises; and foreign policy. We at the WPHL hope to foster innovative ways to address many of these issues through the study of Miami with the help—and in the service to—our many community partners and those outside the university walls more generally.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I’ve contributed a lot of new pieces for edited volumes and collections over the past couple of years. I’ll briefly mention two that relate most closely with urban history. I wrote a new piece on how urbanity and sexuality have converged throughout American history for the Routledge History of American Sexuality (eds. Kevin P. Murphy, Jason Ruiz, and David Serlin). The essay asked, at its core, whether cities can have sexualities and, if so, what that means. It was so much fun to write. I also wrote a new piece on Black Bahamian women who tried to enter the city of Miami in the early twentieth century for a new edited volume titled “Queer and Trans Migrations” (eds. Eithne Luibhéid and Karma R. Chávez), which should be out in a few weeks. It got me thinking about the mechanisms in which immigration policy reflected the making of a straight, white state.
There’s so much new work I’m excited to read! I’m not even sure where to begin. Forthcoming books from Mauricio Castro on Miami and the welfare state, Sarah McNamara on Latina union activism in Tampa and Ybor City, Keisha Blain on Fannie Lou Hamer’s contributions and influence, and Aaron Lecklider on homosexuality and the left, are just the tip of the iceberg.
What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?
Goodness, that’s somehow becoming an ever-more difficult question to answer. I think, in part, that’s because it’s hard to gauge where urban studies—or the academy, really—stands at this particular time. I also happen to believe, however, that our work is more important than ever. I would suggest they read as much as they can. Certainly, one of the best ways to prepare ourselves for this uncertainty is to be as well read as possible. I would also further encourage them to find ways, if they aren’t doing so already, for their research to reach public audiences. Scholars of urban history and studies have been so necessary, for instance, in shaping conversations about anti-Black violence and police brutality in numerous cities across the country and beyond. We need more of that analysis and more of it needs to reach broader audiences outside of the academy. From writing an op-ed to crafting a Twitter thread to appearing as a talking head on some public programming to curating a new exhibition, I think it would be most generative if we reimagined (and trained students) to broaden the breadth, scope, and reach of our research specifically with general audiences in mind. Lastly, I think I’d encourage them to be as capacious as possible in how they view the field, its impact, and its duty and service to the public. We need really thoughtful urban planners, politicians, and others who provide services to and for the public good. Part of that entails a deep appreciation and understanding of the past, no doubt. In these incredibly difficult times for our students—both undergrad and graduate—may we all muster the strength to find new and creative ways to inspire, motivate, and equip them with the tools necessary to be locally-minded global citizens.
You recently described in a Made By History piece for the Washington Post how the city of “Miami, like so many other American cities, was literally built by anti-black and colonial violence.” Recently, the Democratic and Republican parties held their national conventions, which are often urban affairs that nevertheless ignore the struggles of the host city’s predominantly Black and Brown inhabitants. So, I am wondering how can we understand a party’s convention as manifestations of anti-Black and colonial violence?
Fascinating point. That Washington Post piece I wrote was about the police chief in Miami (Walter Headley) who said, “when the looting begins, the shooting begins” in 1967. That’s the phrase President Trump tweeted in response to the protests for Black liberation and the affirmation of Black dignity and respect. Trump, like many others, sought to shift attention to safeguarding private property at a time when Black protestors were on the streets demanding an end to the state and its logics designed to suppress and do away with their lives. The national conventions served as an important backdrop for the discussions that took place after the police chief made those comments in 1967.
I suppose we should first start by asking what the national conventions actually represent in the first place. It’s hard to imagine them as forums for the people when so few people are really heard or feel represented in them. So many facets of our political processes, including the electoral college and the selection of presidential candidates in the first place, are devised in ways that silence, marginalize, and erase certain voices and experiences. This too is often rooted in histories of colonialism and anti-Black violence. I, of course, also worry that neoliberal framings of equality at these conventions give the illusion of progressive change even though, as you noted, so many of those who remain outside the convention (both literally and figuratively) are excluded in the decision making. Indeed, they are too often Black and Brown and indigenous and poor.
I’d like to end on a brighter note, though. Perhaps we can shift attention to other forums and conventions for the shaping of our collective politics. Perhaps the discussions at the community center. The posts on social media. The chants at the Black Lives Matter rally. They, too, are where our politics are born and cultivated. And these counter-publics can help serve as a corrective to the work being done—or not being done—at national conventions, for instance. Let’s draw inspiration from them.