Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet: Working at the Intersection of Art and Social Change

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Salamishah Tillet

Faculty Director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark; Henry Rutgers Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing; Associate Director of the Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, Rutgers-Newark


Salamishah Tillet’s work is driven by her belief that art is a powerful catalyst for social change.

One of most important cultural critics of our time, Tillet uses her platform in multiple media outlets, including The New York TimesThe Atlanticand The Guardian, to expose racism and misogyny while advancing the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. 

Since joining Rutgers University-Newark last fall, the celebrated author and activist is elbow deep in her newest passion project as the faculty director of the New Arts Justice Initiative at Express Newark.

The university-community collaborative serves as a vehicle for students, faculty and residents to promote positive transformation in the city, with New Arts providing support for emerging artists and activists as they explore themes of race, gender, sexuality and the value of art in public spaces.

“We can have legislative changes, but you can’t do much without changing people’s hearts and minds,” said Tillet, who is also the Henry Rutgers Professor of African American and African Studies and Creative Writing and associate director of the Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience. “Art is the way to get people to that reality.”

She should know. Two decades ago, she turned to her craft to heal herself after a sexual assault – and wound up healing national audiences in the process. Her journal and portraits taken by her sister, Scheherazade Tillet, a Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate, became the basis for “Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS),” a multimedia experience featuring musicians, dancers and stage performers. The sisters toured colleges across the country in the early 2000s with “SOARS,” working to create empathy for survivors and rally against rape culture.

“We used storytelling, art and dance to explore this difficult subject and found it to be effective not just for victims, but bystanders and allies as well,” Tillet said.

Building on “SOARS” success, the Tillet sisters cofounded the Chicago-based nonprofit A Long Walk Home in 2003, where they use art to empower young people to end violence against girls and women. The national platform has received numerous accolades, including from feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who described it as “a gift” that “beautifully blends art, policy and grassroots organizing to empower our most vulnerable and voiceless Americans.”

Art and activism permeates all of Tillet’s roles at Rutgers-Newark, including her undertakings at the Price Institute. In February, she played a primary role in curating the Marion Thompson Wright lecture, The Erotic as Power: Sexuality in the Black Experience, which resonated with a large, youthful audience.

Tillet says she was drawn to Rutgers-Newark by the energy and excitement of being at a university that actively positions itself as an anchor institution to its community. “I’ve long been committed to trying to understand how art, activism and social justice are related to each other and can activate each other,” she said. “Newark is a city that has vibrantly cultivated those conversations, while Rutgers-Newark is trying to ground those connections for its students, our city, and beyond."

Under the tutelage of Professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Werner Sollors, Tillet earned her Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization and A.M. in English and American Literature from Harvard University and her Masters in the Art of Teaching from Brown University. She has her B.A. in English and African American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude and was mentored by Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin. 

She has received accolades for her book Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and is currently working on two more projects. The first, In Search of The Color Purple, due out this fall, is a meditation on the lasting appeal of Alice Walker’s novel and protagonist Celie’s feminist awakening.

Tillet’s other endeavor, All The Rage: Mississippi Goddam and the World Nina Simone Made, explores how the civil rights icon’s music, anger and frustration with racism and sexism travels through the 20th century. The Simone project presented an opportunity for Tillet and her sister Scheherazade to once again tag-team a powerful subject matter. Their trip to Simone’s birthplace in Tryon, North Carolina, helped frame Tillet’s narrative and resulted in Scheherazade’s photo exhibit Little Girl Blue: A Sojourn to Nina Simone’s Childhood Home, now on view at Express Newark.

The New Arts Justice Initiative is the next frontier for Tillet. The opportunity to guide it, she said, and take an active role in shaping the community she calls home, is a key reason why she is at Rutgers-Newark, which she sees as an institution with a strong commitment to social justice and its host city.

“As a resident of Newark, I’ve been able to see the city go through a variety of social and economic changes,” she said. “As a scholar and as a writer, I’m interested in how you really make a difference in the community in which you live. So considering that combination, it is a great fit for me.”

This profile original appeared in Rutgers Today