Professor of English and The Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Professor of Fine Arts
I am broadly interested in the relationships between twentieth and twenty-first century black culture and politics. Rooted in Black Studies, my work attends to the racialization of social institutions and formations, and the ways people make their living within and among those institutions. I am fundamentally concerned with interactions between the modifier Black—with all that it contains, mobilizes, and shifts—and historically specific practices of living and relating. My umbrella term for this is black poetics.
I have developed this line of thinking in two monographs. The first, Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, which won the 2014 William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association for an outstanding scholarly study of African American literature or culture. Poetics analyzes the ways texts achieve their effects by reinscribing and deviating from existing traditions, including extraliterary traditions. With detailed analysis of N. H. Pritchard, NourbeSe Philip, Kamau Brathwaite, Claudia Rankine, Douglas Kearney, Harryette Mullen, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Nathaniel Mackey, Freedom Time develops a specifically black poetics. Black experimental writing, I argue, is a means of creating breathing room within historically specific conditions of oppression and possibility. Freedom Time addresses the period following desegregation and formal independence when new ways of understanding collectivity and collective possibilities in the present emerged. These practices encourage new ways of relating to and knowing one another, new ways of thinking and practicing freedom.
I develop that line of thinking in Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke UP, 2021). Soundworks starts by historicizing prevailing notions of sound—as unruly, as linked to non-incorporable excess, as expression of freedom and illicit desire—to argue that each era generates a concept of sound based on material realities and political exigencies. From there, Soundworks engages recorded collaborations between poets and musicians (Charles Mingus and Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka and the New York Arts Quartet, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Jeanne Lee, and Jayne Cortez) in the Long Black Arts era (1958-1974). That era is usually associated with new forms of racial consciousness and assertion. New forms of racial consciousness become possible, I argue, thanks in large part to the self-sustaining, independent institutions people developed to shape the meanings and possibilities of aesthetic practice. The poets and musicians I study don’t just perform according to prevailing ideas of sound, but actively shape notions of black sound to advance political and philosophical ends.
I’m currently working on a new book, tentatively entitled Cartographies of Invention: Studies in Black Poiesis, that develops an account of black poetics across the diaspora following the staggered defeat of alternative world-making projects rooted in ideals of self-determination that depended on political sovereignty (e.g., Jamaica, Grenada, Tanzania, and US cities under Black leadership), on the one hand, and the collapse of South African Apartheid on the other. Black self-determination, imagined by many in terms of political sovereignty, had been for many an emblematic horizon of fulfillment of the Sixties. Liberation struggles in Southern Africa had served as an important practical rallying point around which people imagined collective and global black identities. Chapters concern the development and circulation of a specifically black lyric—engaging the ways black writers have engaged practices to adapt, redact, cite, transform, and develop alternatives to the Western lyric tradition. Thematically, it engages responses to political violence and the police state, and the AIDS crisis. Yet, this book, like my previous work, will not simply reproduce familiar statistics and analytic accounts of black death or rehearse the breathless numbers that since the Middle Passage has shaped a position of black people as somehow external or appositional to “world civilization.” Instead, I develop a notion of black poiesis related to what poet June Jordan, a key figure for the book, called life studies. She asked, "Given the pain inflicted, the humiliation, the murder - even the savage slaughtering - of those we love, and of love itself/our capacities for tenderness, how shall we, nevertheless, live as human beings?" Black poiesis ultimately concerns the ways black people have built and maintained capacities for tenderness and love. It starts from black affective solidarities and dissonances as they register in aesthetic form, the pursuit of freedom despite the forces arrayed against us.