Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor, Distinguished Research Professor
Having taught in the U.S. academy for three decades now (and counting), I am reluctant to look back for all those mythical reasons that warn against the backward glance. (I never figured out why doing so might turn one into a pillar of salt, but it is alleged from quite reputable sources to have happened to at least one person!) In any case, when I conjure up 1974, when I started post-doc teaching at Wellesley College, I always find something to cut the memory short, since remembering is to suggest that you have more past than future, but it doesn’t feel so to me at all. Actually, I feel as though I’m just getting started good! Though I think I wouldn’t have been half bad at either, I am nevertheless grateful to myself that I didn’t pursue a career in the practice of law, or tv/radio broadcasting, having spent my last two years in undergraduate school at the University of Memphis as a disc jockey at WDIA radio in Memphis. This historic organization—among the first, if not the dead absolute first, all-black radio station in the United States—might have been my launching pad, I’d hoped, to a career in national news; as I recall, I was preparing to take the broadcasters’ examination, administered by the Feds (and the equivalent of our SATs, or in those days, CEEBs) and about to cut a tape, at their request, to post to the executives who ran WHER in Memphis—the first all-woman radio station in the country, I think. But after all that, William Blake’s prophetic books won the charm offensive! Is that not a surprise, or what! Not many things were more interesting to me then than Walter Cronkite, Pauline Fredrick, and Edward R. Morrow, unless it was “Vala, or the Four Zoas”! And one thing led to another and another and finally a career of literary and cultural interrogation that has taken me literally from my birthplace on the southern tier to the East and Mid-West of the country and several decades later, back again. It would be an understatement to assert that it is not today the same South from which I departed my parents’ driveway in my little Buick Skylark, three months after MLK’s assassination, enroute to Boston and Brandeis. The changes have been momentous for everyone and precisely frame my own professional development.
Try to imagine this: I hired someone to type my doctoral dissertation, though I was competent enough to have done it myself. But one hired out the work before computers because the professional typist was expected to be very fast, very capable, and expert at the proper formatting. You did everything else. The distance that separates the mid-70s from the turn-of-the-century world is a matter of light years, but I wonder how we are doing today with an old-fashioned aim in mind, and that is to say, teaching reading and writing in the age of twitter, although we apply far fancier names to what we do. It is likely that I wrote my dissertation on the rhetoric of black sermons by hand first, then made a rough copy of it on my Olivetti, then gave the secretary the rough draft from which to make the perfect draft. I think I paid the lady $200.00 and change, as the first “real” painting I bought from the same era—a striking head of Miles Davis on a black ground-- cost five hundred. Living in Haverford rather than Philly, Ithaca rather than the Big Apple, not taking a job in Chicago, but staying in central New York, I survived the 80s, 90s, and the new millennium; what bothers me now is that we haven’t figured out yet the implications of inflated costs, e.g;, that of higher education and the speeds that are supposed to match the global flows of capital. I think we need to spend a little time trying to imagine what all the latter mean to and for the tasks of higher education.
Current research interests:
I am currently working on two big projects—the idea of black culture and women and early Republican formations—and three smaller and related ones—Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen (from Absalom, Absalom!) and the DuBoisian “double consciousness,” “statelessness” and the early modern black subject, and Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison at mid-century; all of these projects are at various stages of writing.