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Scholars of Note: English

EnglishIlluminating The DiasporaBrent Hayes EdwardsTitle: Associate Professor of English, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick
Education: Ph.D., M.A., Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University; B.A., Literature, Yale University
Age: 35Following his college graduation, Brent Hayes Edwards left the United States for Paris — armed with a condensed library of African American and Francophone literature, an array of essays, and a copy of Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage to read during his overseas flight.
“I had a reverse middle passage going to Europe, the belly of the beast,” Edwards says about his journey that resembled the expatriation of many African American intellectuals decades ago. He lived and worked in Paris for a few years as a translator and paralegal.
Edwards, now a professor of English at Rutgers University, is as fluent in French as he is in English and reads Spanish and Portuguese. He writes prolifically, particularly about jazz. He also relishes moments of intersection as people cross boundaries to communicate, which is the focus of his first book, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard University Press, 2003).
“What’s been very important to me is trying to work in very different arenas at the same time,” Edwards says. “I’m part of a generation fascinated with transnational circuits of culture and Diaspora.”
Critics consider his treatment “pathbreaking work.” Edwards’ approach is more humble. “I started trying to figure out how to get at the Harlem Renaissance in an international frame. Thinking about these circuits of travel and translation, I started wondering if one could theorize Diaspora more in the sense of practice. You have a series of individual, one-time exchanges, correspondences and moments of influence,” he continues. “I’m interested in ways we are not one, ways we can have a political project that goes across the boundaries of nation states, languages, class positions, gender and sexual preference.”
Edwards’ academic interests stem from childhood — a year abroad in Belgium with his family, taking piano lessons, playing soccer, and studying French language and literature in high school. Inspiration also came from his parents. His mother is a high-school ESL (English as a second language) teacher, and his father, now a judge, is a law professor.
“I remember with fondness going with my dad to his office in the law school in Ann Arbor,” Edwards says. “I’d see him at his desk preparing lectures, and I would sit studiously in a corner drawing my pictures. I also remember sitting in the back of those big amphitheaters while he was teaching. Being in an academic space made intellectual work something I was comfortable with from the beginning.
“I feel a responsibility to model that. As a person of color in the academy, I cannot be unaware of the politics of representation,” says Edwards who was tenured last year. “It’s about seeing somebody and saying, ‘Wow, I could have an intellectual career.’ “
Dr. Robert O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston professor of literature, jazz scholar, founder of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University and Edwards’ former dissertation chair, notes the young scholar’s contributions to the academy.
“His work has thrown lights on in parts of the theater we knew were there but didn’t know what to do with, because we didn’t have people with enough international linguistic reach,” O’Meally says. “Additionally, we often get brilliant scholars, but a lot them cannot teach anybody anything. Here is somebody who is a devoted, gifted and practiced teacher, as well as scholar.” — By Crystal L. Keels

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