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Vanderbilt Lures Black Literary Scholars

Vanderbilt University is on a mission to transform its literary studies program, and hopes to use an interdisciplinary approach to make that happen. To achieve that end, the university is adding five leading Black literary scholars, including Drs. Houston A. Baker and Hortense Spillers, to its English department.

“This has been a really extraordinary opportunity for us. We have had the unexpected chance to add five people to our already strong group of African-Americanists. We now have senior leadership for this group,” says Dr. Jay Clayton, chair of the department. Vanderbilt, which currently offers graduate degrees in English with a concentration in African-American literature, hopes to eventually produce doctorate programs in African-American literature.

Baker, author of Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Black Studies, Rap and the Academy, is leaving an endowed chair at Duke University. And Spillers, author of Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, is leaving Cornell University.

Joining Baker and Spillers will be Dr. Ifeoma Nwankwo, an expert in African-American and Caribbean literature, and Alice Randall, who is best known for The Wind Done Gone, a satire of Gone With the Wind. Randall will be teaching creative writing and an innovative course on race and country music. Dr. Charlotte Pierce-Baker, author of Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape and Houston Baker’s wife, will also leave Duke to join the women’s studies department, which is also part of the English department at Vanderbilt.

“It’s just quite a coup,” says Dr. Frank Dobson, a novelist and director of Vanderbilt’s Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center. “As a scholar and thinker in African-American literature, I’m delighted that people like Hortense Spillers and Houston Baker are joining Vanderbilt. They represent Vanderbilt’s commitment to diversity and to intellectual depth in these fields. They represent the apex, the height of contemporary African-American thought today. They’ve been doing groundbreaking work for years.”

This is the English department’s second wave of hires, with more to come. With the first group, which included high-profile recruits from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, Vanderbilt began focusing on an interdisciplinary approach to literature studies, Clayton says. Those hired in recent years include Haitian and Jamaican literature expert Dr. Colin (Joan) Dayan and Dr. Dana Nelson, an English professor who has written on race and identity.

“It is impossible to study the literature of the United States in any century,” Clayton says, “without thinking about the relationship between African-American literature and Caribbean literature and all the other literature of the Americas. Two years ago, we started changing how we teach any aspect of African-American literature. These hires solidify that movement and take it to a new level.

“Our vision is really to transform literary studies generally, not simply to become excellent in African-American literature but to create a new way of approaching the literature of the Americas,” he adds.

Clayton lauds Vanderbilt’s leadership for providing “resources to break down barriers to innovation.” He says it was important to have Chancellor Gordon Gee involved in the recruiting. 

“For much of my career, I’ve been in situations where administrators have been cautious and the faculty wanted to stick to the safe and usual boundaries of literature studies,” Clayton says. “Vanderbilt is in a period where interdisciplinarianism and innovation are not only encouraged, but backed up by the money that makes change possible.”

— By Toni Coleman

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