Vanderbilt Lures Black

Vanderbilt Lures Black
Literary Scholars

Nashville, Tenn.
Vanderbilt University, on a mission to transform the English department’s literary studies program, has hired five leading Black scholars, including Drs. Houston A. Baker and Hortense Spillers, to make that happen.

“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. The Tennessee university, which currently offers graduate degrees in English with a concentration in African-American literature, hopes to eventually produce Ph.D.s in the discipline.

Baker, author of Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Black Studies, Rap and the Academy, is leaving an endowed chair at Duke University. Spillers, author of Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, is also leaving an endowed professorship at 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, wife of Houston Baker and author of Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape, will also leave Duke to join the women’s studies department, which is part of the English department at Vanderbilt. Spillers starts work in January while the other four will be on campus this fall.

“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.

“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.”

— By Toni Coleman



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