Not Just Black and White

As a teenager, Dr. Anne Cheng held in awe the novel Invisible Man. She considered its words “nothing short of beautiful.”

But as an adult, she realized the novel resonated with her for other reasons too. Author Ralph Ellison’s themes of racial marginalization and exclusion reflected her upbringing in a White-Black world that ignored Asians like her.

“The book’s nuances spoke to something inside me,” says Cheng, a Princeton University professor of English and a core faculty member of its Center for African American Studies. She explores race and psychoanalytic theory in 20th-century American literature, especially Asian American and African- American literature.

A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Cheng immigrated with her family to the United States in the 1970s at age 12. Her obstetrician father settled them in Savannah, Ga., where he’d found work. Aside from family, Cheng’s daily life revolved around Whites and Blacks, groups that dominated Savannah.

“My brother and I were the first Asians in schools we attended,” she says. “Asians were seen as exotic, weird. I felt different. And definitely, never included.”

A lifelong lover of literature, Cheng wanted to become a poet but get steady paychecks too. She eventually decided the scholarly path might offer the best of both and also let her tackle the interracial themes that colored her teenage years. She finds common themes in the works of authors such as Ellison, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, for example.

After earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley, Cheng taught a wide range of courses there and at Harvard University with intriguing titles like “Shades of Passing” that delved into literary theory, cultural studies, post-colonial theory and film studies, to name a few topics.

She can’t fathom not using a comparative approach in her research and teaching. “Race in America is so layered, I don’t know how to do just Black and White, or just Asian American. All the stuff I look at is so inherently interdisciplinary.”

Cheng is finishing a book, to be published by Oxford University Press, about African-American entertainer Josephine Baker who became famous in Paris in the 1920s. Cheng’s work examines the dramatically different responses to Baker and their social and racial implications. Many Whites in this country scorned Baker’s sensual, nearly naked dances but admired her for gathering and smuggling intelligence for the French Resistance during World War II. “She was a hybrid, a complicated woman,” Cheng says.

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