UO Symposium on African American Literature Featured Outstanding Scholars

Left to right: Emily Lordi, Courtney Thorsson, Salamishah Tillet, Jennifer Williams, Eve Dunbar (photo by Chelsea Bullock)

March 2, 2012—More than a hundred students, faculty and community members attended the symposium “Place and Displacement in African American Literature,” which took place in the Browsing Room of the UO Knight Library on March 2. Courtney Thorsson, a University of Oregon assistant professor of English, organized the group of scholars, who gave talks about their research. Presenters included faculty from Vassar College, University of Massachusetts, University of Pennsylvania, Goucher College, Duke University, and the UO.

Professor Eve Dunbar of Vassar College spoke about famed Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic works Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. Dunbar invited audience members to consider the role of the American nationalism in Hurston’s writings.

Professor Thorsson talked about the revolutionary recipes of culinary anthropologist Vertamae Grosvenor, who wrote the 1970 Black Power cookbook Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.

Professor Emily Lordi, University of Massachusetts, considered the position of poet Lucille Clifton in the Black Arts Movement through close examination of Clifton’s poem “move.”

Salamishah Tillet, University of Pennsylvania, discussed Nina Simone’s travels to Africa as crucial for a “sonic black radicalism” in Simone’s early and late recordings. In addition to offering careful analysis of Simone’s biography and music, Professor Tillet treated the audience to many selections of music.

Jennifer Williams of Goucher College invited attendees to consider the erotic dimensions of women’s travel in three novels: Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris, Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips, and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. Professor Williams argued that female protagonists in each of these novels “transform themselves from aesthetic objects to speaking subjects” through their travels.

The gathering of this group of scholars in Eugene was made possible through the support of the Center for the Study of Women in Society (CSWS), Department of English, Department of Ethnic Studies, the Oregon Humanities Center, and the UO School of Law.

 Participant Bios

Eve Dunbar is an associate professor of English at Vassar College. Professor Dunbar specializes in African American literature and cultural expression, black feminism, and theories of black diaspora. In addition to teaching in the English Department, she is an active contributor to Vassar’s Africana Studies, Women’s Studies, and American Culture Programs. She is completing her manuscript project tentatively entitled “Black is a Region,” which explores the aesthetic and political ties that bind literary genre, American nationalism, and black cultural nationalism in the literary works of mid-20th century African American writers. Professor Dunbar’s publications include “Black is a Region: Segregation and Literary Regionalism in Richard Wright’s The Color Curtain” (African American Review 2009). She is also a contributor to the African American National Bibliography (Oxford University Press, 2008) and has written book reviews for journals ranging from Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters to Post No Ills: A New American Review…of Reviews. In 2008-09, Professor Dunbar was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship in English by Rutgers University. Her current research is on questions of place and displacement in the ethnographic and literary writings of Zora Neale Hurston.

Emily Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her first book (forthcoming, Rutgers UP) re-examines the work of twentieth-century African American writers such as Richard Wright and Nikki Giovanni through their engagements with classic black women singers such as Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. Professor Lordi’s article “‘Window Seat’: Erykah Badu, Projective Cultural Politics, and the Obama Era” appears in the current issue of Yale’s peer-reviewed online journal Post45. Her next project will chart a cultural history of the concept of “soul.” She has served as the Music and Culture Book Review editor for Callaloo and is currently the editor for the Gallery Project at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Courtney Thorsson is an assistant professor of English at the University of Oregon. She teaches and studies African American literature from its beginnings to the present. Her forthcoming book, Women’s Work, argues that black women’s novels of the 1980s and ‘90s reclaimed and revised cultural nationalism. Her writing has appeared in Callaloo and Atlantic Studies. Her article “James Baldwin and Black Women Writers” will appear in the Baldwin special issue of African American Review later this year. Professor Thorsson is currently at work on her second book, a study of culinary discourse in African American literature.

Salamishah Tillet, assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, received her Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization in 2007, her M.A. in English from Harvard University, and her M.A. in Teaching from Brown University. In 2010-11, she was the recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fellow for Career Enhancement and served as a visiting fellow at the Center of African American Studies at Princeton University. Tillet’s book Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination (Duke University Press, 2012) examines how contemporary African American artists and intellectuals re-imagine slavery as a metaphor for post-Civil Rights citizenship and as a model for racial democracy. With Hua Hsu, she is the coeditor of the forthcoming, Seems the Good Die Young: Music, Mourning, and The Political Assassinations of the 1960s. In 2010, she co-edited the Callaloo Special Issue on Ethiopia and her work has appeared in Callaloo, Novel, Research in African Literatures, Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, and Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue. She is currently working on a book-length project on Nina Simone. Tillet is also a regular contributor to the online magazine The Root, and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, Inc., a nonprofit organization that uses art therapy and the visual and the performing arts to end violence against girls and women. Her research interests include twentieth-century African-American literature, film, popular music, cultural studies, and feminist theory.

Jennifer Williams spent the last three years as an assistant professor and faculty fellow at New York University in the department of English before joining the Department of Women’s Sudies at Goucher College. Professor Williams’ research and teaching interests include twentieth-century Black Diasporic literature and culture; women, gender, and sexuality; trauma and migration; and visual culture. Her most recent article “‘A Woman was Lynched the Other Day’: Memory, Gender, and the Limits of Traumatic Representation” is in the volume Gender and Lynching: The Politics of Memory (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Professor Williams’s essay “Jean Toomer’s Cane and the Erotics of Mourning” originally published in Southern Literary Journal (Spring 2008) was reprinted last year in the 2nd Norton Critical Edition of Cane, edited by Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Professor Williams is completing her first book Archiving Blackness: Race and Memory in African American Literature and Culture.