My research and teaching focus on African American literature and the various histories of Black print culture. I am especially interested in mining the archives of black print to uncover the lost, forgotten, or overlook traces of African American literary history and using these to piece together the context in which literary texts were produced, distributed, and read.
For instance, my first book, Forgotten Readers (2002), examines the long history of African Americans as readers in the context of their organized literary practices. The book relies on a number of theoretical and disciplinary lenses to understand the epistemological and social conditions of print culture and literary community for African Americans between 1830 and 1940. It expands our definition of literacy and urges of us think about literature as broadly as it was conceived of in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. My second book, titled To Make Negro Literature (forthcoming, Duke UP), returns again to the archives to examine a variety of projects and conditions of authorship that have gone dismissed or largely unnoticed in traditional accounts of African American literary history. By turning our critical attention away from the usual markers of literary achievement—known authors and traditionally published works of poetry and fiction—I illuminate a series of texts, projects and literary practitioners that make visible the unsettledness of the category of black literature at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. I am particularly attuned in this book to the importance of coming to critical terms with an aspect of literary history that is all too rarely the subject of study: failure. We seldom privileges that which is unsuccessful, whether in terms of writers and texts never recognized with publication, or projects that remained incomplete or unfulfilled. How to incorporate these projects into our understanding of African American literary history is the subject of this book.
At the heart of my scholarship is the archives. In my teaching as well as my research, I am committed to making use of a wide range of local repositories and archives, including NYU’s Fales Collection and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture in Harlem. My aim is to help students learn to read archives critically by engaging them in ongoing recovery projects and in the theoretical work of thinking through the ways that black archives are entangled in the politics and practices of institutionalization.