My research and teaching focus on African American and American literature. I’m especially interested in the ways that authors and texts articulate un-archived, “secret” and so, unspeakable developments that shaped American life during the long century of Jim Crow segregation’s reign, from 1865 to 1965. I explore these tensions through interdisciplinary approaches to formal close reading, together with the material and cultural histories of Black-authored books—their composition, publication, circulation, and reception.
For instance, my first book, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (2006), examines how literary depictions of anti-Black mob murders at the turn of the 20th century figure the violence as a trope of American modernity. Following from A Spectacular Secret, I prepared a Norton Critical Edition of James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. That project reclaims Johnson’s novel as an important hinge linking African American modernism to Anglo-American modernism. As important, my research recovers the publishing history of Johnson’s novel, tracing its reprintings as a case study of the racial politics underpinning US publishing history’s developments in the first half of the twentieth century.
My next monograph, Writing from the Lower Frequencies: African American Literature at Mid-Century, focuses on the regenerative aesthetic life that Jim Crow segregation gave rise to during the mid-20th century. How to explain the aesthetic cosmopolitanism of African American literature’s “lost generation”–those fabulous, brilliant writers of the post-World War II/pre-Civil Rights Movement era? What literary ecologies made those authors’ emergence and impact as a cohort both decisive and hard to classify? I want to think these questions through in relation to Pierre Bourdieu-informed “field theory” of Black literary production during those decades.
To research Writing from the Lower Frequencies, I’ve had to recover the archives I want to write about. Two of these initiatives have received major funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The first, “Mapping the Stacks” (2005-10), recovered manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs, and moving images that document Black Chicago’s literary, cultural, and visual histories during the 1930s-1970s. Mapping the Stacks played a key role shaping the recent rise of “Black Chicago Renaissance” studies. The second initiative stems from my research in African American Book History. I co-direct “The Black Bibliography Project” with Meredith McGill of Rutgers University. We launched the BBP in 2017. Our goal: to revive descriptive bibliography—the systematic description of print materials as physical objects—for African American and Black Diaspora literary studies. We’re creating a digital database whose capacities can reveal the dynamic social formations and aesthetic practices that are specific to Black print culture in the U.S. and beyond.
I joined Yale’s faculty in 2011. I served two terms as Chair of Yale’s African American Studies Department, 2014-2022.
“Black Bibliography: Traditions and Futures,” Special Issue co-edited with Meredith L. McGill, Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 116:2 (June 2022).
“ ‘Something is Said in the Silences:’ Gwendolyn Brooks’ Years at Harper’s,” American Literary History 33:2 (Summer 2021): 244-270.
“Book Faces,” in The Unfinished Book, eds. Deidre Lynch & Alexandra Gillespie (Oxford UP, 2020).
The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man. James Weldon Johnson. Ed., Jacqueline Goldsby. (W.W. Norton, 2015).
” ‘Closer to Something Unnameable’: James Baldwin’s Art of the Novel,” in The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin, ed. Michele Elam (Cambridge UP, 2015).
A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2006)
- Winner, William S. Scarborough Prize, Modern Language Association (2007)
- Finalist, Lora Romero First Book Prize, American Studies Association (2007)
20th century African American and American literature; African American and American history of the book, publishing, and authorship; critical bibliography studies; textual studies and criticism; Afro-Modernisms; Black Chicago Renaissance Studies