Stephanie Li

Stephanie Li

Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English
PHD, Cornell University
MFA, Cornell University
MA, Cornell University
BA, Stanford Universty

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My research is united by a commitment to bridging the divide between political rhetoric and literary narratives. Whether analyzing differing conceptions of freedom in 19th-century slave narratives or parsing the racial subtext of contemporary political rhetoric, I emphasize how personal and social resistance is vital to African American discourse. My extensive writing on Toni Morrison, including a short biography published in 2009, has also been foundational to elucidating the contradictions and doubled aims of American racial representation.

My first monograph, Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women, analyzes literary examples in which African American women decide either to remain within or enter into conditions of bondage. I take up such issues as how enslavement can be understood as a site of desire and the gendered nature of individual resistance.  Signifying without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama, describes a new mode of racial discourse for the 21st century, what Toni Morrison calls "race-specific, race-free language." I propose that Morrison's conception of language that encodes race without racism requires new levels of intimacy even as it reifies other forms of difference. In such texts as Morrison's Paradise, Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri and the writings and speeches of President Obama, I demonstrate how race now functions through a type of interpretative understanding, rather than as an avowed category of identity. My interest in Obama's writings led me to guest co-edit with Professor Gordon Hutner the fall 2012 special issue of American Literary History, entitled "Writing the Presidency." Many of the collected essays focus on the increasing prominence and influence of the political memoir.

My next project, Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects, considered how postwar African American authors represent whiteness. White life novels like Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwannee and Richard Wright's Savage Holiday are uneasy additions to the African American canon because they explore the lives of white characters. By undermining expectations of what constitutes the province of black literature, they demand that we move beyond conventional reading practices. My interest in representations of whiteness extends to 21st century novels by American writers of various backgrounds.

My most recent academic book,  Signifyin(g) Immigrants: Twenty-First Century Pan-African American Literature is dedicated to charting the contours of pan-African American literature, that is, literature by African born or identified authors centered around life in the United States. The texts I examine deliberately signify on the African American literary canon to encompass new experiences of immigration, assimilation and identification that challenge how blackness has been previously conceived. Rather than read texts by authors such as Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Dinaw Mengestu and others as African or specific to the national homelands of their authors, they are presented as part of an ever-expanding African American literary tradition.

I have also co-edited Close-Ups on Beyoncé and JAY-Z for the journal Black Camera as well as the Fall 2017 ALH special issue on 21st Century African American Literature.

Selected Publications

Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2020. 

Pan-African American Literature: Signifyin(g) Immigrants in the Twenty-First Century. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 

Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 

Signifying Without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama. New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press, 2011. 

Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American  Women. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010. (Winner of the First Book Prize in  African American Studies and 2010 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title) 

Toni Morrison: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.