My scholarship and teaching focus on American and African American literature from the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century. I am particularly interested in the way that debates about literary form and genre articulate with discussions of political and social change. My single-authored books, which include What Was African American Literature? (Harvard 2010), So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (Chicago, 2003), and Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago, 1993), explore how American literature by black and white writers helped consolidate, and subsequently responded to, Jim Crow America. Indeed, in What Was African American Literature? I argue that idea of an African American literature gained conceptual coherence only in response to the Jim Crow regime. The argument of that book derives from my study of Ralph Ellison, So Black and Blue, which raises the uncomfortable possibility that our desire to value the work of twentieth-century American authors—even those authors who, like Ellison, set out to challenge the nation's racial status quo—might, paradoxically, tend to underwrite our commitment to a social order that naturalizes forms of inequality.
I also am coeditor of two books, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Material and Ideological Foundations of African America Thought (Paradigm 2010) and Jim Crow, Literature, and the Legacy of Sutton E. Griggs (Georgia 2013). Articles by me have also appeared in Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Jacobin.
The various courses I teach have reflected my interest in genre, the politics of race, and the relation of culture to politics. "The American Novel and the Death of Jim Crow" (ENG 258/458) asks students to consider the role played by some of the major novels of the late 1940s and the 1950s in undermining the nation's commitment to racial segregation. My course in "American Literary Realism" (Eng. 267) compares and contrasts the way that novelists, philosophers, and scientists address the problem of representing accurately the world we inhabit.
- What Was African American Literature?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
- So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
- "Still on the Lower Frequencies: Invisible Man at 50" The Common Review: The Magazine of the Great Books Foundation(Fall 2002).
- "As White as Anybody: Race and the Politics of Counting as Black," New Literary History 31.4 (Autumn 2000).
- "A Inevitable Drift?: Oligarchy, Du Bois and the Politics of Race Between the Wars." "Sociology Hesitant," a Special Issue of boundary 2 Fall 2000.
- "The End(s) of African American Studies." "History in the Making" a Special Issue of American Literary History 12.3 (2000).
- "Appeals for (Mis)recognition: Theorizing the Diaspora," in Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan, eds. Cultures of U.S. Imperialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
- "Thinking Beyond Catastrophe: Leon Forrest's There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden. Callaloo 16.2 (1993) 409-418.
- "The Problem of Anthologies, or Making the Dead Wince," in "Forum: What Do We Need to Teach?" American Literature65.2 (1993) 338-342.
- "From Under the Superscript: A Response to Michael Awkward." American Literary History, 4.1 (Spring 1992).
- "Frederick Douglass's Life and Times: Progressive Rhetoric and the Problem of Constituency." Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Ed. Eric Sundquist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.