Rafia Zafar

Professor of English, African and African-American Studies, and American Culture Studies
PhD, Harvard University
research interests:
  • American Literature Before 1935
  • 19th Century African-American Literature
  • Harlem Renaissance Literature
  • Food Ways and US Literature
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    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    ​Professor Zafar writes about the intersection of food, authorship, and American identities, nineteenth century Black writers, and the Harlem Renaissance. She is the faculty director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program.

    Zafar began her career at Washington University in St. Louis as Director of the Program in African & African American Studies; she has also directed Undergraduate Honors in the Department of English. Currently she is Faculty Director of Washington University's Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program. 

    Zafar’s publications include God Made Man, Man Made the Slave (co-editor; Mercer 1990); Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl  (co-editor; Cambridge UP, 1996); We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature1760-1870 (Columbia UP, 1997); and Harlem Renaissance Novels: The Library of America Collection (two volumes; Library of America, 2011).  Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning appeared in March 2019 (Southern Foodways Alliance Series/University of Georgia Press).

    Zafar has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Virginia Center for the Humanities; in 2007 she held the Walt Whitman Distinguished Fulbright Chair at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In 2014-2015 she was the National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar in Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. 

    Selected articles

    Cooking for civil rights

    The birth of African American writing

    James Baldwin: Some degrees of separation

    Frederick Douglass and George Teamoh: Anxieties of influence in the postbellum slave narrative

    Carver's Food Movement: How the famous botanist paved the way for today's "sustainable agriculture"

    Selected Courses

    • English:  Passing: Identities Lost and Found
    • English:  Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows Seminar
    • English:  African American Literature:  Key Authors, Critical Contexts (graduate seminar)
    • AFAS:  Recipes for Respect:  Black Foodways in the United States
    • AFAS:  Rebels, Sheroes and Race Men:  19th century African American Intellectual Activism
    • English/AFAS:  Slavery and the Literary Imagination
    • English/AFAS/JINES:  Blacks and Jews in American Literature
    • English/AFAS:  Zora Neale Hurston
    • English:  Race and Ethnicity in American Literature
    • English/AFAS:  The Harlem Renaissance 
    • English/AmCS: Food in American literature and culture
    We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870

    We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870

    Uncovers the strategies early African American writers used both to create an African American identity and to make their visions and stories accessible to white readers. Alongside these pioneers of black American literature Zafar juxtaposes some familiar European American Writers. Beginning with Phillis Wheatley's implicit engagements with other colonial era poets, and ending with the ultimately tragic success story of Elizabeth Keckley, ex-slave, seamstress, and confidante to a First Lady, black authors employed virtually every dominant literary genre while cannily manipulating the nature of their presence.

    Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning

    Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning

    Food studies, once trendy, has settled into the public arena. In the academy, scholarship on food and literary culture constitutes a growing river within literary and cultural studies, but writing on African American food and dining remains a tributary. Recipes for Respect bridges this gap, illuminating the role of foodways in African American culture as well as the contributions of Black cooks and chefs to what has been considered the mainstream.

    Beginning in the early nineteenth century and continuing nearly to the present day, African Americans have often been stereotyped as illiterate kitchen geniuses. Rafia Zafar addresses this error, highlighting the long history of accomplished African Americans within our culinary traditions, as well as the literary and entrepreneurial strategies for civil rights and respectability woven into the written records of dining, cooking, and serving. Whether revealed in cookbooks or fiction, memoirs or hotel-keeping manuals, agricultural extension bulletins or library collections, foodways knowledge sustained Black strategies for self-reliance and dignity, the preservation of historical memory, and civil rights and social mobility. If, to follow Mary Douglas’s dictum, food is a field of action―that is, a venue for social intimacy, exchange, or aggression―African American writing about foodways constitutes an underappreciated critique of the racialized social and intellectual spaces of the United States.

    Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

    Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

    Harriet Jacobs, today perhaps the single most read and studied Black American woman of the nineteenth century, has not until recently enjoyed sustained, scholarly analysis. This anthology presents a far-ranging compendium of literary and cultural scholarship that will take its place as the primary resource for students and teachers of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The contributors include both established Jacobs scholars and emerging critics; the essays take on a variety of subjects in Incidents, treating representation, gender, resistance, and spirituality from differing angles.

    Harlem Renaissance: Four Novels of the 1930s: Not Without Laughter / Black No More / The Conjure-Man Dies / Black Thunder

    Harlem Renaissance: Four Novels of the 1930s: Not Without Laughter / Black No More / The Conjure-Man Dies / Black Thunder

    HARLEM RENAISSANCE: Four Novels of the 1930s traces the flowering of the Renaissance in diverse genres and forms. It opens with Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter (1931), an elegantly realized coming-of-age tale that follows a young man from his rural origins to the big city. Suffused with childhood memories, it is the poet's only novel. George S. Schuyler's Black No More (1931), a satire founded on the science fiction premise of a wonder drug permitting blacks to change their race, skewers public figures white and black alike in a raucous, carnivalesque send-up of American racial attitudes. Considered the first detective story by an African American writer, Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) is a mystery that comically mixes and reverses stereotypes, placing a Harvard-educated African "conjureman" at the center of a phantasmagoric charade of deaths and disappearances. Black Thunder (1936), Arna Bontemps's stirring fictional recreation of Gabriel Prosser's 1800 slave revolt, which, though unsuccessful, shook Jefferson's Virginia to its core, marks a turn from aestheticism toward political militancy in its exploration of African American history.

    Harlem Renaissance Novels: The Library of America Collection

    Harlem Renaissance Novels: The Library of America Collection

    Together, the nine works in Harlem Renaissance Novels form a vibrant collective portrait of African American culture in a moment of tumultuous change and tremendous hope. 

    God Made Man, Man Made the Slave: The Autobiography of George Teamoh

    God Made Man, Man Made the Slave: The Autobiography of George Teamoh

    Teamoh (1818-83?) was a slave in Virginia, escaped to Germany, lived in New York City, then returned to Virginia after the Civil War and took part in the state government.