Stephanie Li

Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English
Director of English Graduate Studies
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. 

    Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography

    Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography

    In this biography, chronological chapters follow Zora Neale Hurston's family, upbringing, education, influences, and of course, her major works, and place these experiences within the context of American history.

    This biography of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most influential African American writers of the 20th century and a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, is primarily for students and will cover all of the major points of development in Hurston's life as well as her major publications.

     

    Hurston's impact extends beyond the literary world: she also left her mark as an anthropologist whose ethnographic work portrays the racial struggles during the early 20th century American South. This work includes a preface and narrative chapters that explore Hurston's literary influences and the personal relationships that were most formative to her life; the final chapter, "Why Zora Neale Hurston Matters," explores her cultural and historical significance, providing context to her writings and allowing readers a greater understanding of Hurston's life while critically examining her major writing.

    Toni Morrison: A Biography

    Toni Morrison: A Biography

    Toni Morrison follows the life of the woman born Chloe Ardelia Wofford from her culturally rich childhood in Lorrain, OH, through her spectacular rise as a novelist, educator, and public intellectual. The book also serves as a basic introduction to the literary influences that shaped Morrison's writing, from the early novels to the breakout success of Song of Solomon; from the overwhelming achievement of Beloved to her most recent book, A Mercy. The book also examines Morrison's other writing―criticism, essays, edited volumes, children's books―as well as her academic career, her work as an editor at Random House, and her political activism, most notably in the 2008 presidential campaign.

    Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women

    Something Akin to Freedom: The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women

    Why would someone choose bondage over individual freedom? What type of freedom can be found in choosing conditions of enslavement? In Something Akin to Freedom, winner of the 2008 SUNY Press Dissertation/First Book Prize in African American Studies, Stephanie Li explores literary texts where African American women decide to remain in or enter into conditions of bondage, sacrificing individual autonomy to achieve other goals. In fresh readings of stories by Harriet Jacobs, Hannah Crafts, Gayl Jones, Louisa Picquet, and Toni Morrison, Li argues that amid shifting positions of power and through acts of creative agency, the women in these narratives make seemingly anti-intuitive choices that are simultaneously limiting and liberating. She explores how the appeal of the freedom of the North is constrained by the potential for isolation and destabilization for women rooted in strong social networks in the South. By introducing reproduction, mother-child relationships, and community into discourses concerning resistance, Li expands our understanding of individual liberation to include the courage to express personal desire and the freedom to love.

    Signifying Without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

    Signifying Without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

    On the campaign trail, Barack Obama faced a difficult task—rallying African American voters while resisting his opponents’ attempts to frame him as “too black” to govern the nation as a whole. Obama’s solution was to employ what Toni Morrison calls “race-specific, race-free language,” avoiding open discussions of racial issues while using terms and references that carried a specific cultural resonance for African American voters.

    Stephanie Li argues that American politicians and writers are using a new kind of language to speak about race. Challenging the notion that we have moved into a “post-racial” era, she suggests that we are in an uneasy moment where American public discourse demands that race be seen, but not heard. Analyzing contemporary political speech with nuanced readings of works by such authors as Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead, Li investigates how Americans of color have negotiated these tensions, inventing new ways to signal racial affiliations without violating taboos against open discussions of race.

    Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects

    Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects

    The postwar period witnessed an outpouring of white life novels--that is, texts by African American writers focused almost exclusively on white characters. Almost every major mid-twentieth century black writer, including Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ann Petry and James Baldwin, published one of these anomalous texts. Controversial since their publication in the 1940s and 50s, these novels have since fallen into obscurity given the challenges they pose to traditional conceptions of the African American literary canon.

    Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects aims to bring these neglected novels back into conversations about the nature of African American literature and the unique expectations imposed upon black texts. In a series of nuanced readings, Li demonstrates how postwar black novelists were at the forefront of what is now commonly understood as whiteness studies. Novels like Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee and Wright's Savage Holiday, once read as abdications of the political imperative of African American literature, are revisited with an awareness of how whiteness signifies in multivalent ways that critique America's abiding racial hierarchies. These novels explore how this particular racial construction is freighted with social power and narrative meaning. Whiteness repeatedly figures in these texts as a set of expectations that are nearly impossible to fulfill. By describing characters who continually fail at whiteness, white life novels ask readers to reassess what race means for all Americans.

    Along with its close analysis of key white life novels, Playing in the White: Black Writers, White Subjects also provides important historical context to understand how these texts represented the hopes and anxieties of a newly integrated nation.

    Pan-African American Literature: Signifyin(g) Immigrants in the Twenty-First Century

    Pan-African American Literature: Signifyin(g) Immigrants in the Twenty-First Century

    The twenty-first century is witnessing a dynamic broadening of how blackness signifies both in the U.S. and abroad. Literary writers of the new African diaspora are at the forefront of exploring these exciting approaches to what black subjectivity means. Pan-African American Literature is dedicated to charting the contours of literature by African born or identified authors centered around life in the United States. The texts examined here 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. Though race often alienates and frustrates immigrants who are accustomed to living in all-black environments, Stephanie Li holds that it can also be a powerful form of community and political mobilization.