Students engaging in a workshop

Professors Embrace Black Literature

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of English welcomed four new faculty members this fall who arrived for an important purpose: to study and teach global black literatures.

The department announced last December that its board of visitors had committed to fundraise $150,000 over five years to help create multiple faculty positions and “form a center of research and teaching excellence in Global Black Literatures.” This field includes African American literature, black British literature, and Caribbean and black diasporic literatures, according to an announcement posted on the department’s website.

The resulting fundraising push by the department, alumni, and other UW entities ultimately led to the “cluster hire” of four assistant professors — all with unique research interests and expertise in areas of global black literatures.

Laila Amine, a native of France, comes to the UW from the University of North Texas. Amine specializes in 20th- and 21st-century African American and African diaspora studies with a focus on race, migration, and colonial legacies. Her book, Postcolonial Paris: Fictions of Intimacy in the City of Light, was published in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin Press. (“I had that contract before I applied for the job,” she says with a laugh. “It’s just pure coincidence.”)

Ainehi Edoro came to the United States from Nigeria to pursue her undergraduate studies and went on to earn a doctorate from Duke. Most recently she was a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Edoro specializes in global anglophone literatures, 21st-century fiction, and literature in digital and social media; her current book project explores the history of form and aesthetics in the African novel.

Yanie Fecu joins the faculty at the UW after completing her doctoral degree at Princeton University. She specializes in 20th- and 21st-century anglophone and francophone Caribbean literature, with particular interests in auditory culture, postcolonial theory, and history of science.

Kristina Huang comes to the UW after earning her doctorate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a postdoc at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Her research focuses on the transmission of texts in the black Atlantic world as an avenue for relocating forms of political solidarity and community among diasporic subjects in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Why the UW?

Amine, Edoro, Fecu, and Huang say they were attracted to these positions at least in part because of the nature of the UW and its commitment to studying diverse cultures — including the very existence of an African American studies department, which may not be as common as you might think among major universities.

“Just the idea that there is a degree-granting department for the African archive, to me, is amazing, and it’s not something that I know is offered in any other parts of the world,” Edoro says. “How many degree-granting departments on African literature are there? I don’t even know that African institutions have a degree-granting department for African cultural stuff. That, to me, was a huge draw.”

Amine says being hired as part of a team was also part of the attraction — especially one that is meant to look beyond the shores of the United States.

“They were looking for several scholars, and it was a commitment to look beyond the nation,” she says. “We’re not in the same area of study, but the transnational commitment is there.”

Edoro notes that hiring more than one faculty member helps to achieve the transnational reach.

“There’s a way that the concept of the cluster hire just produces diversity of interest and focus that becomes more difficult when you can only hire one person,” she says.

For Huang, the size and reputation of the university were also important factors, especially after spending some time at a small liberal arts college.

“One of the things that drew me to UW was the fact that it’s a public university. I’m very excited about that,” she says. “I come from a public university system. I spent over 10 years as a teacher and a student at the City University of New York, and then I spent a year at a small liberal arts college, which was really nice.”

Coalesce to Collaborate

Although the English department has hired these four scholars to teach, research, and work together, Russ Castronovo, English department chair, says that the department has not given the new faculty members a specific directive.

“But I would say that [the university has made a] concerted effort to hire innovatively and creatively across these fields,” Castronovo adds. “The idea of hiring a cohort is also wrapped up in the idea to address issues of climate, diversity, inclusion, outreach, and mentoring. You can’t isolate faculty. Instead you need to bring them together. That’s part of this push.”

Amine explains how she sees the new hires moving ahead.

“I think they’re going to encourage us to collaborate in ways that we see fit,” she says. “I think that that’s what’s really exciting about this cohort hiring is that we’re still getting to know each other and we’re still learning about what our investments are and what we would like to do, what kinds of projects we’d like to pursue in the future, and I’m sure they’re going to coalesce in different points in different times during our time here into different kinds of collaborations.”

Edoro notes that room for collaboration and creativity benefits the work the new faculty members are set out to accomplish.

“I think [this cluster hire] is very much based on an exciting definition of what ‘global’ and ‘blackness’ and ‘literature’ means,” Edoro says. “For me that is part of the resonance is considering what has been happening today with Black Lives Matter and conversations like that. Our work is so different, in terms of peers, in terms of the problems [we’re working on], in terms of archives, but it shows a certain commitment to the fact that what constitutes blackness as a global category in relationship to literature is diverse, and that the university is invested in that.”

Huang adds that she hopes to create a connection with the community.

“I really love the fact that this university is kind of the lifeblood of the city, the capital,” she says. “That’s really exciting to me. And I really love the outward-facing programs that they have here. I’m very much thinking about, how does the university participate in the public life of people in Wisconsin? I would like to think that in the coming years, I will push that and continually push towards that mission.”