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Five prominent African American literature scholars to move to Vanderbilt; Hortense Spillers, Houston Baker among new hires

May. 25, 2006, 4:29 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt University has hired five prominent African American literature scholars in a blockbuster recruiting coup that advances its efforts to be a major player in the study of African American literature and deepen scholarship of Southern and American literature.

Houston Baker, Ifeoma Nwankwo, Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Alice Randall and Hortense Spillers all begin work at Vanderbilt during the fall 2006 semester.

The new hires will be tapped by Vanderbilt to be leaders in continuing efforts to pursue interdisciplinary studies, train minority scholars and reach out to historically black colleges. Successful programs in collaboration with historically black colleges are already in place at Vanderbilt in fields including physics and medicine. Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center is planning a year-long seminar on black European studies in 2007-2008.

Southern culture cannot be taught apart from African American culture, said Jay Clayton, chair of the English department.

“The South is the seedbed from which African American music, literature, art and cuisine rose and spread,” Clayton said. “Nor can we think of African American culture or the South outside of its place in the hemisphere and in the global economy dating back to the 18th century.

“Those are the perspectives we think our recent hires will help us bring to our study of Southern literature. This is part of Vanderbilt re-imagining how to teach American literature.”

Baker, who leaves Duke University to become a distinguished university professor at Vanderbilt, is one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals in America. He has written about Victorian and African American literature, rap music, the legacy of Booker T. Washington, the Harlem Renaissance and much more, often drawing audiences far afield from academia.

Spillers, who leaves Cornell University to become Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English, “is one of the most brilliant intellectuals working in literary criticism and theory from the 1970s onward,” Clayton said. She has written about psychoanalysis and race, how linguistics have failed black women, and crucial essays on authors including Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks and William Faulkner.

Pierce-Baker leaves Duke to become a professor of women’s and gender studies and professor of English at Vanderbilt. She was nationally acclaimed for her 1999 book Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape, and will teach sociolinguistics for the English department.

Randall, a former visiting professor at Vanderbilt, returns for a three-year term as writer-in-residence. Her debut novel The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With the Wind, sparked a First Amendment court battle and her second, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, was critically acclaimed in 2004. She has co-written country music songs including the No. 1 hit “Xxx’s and Ooo’s (An American Girl)” for Trisha Yearwood and is finishing a book on race and country music lyrics. “She is a splendid writer who complements our creative writing faculty and who brings a new kind of expertise to our study of Southern music and culture,” Clayton said.

Nwankwo, who leaves the University of Michigan, was one of the most heavily recruited mid-career professors in the country before Vanderbilt lured her to be an associate professor of English. She is a specialist in Caribbean literature and culture with a book soon to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. “She is an innovative and energetic teacher who has developed exciting new models to integrate hands-on personal experience in field work in the study of African American and Caribbean cultures,” Clayton said.

Chancellor Gordon Gee and Provost Nicholas Zeppos were instrumental in the recruitment of the five new faculty members, Clayton said.

“Our ability to build this constellation is a direct result of their vision for interdisciplinary scholarship and their commitment to making it happen,” he said.

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS