Photo by Andrew Campbell
Race and the Arts
You might think the last place to look for an expert on Victorian literature would be in Northwestern's African American studies department.
But spend just a few minutes with Professor Jennifer DeVere Brody and you will quickly be disavowed of that notion.
"They do seem disparate," Brody says of the two fields, "but I made connections when I returned to the archive and found a number of plays written in the 19th century that focused on black women."
In her 1998 book, Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity and Victorian Culture (Duke University Press), Brody attacked the misconstrued notion of Victorian culture as exclusively white and masculine by reviving the historical traffic between England and the Americas. One of the characters Brody examined was the mixed-race Rhoda Swartz in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a character that has been ignored by many academics and literary scholars.
The book Brody is currently working on, The Style of Elements: Politically Performing Punctuation, a book that reads punctuation in new forms such as the Internet, dance, theater, performance studies and visual culture. She also has written extensively on literature and black feminism.
"I come out of a black feminist tradition in which race, class, gender and sexuality are imbricated," says Brody, a member of the affiliated faculty in the African American studies department and the only tenured African American woman in the English department. That means Brody dances in different academic worlds, sharing and blending concepts and traditions that are often kept apart.
While much of her expertise is in the written word, it's not unusual to find Brody lending her analytical skills to film, theater or other kinds of social documents. The Theatre Journal, Screen, and Text and Performance Quarterly are just a few of the varied publications where her work has appeared recently. The topics she covers range from Manet's paintings to lesbian representations in black film.
If there were an award for personifying Northwestern's culture of educating across the disciplines, Brody would be among the top candidates. Last spring she taught a new interdisciplinary junior seminar on race, sex and modernism that allowed her students to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and special collections at the University of Chicago.
"Interdisciplinarity is happening everywhere, and in many ways African American studies was the genesis of a lot of interdisciplinary work that now occurs in the sciences and other aspects of the humanities," Brody says.
"African American studies is really global studies, and it allows us to have an expansive view of the history of Western modernity," Brody often tells students in her Survey of African American Literature class.
"One of the things we now try to do in the class — from Phillis Wheatley to W.E.B. DuBois — is to look more at Afro-native connections in the early period of American literature so that we are not locked in a black/white paradigm and look to one that includes the historical actuality of Native American studies."
Brody says "going back and looking at representations of blacks in various media and understanding the context in which those representations have been produced allows us to have an awareness of the analytical ability to think more about our own lives."
For example, Brody points out that when the reading in her Survey of African American Literature class included emotionally charged descriptions of slave torture, "I was hopeful that they might think as well of the persistence of certain forms of torture in our own time," she says. — C.L.