New English faculty add to strength of African-American literature

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
Sun, 03/31/2019

Three new faculty members who specialize in African American literature will be joining the Department of English for the fall of 2019.

Derrick Spires and Nafissa Thompson-Spires, both currently faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chelsea Mikael Frazier, a PhD candidate finishing up her work at Northwestern University, will join the department this summer, adding to its distinction in this area, said Professor Caroline Levine, English department chair.

“Having three new people will bring new energy, new perspectives, new backgrounds and experiences and a whole new set of courses to our curriculum,” Levine said. “And these three are people who think about ways to build and change where they are. They will build new networks, new collaborations, new kinds of publications, new digital practices.”

Spires will enter as an associate professor, while Thompson-Spires and Frazier will be assistant professors.

“The addition of Profs. Spires, Thompson-Spires and Frazier allows Cornell to continue to distinguish itself as a leader in African American literature,” said Avery August, Ph.D. ’94, vice provost for academic affairs. “I congratulate Arts & Sciences Dean Ray Jayawardhana, along with the other A&S deans and English department chair Caroline Levine on their excellent recruitment efforts. We are excited to welcome them to the Cornell community and look forward to supporting them in their unique contributions and scholarship.”

Derrick SpiresDerrick Spires specializes in early African American and American print culture, citizenship studies and Black speculative fiction and is the author of “The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States” and “Serial Blackness: Periodical Literature and Early African American Literary Histories in the Long Nineteenth Century.”

“There’s great energy and innovation at Cornell right now,” Spires said. ”Colleagues are doing exciting work, especially in the 19th century and around questions of genre and form, and the projects graduate students are developing fascinate me.”

Spires is also connected to the Colored Conventions project, which seeks to study and publish research about these 19th century political conventions that took place across the country. His research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon and Ford Foundations, the American Antiquarian Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Nafissa Thompson-SpiresNafissa Thompson-Spires is a prize-winning fiction writer. Her book of short stories, “Heads of the Colored People,” appeared in 2018 with Atria and 37 Ink, imprints of Simon and Schuster, and has since been named a winner of the PEN Open Book Award, a finalist for the prestigious Kirkus Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award. She specializes in television studies and fiction writing.  

“Her characters are not the standard fare of literary fiction,” Levine said, adding that Thompson-Spires has been featured in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, on NPR and she even appeared on Late Night with Seth Myers. Thompson-Spires’ book was also a recent selection of a campus book club, which includes Cornell president Martha Pollack and several other Cornell deans.

Chelsea FrazierFrazier is a writer, cultural studies scholar, and educator working at the intersection of Black feminist theory and environmental thought. She is currently at work on her first book manuscript—an ecocritical study of contemporary Black women artists, writers and activists.

“There are very few people working at the crossroads of these fields,” Levine said, adding that Frazier’s interests dovetail nicely with Cornell’s strengths connecting environmental studies to the humanities.

“The English department boasts an incredible array of literary theorists, cultural studies scholars, and creative practitioners in the form of poets and novelists,” Frazier said. “Furthermore, joining the department has guaranteed the opportunity to teach and train some of the most creative and brilliant undergraduate and graduate students that will be shaping and evolving the ways we engage the humanities in the coming generations.”

“The Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences very enthusiastically supported the English Department’s proposal to appoint these three excellent faculty,” said Derk Pereboom, senior associate dean for arts & humanities and the Susan Linn Sage Professor of Philosophy. “Their work is cutting-edge, and it will immediately provide Cornell with a strong mutually supportive faculty cohort in an important and expanding area, and a concentration of study that will be very attractive to both undergraduate and graduate students.”

Photo of Thompson-Spires by Adrianne Mathiowetz

Students walking in front of Goldwin Smith Hall