Alumni Profiles Series: Erica Edwards
Erica R. Edwards received her Ph.D. in Literature in 2006. She is Associate Professor of English and Presidential Term Chair in African American Literature at Rutgers University, where she co-directs the Rutgers English Diversity Institute (REDI). An expert in African American literature, politics, and feminist studies, she is the author of Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (UMN Press, 2012), which was awarded the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize, and The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of U.S. Empire (NYU Press, forthcoming in Spring 2021). She is the co-editor of Keywords for African American Studies (NYU Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in journals such as differences, Callaloo, American Quarterly, American Literary History, and Black Camera.
Were you always interested in becoming a professor, or did you explore any other possibilities while you were in graduate school?
I decided to pursue academia when I was in college, when an English professor mentioned it to me during my first year. At the end of my second year of college I began the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program, directed by my former professor at Spelman, Cynthia Spence. Our summer institute at Emory University was directed by Rudolph Byrd, who was a professor at Emory. Throughout the summer, it became clearer what it would mean to have an academic life. And because of MMUF, there was always a community around me thinking about academia. When I was in graduate school, it didn’t really occur to me at the time—which was a very different time than the one we’re in now and a very different job market—to seriously consider other options. I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that I would get a job when I got out, but nobody was talking about that in a serious way.
In the year or so before I took exams, though, I did have a real crisis of purpose. For example, I was really involved with a church in Durham, and I briefly thought about going to divinity school instead. But as my work became more and more compelling, and as the project that I was working on became clearer to me, it was easier to filter out the internal noise, the recording that was playing in my head: “You can’t really do this, think about something else, maybe take a left turn.” I knew that whatever happened, I had to get this dissertation done and I had to answer these questions.
What drew you to the Graduate Program in Literature at Duke?
I went to a small school called Spelman College, where the advising I got tended to be very guided by social connections. So, when I started talking to my professors about applying to graduate school, they would mention other Spelman graduates who had gone into Ph.D. programs in English. Two of them, Mendi Obadike and Candice Jenkins, happened to be at Duke, and I was drawn to Duke because there was a community of Black scholars working in English and Literature.
When I was at Spelman, the English curriculum was pretty traditional, without a lot of theory. But my senior year I took a seminar with Stephen Knadler on poststructuralist theory, which became really interesting to me, and I came to Duke with the sense that I was going to enter the Latin American cultural studies program. My interests really changed in my first couple of years, and I ended up being more African American focused than I thought I would be. In some ways, I moved further away from the questions I thought made the Graduate Program in Literature the right choice for me, but what I really appreciated about the program is that it was so flexible and there were so many different things you could do. Over the course of my career at Duke, the Program in Literature became less and less the center of my intellectual life, but I think the program was designed to make that possible.
How did you navigate the transition from the interdisciplinary nature of the Graduate Program in Literature to a more disciplinary English department?
I mean… I’m still trying to answer that question! My first job was actually in Africana studies. I got a certificate in African American studies at Duke and I wrote a very literary dissertation. It looked at how Black writers have been engaging this central fiction of Black politics that political progress or social justice is impossible without the premise of a charismatic leader in ways that have really shaped contemporary African American literature. There were lots of different methodologies that I brought to that project, but at its core, it was a really literary study, and so it made a lot of sense to me to apply for jobs mainly in English.
It’s worth noting that the English department at UC Riverside, where I moved next, was a department that was not anything like I thought an English department was. There was a really flexible understanding of what literature was that matched how I was thinking about my own work. I think that has continued to be the case about my career. There are things that I think a training in a more disciplinary English program would have yielded that I sometimes do feel like I’m lacking, but I also think that there are other areas of expertise that I was able to begin developing as a graduate student that I just would not have been able to develop in a disciplinary English program. But it was important for me to think about what kinds of questions I was asking about my work and the world and what kinds of departments were the best place to pursue those questions, and that still tends to be English departments for me.
You’ve been a prominent leader in mentoring and diversity initiatives at both UC Riverside with the Lindon Barrett Scholars Mentoring Program and at Rutgers with the Rutgers English Diversity Institute. What has this meant for you, and how has it impacted your scholarly work?
I mentioned that I came to this work through a mentoring program, which really affected how I think about our work culture and how we approach what we do. I’ve tried to focus on these social contexts in which we work and what it means to center thriving networks of—for me—Black or feminist of color sociality in the practice of engaging our research, our teaching, and our leadership in the academy.
When I first started my job at UC Riverside, I joined a really wonderful group of feminist of color scholars. We had an informal mentoring network, as a really large writing group, where we spent a lot of time reading each other’s mostly first books. It was really out of that culture of feminist peer mentoring that I decided to create a mentoring program that was designed to build relationships with historically Black colleges and universities. The University of California established a UC-HBCU initiative with the thinking that, well, if you look at the statistics of who is going to graduate school and what kinds of institutions are best preparing students to do independent research, it’s really historically Black colleges. And so the question was, how do we learn from faculty on these campuses about how to mentor students so that they choose academic professions and so that they have what they need to thrive in academic professions?
Working with HBCUs allowed us to bring Black students to UC campuses in a way that could work around the rulings that outlawed affirmative action. At the same time, it was meant to create partnerships between the UC and HBCUs so that we could build our capacity to mentor and train Black students. That’s a long way of saying that I decided to apply for one of these grants and ran this summer program for four years. It taught me a lot about mentoring and running a program, and it also taught me about how important it was to be raising those larger questions about the pipeline, like where the pipeline is going. The students who I worked with went on to do amazing things—two of them are at Rutgers with me now.
At Rutgers, my late colleague Cheryl Wall started the Rutgers English Diversity Institute about 12-14 years ago. It was designed to fulfill a similar function by building a program that would train students from underrepresented groups who were planning to go into Ph.D. programs in English. I started working with that program last year. We hold the summer institute for one week to expose students to the culture of graduate school and the process for getting there. But it also builds a culture of mentoring that, again, grows out of this really Black feminist commitment to thinking in critical ways about the social life of academic work and all that it really takes to sustain the work that we do, to seeing these critical networks as forums through which we encounter new ways to think but also new ways to be in the academy.
Tell me more about your current research. How did you come to start asking the questions behind it?
We often think about our world outside of what we do academically as separate from our research, but often our most interesting questions come from our openness to the rest of the world. My forthcoming book, The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of U.S. Empire, is about the process by which Black women came to occupy a central position in the imaginary of U.S. power after World War II, about the ways that these modes by which U.S. power articulated its range through, for example, surveillance, or torture, rendition, proxy-wars, etc., were in contact with or called upon significations of Black feminine gender. It’s really about the difficult connections between Black cultural production and the cultural forms that built legitimacy for foreign U.S. counterinsurgency and war.
I started working on this project when I was home in D.C. with my family after an American Studies Association conference. My Black woman cousin a couple years younger than me asked if I wanted to go for a ride with her. I had just thought we would go get some food or something, and she says, “Oh I have to stop by the Navy recruiter’s office in Baltimore.” And so it turned into a whole day-long journey into the last place I wanted to be: inside of an American military institution. But it really allowed me to start asking deeper questions than the ones I was already asking about militarism and narratives of Black culture.
All that is to say I think it’s important to allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we don’t always know where our research questions or our work or our—if we want to call it this—inspiration is going to come from. And to trust that if we prioritize both the deep work of continually reading and writing, but also prioritize the work of building relationships, that we’ll find the vital points of convergence between those two things.
Do you have any advice for current Duke graduate students?
The most useful survival strategy that I had in graduate school was forming meaningful relationships outside of the department and the university. This is important because academia is a small, narrow world and yet it is so large and overwhelming in its imposition of its own greatness and grandeur, so sometimes it feels bigger than it really is. I think having real relationships outside of our work context allows us to keep things in perspective, which is even more essential now than ever. It is also important to deepen peer mentoring capacities within your program and field of study. Throughout my career, I’ve remained friends with those from graduate school. My graduate school friends are not all from Duke – they are also folks I met and became close to after conferences or chance meetings. And, by reading each other’s work over the last twenty years, they form my intellectual home base or my compass.
Zeena Yasmine Fuleihan
Ph.D. student, Literature
Zeena Yasmine Fuleihan is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Graduate Program in Literature. Her research focuses on Middle Eastern and North African literature in reference to war and revolution and its intersections with gender and sound studies. She holds an M.A. from King’s College London in Contemporary Literature, Culture, and Theory, and a B.A. from Macalester College in English (Creative Writing), with minors in music and Arabic. Prior to coming to Duke, Zeena worked in marketing and publicity at Coffee House Press and was the editor of the twentieth anniversary issue of Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America. Aside from graduate study, she also writes book reviews and short essays, a majority of which can be found on the Ploughshares Blog.