Prof. Cutter and Prof. Williams Present at Joint Book Talk

On February 14, Professors of Africana Studies and English Martha Cutter and Erika Williams spoke at a joint book talk about their recent publications. They summarized their findings and arguments to a crowd of curious minds packed into the Philip E. Austin Building’s Stern Lounge.

Evelyn Simien, Interim Director of the Africana Studies Institute and Professor of Political Science, and Shawn Salvant, Professor of Africana Studies and English, introduced the two authors. Then Cutter stepped up to the podium for her PowerPoint presentation titled the same as her book: “The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown.”

Cutter opened by outlining the life of Henry Box Brown, who famously purchased a large postal crate to ship himself to freedom from his enslavement in Richmond, VA. He had a knack for the theatrical and made a living acting in plays, telling the stories of his life, and even doing magic. As a performer, he took on many personas, all filtered through the lens of slavery and its legacies.

Cutter said the central question of Brown’s life was: “Is it possible to gain control of trauma by performance and via performance of it?” She answered, “Brown was able to manage the trauma of enslavement, but not evade it.” Indeed, his life demonstrated the “everywhere” of slavery and its afterlives—“It does not go away,” Cutter said, “but it changes forms.”

Williams then spoke about and read from her book, “Tales from Du Bois: The Queer Intimacy of Cross-Caste Romance.” Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the feeling of repudiation and racial alienation that Black people experience in America, and Williams said that he offered Black reclamation as an answer to it. This subversive re-orientation “toward love of the self, not love of the other” could be read as queer, and Black reclamation could be understood as a type of queer kinship, Williams said, even if Du Bois was often read as “flamingly heterosexual.”

Williams identified the “failed cross-caste romance” Du Bois described in “The Souls of Black Folk” as a recurring motif in his lesser-explored literary works. He often depicted these romances as inevitably doomed. The one notable exception was “Dark Princess,” a story in which a Black doctor and a princess from India form one of the only fulfilling heterosexual relationships in any of his writing. As Williams explained, “They become situated against their common caste enemy,” allowing them a level of success that was “almost a fantasy” and “could not be read as offering any real, pragmatic advice.”

To learn more about “The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown,” click here; for more on “Tales from Du Bois: The Queer Intimacy of Cross-Caste Romance,” click here.