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New hires to strengthen African-American literature faculty

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

Derrick Spires

Derrick Spires and Nafissa Thompson-Spires, both currently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Chelsea Mikael Frazier, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, will join the department this summer, adding to its distinction in this area, said Caroline Levine, the David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities and English department chair.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires

“These 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.”

Chelsea Mikael Frazier

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

“The addition of professors 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. 

Spires specializes in early African-American and American print culture, citizenship studies and black speculative fiction. He 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 19th century political conventions that took place across the country.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an award-winning fiction writer. Her book of short stories, “Heads of the Colored People,” was published by Atria and 37 Ink (imprints of Simon and Schuster) in 2018. She won the 2019 PEN Open Book Award and was a 2018 finalist for the Kirkus Prize. She specializes in television studies and fiction writing.

“Her characters are not the standard fare of literary fiction,” Levine said, noting that Thompson-Spires has been featured in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and has appeared on NPR and “Late Night with Seth Myers.” Her book was also a recent selection of a Cornell book club whose membership includes President Martha E. Pollack and several deans.

Frazier is a writer, cultural studies scholar and educator working at the intersection of black feminist theory and environmental thought. She is working on her first book manuscript – an ecocritical study of contemporary black female artists, writers and activists.

“There are very few people working at the crossroads of these fields,” Levine said, adding that Frazier’s interests are in line 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 me the opportunity to teach and train some of the most creative and brilliant undergraduate and graduate students who will be shaping and evolving the ways we engage the humanities in the coming generations.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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