My passion for understanding representations of African Americans, especially Black women, started at an early age. A native of northern New Jersey, my curiosity bloomed in the changing landscape of Black popular culture in the Reagan era, marked by public television programs like Video Music Box and Eyes on the Prize, each employing a combination of information and confrontation that still captivates me, today. Stalwart Black images appearing in Johnson Publishing Company’s Ebony and Jet magazines were staples in my home, but so were collector’s materials such as Milton Meltzer’s Pictorial History of the Black American. My fascination with visual materials only matured as I aged and encountered works by Black women in film—behind and in front of the camera—such as Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT. Amid these spectacular representations of Black music, film and television, I was fascinated by both mainstream and underground creative projects.
As a scholar of Black visual culture, I take a multidisciplinary approach to the examination of images. I earned a PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania, as well as a graduate certificate in Africana Studies. I spent one year as a postdoctoral fellow within the Africana Research Center at Pennsylvania State University and four years on the faculty at Northwestern University, where my research was also funded by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). I earned tenure at Duke University, and promotion to the rank of full professor in 2022. Today, I am Professor of African & African American Studies and of Art, Art History and Visual Studies.
My scholarly work includes lecturing on African American cultural production and visual representation, in addition to teaching and program development. I have curated artist talks, lectures and public events on Black representation in my role as a co-director of the “From Slavery to Freedom” (FS2F) Franklin Humanities Lab at Duke, where I direct undergraduate and graduate student research projects related to slavery and diaspora. My scholarly publications include essays for MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, American Literary History and Public Culture. In addition to these, I am the editor of African American Literature in Transition, 1800-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
I write about Black freedom, Black women, popular culture and visual representation, from the 1800s to the 21st century. My latest book, New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair (Duke University Press, 2023), examines the idea and image of “natural hair.” In close readings of hair clippings, slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as fine art, I consider Afro-textured hair as an opportunity to reimagine the sensual experience of blackness. New Growth traces theories and images about the texture of blackness, from the nineteenth century to the present, and considers the physical, textural, visual, sentimental and archival constructions of racial blackness. I examine the importance of Black hair to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but also to celebrated images of Black popular culture from across the diaspora. New Growth reveals the various ways in which people of African descent have forged new relationships to the body, to public space and to visual culture through the embrace of textured hair.
My first book, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (NYUP 2015), also considered the visual manifestation of Black liberation. Here I consider the earliest illustrations of free Black people and the role of visual culture in the process of abolition and emancipation. Picture Freedom reveals how images shaped public understandings of African American citizenship before the 13th Amendment and remain central to contemporary ideas of freedom.
Currently, I am at work on The Pictorial Life of Harriet Tubman, a book that examines the visual history of the abolitionist, as well as a creative nonfiction work on travel.