Matt Hartman, Trinity Communications
How does the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Chinese-American father develop a love for African American literature? By visiting Russia.
Instead, she started with Dostoevsky.
Li studied abroad in Moscow as an undergraduate Stanford comparative literature student. “I took the ‘comparative’ in ‘comparative literature’ a little more literally that I needed to,” she says. When she returned, she embarked on an honors thesis comparing Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” to Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”
The two authors shared a focus on a class of people whose very existence implies rebellion against a ruling order — African Americans in the mid-20th century for Ellison and Russian peasants right after the emancipation of the serfs for Dostoevsky. That insight piqued Li’s interest in modes of resistance, especially for those who can’t revolt outright, like African American women who opted to stay in bondage before the Civil War in order to protect their children.
Through Li’s Ph.D. at Cornell, teaching positions at the University of Rochester, Indiana University and Washington University in St. Louis, and six published books, that seed has grown into an acclaimed scholarly career that uses African American literature to examine how race shapes the country.
“For me, trying to understand the nation is also about understanding the context that created me, and in taking displacement as a point of departure — which is certainly a theme in a lot of African American texts,” Li says.
While Dostoevsky was the start, it was Toni Morrison who gave Li’s interest its fullest articulation.
“To quote Morrison, my ‘deep-down spooky love’ of authors is Toni Morrison,” Li says.
Inspired by Morrison’s conception of love and resistance, and her rejection of what Li calls “imposed ideological scripts,” Li has developed a more complex and nuanced understanding of what it means to claim freedom.
“It’s an understanding of freedom that originates in the self as what I call intra-independent,” she says. “Which is to say: I cannot actually be free if the people who I love are not also free.”
Li refined and presented that thinking in biographies of Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and a book on Barack Obama’s ability to signal his Blackness in speeches and writing without overtly discussing race. Li also published “Playing in the White,” a study of “white life novels” — a genre in which African American writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright wrote books that focused exclusively on white characters.
“This does not cohere to the expected idea of what Black literature is supposed to do,” Li says. “I think of that as a kind of touchstone for understanding what race can mean, and the ways in which whiteness becomes a repository for different kinds of social expectations and assumptions. So often in those white life novels, Black writers are presenting whiteness as an ideal that white people repeatedly fail at.”
Published in 2015, “Playing in the White” anticipated the most recent turn in Li’s scholarship: toward the more explicit use of whiteness and race in the Trump era.
“All of the nuance and the literariness of language that inspired people like me in reading and writing about Obama is completely absent in Trump’s word salad,” Li says. “There is no subtext to Trump. It’s just straight-out racism and hatred.”
Using contemporary white American authors as case studies, Li examines the social context of that change in her upcoming book “Ugly White People,” due out next month.
“I think there is a huge crisis in whiteness and a struggle not just to talk about what it means to be white but also what to do about it. Whiteness instantiates tremendous inequality that begs meaningful action,” Li says.
Created through a long history of violent subjection of other people, whiteness is not a race like any other, Li argues. To reckon with it and resolve the crisis would require confronting dark and brutal legacies of slavery and genocide.
“People don’t really want to look at that. And when they start to see that in, say, public school class discussions about slavery or the 1619 Project or studying African American Studies at the AP level, the retrenchment happens and we have the riot of January 6 and the continued deification of Trump,” she says. “He represents a false idea of the past. As someone trained in literary studies, I see our current political divide as a battle over how we tell the story of the U.S.”
For Li, coming to Duke is a chance to engage and intervene in this time.
She made a point of bringing Black Lives Matter protestors into her classroom in St. Louis — so close to the site of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson — and she hopes to build similar connections to social movements here. The fact that she is joining a department of African & African Studies opens up exciting new opportunities.
“By its nature, it’s dedicated to social justice,” Li says of her new home department. “Most disciplines’ primary commitment is to the perpetuation of their own study. African American Studies, like other forms of critical race studies, takes as its premise action outside the academy.”
The chance to help the department explore new offerings in graduate education only adds to Li’s excitement, as does the fact that this will be her first time living in the South — a region of particular interest in African American literature.
“Everything here is alive,” Li says. “It reminds me of the work of William Faulkner. His sentences went on and on and on, and of course it comes out of the South, because nothing really ends here. It’s this continual change and harvest, and it doesn’t really go dormant.
“It’s a very fertile and exciting area to be in and discover.”