Gorenstein Award winner will lecture on Ralph Ellison at April 28 ceremony
Cheryl Wall is both a distinguished scholar of African-American literary studies in the School of Arts and Sciences and a devoted Rutgers citizen with a long history of working to make the university a better institution.
Now this Board of Governors Professor of English and Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English has been named the 2014 recipient of the Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award, given each year to a faculty member for outstanding scholarly achievement and exceptional service to the university.
In announcing the award, Richard L. Edwards, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Interim Chancellor for Rutgers-New Brunswick noted that Wall “wholly represents the ideals of this singular recognition named in honor of a scholar and intellectual who made deep and lasting contributions to Rutgers University and the world.”
At the award ceremony, Wall delivered a talk titled, "Ralph Ellison and The Mystery of American Identity.”
Q: Let’s start by talking about your record of service to the university, which has focused on transforming Rutgers in different ways through the years.
A: Rutgers has been a great place for me in terms of my career, but I’ve always been interested in doing what I can to make Rutgers a better place. Most recently I served as co-chair of the President's Council on Institutional Diversity and Equity. But I have always done what I call “diversity work.” I think for example of my work on curriculum transformation 30 years ago with the Institute for Research on Women.
Q: What was the impact of that work?
A: It helped to mainstream writing by women. Through similar initiatives, the curriculum in my own field has been transformed so that what counts today as American literature is very different that want counted when I was a graduate student at Harvard. African American literature is now an essential component, and there is more attention paid to writing by Latino and Asian Americans as well.
Q: As a professor, you are known for your scholarship and critical expertise on black women’s writing, the Harlem Renaissance, and Zora Neale Huston. What is your latest project?
A: I am writing a book on the African American essay. Essays have been fundamental to African American literature, whether it’s The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, or The Fire Next Time in 1963 or In Search of Our Mother’s Garden in 1982.
Q:Do you think the essay has been an overlooked genre in general?
A: Absolutely. There are lots of essays, and many books of essays, but few courses on essays and fewer studies of essays. The reason is that essays are considered occasional writing. Readers think an author will write essays because he or she is between novels or books of poetry. I would argue that essays are important in their own right, first, as literature, but also, particularly for African American writers, in terms of their ability to intervene in or comment on ongoing political or social crises, and to engage in aesthetic debates.
Q: That brings us to your lecture, Ralph Ellison and the Mystery of American Identity, which is focused on his essays.
A:Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act (1964) was a transformative moment, and in fact, was published around the same time as Ellison was teaching as a visiting professor at Rutgers. Ellison saw African Americans as central to the definition of American culture, and he argued that the cultural changes would anticipate political and social changes. Jazz for instance had defined what American music was, and Ellison saw in such cultural practices an America (potentially) far more integrated that it was at the time.
Q: How do you respond to him in 2014?
A: Ellison was an American exceptionalist. He believed America was different from all other nations. I think he overstated that difference, but it makes for interesting discussion! Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I find his optimism inspiring. And of course as a literary scholar, I am interested in the style as much as the substance of his essays.