August 15, 2023
Greetings from the Whitney Humanities Center. I am absolutely honored to assume the leadership of the Whitney, following the Center’s successive excellent directors. I must single out my immediate predecessor Alice Kaplan for her generosity and grace and for her visionary leadership of the Center. I am grateful for your service, Alice, and for the continuous opportunity to benefit from your counsel.
Leading this eminent Yale institution is an extraordinary honor and a great responsibility. My decision to serve was bolstered by the extraordinary leadership of our fearless humanities dean Katie Lofton and the special gift of Diane Berrett Brown’s administrative talents. I look forward to working with Katie, Diane, and the amazing staff of the Whitney Humanities Center.
During my tenure, our work at the WHC will be guided by a global vision of the humanities. At the Lagos Studies Association Conference held at the University of Lagos in Nigeria this past June, a scholar of Yoruba music asked me about the persistent doom in coverage of the humanities when the picture looks different elsewhere. I conceded that the conversation has been primarily shaped by the experience of the United States and by the disciplinary formation of English studies here. That conversation was a crystallizing moment for defining what I mean by a global vision. It means that the conceptual and geographical grounding of our intellectual community transcends the United States and Europe. Work from these regions will be featured alongside the heterogenous, fascinating scholarship, art, and activism from other parts of the globe, prioritizing neither “influence” nor correction, but level exchange. With this commitment comes the resolve to prioritize an array of humanistic disciplines and histories, as well as interdisciplinary orientations. In short, the Igbo proverb popularized by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe captures my guiding vision: Egbe belu, ugo belu nke si ibe ya e belu, ka nku kwa ya (let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too, if one says no to the other, let its wing break).
The cosmopolitan and ethical constitution of the Igbo proverb already animates our activities this year. I am excited to introduce Humanities Now, a new series designed to spark deep thinking, inclusive deliberation, and smart action on current intellectual and social concerns. The series will convene a thoughtful community to explore important topics in conversation with leading scholars, writers, artists, and thinkers who are shaping humanistic discourse, praxis, and activism with their cutting-edge work. Our debut event is a collaboration with the Schwarzman Center and the Council on African Studies. This event features a conversation between the Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma, author of the novels The Fishermen and An Orchestra of Minorities (both shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and the Tanzanian R&B star Lady Jaydee, followed by her performance. Please mark your calendar for this exuberant occasion, exploring the relationship between music and literature, on September 26. Other activities in the series are lectures by the distinguished scholar of African American Cultural Studies Mark Anthony Neal (October 9); filmmaker, scholar, and theorist of photography and visual culture Ariella Azoulay (March 6–7); and our own Willie James Jennings (April 18). We conclude the Fall semester with an inaugural Holiday Party on December 6, celebrating the end of the year and the amazing humanities books published by Yale-affiliated authors in 2023. Please join us!
Institutional progress is marked by both change and continuity. With excitement for our shared project of intellection and sociality, I look forward to welcoming the 2023–24 cohort of Whitney Humanities Center Fellows on September 20. Ayesha Ramachandran’s Franke Seminar on Imagining Global Lyric features innovative poets and scholars visiting campus this fall. One enjoyable task of the WHC director is the opportunity to appoint distinguished lecturers for the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. I hope you will join us in welcoming Rob Nixon, author of the acclaimed Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, for the Tanner Lectures on April 3–5.
As we prepare for a jam-packed year of enriching events and activities, I am appreciative of the position of the Whitney Humanities Center as a “connective corridor,” to borrow Nixon’s language from Slow Violence: “what kinds of connective corridors toward other disciplines can [humanities] scholars creatively navigate in an intellectual milieu where habitat fracture is becoming increasingly pervasive?” Of course, the physical corridors of our beloved Humanities Quadrangle make Nixon’s question resonant, but the label fits mainly because of the extraordinary congregational affordance of the Whitney Humanities Center, which transcends departments and disciplines, schools and colleges, nations and cultures. I am honored to serve this special connective corridor at Yale and to contribute to its mission of fostering limitless humanistic connections and inclusive excellence. See you in HQ soon.
With best wishes for the academic year,
Professor of English
Director, Whitney Humanities Center