Congratulations to Professor Cheryl A. Wall, who won the 2006 Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research. A lover of blues music, Professor Wall injects her lectures with recordings and anecdotes from the history of blues to give her students a fuller picture of African American literature. In her research, she shows that putting the history and the artistic conventions of black literature and music together can lead to new insights. Professor Wall’s scholarship has helped establish the importance of African American literature to twentieth-century writing in general. With two books, six edited volumes, and several influential essays, Professor Wall has become an inspiration to young scholars in her field.
Professor Wall’s first edited work, Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, was groundbreaking. Together, this collection of essays makes the case that black women writers – Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker, to name a few – are among the most vital and interesting authors of the twentieth century. Her 1995 book Women of the Harlem Renaissance continues this assertion by revealing the significant contributions by women writers to the black artistic movement of the first half of the century. The book traces the literary journeys of novelists Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston, focusing on their writing, their lives, and their interactions with other writers. Professor Wall also highlights the popular culture scene occupied by Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith. In bringing together the women performance artists of Harlem and the women writers moving away from Harlem, she argues that the usual list of male authors and artists were not the only forces driving this important creative period in America.
Her newest work is the 2005 book Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition. In it, Professor Wall furthers her exploration of contemporary black women writers and their influence on others. The central metaphor of the title refers to the way blues singers “worry” a line of a song, breaking it up in new ways to draw extra attention to particular words or themes. Professor Wall shows how writings by black women writers use a similar technique, worrying ideas like genealogy, the literary tradition, and the continuing personal and historical effects of slavery. Critics call her book a major accomplishment in establishing the ways black women writers have challenged and extended the contemporary literary canon, “worrying the line” of literary history itself.
Professor Wall has even more research and writing in progress. She recently completed editing Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara with independent scholar Linda J. Holmes, a book that highlights previously unexamined aspects of Bambara’s activism, writing, teaching, and filmmaking through the analysis of well-known critics and scholars. Even with a prominent and well-studied author such as Toni Morrison, Professor Wall seeks to break new ground. In her upcoming book, Toni Morrison, Editor, Professor Wall examines the famous novelist in her little-studied period as senior editor at Random House from 1970 to 1988. Her other work-in-progress, On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The African American Essay, focuses on the nonfiction work of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Ralph Ellison, among others. On Freedom situates these prominent black writers within the long tradition of American essayists, and shows how their words helped to shape the most important aesthetic and social debates of their times.
The Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research honors scholars who have achieved high distinction in their academic fields. Professor Wall also received the Warren I. Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1997, making her the second Rutgers English professor to receive the University’s highest honors for both her teaching and her research. Rutgers English is happy to join the Board of Trustees in congratulating Professor Wall on her accomplishments.
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