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Carter A. Mathes


by Cheryl A. Wall

Carter Mathes almost came to Rutgers English in 1997 when he was accepted into the PhD program. He laughs now, as he says it’s a good thing he didn’t. Rutgers almost never hires its own graduates. Fortunately for him and for the English department, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his PhD in African American studies in May 2006. He joined Rutgers English as an assistant professor in September.

A specialist in African American and African diaspora literature, Professor Mathes has taught courses in “Black Music and Literature,” “Literature of the Black World,” and an undergraduate seminar titled “Experiments in Sound: Black Literature and Sonic Innovation.” He finds that Rutgers students bring a diverse set of critical perspectives and cultural backgrounds to the classroom. “In my courses,” he notes, “students are usually being asked to consider rather complex ideas regarding racial and national identity, as well as various types of historical and cultural theory. So I appreciate their willingness to struggle with various concepts and ideas that are crucial to understanding the stakes of the writers’ aesthetic projects.” Professor Mathes also looks forward to teaching a graduate seminar on post-1960s literary experimentation this fall.
Mathes graduated from the University of Virginia and earned a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee before beginning his doctoral studies at Berkeley. From 2003 to 2006 he was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where he participated in the seminar, “The Atlantic and Global War,” sponsored by the Institute for Critical United States Studies. This past year, he was a fellow in the “Cultures of Circulation” working group at the Center for Cultural Analysis.

As a scholar, Mathes continues to explore the issues he set forth in his dissertation, “Imagine the Sound: Modalities of Resistance and Liberation in Post-Civil Rights Movement Black Literature.” The dissertation examines the creative use of sound in black literature as both a form of aesthetic innovation and of political resistance in texts written against the backdrop of the shifting racial climate in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s. It focuses on writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Gayl Jones, and Larry Neal, whose work was critical to the social and artistic consciousness of the era. In his words, “clearly, sound has a long history as a mode of musical, oral, and environmental representation in African American literature, and my work basically asks how these encounters between the literary and sonic realms of black experience amidst a certain political moment might provide insight into theoretical and metaphysical aspects of black radical thought.”

Although he is in the vanguard among critics theorizing the relationship between literature and sound, Mathes is a traditional scholar who has long been fascinated by archival research. While a graduate student, he consulted Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in their efforts to make the papers of jazz poet Ted Joans available for scholarly inquiry. Since relocating to the East Coast, he has started working with the Larry Neal papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. A poet and playwright, Neal was perhaps the most important theorist of the Black Arts Movement. With Mae Henderson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mathes organized “‘Don’t Say Goodbye to the Pork Pie Hat’: Re-evaluating Larry Neal’s Creative and Critical Vision of the Black Aesthetic,” a conference held at Brooklyn College last October. It was a tremendous success, bringing together participants in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Neal’s students, and young scholars who spent two days revisiting and analyzing the aesthetics and politics of a formative era in African American culture. In addition to the volume of conference papers he is co-editing with Henderson, Mathes is at work on two articles, “Toni Cade Bambara and Black Radicalism in the 1970s” and “Black Internationalism in the Short Fiction of Henry Dumas.”

On a personal note, he feels that “taking the job here is a nice sort of homecoming because I spent a lot of time in New Jersey as a child. My mother’s family lived all over New Jersey—Newark, Montclair, Wayne, Englewood, a small town in the pine barrens called Dorothy, and East Orange, where I live now with my wife, children, and great aunt. I pay a lot of attention to these kinds of movements, and the ties they represent, so being here feels right to me on all kinds of levels.”

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Department of English | Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.