Robert Reid-Pharr, renowned scholar of African-American and African diasporic gender and sexuality studies, on July 1st joined the Harvard University faculty as its first senior professor hired solely in women, gender, and sexuality studies (WGS).
His appointment follows that of assistant professor Durba Mitra, who was hired last year as the first faculty member ever solely in WGS; both hires come at a “historic” time for WGS, according to the program’s director, Robin Bernstein, Dillon professor of African and African American Studies and of WGS. The field has seen increased undergraduate interest in its courses in the last few years.
“The number one reason that we were able to make hires is because we have an incredible student base. Our classes are typically over-enrolled, our courses are very well evaluated, and our Q scores”—students’ ratings of Harvard classes—“are through the roof,” Bernstein said. “So I think we’re at a historical moment where a lot of people understand that gender and sexuality really matter.”
The hires may also reflect the need for appointing young tenure-track faculty across Harvard’s schools whose scholarship is in line with evolving student interest, as noted in the report of the University’s Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging earlier this year.
Reid-Pharr previously served as the Matthiessen Visiting Professor of Gender and Sexuality studies in 2016, a short-term endowed professorship that invites leading scholars of “issues related to sexual minorities—that is, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people” to teach at Harvard.
“We hired him because he’s brilliant, because his scholarship is brilliant, because his scholarship is extraordinary in its impact on multiple fields, but notably on the field of African-American gender and sexuality studies,” Bernstein said. “He is a scholar who has published four extremely important, high-impact books, all of which are deeply original, astonishingly erudite, and all of which have had very high impact on multiple fields.”
Reid-Pharr’s books include Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual; Black Gay Man; Conjugal Union: The Body, The House and the Black American; and Archives of Flesh: African America, Spain, and Post-Humanist Critique.
Once You Go Black was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT studies in 2007. In it, Reid-Pharr posits that a black American identity was not “inevitable,” and that twentieth-century black American intellectuals like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright have “actively chosen the identity schemes”—of race, gender, and sexuality—that form the basis of a contemporary understanding of black American identity.
Black Gay Man—a collection of nonfiction essays critiquing the construction of black gay identity through an interdisciplinary approach—was the recipient of the 2002 Randy Shilts Award for best gay non-fiction.
Reid-Pharr was recently a distinguished professor at the City University of New York (CUNY)’s Graduate Center, specializing in African-American, postcolonial, transnational, and global literary theory. He has received research awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for literary criticism in 2016.
At Harvard, he will complete research for a book-length project on James Baldwin which he hopes will be informed by discussions with students in his classroom. He also intends to help Harvard with “institution building,” or the development of institutional networks for interdisciplinary discussion and international academic collaboration.
“We do a good game of talking about interdisciplinarity, but sometimes what we mean is a sociologist talks to a historian in a lunchroom. And that’s a good and positive thing, but you need to have institutional structures, actual programs, actual departments with all of the trimmings to make those things happen,” Reid-Pharr said. “I’ve been trying to figure out ways to develop relationships that cross not only institutional boundaries, but national boundaries. One of the things I’m interested in bringing to Harvard is being able to roll up my sleeves with that, and not only talk about internationalism, but have that be a really big part of the way students and faculty interact with one another.”
Reid-Pharr will teach four courses in his first year in the position, including one on “The Gender of Celebrity,” which will consider the history of American fascination with celebrities, and another on the “The Black Male Body,” which will examine shifting representations of “black male corporeality” throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Part of what enticed him to return to Harvard was the University’s wide range of research resources, which he said he intends to push his students to engage with in his courses. “I want students and myself to always be looking at materials that are not immediately available to us,” Reid-Pharr said. “Frankly, it’s Harvard, so using the unbelievable resources of the library and the archival resources of the institution to get at that. If I can do that, then it’s a win.”