The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.
Emily Williams '20, English
"The Stylings of an American: Identity Performance in Nineteenth Century Literature"
Abstract: In analyzing William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or the President’s Daughter and Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends, 19th-century novels written by black authors, the uses of performance theory can be expanded to the literary. These books, although fictional, draw on historical events, documents, and experiences to create an image of the United States and how people of color are allowed to exist within the expectations of a white patriarchal nation struggling with the imminent end of slavery. Using theoretical texts focused on both drag and minstrel performance, these novels demonstrate divergence from generic and social conventions of subjectivity and rework oppressive systems through the careful use of performativity. My term for such resistance, authorial drag, occurs when authors use representation to acknowledge the ever-present connection of race and gender with history by recuperating it from misidentification and revealing the multiplicity of selfhood and identity as a tool for survival and futurity. The defamiliarization of both blackness and whiteness in literature confronts the hierarchical structure of the nation and spurs a conscious effort to rework systems of power that disenfranchise marginalized communities by deconstructing the expectations of identity and exposing the intrinsically fabricated nature of race and gender.
Was there anything surprising about the work you did for your project?
In starting a project like this one, I learned a lot about how I work as a researcher and academic writer outside of the classroom. I was surprised at how different the experience of Hannah Holborn Gray (HHG) was from writing a final paper and how much I enjoyed the opportunity to think and write alongside theorists I have been reading for the past few years. I never thought that I could move towards making a contribution to the field at this stage in my life, but HHG offered a unique space to explore and grow my skills in this way.
What was the highlight of your work?
The best part of working on this project was getting a glimpse into where I would like to go in academia. I had been thinking about whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school, and after this experience, I am really excited for a possible future studying American literature.
How will you use your research in future studies?
The research I did will inform my senior essay for the English department. The themes of performance and identity that were hugely influential in my HHG research are topics I continue to be excited to pursue and hope to expand to think more about how the national imaginary is created, what is included (or not) within that, and how it can be broadened through greater understandings of representation in literature, media, and other forms.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences. The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.