B.A., Yale University; M.A., Ph.D. Duke University
Cord J. WhitakerAssociate Professor of English
Researches and teaches late medieval English literature, especially Chaucer and romance. Also studies medieval religious conflict and the history of race.
My scholarship focuses on the development of racial ideology in the religious and literary cultures of late medieval England and Europe. I am currently completing a book entitled Black Metaphors: Race, Religion, and Rhetoric in the Literature of Late Medieval England. The book argues that the late medieval Christian reception of classical rhetoric informs and directs the process by which blackness and whiteness become metaphors for sin and purity in English writing. I contend that these metaphors are central to the development of race in the ages that followed. In Black Metaphors and in my work on the whole, I strive to build on previous scholarship that has asked whether race matters to the Middle Ages by asking instead how the Middle Ages matters to race. In that vein, I am beginning work on a second project that studies how African-American Harlem Renaissance writers used the Middle Ages to their own early twentieth-century political ends.
My teaching focuses on the literature and language of the late Middle Ages and their afterlives. In my courses on Chaucer, late medieval romance, the medieval development of race, and the history of the English language, among other topics, I aim to destabilize the periodizing divide between the Middle Ages and modernity. Through comparative readings of medieval and modern texts—e.g., Chaucer and W. E. B. Du Bois, Arthurian romances and Claude McKay, the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience—students begin to understand the extent to which medieval thought and culture have informed modernity and the ways in which modernity has constructed our notion of the Middle Ages. In teaching students to read in Middle English and in my course on the history of the English language, students learn to think of language as an archive that provides insights into a culture’s past, present, and its future.
I am involved in several professional societies outside the college, including the New Chaucer Society and the BABEL Working Group. Both are collectives of scholars who aim to push medieval studies in new and fruitful directions. I have also been involved in the activities of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
When I am not studying medieval literature and culture, I can be found singing gospel music. I also try my hand at writing creatively from time to time.