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Exploring racial ambiguity

Professor and writer Michele Elam tackles the topic of mixed race

Meet Professor Michele Elam: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor, associate professor of English and former director of the program in African and African American studies.

Elam is also what is sometimes dubbed “Type 2”–or, in other words, racially ambiguous.

“My image started showing up as a mixed-race academic,” Elam said of her growing prominence in the ’90s. “Sometimes I was of color, sometimes I was Latina and then other times I was some kind of white. At one point I asked, what are you doing with my image?”

A personal connection to mixed race and ethnicity led Elam to conduct extensive research and produce numerous publications about the field.

She has just completed a book titled The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, which is set to be released in February by the Stanford University Press. The book explores how literature, television, theater and art shape mixed race identity and politics in the U.S.

“I am interested in how ideas of race travel, mingle and change–what we call comparative studies,” she said. “Globalization and cultural traffic are where we are today. We can’t talk about how race works in one nation. It moves across borders and shapes nations.”

Elam’s passion was sparked when she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English at UC-San Diego. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that she in fact was drawn to a subject that was, in a sense, a branch of English but had not been thoroughly explored. She became drawn to African-American studies out of both pure curiosity and the urge to unearth more about a field that she believed had been neglected.

“When I was interested in African-American studies…there was not even a ‘Norton Anthology of African American Literature,’” Elam said.

Elam then went on to earn her doctorate of philosophy at the University of Washington.

“My experience in grad school changed the way I look at research and also changed my sense of what an academic community can be,” she said.

Elam’s passion for the field of mixed race and ethnicity is equally powerful. Elam tells a story of how, in the late 1990s, before the 2000 census, it was clear that race studies were starting to change. Through both extensive research and a great deal of traveling, she noticed that the race demographics in the United States were becoming more and more diverse.

Elam attributes her keen interest in literature and her representation in the humanities to the fact that such fields are able to capture experiences and social prophecies that she believes other approaches do not.

“Literary studies aren’t dogmatic and don’t prescribe action and agenda,” Elam said. “It can actually galvanize social change or comment on it obliquely. It can inspire people to critically think.”

On the topic of why African-American scholars were initially overlooked in the world of literature, she proposed that others believed, “African Americans weren’t capable of cultural achievement. People didn’t think about people of color in the publication of literature. It forced a reconsideration of what counted as literature.”

And it is precisely this renewed representation of mixed race identity that propels Elam’s passion.

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