GerShun Avilez is a cultural studies scholar who specializes in contemporary African American and Black Diasporic literatures and visual cultures. His teaching also covers 20th century US literature. Much of his scholarship explores how questions of gender and sexuality inform artistic production. In addition, he works in the fields of political radicalism, spatial theory, gender studies, and medical humanities.
His first book, Radical Aesthetics & Modern Black Nationalism (Illinois), appeared in 2016 as a part of “The New Black Studies” Series. The book investigates how Black nationalist rhetoric impacted African American artistic experimentation in the 20th and 21st centuries through an examination of drama, novels, poetry, film, and visual art. Radical Aesthetics won the 2017 William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association (MLA). The prize is given to an outstanding scholarly study of African American literature or culture.
His second book, Black Queer Freedom (Illinois), explores Black Diasporic queer artists and questions of social space. It was published in 2020 and is also a volume in “The New Black Studies” Series. He is currently working on a third book project, which focuses on documenting queer history. He also recently edited a special issue of the journal Women's Studies. He has written essays on a range of historical and cultural subjects, including the Cold War, segregation narratives, early African American writing, race & terror, social death, queer life, experimental poetry, Black women’s writing, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Power Politics, and, of course, the Black Arts Movement.
Throughout his work and teaching, he is committed to studying a wide variety of art forms, including, drama, fiction, non-fiction, film, poetry, visual and performance art, ethnography, and comic books. He was the recipient of the Poorvu Award for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Teaching in 2011 (Yale University).
He created and coordinates the departmental Africana/Black Studies Colloquium, which hosts a number of events (lectures, roundtables, book launches, discussion groups, etc.) each year centered around African American and Black Diasporic research. He is an elected member of the MLA Delegate Assembly, and he serves on the Committee for Gender and Sexuality Studies for the Association of American Studies (ASA).
He received his PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where he also earned a Graduate Certificate in Africana Studies. He has held professorships at Yale University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He also held the Frederick Douglass Post-doctoral Fellowship at the University of Rochester.
To view GerShun Avilez's website.
William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature or Culture
Awarded for Radical Aesthetics & Modern Black Nationalism
Black Queer Freedom: Spaces of Injury and Paths of Desire
Mapping a geography of black queer life through art
Whether engaged in same-sex desire or gender nonconformity, black queer individuals live with being perceived as a threat while simultaneously being subjected to the threat of physical, psychological, and socioeconomic injury. Attending to and challenging threats has become a defining element in queer black artists’ work throughout the black diaspora. GerShun Avilez analyzes the work of diasporic artists who, denied government protections, have used art to create spaces for justice. He first focuses on how the state seeks to inhibit the movement of black queer bodies through public spaces, whether on the street or across borders. From there, he pivots to institutional spaces--specifically prisons and hospitals--and the ways such places seek to expose queer bodies in order to control them. Throughout, he reveals how desire and art open routes to black queer freedom when policy, the law, racism, and homophobia threaten physical safety, civil rights, and social mobility.
"Vanishing Acts: Civil Rights Reform and Dramatic Inversion in Douglas T. Ward's Day of Absence"
Laws are passed in a crisis mood after a Birmingham or Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s assessment of the incomplete nature of civil rights, even in the midst of historic legislative change, resonates with experiments in African American literary and performance culture of the 1960s.
“Scenes of Vulnerability: Desire, Historical Secrecy, and Black Queer Experience in Tarell McCraney’s Marcus”
From The Expressive Art of Tarell McCraney. Ed. David Román, Sharrell Luckett, and Isaiah Wooden.
“Queering the Black Arts Movement”
In 1970 Black Panther leader Huey Newton published a letter in The Black Panther newspaper about women’s liberation and gay liberation.
Newton s statement made one year after Stonewall and the same month Newton was released from prison takes the unorthodox step of suggesting the importance of black radical organizations and collectives.
Amiri Baraka (b. 1934–d. 2014) was born Everett LeRoy Jones in Newark, New Jersey.
Radical Aesthetics and Modern Black Nationalism
Radical Aesthetics and Modern Black Nationalism explores the long-overlooked links between black nationalist activism and the renaissance of artistic experimentation emerging from recent African American literature, visual art, and film.
"Staging Social Death: Alienation and Embodiment in Aishah Rahman's Unfinished Women"
Featured in The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Culture.
"The Black Arts Movement"
Featured in The Cambridge Companion to Literature of American Civil Rights.
“African American Writing Until 1930.”
Featured in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature.
"The Aesthetics of Terror: Constructing 'Felt Threat in Those Bones Are Not My Child and Leaving Atlanta."
Featured in Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora. Special Issue: Violence & Black Youth in Post-Civil Rights U.S.
"Queer Forms, Black Lives: Melvin Dixon, Assotto Saint, and Artistic Experimentation"
The book, an anthology of critical essays, poetry, personal narratives, interviews, and other writings, provides a vivid synopsis of writer and activist Joseph Beam (1954-1988) as well as other figures of the 1980s Black gay arts movement.
"Cartographies of Desire: Mapping Queer Space in the Fiction of Samuel Delany and Darieck Scott"
Applying his knowledge of urban planning to the field of cultural theory, Haitian-American architect-artist Jean-Ulrick Désert invokes the concept of "queer space" in order to describe the complicated (yet valuable) nature of actual gay and lesbian commun
"Housing the Black Body: Value, Domestic Space, and Segregation Narratives.”
Linking mobility and housing, the article connects two issues to the rights and privileges of citizenship in a democracy.
Director, Graduate Studies
Director, Graduate Studies at the University of Maryland English Department