When Christopher Freeburg, AM’99, PhD’06, was an undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana, his mentor, noted African American studies professor Joseph Brown, told him, “You can’t understand race in American literature unless you read [Herman] Melville.”

Freeburg listened—to some extent. “As an undergraduate I read what I wanted,” he says. “Often I was not reading at all.”

When he began his graduate work in English Language and Literature at UChicago, Freeburg focused on postcolonial readings of early modern literature. He wrote his master’s thesis on Othello, supervised by David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, and Richard Streier, the Frank L. Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus.

He also read African American literature. And he noticed that again and again, writers he admired referenced Melville. Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). C. L. R. James in Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953). Ralph Ellison in The Collected Essays (1995). “This Melville guy just kept coming up.”

Eventually his work became the subject of Freeburg’s dissertation. Melville and the Idea of Blackness: Race and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press, 2012) takes as a starting point Melville’s observation about Nathaniel Hawthorne: “that blackness in Hawthorne … that so fixes and fascinates me.” Freeburg finds plenty of “blackness” in Melville’s own work, by which he means “the violence of subjects’ experience of existential limits and the destruction of subjects’ social viability.”

While Melville scholarship from the 1950s through the 1970s focused on his notions of evil and depravity, Freeburg says, in the 1980s and 1990s critics were more interested in racial conflicts and slavery. His work brings the two strands together. Freeburg contends that in Melville, moments of blackness arise during encounters between people of different races—for example between Ishmael and Queequeg, or Pip and Ahab, in Moby-Dick. “Melville stages it in so many different ways,” says Freeburg, “with traumatic moments centering on people of color and otherness.”

Freeburg, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, teaches American and African American literature. He writes about that side of his life in “Teaching Literature and the Bitter Truth about Starbucks,” published in the Modern Language Association’s journal Profession (2012). In the essay, Freeburg repeats a question he’s often heard from the student-baristas: “What good is what I teach, and is it relevant to the real world?”

At a time when the value of the humanities is routinely questioned, Freeburg argues in the essay, “We need a stronger sense of vocation in our courses.” Students need to understand that “critical thinking is not just stating your opinion,” he says. For any text, they should be able to “come up with a serious question and a number of ways to answer that question.”

Christopher Freeburg, AM'99, PhD'06

In his critical work, Freeburg frequently cites his own teachers, such as Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor; Kenneth Warren, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor; and former UChicago professor Gerald Graff, AB’59. “The workshop system was invaluable,” says Freeburg. “You learn how to answer really tough questions about your work. There were times when I completely disagreed with my professors, but nine times out of ten, they were right.”

Freeburg recently completed “Black Aesthetics and Inner Life,” a book manuscript that looks at “major moments of depersonalization in African American literature and culture,” he says. The book begins with a shocking image, The Lynching of Frank Embree, July 22, 1899—shocking because the man in the photo is still very much alive and looks directly at the camera.

“The photograph of Embree provokes a broader question that this book explores: How can places where personhood vanishes simultaneously uncover a forceful sense of the person?” Freeburg writes. “Embree’s remarkable gaze into the camera…affirms his desire to create meaning that is his alone.”

In the book, Freeburg examines major African American artists “whose work is aimed directly or indirectly at specific black political goals,” he says, and tries to get at “the rich, deep, mysterious person, the ongoing and elastic sense of the individual—that part of the black tradition.” At the same time, Freeburg says, “we have to realize the utter ambiguity or the limits of what we can not know about black subjects is an equal, if not more forceful, part of black aesthetics.”

Freeburg takes a similar approach in his current book project, which has the working title “Slavery, Performance, and the Idea of Black Culture.” Scholars often look at slavery in an overly simplistic way, he says, reducing their lives to either fighting against white masters or succumbing to them. His analysis “shows the inadequacy of those categories,” he says. “The life and mind of a slave was just as mysterious and complex as anyone else’s life.”

And Freeburg continues to do work on Melville. He’s organizing a Melville Society panel, called "Melville and Black Lives Matter," at the 2017 MLA conference. Suggested topics include racial violence, police brutality, prison reform, totalitarianism, New World slavery, and US–Middle East turmoil. Freeburg hopes to discuss “what it is in Melville’s work so that black writers have continually turned to him,” he says. “It’s absolutely crucial.”



This article is very nice. My experience with friends and faculty at U of C was rewarding to say the least. My grandmother finished the certificate program in SSA and my father also attended classes in the Divinity school. I grew up a lot in Hyde Park. It is a special place indeed.

I'm delighted to read about Prof. Freeburg's insightful readings of Melville and of Melville's assessments of how "black lives matter." I for one cannot teach 19th C African American literature without assigning Melville's BENITO CERENO.
BTW, I teach at Yale (since 1974) and I graduated from UHigh in 1962.y