Dr. Delia Steverson graduated from The University of Alabama’s Department of English with a Ph.D. in African American literature in 2017. She is now an assistant professor in English at the University of Florida, where she also serves as an affiliate professor in the Department of African American Studies.
Dr. Steverson’s scholarship has appeared in The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, The Explicator, and The Journal of American Culture. Her courses at the University of Florida explore Black subjects in nineteenth century American literature and the intersection of Black bodies and the language of disability. She also teaches graduate courses in African American literature and disability studies, focusing on works like Toni Morrison’s Sula, Wallace Thurmond’s The Blacker the Berry, and Adrienne Kennedy’s dramatic quartet, The Alexander Plays.
While pursuing her doctorate at UA under the direction of Prof. Trudier Harris, Steverson earned a fellowship from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), which allowed her to complete her dissertation on race and disability in an unprecedented single year.
“Getting [the] SREB [fellowship] allowed me to finish my dissertation in one year instead of two,” Steverson explains. “I love teaching, but taking a break from the classroom allowed me to focus solely on my scholarship, which really helped expedite my work.”
As an SREB fellow, Steverson attended professional development conferences with other SREB fellows and received a stipend to present her work at a conference of her choice.
“They want you to go out and publish things,” Steverson asserts, referring to her SREB mentors. “They want you to go out and do research, and they give you the funds to do that.”
Steverson used her award to attend the “Talking Bodies” conference at the University of Chester (UK) in April 2017. Her presentation contextualized the presentation of disabilities in nineteenth century slave narratives, such as Moses Roper’s A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838), William Grimes’ autobiography, The Life of William Grimes the Runaway Slave (1825) and Israel Campbell’s autobiography, Bond and Free or Yearnings for Freedom (1861).
Dr. Steverson recently spoke with Dr. Sarah Cantrell about her research.
You presented your work at the University of Chester’s “Talking Bodies” conference in April. In what ways do bodies “talk” or “speak” in your work?
“My argument is rooted in the question, ‘What does it mean to have a Black body?’ I use [University of Alabama Education Professor] Nirmala Everelles’ work to foreground my thinking about the ways in which Black bodies were defined by their value” Steverson replies.
Steverson notes that Black Africans were objects of exchange since the arrival of white colonists on American shores. Her work explores the ways in which Black Africans viewed this racist value system and their function within it. More critically, her work examines the ways enslaved Africans and African Americans used whites’ designation of value to navigate the plantation system.
Steverson argues that slaves used disability to subvert or impede white supremacist power structures. “They feign sickness,” she states, referring to narratives of Blackness and disability. “They pretend they can’t work. They break their leg.” In these and other cases, bonded peoples employed the language of illness and disability to give themselves respite when their white owners would not.
How do Black subjectivity and disability intersect in the texts you study?
“What I am trying to do is formulate a theory of reading Black embodiment [and] what it means to be an African American subject through a disability studies lens. The ways in which disability has been defined historically runs parallel to Blackness and the ways in which Blackness has been defined and redefined. Race informs disability at the same time that disability informs our concept of race, so that any time we talk about race, we talk about disability.”
Steverson clarifies that her argument is not one of equivalence: “It’s not as simple as equating race with disability,” she explains. “We’re saying each category of difference informs the other.”
As an example, Steverson cites Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s 19th-century novel, Iola Leroy (1892), a story of a mixed-race family considering the implications of passing as white. In one key scene, Iola’s uncle argues that “If we do not choose to pass, we are handicapping ourselves by throwing our lot in with the colored people.” Iola herself retorts that if she does pass, and if she does deny her Blackness and racial identity, she becomes a “moral cripple.” Both characters, Steverson avers, use the language of disability to understand their precarious position in white society. They are, in other words, caught in a double-bind from which there is no real means of escape.
In more recent literature, Steverson points to Delores Phillips’ novel, The Darkest Child (2004), in which the mute and deaf girl, Martha Jean, endures her mother’s tyrannical abuse and neglect.
“Her function in the novel is basically that of an indentured servant,” Steverson asserts. Yet even as her mother Rozelle characterizes Martha Jean as “worthless” and “a dummy,” Martha Jean cares for her nine siblings, runs the household, and eventually marries—a marker of Martha Jean’s worth, skill, and success.
“[The other characters] perceive her has having no value because of her disability,” says Steverson, “but the family doesn’t function without her.”
You are currently teaching an undergraduate course on your own scholarship and research. How do you approach these texts with younger students who are perhaps less experienced readers?
Emphasizing the importance of critical inquiry, Dr. Steverson replies, “We think about words. I don’t want [my students] to think what I think. I want them to think about what ‘impairment’ is, what ‘disability’ is, [and] what ‘illness’ is. What does ‘pain’ mean? How are these terms interconnected? How do [these terms] affect what we think about race and what we think about disability?”
These same questions guide Steverson’s current research agenda. In “thinking about African American literature through a critical disability lens,” she hopes to explore questions such as “How are African American authors writing about disability? Through creating characters who might be considered disabled? Or, how do African American authors write about disability subconsciously in order to think about issues of racial identity?”
I wonder if I could ask one more question. Your forthcoming article is “Madness, Melancholia, and Suicide in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.” Could you please give us a teaser?
“I make a very provocative argument, and I’ve gotten a lot of pushback, which I like,” Steverson replies enthusiastically. “Sue Monk Kidd, is, as you know, a white woman writing about Black women. One of her characters, May, ends up committing suicide. She has a very complex and problematic position. It’s only after her death that the novel’s conflicts resolve themselves.”
Although other characters dismiss May because she has been “beaten down by racial injustice,” Steverson explains that May’s death “allows other characters to heal.”
“But at the same time,” Steverson continues, “what does it mean that a Black disabled character kills herself [so that] other characters can heal themselves?”
Steverson advances her polemic: May, she asserts, is a vehicle that allows Sue Monk Kidd “to absolve her white guilt.”
“I love the book,” she asserts. “I love Sue Monk Kidd, but subconsciously, she is displacing her guilt on to this disabled character.”
I express admiration for the debates Steverson’s work will ignite.
“I can’t wait,” she smiles. “I’m excited. I even got pushback from Prof. [Trudier] Harris. I just want to start a conversation.”
If readers of The Chambered Nautilus would like to follow this conversation, Dr. Steverson’s article will appear in The South Carolina Review soon. Onward, Dr. Steverson!