Windham-Campbell Prize winner Namwali Serpell to deliver fall 2021 Finzi-Contini Lecture
What if you could change your race? How do race fakers change their skin color, their hair texture, their voice? And why? Is it minstrelsy? Is it racial self-hatred, white guilt, the fetishism of others? From “passing” to cross-racial reportage to speculative fiction, the fantasy of changing your race cuts an electric line—thrilling, dangerous, illuminating—through the American popular imagination.
Namwali Serpell is the author of The Old Drift, which won the Windham-Campbell Prize in Fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Fiction, the L.A. Times’s Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction, and was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2019 by the New York Times. Serpell’s essay collection, Stranger Faces (2020), was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Born in Lusaka, Zambia, Serpell received her BA at Yale and her PhD at Harvard. She is currently Professor of English at Harvard.
“Race Off” tracks the persistent fantasy of race transformation—specifically, of “switching” from black to white or vice versa—in American fiction, journalism, and film from the nineteenth century to the present. Serpell will discuss the aesthetic, affective, and political implications of this fantasy; its resonance with and distinction from “passing” narratives; and how it tends toward different underlying ideas and tones depending on whether the author is black or white.
The Finzi-Contini Lectureship honors Bianca M. Finzi-Contini Calabresi, a scholar of European literature and a native of Ferrara who left fascist Italy for the United States. The lectureship was founded by her sons, the Honorable Guido Calabresi, Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and the late Dr. Paul Calabresi. The event is cosponsored by The Yale Review.