Katy Chiles, associate professor of English, specializes in African American literature, early American literature, Native American studies, and critical race theory. Her book Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Proposing a new understanding of late eighteenth-century theories of race and their influence on literary representation during the years 1770-1800, Transformable Race explores a period in the American understanding of race before it was “scientifically” defined as an essence or unchangeable identity.
Before the emergence of scientific racism, race was understood not as a biological fact but as something mutable, an effect of environmental factors. According to this view, race was something that occurred on the surface of the body, and it was subject to change and transformation. Variations on this idea and on the notion of racial origin were evident in writings on natural history, disease theory, religious treatises and sermons, theories of social influence, and Indian theories of racial origin in addition to literature. Transformable Race considers canonical writers from the period alongside non-canonical ones, and its chapters are constructed in terms of surprising juxtapositions: Benjamin Franklin with the Mohican diplomat Hendrick Aupaumut, African American writer Phillis Wheatley with the Mohegan minister Samson Occom.
Dr. Chiles’ project was designated a “We the People” project and awarded a Summer Stipend in 2010 by the National Endowment for the Humanities.