Cherene Sherrard-Johnson

Position title: Sally Mead Hands-Bascom Professor of English, Director of Graduate Studies


6179 Helen C. White Hall

African American literature, 19th-century American literature, feminist theory

Degrees and Institutions

  • PhD, Cornell University, 2000
  • BA, UCLA, 1995

Selected Publications



Research Interests

I’m researching and writing a trio of essays that consider belonging and global black identity through the theoretical frameworks of Island and Archipelagic American studies. The first, “Isle of Refuge,” (forthcoming Water~Stone Review) follows nineteenth-century abolitionist life-writer Mary Prince’s journey from slavery to emancipation through colonial Bermuda’s archipelagic plantocracies; the second “Saltworks,” explores the significance of salt as commodity, practice, and pan-Caribbean archetype; the final, “Sanctuaries” (in-progress) mines the concepts of asylum, fugitivity, and marronage from an ecological, legal, and experiential perspective. These essays will ultimately fold into a larger book project addressing the flow of insurgency, of anti-colonial thought and action, manifest in the literature of the Americas through the hybridized bodies of black women. Some of the broader questions I address include: how is racial difference elided as we reconfigure the studies of early American literature or Afro-Caribbean literature along transnational lines? Why do particular locations, like Haiti, occupy a fractious space within the global South? In this book, “new world” literary mappings intertwine with personal inquiry and critical investigations about the nature of belonging, identity and indigeneity as I follow an elastic circuit that unveils relationships between fragile environments, dynamic objects, and the human/nonhuman beings that circulate through the archipelagic diaspora.

Current Projects

I have just completed a biography of Harlem Writer Dorothy West. Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color is a critical, feminist biography that examines West’s life and writing in order to enhance our understanding of the particular intersecting geographies of class and race in American culture. By focusing my analysis on West’s chosen retreat, an African American enclave on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, I weave literary criticism into my cultural history of the island community that West saw as both a separatist refuge and an interracial sanctuary.

Recent Books

  • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Grimoire. Autumn House Press, 2020. Print.

    Named after a magical textbook, Cherene Sherrard’s Grimoire is a poetry collection centered on the recovery and preservation of ancestral knowledge and on the exploration of black motherhood. Incorporating experiences of food preparation, childrearing, and childbearing, the book begins with a section of poems that re-imagine recipes from one of the earliest cookbooks by an African-American woman: Mrs. Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook. Mrs. Russell’s voice as a nineteenth-century chef is joined in conversation with a contemporary amateur cook in poetic recipes that take the form of soft and formal sonnets, introspective and historical lyric, and found poems. In the second section, the poet explores black maternal death and the harrowing circumstances surrounding birth for women of color in the United States. Throughout Grimoire, Sherrard explores the precarity of black mothering over the last two centuries and the creative and ingenious modes of human survival.

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  • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Vixen. Autumn House Press, 2017. Print.

    Cherene Sherrard’s poetry collection Vixen takes to task the historical narratives and artistic mediums that have shaped racial and gender identity. She asks her readers to closely examine the hand that guides the pen, the photographer behind the lens, and the star on stage. In powerful, finely crafted lines, Sherrard’s poems interrupt and redirect the conversation. Sherrard’s voice-driven poems are accessible to any reader interested in work that examines racial and black female representation within a historical, cultural, and artistic framework.

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  • Sherrard-Johnson (Editor), Cherene. A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Wiley, 2015. Print.

    With its epicenter in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, the Harlem Renaissance was a singularly
    influential period of African American history. A cultural revolution that combined artistic expression
    with political activism, the movement would help to heighten social consciousness and foster racial pride.
    A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance presents a comprehensive guide to the literature and culture of
    the unprecedented artistic flourishing that took place in the African diasporic community of the United
    States from the end of World War I to the middle of the 1930s. Featuring original contributions from eminent and emerging scholars of the era, chapters critically explore numerous themes relating to the origins, evolution, aesthetics, genres, and historical contexts of the Harlem Renaissance. Combining primary texts and contemporaneous accounts with innovative new perspectives, initial essays explore the historic and philosophical underpinnings of the “New Negro” Movement, followed by selections addressing canonical authors and minor writers who emerged during the period. Further essays examine salon culture and the influence of music and dance on literature; themes relating to race, identity, and sexual politics; and the Harlem Renaissance as a global movement. A final series of essays considers the enduring influence of the Harlem Renaissance in the latter twentieth century and into the new millennium. Combining a remarkable breadth of coverage with impeccable scholarship presented in an engaging manner, A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance is an essential resource to understanding this
    transformative time in black history.

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  • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene.“.” 2012: n. pag. Print.

    Praise for previous volumes of Dorothy West’s Paradise: “Soundly researched and well written, Dorothy West’s Paradise adds significantly to our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and its youngest surviving member.”—Maureen Honey, editor of Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

    Dorothy West is best known as one of the youngest writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Subsequently, her work is read as a product of the urban aesthetics of this artistic movement. But West was also intimately rooted in a very different milieu—Oak Bluffs, an exclusive retreat for African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. She played an integral role in the development and preservation of that community. In the years between publishing her two novels, 1948’s The Living is Easy and the 1995 bestseller The Wedding, she worked as a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette. Dorothy West’s Paradise captures the scope of the author’s long life and career, reading it alongside the unique cultural geography of Oak Bluffs and its history as an elite African American enclave—a place that West envisioned both as a separatist refuge and as a space for interracial contact. An essential book for both fans of West’s fiction and students of race, class, and American women’s lives, Dorothy West’s Paradise offers an intimate biography of an important author and a privileged glimpse into the society that shaped her work.

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  • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene.“Mistress, Reclining.” 2010: n. pag. Print.

    “Cherene Sherrard describes the ache of exclusion and illuminates what beauty dwells along the margins.  Her treatment of Jeanne Duval, the mixed-race mistress and muse of Charles Baudelaire, is at once haunting and harrowing.  Through Duval’s eyes we glimpse the tawdry righteousness of Parisian society, while the rest of Sherrard’s clear-eyed collection reacquaints us with other too-often-ignored characters from our common history.  In Mistress, Reclining Sherrard digs up the dirt of the past, sifts it, and comes up with nuggets of pure gold.” –Camille T. Dungy, author of Suck on the Marrow and editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

    “Cherene Sherrard’s fascinating book, MISTRESS, RECLINING, draws the reader into the confusions and triumphs of various historical women who must struggle against problems with race and gender. Especially engaging is the series of persona poems chronicling the complex life of Jeanne Duval, mistress and notorious inspiration for Charles Baudelaire. The author’s poetic originality and fascinating topic will delight the reader of this collection.” –Carol Hamilton, former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and author of The Dawn Seekers

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  • Sherrard-Johnson (Editor), Cherene.“Comedy: American Style, by Jessie Redmon Fauset.” 2009: n. pag. Print.

    Comedy: American Style, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s fourth and final novel, recounts the tragic tale of a family’s destruction—the story of a mother who denies her clan its heritage. Originally published in 1933, this intense narrative stands the test of time and continues to raise compelling, disturbing, and still contemporary themes of color prejudice and racial self-hatred. Several of today’s bestselling novelists echo subject matter first visited in Fauset’s commanding work, which overflows with rich, vivid, and complex characters who explore questions of color, passing, and black identity. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s introduction places this literary classic in both the new modernist and transatlantic contexts and will be embraced by those interested in early twentieth-century women writers, novels about passing, the Harlem Renaissance, the black/white divide, and diaspora studies. Selected essays and poems penned by Fauset are also included, among them “Yarrow Revisited” and “Oriflamme,” which help highlight the full canon of her extraordinary contribution to literature and provide contextual background to the novel.

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  • “Sherrard-Johnson does an excellent job of expanding the scope of previous considerations of the mulatta as a trope, as well as reinforcing the necessity of seeing the icon in all of its complexity.” —African American Review

    “This beautifully written book locates artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance squarely within Modernism and puts women at the center of this project . . . the scholarship is impeccable and the work as a whole is brilliantly organized.” —Maureen E. Honey, editor of Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

    Of all the images to arise from the Harlem Renaissance, the most thought-provoking were those of the mulatta. For some writers, artists, and filmmakers, these images provided an alternative to the stereotypes of black womanhood and a challenge to the color line. For others, they represented key aspects of modernity and race coding central to the New Negro Movement. Due to the mulatta’s frequent ability to pass for white, she represented a variety of contradictory meanings that often transcended racial, class, and gender boundaries. Portraits of the New Negro Woman investigates the visual and literary images of black femininity that occurred between the two world wars. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson traces the origins and popularization of these new representations in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance and how they became an ambiguous symbol of racial uplift constraining African American womanhood in the early twentieth century. In this engaging narrative, the author uses the writings of Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset as well as the work of artists like Archibald Motley and William H. Johnson to illuminate the centrality of the mulatta by examining a variety of competing arguments about race in the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.

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