Rhonda Cobham-Sander grew up in the Caribbean at a time when some of the best-known writers from that region were making a name for themselves in the world. “One of Derek Walcott’s plays was the first grown-up theater performance I attended,” she recalls. There was a huge cultural ferment in the Caribbean during the 1970s, a sense that you were living through the emergence of a major literary tradition. It was in the air.”
Cobham-Sander teaches Caribbean and African literature in the Departments of English and Black Studies. Her courses on “Childhood in Caribbean and African Literature,” “Issues of Gender in African Literature,” “Anglophone Caribbean Poetry” and “The Creole Imagination” reflect her interest in literary history and issues of gender. “I’m interested in how people generate new cultural forms in difficult spaces,” she says. Her most recent courses, “Digital Africas” and “Panama Silver, Asian Gold,” integrate Digital Humanities approaches into the study of Caribbean and African literature. She also teaches two of the three core courses in Black Studies” – “Introduction to Black Studies” and “Research Methods,” – as well as the introductory English courses, “Representing Illness” and “Reading, Writing, and Teaching.”
Cobham-Sander’s recent book,“I and I”: Epitaphs for the Self in the Work of V.S. Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite, and Derek Walcott, looks at how these three famous Caribbean writers attempt to consolidate their literary legacies in their later works. She is focused now on two new projects: “Amital Queer: Aunts, Aunty Men and other Anansis, explores how Caribbean writers use the idea of the cross-gendered aunt (“tantie”) of oral performance to both subvert and support class and gender boundaries. Corporeal States: Body, Nation, Text, argues that using gendered metaphors to shore up the identity of the nation state in African literature may have the unintended consequence of destabilizing our assumptions about what constitutes a body and what defines a text.
“I keep trying to pretend I’m a professor who just wants to be left alone to read poetry,” Cobham-Sander says, but her commitment to the Amherst community and her interest in the study of race and gender has also drawn her into various administrative adventures, including serving as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion from 2004 to 2008. “One of the most exciting developments I’ve observed in my three decades at Amherst,” she says, “has been how the growing diversity of the student body has changed campus culture.” You can read her comments on Amherst’s diversity challenges here and listen to her talk to the 2015 senior class about Dennis Scott, one of her favorite Caribbean poets, here.