A Conversation with Dana Murphy

In a way, new faculty member Dana Murphy grew up at Caltech, as she often came to campus with her mother, Marta G. Murphy, a longtime administrative assistant in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering. Now, Dana Murphy, who earned her bachelor's degree at UC Berkeley and her doctorate at UC Irvine, has returned to campus as an assistant professor of English and Black Studies.

Murphy's research examines Black expressive cultures and literatures. She evaluates social justice as it applies to Black lives and takes a special interest in Black women, a group that has historically been among the most marginalized.

We recently spoke with her about what inspired her academic path, the authors she studies, how Caltech has changed over the years, and how she likes to spend her free time.

What inspired you to pursue your field of research?

I've always been a reader, and I've always been interested in activism and social justice. While I was reading for my qualifying examination as a doctoral student at UCI, I became interested in the ways early Black poet Phillis Wheatley maintained a presence in the Black literary critical conversation from the 18th century to today. Her name became a way to mobilize all kinds of various conversations about Black expressive cultures and abolitionism. Eventually, this grew into the subject of my dissertation research and currently is the subject of my first book project.

How would you describe your research to a complete stranger?

I teach, write, and think about literature and culture, especially about Black lives from the 18th century to today. In particular, I'm interested in Black peoples' stories of survival: stories of not being seen by their communities and doing good work anyway, and of doing work that wasn't really popular in their time but which ends up being legible centuries down the road.

Black people have been crafting new ways of living and thinking for a long time, and some of the most exciting places we can go to study their contributions to thought are in literature and expressive cultures. We still have a lot to learn, and there are still a lot of writers and artists whose works have not yet been fully attended to by scholarship. In the case of Phillis Wheatley, who can be very challenging to read but who is experiencing a kind of renaissance at the moment, there is a lot more that needs to be said about her contributions to the Black radical tradition. It's exciting for me to contribute to the field today because I'm definitely not alone. There's a lot of excitement now about projects that radically transform the legibility of understudied works in new ways.

Could you elaborate a bit on the challenge of reading Phillis Wheatley?

Phillis wrote poems so that she could gain her manumission [release from slavery]. She was enslaved, and so much of her writing is bound up in what she could say while she was enslaved. A lot of contemporary readers really struggle with connecting with her. A lot of critics have published books and essays that express the hope that Phillis had left coded signs in her poems. They looked for any signs that provided more information about her inner life, and this has become the most dominant mode of reading her. My project acknowledges the realness of this desire and notes some of its historical sources, but there's a lot more to Phillis than her poems. I'm interested in asking, '"What other kinds of things do we have in addition to the poems that might be relevant for us to really understand Phillis's life and afterlife?"

I feel very connected to her poems and will circle back to them, but this is a trend in my field right now. We're excited about 'the everyday' as a feminist and queer field of study, not just about the literary object per se.

What would you say is the most challenging part of your work?

Because I work in an interdisciplinary field, I've found that I have to be really mindful about putting out work that bridges rather than divides my readers, that invites people in. There are actually a lot of strategies in the works I study about making real, positive social changes in nonviolent ways—not timid but nonviolent resistance. I'm grateful that we have the space in HSS [the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences] to really think through ideas and workshop in-progress writing even before it heads to peer review. I definitely like the challenge of being at the intersection of English and Black Studies.

What brought you to Caltech?

The combination of a welcoming group of faculty in English as well as an institutional home in HSS definitely made this the best place for me to be at this stage in my career.

A portrait of Dana Murphy and her mom, Marta Murphy. Marta Murphy looks at the camera. Dana looks at her mom and smiles.
Dana Murphy (at right) with her mom, Marta Murphy (at left) Credit: Caltech

Equally important, my mom has been an administrative assistant at Caltech for almost my whole life, so I grew up with fond memories of the campus. Also, when I was an undergraduate student, I participated in the Caltech SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] program with Kevin M. Gilmartin [William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English; Allen V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair for Student Affairs, and vice president for student affairs], who encouraged me to pursue my doctorate.

What is it like to be back on campus this many years later? How is the campus different and the same?

It's really nice to return to campus and to see familiar buildings, trees, and faces. It does feel different navigating the space as a faculty member. I'm excited to spend time in new spaces on campus and to teach and do research in new buildings with new colleagues and students.

Who is your favorite author, and why?

Oh my goodness. Ann Petry is one of my favorite writers, and she is starting to make a comeback. So, her most famous novel was The Street, which was published in 1946 and was the first novel by an African American woman to sell a million copies. That novel is deep and dark and seriously full of critique but also so much love for her characters. These are characters who have extremely difficult lives and who really struggle to find sources of support to pull them out of their circumstances.

How do you like to spend your free time when you're not working?

Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in library stacks and perusing bookstores, and I like to read for fun. Recently, I have been streaming a lot of films. Much of what I do for work ends up being what I do for fun as well, which is, I think, important.

Written by Emily Velasco

Emily Velasco
(626) 372-0067