Spotlight On: Professor Rychetta Watkins
English professor Rychetta Watkins brings a multitude of interests to the Rhodes English department, including African American literature, Asian American literature, and cultural studies of the 1960s. Her unique perspective examines the intersection, or perhaps the collision, of different voices throughout American literature and in popular culture. She returns to her hometown of Memphis, TN with an attention to the ways in which worlds cross, meet, and diverge across the American landscape.
Prof. Watkins attended Washington University in St. Louis for her undergraduate degree, majoring in both Psychology and English. After graduation, she worked for a year with a non-profit organization before deciding on the University of Illinois for her M.A. and eventually her Ph.D. in English. Illinois offered a department with broad strengths; there Watkins wrote her dissertation on the surprising union between African American and Asian American activists during the 1960s. The work holds personal worth to her as well since her father served in the Vietnam War. She says of the ‘60s, “Rules were challenged and written and changed – for women, for people of color. There was pressure from the left and from students.” As a self-proclaimed natural born skeptic, Watkins questioned the conventional wisdom about this era, particularly in the case of African American and Asian American interactions.
Along with her supportive family, Professor Watkins credits writers Frank Chin and Gloria Naylor along with Ida B. Wells as her greatest influences. Watkins describes her admiration for Wells as resulting from, the author’s “passion for activism and her ability to marry that passion for change with superb reasoning. She balanced her zeal for radical change with incisive, sharp criticism.” Watkins incorporates her interest in activism in her forthcoming book, We Shall Have to Struggle: The Making of African American and Asian American Revolutionary Subjectivity, which examines a synthesis of African American and Asian American activism.
Now completing her first year at Rhodes, Professor Watkins describes the students as sincere, curious, and well prepared. Her courses focus on African American and ethnic American literature in the 20th century, often posing questions about what happens when cultures come into contact, and the ways in which groups negotiate the mixture of different cultures. For her own part, Professor Watkins enjoyed participating in the recent MidSouth Big Read, a project for which Rhodes College received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Reflecting many of Professor Watkins’ own interests, the Big Read focuses on giving communities the opportunity to come together to read, discuss, and celebrate one of 23 selections from American and world literature. Professor Watkins’ diverse interests, coupled with her inclination to explore unexpected bonds between so many communities, are likely to enhance our community here at Rhodes.
Allie Hemphill ′09