Dr. Courtney R. Baker is a specialist on the impact of visual culture in black life. She is an Associate Professor in the department of English at University of California, Riverside. Previously, she was Associate Professor of American Studies at Occidental College and the inaugural chair and co-founder of the college’s Black Studies program. She obtained her Ph.D. from the Literature Program at Duke University and her B.A. in Women’s Studies from Harvard University. Her book, Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African-American Suffering and Death, was published in the New Black Studies series, edited by Darlene Clark Hine and Dwight McBride, by the University of Illinois Press in 2015 (a paperback edition was published in 2017). She has written academic and popular essays on African-American film, the history of the image in African-American activism, and the ethics of narratives about death. She teaches courses on black film, African-American literature, race and ethnicity in American Studies, cultural studies, and critical theories of the human and the visual. Her current research project is on film formalism in twenty-first century black film.
Born in New Jersey to black parents from Harlem, New York and Martinsville, Virginia, Baker was exposed to the variety of African American life from an early age. From family holidays in southern Virginia to outings in uptown Manhattan, she experienced the vibrancy and genius of black culture that often matched and superseded the instruction she gained through her education at the elite academic settings of Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school and Harvard University.
Already a fan of film and visual art, Baker was first empowered to study the political and cultural circumstances of these artifacts in college, where she encountered the work of cultural theorists Stuart Hall and studied under the African American literature scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., filmmaker and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha, and served as a research assistant to artist Lorraine O’Grady. After a brief tenure at Scholastic, Inc. as a children’s book editor and author, she enrolled in the preeminent critical theory program in Literature at Duke University where she studied art, film, and theory with Wahneema Lubiano, Jan Radway, Richard J. Powell, and Jane M. Gaines, amongst others.
With more than a decade of teaching and research experience, Baker continues to challenge her students with courses on African-American film and literature, black feminism, and the study of narrative. Her easy-going manner and accessible approach to even the most complicated of topics has made her a favorite amongst students and admired by colleagues.
Watch Dr. Baker’s talk on “Black Humanity, Visible Violence and Liberation Aesthetics.” The talk was part of the Duke Department of African & African American Studies 50th anniversary 2019/2020 speaker series.