Michell Chresfield

Assistant Professor

Overview

Michell Chresfield is an assistant professor of African American history in the Africana Studies and Research Center where her research and teaching focuses on Black and Indigenous histories, the history of science and medicine, and the history of racial formation and identity making in twentieth century America. She received her Bachelor’s degree in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and a Ph.D from Vanderbilt University in 2016.

Dr. Chresfield’s current book project, positioned at the intersections of African American history, Native American Studies, and the history of science asks, “What does it mean to be both Black and Native? And how does scientific knowledge mediate that lived experience?” What Lies Between: Science and the Making of Native Identity in a Black and White World, explores how communities of purported “red-white-black” ancestry, have worked with and against the emergent sciences of the 20th century in order to make and challenge notions of identity and belonging. Examining key episodes in the development of eugenics, blood group genetics, and modern-day DNA testing, the book traces the historical and present-day use of medical and scientific diagnostics as an arbiter of racial meaning. Although the communities at the center of my research wished to be recognized as Native Americans, they were more commonly dismissed as “triracial isolates,” geographically isolated maroon communities wishing to use the “Native” category as a means of escaping the stigma of blackness. This dismissal underscores the American racial orthodoxy of hypodescent, whereby one drop of Black blood is enough to render all other ancestry irrelevant. In What Lies Between, she argues that despite the wide purchase of the one-drop rule, Native groups and the lawmakers, scientists, and bureaucrats tasked with policing their identity functioned as coproducers in the formation of Black-Native identity and the shaping of its public meanings.  

Dr. Chresfield’s writings have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the LA Review of Books, and The Conversation, while her interviews have been highlighted on BBC Radio 4, The Globalist, and BBC’s Women’s Hour. Her research has been funded by grants from the American Philosophical Society, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, and the British Academy. At Cornell, she will teach courses on Black body politics, Black and Native histories, the history of reproduction, as well as African American health and healing more broadly.

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