As a critical theorist and scholar of Black comparative literary, visual, and cultural studies, her goal is to foreground the vibrancy of Black aesthetics without reinscribing a chimeric value to the political import of Black revolutionary intellectual and social life. Attending to the intersections between the discourse of race and gender, popular culture and fantasy, and violence and desire, she employs interdisciplinary interventions in pursuit of close reading.
Her current manuscript, Impossible Blackness: Violence and the Psychic Life of Slavery, begins with a simple question: What fantasies must be harnessed in order to satisfy affective demands that elaborate racial violence into narrative of possibility? To address this query, her book deploys psychoanalytic interventions centering on anti-Black violence to generate alternative paradigms of thought regarding race, sex/gender, the Black intramural, and revolutionary politics.
While a section of the manuscript has appeared in a special issue of Theory and Event on “Black Feminism and Afro-Pessimism,” “Speaking the Hieroglyph: Black Women and Mimetic Thaumaturgy,” her article in Critical Philosophy of Race, “The Pornotrope of Decolonial Feminism,” continues to place into relief the ideological and rhetorical investments in deploying the figure of the Black woman. Her essay argues that Maria Lugones’s decolonial feminism circulates Black women’s bodies and scholarship to institute an argument about gender, but only to erase this figure from the political and affective registers of its theorization. Terrefe’s research on the ostensible intractability of racial violence, specifically antiblack violence, as global phenomenon has drawn international attention in the form of invitations to present her work at Northwestern, Columbia, and Penn State universities in the US, as well as University College, Dublin, Ireland, and the Max Plank Institute in Goettingen, Germany.
Terrefe’s current research takes account of the unique ways in which Black women, girls, and children suffer under contemporary regimes of captivity. One such project, “The Position of the ‘Unthot’: From Ratchet to Revolution,” re-conceives the work of Black women writers in the late 20th century to argue that both popular and critical attention to their work functioned as part of a “Black respectability” politic to undermine Black revolutionary theory and praxis. Her first essay in this vein, “Violence by Any Other Name: The Impasse of Black Female Sexuality,” focuses on the sexual economy of racial slavery by reading the television series Westworld along with contemporary Black feminist scholarship to argue that white jouissance operates at the expense of Black life. Her address of the intractable relationship between pleasure, albeit disavowed as such, and antiblack violence foregrounds how the Lacanian subject's condition of possibility, and ultimately the process of desubjectivization, is constituted in racial violence.
Terrefe’s future research, conceptualized as a 'semio(n)tics of Blackness,' theorizes what she deems the ontics of Black maritime by turning attention to the ontic entity of the slave in flight in contemporary discourses of global Black migration and through Afro-futurist visual arts. This project investigates Black people’s aesthetic and political responses to the recognition of themselves as products of non-Black people’s phobias and desires, beginning with canonical texts such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a paradigmatic example of the moment the Black subject recognizes itself as both an object—a thing—and subject whose social coherence is produced by an ontic category of abstraction. Terrefe thus turns to visual renderings of Black migration as lacerated flight through Afro-futurist works, such as Wangechi Mutu’s “Water Woman” and “Our lost mind finding heart in dutty water.” Here, she is interested in how water—particularly the Mediterranean Sea and its shores of Lampedusa, the river in Hemispheric texts such as Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans and the Mississippi River—figures in the dreams of Black children fleeing captivity, negotiating it as a wound cauterized and carried by water.