Stephanie Li's research focuses on the ways in which issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality influence conceptions of freedom. Her 2010 book from SUNY Press, "Something Akin to Freedom": The Choice of Bondage in Narratives by African American Women, which won the First Book Prize in African American Studies, examines how the decision to remain enslaved represents alternative forms of agency which include the protection of personal relationships and the development of community bonds. This analysis not only introduces reproduction, mother-child relationships, and community into discourses concerning resistance, but it also expands individual liberation to include the courage to express personal desire and the freedom to love. Li proposes that black women operate upon "intra-independence," a form of freedom that works through and within relationships rather than upon the valorization of individual achievements.
Li's third book, Signifying Without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama, was published this fall by Rutgers University Press. This study of contemporary political rhetoric and 21st-century literary texts argues that American politicians and writers are using a new kind of language to speak about race. Challenging the notion that we have moved into a "post-racial" era, she suggests that we are in an uneasy moment where American public discourse demands that race be seen, but not heard. Analyzing contemporary political speech with nuanced readings of works by such authors as Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead, Li investigates how Americans of color have negotiated these tensions, inventing new ways to signal racial affiliations without violating taboos against open discussions of race.
Li also published a short biography of Toni Morrison in 2009 and is co-editing a special issue of American Literary History entitled "Writing the Presidency" which examines the intersection of politics and literature through a variety of narrative forms.