Date of Degree

5-2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor(s)

Robert F. Reid-Pharr

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | Literature in English, North America

Keywords

African American Literary Criticism; African American Literature; History; Memory; Paratextuality; Reception Studies

Abstract

In this dissertation, I trace the complex black literary trope of errant memory through American and African American literature. Authors of African descent are constantly subjected to what I call Africanity, or the paratextual historicizing elements provided by white interlocutors that seek to impose specific caricatures and stereotypes on them and their works to force them into the American historical narrative that depends on their dehumanized and commodified status. These caricatures and stereotypes are rooted in an Africa imagined by these white interlocutors, one that does not match any reality. Authors of African descent transcend this paratextual Africanity through what I call errant memory. Based on Edouard Glissant's errantry, which stipulates a way of life that is simultaneously aware of and disproves the sovereignty of Universalisms, errant memory emphasizes the act of remembering over fetishized narratives of trauma and inescapable violence inherent in Universal History and its version of black life and history. In short, persons of African descent are not just socially dead, they are mnemonically dead as well. Their mnemonic life is replaced with static and dehumanizing historical narratives. However, African American literature serves as a testament to mnemonic life. Africanity seeks to disallow authors of African descent to participate in the true freedom found within the space of literature, defining and determining their literary capacities to mimicking, parroting, rebelling, resisting, or otherwise reacting to and against the way white hegemonic society reads them. Errant memory, occupying the space of literature, explodes these definitions through the choice to embrace and emphasize personal, indeterminate, and disorienting memories. Instead of allowing the rhetoric of trauma to dictate their mnemonic lives, authors of African descent, including Phillis Wheatley, Nathaniel Turner, Hannah Crafts, and W.E.B. Du Bois, read their determined roles within the larger historical narrative and reclaim their personal mnemonic relationships with the important moments of the Middle Passage and American Slavery, freeing their literature and these cultural memories to the possibility of unlimited interpretation.

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