Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Robert Reid-Pharr

Committee Members

Duncan Faherty

Eric Lott

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority


Criminal Narrative, Autobiography, African American Periodicals, Print Cultures, Criminal Biography, Slave Narrative


A Dark Record charts the emergence and traces the evolution of a central figure in American culture, the myth of the black criminal. It does so both to explore the ideological effects of print, and to present an alternative history of African American literature. Historians have long maintained that the association of African Americans with crime solidified in our national culture during the post-Reconstruction period, the nadir for African American civil rights, with a corresponding rise in the over-policing of black individuals and communities. For its part, my study looks back from the post-Reconstruction period, and examines the role earlier American literature and print culture played in making the association of blackness with criminality (an association that arguably still remains in our present culture) so readily accepted by the end of the nineteenth century. Examining an archive of texts spanning from the colonial era execution sermons of Puritan New England, to slave narratives and fiction of the Civil War period, my study reveals an association of black people with crime as perhaps one of the oldest tropes in Anglo-American literary production. Yet I also view criminal discourse as a key point of entry for African American authors and literary subjects into the nation’s cultures of print. This work ultimately argues that a sharpened focus on the issue of black criminality provides a new understanding of the first periods of the nation’s literature, as well as a more complete view of African American literary history.