Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Robert Reid-Pharr

Committee Members

Ammiel Alcalay

Kandice Chuh

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Poetry | Women's Studies


African American, Afro-Caribbean, authenticity, performance, scat singing, Broadside Press


This dissertation comes out of an engagement with place, emplacement, and authenticity. Divided into three chapters of unequal length, with includes a coda, consisting of short essays and short talks, this dissertation interrogates the reformation and deformation of the “authentic.” It examines the kind of seemingly improvised formal and syntactic assertions that break open space within closed narratives of legibility, legitimacy, and the reasonable; space for what has been disappeared and laid waste (from one perspective) but retains an illegible vibrancy within sanctioned circuits of meaning; space for what has been deemed inauthentic; space for scat.

In her book A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, JacquelineGoldsbysignificantly observes that Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “Ballad of Pearl May Lee”“points towards the historical through the force of its literary form” (4). What histories of living while Black can aesthetic forms reveal and articulate? How might cultural forms of expression articulate subjectivities that are coded in national public spaces as illegible, illegal, and meaningless?

It’s my sense that scatting and the scattered (of the African diaspora) are bound-up. This dissertation is organized around principles of scat-singing. A consideration of form is central to both the content and methodology of this work. A significant feature of this dissertation is that it moves between different discursive modes—personal, anecdotal, scholarly, literary and cultural analysis, interviews, talks, etc. I include these modes in an attempt to bring various characteristics of the authentic, as shifting, constructed, recollected, and performed collections of “I’s” into the same frame, and to suggest the multiplicity that resides within the subject position. This form is meant to mark this study as a crossroads wherein the vernacular, the personal, and the scholarly not only intersect but also transform each other, and wherein the vernacular and personal operate as neither distraction nor accoutrement but as possible instigation to extend the reach of this literary and cultural analysis beyond the space of the academic, and wherein forms of the vernacular and personal are both object and means of study.

Scat-singing is, for me, an exemplary process of “talking shit”—bluster, bluff, dissing, and braggadocio. Scat-singing 1) is a kind of space and place-making; 2) involves the production of utterance that is only partly legible to some listeners some of the time; 3) involves performance and deformation of the “authentic”; and 4) is the kind of invention and reconfiguration of beauty that appear as principle features of innovative and avant-garde Black expressive culture, wherein sites of degradation and illegibility, which also may be read or understood as sites of valuelessness, trouble the designations “beautiful” and “valuable.”

Because poetry, and art more broadly, don’t happen without community, I’m particularly interested as a writer and scholar in interrogating the range of communities and cultural practices with and through which “I” speaks by bringing together what are often seen as radically disparate discourses. Throughout these chapters, I include personal anecdotes and observations as a way of locating and constructing points of entry, view, and interrogation. My reflections about episodes in my life serve to bring the lived density of experience into contact with the scholarly investigations. What other forms of subjectivity emerge in the discursive space of this work?

Important to this dissertation is its potential function as an interrogation of the discursive structures that legislate, regulate, and narrate racial (and spatial) formations, which may have, to use a word that recurs throughout Henry Dumas’ poem “Mosaic Harlem,” “news” of state and individual power relations. Are there discursive strategies that might be understood as challenges to broad social metanarratives of categorization and hierarchy?

By looking at Gwendolyn Brooks’ Riot, and M. NourbeSe Philip’s She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks and Zong, and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass(briefly), this dissertation will focus on spaces of les damnés in relation to authentication and authenticity and formal innovation.Who and what are les damnés?How are those designations semantically, syntactically, sonically, and visually produced, invoked, and reconfigured? My argument grows out of an idea that what I’m calling dissolutive strategies, avant-garde and innovative practices that attend to what has been dis’appeared or laid waste, are a significant and distinctive feature of Black expressive culture’s social and critical engagements. In order to draw together disparate audiences, I enact a critical discourse across modes.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024

Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.

Non-GC Users:
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.