Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ashley Dawson

Committee Members

Robert Reid-Pharr

Peter Hitchcock

Sadia Abbas

Herman Bennett

Subject Categories

Africana Studies | African Studies | American Studies | Asian Studies | English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Film and Media Studies | Inequality and Stratification | Intellectual History | Political Economy | Politics and Social Change | Race and Ethnicity | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies | Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance


genre, representation, race and gender, crime and violence, settler colonialism and racial capitalism, liberal democracy, social movements, global Anglophone literature, cultural appropriation, gangsters


Building upon examinations of genericity, subalternity, and carcerality by Black, Indigenous, and women-of-color feminist scholars, my dissertation offers an account of how truth claims are produced and sustained to limit social change in representatively governed societies. Taking the gangster genre as my lens, I first resituate the form, assumed to depict white-ethnic conflict in the U.S. and Europe, as a type of resistance to race-based political economic policies imposed by imperial regimes. After linking the subaltern classes of pre-20th-century southern Europe, southern Africa, South Asia, and the U.S. South—all subjected to criminalization as a mode of colonial and capitalist control—I examine the contemporary politics of gangsterism in India, South Africa, and the U.S. For each nation-state I show how liberal-democratic institutions co-opt and mystify the liberatory impulses in original cultural productions deemed “gangster”: in India, through the English-language literary establishment’s circulation of gangster-film-derived narratives of putatively anti-social violence; in South Africa, through the state broadcaster’s transformation of a post-apartheid TV series meant to educate white viewers about white supremacy into one that scapegoated Black gangsters; and in the U.S., through the mass-entertainment industry’s erasure of fugitivity in pop versions of the gangsta-rap subgenre of trap music—a contemporary version of the sleight-of-hand necessary to reproduce slavery, as Harriet Jacobs showed in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

Weaving together historical, political, and comparative analysis and close readings of media, literature, critical theory, and archival documents, I conclude that dominant forms of representation across the former British empire appropriate the struggles of racialized and Indigenous peoples and revise them to suit the disciplinary aims of the international order—and that non-generic cultural expression (like transdisciplinary movement-based art) eludes this strategy. At a time when mass incarceration, immigrant detention, and the prison-industrial complex are drawing greater attention than ever, my investigation provides fresh insights into the textual and structural nuances of these systems.