Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Reframing Blackness: The Photograph and African American Literary Modernism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
by March, Deborah M., Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 348; 3525195
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation explores the photograph's place in African American writing between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Examining illustrated periodicals, ornate gift-books, literary anthologies, race encyclopedias and "who's who" volumes, posters and prints showcasing literary icons, and unpublished scrapbooks, I piece together a history of the first concerted effort by African American writers to mediate race—to "frame blackness"—for a broad audience. Their literary productions engage the photograph's evolving capacity to render human subjects "samples" and "types" of particular categories: the criminal, the prostitute, the colonial subject, the fashionable woman, the normative American family. Harnessing (and sometimes interrogating) the photograph's capacity to "sample," turn-of-the-century African American writers experimented with textual format and literary form in pursuit of new, modern racial representations. This dissertation recuperates these multimedia experiments, contextualizing them as early modernist works whose formal and thematic innovations and interventions would shape African American literary history for decades.

The lives and works of four writers—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pauline Hopkins, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson—structure this inquiry. Each chapter takes up a different author. My method, a combination of archival work, biography, and close reading, allows me to recover works often left out of conventional literary histories, like Dunbar's collaborations with the Hampton Camera Club, the short-lived Woman's Era magazine which propelled the national consolidation of the African American women's club movement in the mid-1890s, and Booker T. Washington's Working with the Hands—billed as the "sequel" to Up from Slavery and illustrated with photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston. This approach reveals the historical contingency of the production of the African American tradition and recovers multiple erasures of founding efforts to delineate its origins. Organized chronologically with some overlap, the chapters tell a story of multiple, contested visions for modern black subjecthood and modern black literary production which presage (and more thoroughly contextualize) the better-known developments of the Harlem Renaissance.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Alexander, Elizabeth
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 73/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, Modern literature, Black studies, American literature
Keywords: African-American, Blackness, Dunbar, Paul Laurence, Hopkins, Pauline, Johnson, James Weldon, Modernism, Photography, Washington, Booker T.
Publication Number: 3525195
ISBN: 978-1-267-57479-4
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