Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

English

First Advisor

Herman Beavers

Abstract

VIOLATING MATERNITY: SERVITUDE, SEXUAL ABUSE, LYNCHING AND THE (UN)MAKING OF THE BLACK MATERNAL SUBJECT

Michele Sharon Frank

Herman Beavers

This dissertation argues that African American women writers have identified the black maternal figure as a primary symbol of black cultural trauma. Through an examination of selected texts from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries, I isolate writers’ and dramatists’ explorations of servitude, sexual abuse and lynching as systemic, historical violations of blackness and womanhood that have shaped black women’s maternal experiences. African American women writers’ depictions of black women’s experience of and resistance to such systemic violations of themselves, their children, and their communities reveal how their traumatized subjectivities defy facile understandings of maternal connection, love and protection. This dissertation argues that the writers’ construction of this maternal aesthetic signals an enduring concern with the intergenerational effects of compounded trauma and of black people’s sometimes self-wounding efforts simultaneously to contest their violation and affirm their humanity. My dissertation explicates the texts’ meanings within the socio-historical contexts of their creation and publication as well as on emphasizing attention to the periods of their representations. From its beginnings, African American literature has engaged both dominant and resistant ideologies of being in, first, the American Colonies and, later, the United States. Authors who have grown out of a markedly marginalized population have negotiated and participated in an artistically expressive tradition—literature—to which they routinely had been denied access and to which it was assumed they had little to contribute. African American literary and cultural criticism and Feminist Studies inform my methodology. While conversing with the theoretical constructs of Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction and New Historicism, Feminist and African American critical studies have insisted on modes of inquiry which foreground analyses of class, gender, race and, increasingly, sexuality as interconnected, systemic structures of identity that shape African American lives. These tropes of traumatic violation recur in other African American-authored texts, thereby corroborating my premise that a sustained explication of their representational significance contributes to the scholarly examination of the ways in which the symbolic work of cultural producers shapes our understanding of the formation of black subjectivities.

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