Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
My study challenges our current valorization of movement and flow in readings of African American literature. I do so through an exploration of the representations of the black agrarian masses who either choose to remain or could not afford the spectacular forms of escape to urban life which many essentialized as freedom. In the dramatic and pivotal decades following emancipation, African American leaders attempted to check the growing apartheid by the “combination” of diverse African American communities: North and South, professional and working class. This required that they move beyond the question of whether one was free or slave to the more tangled questions of freedom related to economic class, access to and distinctions of culture, and the opportunities of the city versus the country. Their writing was one means to seek out a more nationally defined community, but their efforts towards racial unity had to resolve the conspicuous differences regarding region and class. A difficult negotiation of difference ensued. In this negotiation, I argue, an agrarian form of freedom manifests itself in the literature of the professional class despite the intraracial pressures of “uplift” ideology which skewed representation toward middle-class life. The politics as well as the values and culture of the agrarian class surface. The agrarian themes of community, remaining, and an environmentalism of the poor contest the valorization of urban industrialism and self-made man ideology which are linked to presentations of a city-life as a life of freedom.
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