Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Shapiro, Joe


In this thesis, I examine depictions of black female characters crafted by black authors writing in the late 19th century, and I consider how they use these depictions as attempts to challenge white supremacist rhetoric and imagery. In particular, I examine how Frances E.W. Harper and Sutton E. Griggs represent black women through their female characters in their respective novels, Iola Leroy and Imperium in Imperio. I situate these novels within the historical moments, Reconstruction and Redemption, with which Harper and Griggs both document and contend. In these two texts, Harper and Griggs trace, through their characters’ struggles, the hopes and gains of Reconstruction, and the frustration and despair of Redemption. In attending so closely to their own political contexts, Harper and Griggs, non-traditional novelists who were more well known for other forms of writing and for their oratorical skills, selected the novel as a political tool to theorize uplift. Throughout this thesis I examine how and why their constructions of black womanhood in Iola Leroy and Imperium in Imperio frequently idealize their female characters, and I focus on both authors’ efforts to reclaim the image of black women, salvaging it from the destructive imagery of plantation literature and introducing a proud and positive model of black feminine virtue, strength, and influence.

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