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Feeling the Crowd: Affective Responses to Collective Violence in African American Fiction


“Feeling the Crowd” uses affect theory to analyze representations of middle-class responses to the modern black violent crowd in African American fiction. My project demonstrates that writers ranging from Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952) to Walter Mosley in Little Scarlet (2005) have continuously portrayed black middle-class anxiety in relation to perceived leadership gaps in the collective African American community brought to light by images of black collective violence. Echoing Hazel Carby’s Race Men and Erica Edwards’s Charisma and the Fiction of Black Leadership, I argue that these writers problematize gendered notions of black leadership while they explore anxieties triggered by crowds. I turn to recent work in affect studies to explore these class-based anxieties, in particular Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, which offers a critical lexicon that allows me to attend to both the individual emotions and the collective affective responses that characterize my subject.

While past scholarship on the black crowd in literature tends to focus solely on the collective body, my work, which attempts to recover lesser known novels in conjunction with more canonical texts, offers a fresh approach that considers the individual response to such violence. In the dissertation, each chapter examines a particular time period, with the first devoted to Ellison’s reimagining of a Harlem Riot, which I suggest is depicted as an amalgamation of events that transpired in 1935 and 1943. My second chapter shifts to the 1960s social unrest depicted by Chester Himes, John A. Williams, Sam Greenlee, and Walter Mosley. The third chapter considers the post-1992 fiction written by Los Angeles-based women writers Bebe Moore Campbell and Paula Woods. Finally, my last chapter continues to focus on Los Angeles as it considers the juxtaposition of black collective violence with multiple references to the jazz musician Eric Dolphy in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (1996).

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