Plotting Race: Narrative Form and Urban Racial Geographies
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Plotting Race: Narrative Form and Urban Racial Geographies


This dissertation, “Plotting Race: Narrative Form and Urban Racial Geographies,” contends that early twentieth-century racist lending policies like redlining and sociological theories of assimilation and urban growth did not exist in a vacuum apart from creative writing and popular fiction. Rather, I show how three narrative forms—the plot, the line, and the frame—function to simultaneously structure texts and map race onto the urban setting. These figures provided powerful modes of comprehending, upholding, and/or critiquing the spatial forms of racialization that enabled ethnic immigrants to assimilate into whiteness while materializing anti-Black discrimination in the built environment. My project intervenes in the discourse of critical race studies by emphasizing that racialization is produced not simply through clear demarcations, but also through deliberate rhetorical gray areas, which construct both narrative and spatial routes for immigrant mobility while cutting off and enclosing others.Offering a formalist and spatial reading method rooted in Black feminist geography, I draw conceptual analogies between the textual construction of narrative forms and racist geographic structures, and I show how rhetorical reading practices highlight the possibility of alternative formations. In Chapter 1, I focus on turn-of-the-century naturalist city novels, specifically Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) and Theodore Dresier’s Sister Carrie (1900), which incorporate the value of real estate into the sequencing of their narratives and the routing of their protagonists’ desired futures. I argue that they spatialize whiteness as a norm in the city’s geography through the pairing of racialized real-estate investments and narratological investments. While reading Fuller’s novel highlights how the text names different social types in order to subsequently neglect, dismiss, or sequester them from the narrative’s progression and urban geography, my approach to Dreiser’s novel focuses on how descriptive, classificatory moments in the text direct Carrie’s desires and introduce a distinctly racialized form of narrative causality based on comparative sequencing. Although Carrie’s visions for the future open up alternatives to traditional domesticity for modern women, they link her achievement of those gendered futures with her performance of whiteness. I name these generic plot expectations “plots of whiteness,” and at the end of the chapter I show how they made their way into the influential writings of the Chicago school sociologists, such as in Robert E. Park’s “The City.” Yet just as Black sociologists like Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake simultaneously built on and challenged the theories of their white mentors, Black authors including Marita Bonner and Richard Wright drew on and manipulated the discourses responsible for racializing space in order to call attention to and work against that process. If naturalist plots secured white city space, those plots were dependent on boundary lines that separated out and enclosed Blackness beyond their limits. Chapter 2 demonstrates how the presence of competing lines, from photographic sightlines to material clotheslines, works obsessively in Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) to map difference onto the city geography, paving the way for assimilation of certain ethnic others through anti-Blackness. Wright, in his own photo-text, 12 Million Black Voices (1941), shows how this rhetorical function has sustained the anti-Blackness of the color line—a rhetoric established through interactions of visual and narrative perspectives. Black Voices includes white paradigms of looking—photography and sociology—that are in tension with, rather than in service of, the narrator’s perspective. By acknowledging but refusing to integrate these paradigms into that perspective, the text offers possibilities for privileging the line as a contact zone rather than as a border. Chapter 3 demonstrates how Marita Bonner’s fiction (1926-1941) calls attention to the power of frames, from maps of segregated Black Belts to gender and class stereotypes, to entrap and determine Black lives. Her short stories’ modernist forms require readers to thoughtfully navigate between and across different frames of perception, deconstructing the role of aesthetic and narrative framing in patterns of discrimination ranging from Jim Crow to domestic violence to mass incarceration. I read her stories in the context of the time and place where they were written: a period when restrictive covenants and redlining, bolstered by research and support from the University of Chicago, increasingly segregated Chicago’s South Side, but also the moment of the Chicago Black Renaissance, when the Bronzeville community manifested a strong interest in understanding and documenting itself through both social science and art. I discuss how Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis (1945) reframes Chicago school sociology from a perspective located within—rather than outside of—the Black Belt, while their turn to fictionalization in the chapter “Lower Class: Sex and Family” nevertheless reinforces racist, classist, and sexist stereotypes about lower-class Black women. Bonner’s stories, in contrast, reframe the Black Belt through an intersectional feminist lens and interrogate discriminatory ideologies as aesthetic constructions that mutually reinforce one another. In the coda, I introduce another form, the curve, which recurs throughout W. E. B. Du Bois’s sociology and fiction. The curved lines and bars in his 1900 Paris Exposition graphs challenge the conventions of data visualization, and the “Great Curve” rendered visible through the fictional Black sociologist’s “megascope” in the short story “The Princess Steel” (c.1908-10) renders history visible systemically, making Du Bois’s curves an emblematic form of Black spatial critique. In sum, then, this dissertation considers both literary and visual rhetorics as integral to understanding the history of urban segregation in the United States.

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