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Alien Love: Passing, Race, and the Ethics of the Neighbor in Postwar African American Novels, 1945-1956

  • Author(s): Nahm, Hannah Wonkyung
  • Advisor(s): Yarborough, Richard A
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines Black-authored novels featuring White (or White-passing)

protagonists in the post-World War II decade (1945-1956). Published during the fraught

postwar political climate of agitation for integration and the continual systematic racism, many

novels by Black authors addressed the urgent topic of interracial relationality, probing the

tabooed question of whether Black and White can abide in love and kinship. One of the

prominent—and controversial—literary strategies sundry Black novelists used in this decade was

casting seemingly raceless or ambiguously-raced characters. Collectively, these novels generated

a mixture of critical approval and dismissal in their time and up until recently, marginalized from

the African American literary tradition. Even more critically overlooked than the ostensibly

raceless project was the strategic mobilization of the trope of passing by some midcentury Black

writers to imagine the racial divide and possible reconciliation.

This dissertation intersects passing with postwar Black fiction that features either

racially-anomalous or biracial central characters. Examining three novels from this historical period as my case studies, I argue that one of the ways in which Black writers of this decade have imagined the possibility of interracial love—with all its political pitfalls and ethical imperatives —is through the trope of passing. Through the paradoxical leitmotif of passing with its ontological defiance, fugitive liminality, and its distinctly African American historical association, Willard Savoy, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin invoke the Judeo-Christian ethics of the neighbor—loving one’s neighbor as oneself—to envision love across different borders and to underscore the need for intersectional accountability, breaking down the binary divisions associated with race, gender, class, and sexuality, as well as between the oppressor and the oppressed. They imagine passing as a vexed yet productive site or passage way toward neighbor-love. The primary methodological thread that interweaves my chapters is the use of intertextual lens: By reading the novel under study against works by the same author or by other African American writers, I spotlight the shared commitment of the authors studied to the ethics of neighbor-love as well as their deep engagement with the African American literary tradition.

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