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A Child's Call: Braiding Narratives in the Face of Racial Violence

  • Author(s): Bancroft, Corinne
  • Advisor(s): Young, Kay
  • et al.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” Scout Finch calls to the single familiar face in a crowd of white men as she stands at the door of a jail that wrongly incarcerates a Black man for a crime that she does not understand. This famous scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) where an eight-year-old stops a lynch mob is both object and emblem of my dissertation project. “A Child’s Call: Braiding Narratives in the Face of Racial Violence” draws on critical race theory and cognitive approaches to literature to show how contemporary American writers focus on child characters as instruments for narrating violence and violation, and how these children’s voices call adult characters and actual readers toward a heightened sense of social responsibility. While Scout’s pleasantries move the adult characters toward an everyday responsibility of caregiving, other such child protagonists face insurmountable barriers: in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), all adults fail to hear the cry of ten-year-old Pecola Breedlove, and many, such as the white storekeeper fail to “see” her. Despite their differing political analyses and aesthetic projects, both Lee and Morrison trust a child with the task of reimagining the world and realigning our ethical responsibilities.

The figure of the child leads me through two genres that constitute community through narration: the United States’ variation on the bildungsroman, the coming of age novel, and an emerging genre I term the “braided narrative”— novels in which multiple narrators tell distinct, often incommensurate, stories that form a complicated constellation in the same storyworld. When Morrison pairs Claudia and Pecola with The Bluest Eye’s other narrators, she begins to forge this new genre that diverges from the style of Mockingbird’s single narrative voice. Like Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Ana Castillo, Nicole Krauss, and many others take up this strategy of casting child narrators among a chorus of raconteurs who narrate different, conflicting stories. “A Child’s Call” proposes a developmental relationship between the coming of age novel and the braided narrative for the reading of American literature. My project proposes a feminist and anti-racist progression of ethical positions staged in these two genres; the relationship between the reader and the protagonist develops from one of identification, to one of maternal care, and finally, to one of empathy that both acknowledges and requires difference.

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