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Outside relationality : autobiographical deformations and the literary lineage of Afro-pessimism in 20th and 21st century African American literature

Abstract

This dissertation brings together the frameworks of queer theory, performance studies and black feminism and offers a new critical analysis on the presence of an alternative modernity set forth in Jean Toomer's Cane and subsequently found in Chester Himes' Yesterday Will Make You Cry, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Gayl Jones' Corregidora and Frank B. Wilderson III's Incognegro. This alternative modernity, which pivots on the vicious trauma enacted upon black bodies, communities and psyches, is the literary antecedent of the contemporary field of study known as Afro-pessimism. By definition, Afro-pessimism posits that blackness as an ontological position resides outside relationality, and that this placement on the outside is necessary for the construction and maintenance of civil society. The project also draws upon Afro-pessimism to further the argument that the distinction between slave and black is an ontological and paradigmatic misnomer, and that the condition of slavery is marked by accumulation and fungibility, and that slavery (and thus blackness) is defined through natal alienation, general dishonor and the openness to gratuitous violence. The violence enacted upon blackness in the afterlife of slavery is done through the rupturing of the flesh, the evacuation of the black psyche, the practice of empathic identification and an acknowledgment that blackness is only made visible through a discourse and narrative afforded a positioning within civil society (such as queerness). The four cultural phenomena tracked in the dissertation - lynching, imprisonment, expatriation/exile and the performance/ writing of the blues - are indicative of the social death of blackness. The literary objects of study in the dissertation are utilized to illuminate how in their deformation of the autobiographical form, the authors delineate how the positioning of blackness as such then produces, permeates and enacts itself upon the materiality of traumatized flesh. Outside Relationality contends that such a reading of African American literature offers a means of excavating particular strains present extant prior to Afro-pessimism that have been unseen, and of thinking through the persistence of structural suffering and the denial of entry into civil society which persists in maintaining its discourse of rights and inclusion (as opposed to a discourse of slavery)

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