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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reading the (In)visible Race: African-American Subject Representation and Formation in American Literature

  • Author(s): Hollingsworth, Lauren Colleen
  • Advisor(s): Doyle, Jennifer
  • et al.

This project began with the intention to examine the connection between the aesthetic and the political in American literature's construction of African-American subjectivity, or the relationship between resistance and representation in literary portrayals of the African-American subject. I was specifically interested in the moments in American literature where the convergence between aesthetic form and political practice creates a particular crisis in representation for African-American subjectivity,

many times rendering scholarly discussion of these problematic texts dismissive of their purported politics, or even non-existent. Some of the questions I wanted to grapple with included how one accounts for texts that have "good politics" in mind when written, yet still possess racist or "bad political" aspects through the manner in which they are presented, and the manner in which the subject position of the author affects our

perception of the text.

I chose to discuss American fictional texts whose readers and critics have experienced difficulty reconciling the text's aesthetic properties with the political moves they seemed to be making in their representation of African-American subjectivity. Through close analysis of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Frances Harper's abolitionist and post-Civil War poetry, and her novel Iola Leroy, Mark Twain's Puddn'head Wilson, Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and research of the criticism surrounding these texts, I found that we should not necessarily reject the notion that aesthetic representation always implies a political stance. However, if ideology and form are so closely connected, than closely examining the aesthetics of a text becomes crucial to understanding its political repercussions and the cultural work it is performing. Ultimately, I end with a plea that we acknowledge the complexity of resistance for the African-American subject and expand the ways in which we as readers

and critics tend to define it. It is our continuing exploration of the complexity of racial representation in literature and cultural subject formation/construction that aids us in understanding and overcoming racism.

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