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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Doing Good, Behaving Badly: Fictions of Philanthropy in the Americas

  • Author(s): Papazoglakis, Sarah
  • Advisor(s): Gillman, Susan
  • Hong, Christine
  • et al.

This dissertation sheds light on an under-considered counterhistory of American philanthropy within a twentieth-century hemispheric American literary archive produced in the foreign and the domestic peripheries of U.S. empire. Drawing on a body of feminist and African American, Latinx, Central American, and Caribbean literatures to narrate the “fictions” of American philanthropy from the margins, I read American philanthropy’s global development as a neutralizing response to antislavery and anti-imperialist movements in the Americas that threaten a U.S.-dominated racial-capitalist world order. By framing charity as a modality of U.S. imperial power that produces racial and gender inequality, I examine how fiction serves as a vehicle of critique, one that questions the asymmetry of wealth both within and outside the United States.

Considering American philanthropy from a hemispheric perspective, I contend that twentieth-century writers of color inverted traditional conceptions of philanthropy associated with turn-of-the-century white male industrialists and white female reformers. The traditional account of American philanthropy redemptively frames the exploitative nature of extreme wealth accumulation by white male robber barons is redemptively framed as a necessary evil that ultimately serves the common good. In this top-down narrative, American philanthropy is figured as the charitable side of U.S. industrial capitalism. By contrast, the texts I examine expose the ways in which the United States has veiled its often violent policies under philanthropy’s kinder, gentler cover. These texts revise American philanthropy along radical lines both by exposing it as a secret weapon for oppression and by reimagining it as a tool for liberation. Doing Good, Behaving Badly also looks at how these texts tap into philanthropy’s untapped liberatory potential by situating minority subjects as agents rather than objects of philanthropy. This archive further denaturalizes the ideology of “doing good” in the twentieth century, a conception of noblesse oblige inherited from Gilded Age gendered distinctions of public/private, masculine/feminine, and wealth/charity, and deployed to rationalize American dispossession both at home and abroad.

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