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Unsung, Unwavering: Nineteenth-Century Black Women's Epistemologies and the Liberal Problematic


Unsung, Unwavering deploys African Americanist and feminist literary criticism in order to problematize how scholars have read nineteenth-century African-American women's activism and knowledge production. I simultaneously expand contemporary critical inquiry in (at least) two key ways: I analyze nineteenth-century black women's interrogation of the effects of liberalism as juridical, economic, and affective performance; and I unsettle sedimented perspectives of black resistance as inherently militant, male, and vernacular.

The first three chapters, in particular, address the ways in which Harriet Wilson, Elizabeth Keckly, and Anna Julia Cooper undermine fundamental liberal and Enlightenment precepts including reason, individualism, and the privileging of a transcendental Subject. Each of these women also rely on distinct tropes of embodiment in their writing to contest reigning prescriptions toward objectivity, while making visible the constraints of practices including tolerance and inclusion.

The first chapter, "`They Won't Believe What I Say': Theorizing Freedom as an Economy of Violence," analyzes Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), in which Wilson exposes the coerciveness of liberalism via dense engagement with questions of sexuality, labor and poverty, and the figure of the tragic mulatta. Keckly's Behind the Scenes (1868) similarly dislodges hegemonic models of individual sovereignty, progress, and interracial intimacy. As I argue in the second chapter, titled "The Production of `Emancipation': Race, Ritual, and the Reconstitution of the Antebellum Order," Keckly's politicized acts of witnessing and selective self-commodification foreground insidious modes of control embedded within American progressivism. Cooper, on the other hand, condemns prevailing ideals of abstraction and universality. Her reconceptualization of dominant tenets of civility, freedom, and equality; invocation of musical metaphor; and irruptions of sarcastic wit throughout A Voice From the South (1892), I contend in "`Wondering under Which Head I Come': Sounding Anna Julia Cooper's Fin-de-Siécle Blues," compel a radical reevaluation of our ways of recognizing social change. Novels such as Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, as evidenced in the concluding chapter of "`Mammy Ain't Nobody Name': Power, Privilege and the Bodying Forth of Resistance," provoke dialogue with Wilson, Keckly, and Cooper, and demonstrate the ongoing relevance of interrogating the limits of American liberalism in the neoliberal present.

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