Black violence and the politics of representation: selected readings in the twentieth century American novel
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This thesis argues that the representation of black violence in the twentieth century American novel is shaped by two principal rhetorical strategies, which I term denial and demonisation. Denial refers to modes of literary discourse which seek to refute the possibility of black violence, or to circumscribe it as an exclusively intraracial phenomenon. Demonisation denotes textual strategies which figure a racially determined form of violence as a natural element of black character. These strategies may appear antithetical, but they are rarely deployed in isolation. Rather, they appear in complex combinations in most representations of black violence in American literature, as I demonstrate using a range of novels by black and white authors which span the twentieth century. These strategies have their roots in racist ideologies which seek to obliterate any connection between the impact of racism upon African Americans and black violence. Hence they are most noticeable in literary texts which reflect and contribute to racist ideology. However, texts which seek to expose social and cultural causes of black violence are also unavoidably influenced by these modes of literary discourse, and this includes the work of African American authors. They have to negotiate the racist tropes and assumptions encoded within the language and literary forms of hegemonic American culture, because they have no alternative, completely separate resources for cultural production. External pressures experienced by any author representing black violence compound these difficulties. These include the demands of black community leaders and white liberals not to represent African Americans in ways which may hinder the cause of racial equality, and the demands of publishers to represent black violence in ways with proven commercial potential. Furthermore, despite the retreat of racism in modern America, certain images and fantasies of blackness retain a hold over the American cultural imaginary, and continue to influence literary discourse. As my thesis demonstrates, this ensures that denial and demonisation can still be detected in contemporary American novels.
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