Anxieties Of Belonging: The Trope Of the Orphan In African American Novels
|Williams, Roland Leander
|Rupertus, Christian John
|This dissertation investigates the trope of the orphan in African-American novels and analyzes the prevalence of the figurative expression in the genre over time. Alienated from and deemed illegitimate by the larger society throughout their history, African Americans have grappled with competing desires to at once belong to the nation-as-family and to simultaneously be liberated from its White supremacist underpinnings. Systematically deprived of their rightful familial and cultural inheritances from their initial arrival to the Americas, Blacks have operated out of a perpetual state of orphanhood in the United States ever since, demanding acknowledgement as equal citizens while cobbling together their own intra-racial kinship bonds. By replacing nation-as-family with race-as-family to stem the tide of oppression, African Americans endeavored to carve out protective spaces for themselves within a hostile environment. The frequent deployment of Black orphan characters in African-American novels alternately reflects and interrogates this interplay between longing and liberation, transmuting over time to foreground how the exigencies of the moment come to bear on African Americans’ collective quest to find what scholar Amy Lang calls “a home for those without a home in the nation.” In order to conduct this work, I first construct a lens through which to evaluate Black orphan characters as tropological revisions, one of the four modes of double-voiced textual relations or significations delineated by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Signifying Monkey. This opens a field of vision from which I analyze conceptualizations of kinship, home, and their relationship with what Toni Morrison calls the “anxieties of belonging” in African-American novels. Her phrase furnishes a framework for viewing orphanhood as a metaphor for historical conditions that have caused African Americans to confront the absence of ancestral history, a circumstance precipitated first by their forced deportation from the continent of Africa and then concatenated by the subsequent dissolution of Black family ties through the mechanics of chattel slavery. While White American novels like Huck Finn, for instance, rehearse a desire for independence and the disavowal of familial ties in favor of formulating one’s own identity, African-American narratives function as meditations on how forced dependence sought to sever Blacks from their heritage and preclude the formulation of identity, and how Blacks could resist those dehumanizing effects. My dissertation consists of six chapters that match seminal works of African-American literature with the tenor of the times around their publication date; thereby, it plots points of intersection between historical exigencies and cultural enterprises personified in the literary tradition. Opening with the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this investigation authenticates the parameters and topographies of the trope of the orphan that recur in subsequent African-American novels, including those that are the focus of my work: Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857); Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892); Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929); Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979); and Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle (1996). By identifying characters in the given novels as instances or inflections of the trope of the orphan and its evolution over time, I demonstrate that historical conditions have rendered orphanhood a powerful symbol for the Black experience in American society, one that has come to stand for the cultural, political, and nationalistic anxieties. In plotting the coordinates of these tensions through the use of Black orphan characters, African-American novels destabilize fixed notions of identity. Moreover, they chart a course for attaining an authentic sense of belonging by cobbling together both intra- and inter-racial communities predicated on the acknowledgement of the full humanity of the orphaned character, and by extension, of African Americans as a whole.
|Temple University. Libraries
|Theses and Dissertations
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|Anxieties Of Belonging: The Trope Of the Orphan In African American Novels
|Henry, Katherine, 1956-
|Joyce, Joyce Ann, 1949-
|Anadolu-Okur, Nilgun, 1956-
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