Through images of disintegration and disappearance, American narratives reveal the black subject's problematic relationship to the (white) Other's desire and the language of that desire. Jacques Lacan's theories of subjectivity--especially the mirror stage and aphanisis, the subject's disappearance behind the signifier--illuminate the impact of racist signification on black bodies in twentieth-century American novels, where epithets like "nigger" invoke the mutilation and disappearance of African American subjects.
Images of corporal disintegration reveal the reversal of the mirror-stage identification inaugurated by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, lynching, and scientific and literary manifestations of Negrophobia. Post-Plessy novels often feature Jim Crow segregation and the "black" body's destruction by the "white" voice. The Negrophobe rape plot infects James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) after the anonymous narrator is called "nigger." He chooses to "pass" for white after failing to project his disintegration onto his uncanny doubles. In Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), Irene reenacts Lacan's mirror stage by assuming Clare as her idealized image. But "Nig"--the signifier Clare's white husband supplies--invokes Clare's death and undoes Irene, whose final fainting is aphanisis. In William Faulkner's Light in August (1932), Joe Christmas' homicidal violence and suicidal "shattering" represent capitulations to Yoknapatawpha's insistence that he is a "nigger."
Exemplary of the literary responses to racist signification since Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Toni Morrison's progression from The Bluest Eye (1970) to Beloved (1987) charts the restoration of voice and body to historically "missing persons" effaced by cultural institutions designed to "teach" them their place. Schooled in the white standards of worth symbolized by the primer motif, characters in The Bluest Eye cannot resist aphanisis; in Beloved, however, characters combat aphanisis by refusing the masters' prerogative to define them. This triumph over aphanisis also emerges in the reappropriation of the black body-in-pieces inspired by Jet magazine's 1955 photographs of Emmett Till's mutilated corpse. Till symbolizes African American integrity in works by Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Madison Jones and others.