Emergent identities: The African American common woman in United States literature, 1831--1903
Taylor, Michelle Lynette
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines the intersection of resistance, gender, and respectability in African American literature from 1831 to 1903 through the figure of the "common woman." As a category of analysis, the common woman is an alternative to the bourgeois African American heroine, and is characterized by a number of qualities: the lack of formal education; reliance on folk-based methods of knowledge; non-traditional views on the family; aggressive articulation of her rights and the rights of the community; and finally, her use of labor as a tool for manipulating the culture of oppression. While current theoretical frameworks of literary representations of resistance rely heavily on the primacy of iconographic black protagonists, the common woman is a new imagining of black respectability that is defined by a folk-based construction of the black self. I trace the literary development of the common woman through a historically grounded evaluation of black women's labor within the context of the West Indian and American slave pasts, Reconstruction, and racial uplift rhetoric. I argue that placing the literary common woman in conversation with black women's labor history destabilizes the emphasis on the bourgeois, representational heroine by establishing a pattern in which the common woman resists white racism by virtue of her position in the economy. Because the common woman is not generally regarded as race leader, she is free from the imperative to facilitate exchange with Anglo-Americans and is thus free to assertively critique and subvert racism. In short, by focusing more on labor than on literacy, and more on maintaining the black community than on fostering interracial exchange, the common woman is the means through which nineteenth-century African American writers voice violent, subversive, and otherwise unspeakable critiques of the American nation that challenge the serviceability of the genteel heroine as the primary voice of resistance. By using the common woman as the voice of resistance, middle-class writers were able to critique the nation while also coming to terms with the complexities of intra-racial class conflict.
Black studies; Women's studies; American literature