Date of Award

January 2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Sheryl O'Donnell

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The study focuses on a number of African American women's literary texts that employ the figure of the black mother and the motif of infanticide to engage in critical statements about system arrangements, repressive practices, and theory designs with direct effect upon black people's choices for organizing their lives and existence. Such critical statements are inevitably political and their construction is offered in a most provocative and startling way given the choice of maternal infanticide to make the claims.

Angelina Weld Grimke's "The Closing Door" (1919), Georgia Douglas Johnson's Safe (c.1929), Shirley Graham's It's Morning (c. 1938-1940), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) are texts that explicate the working of the political through an expression of controversial black maternal politics that demands a renegotiation of the basis for communitarian unity. In these texts, black mothers murder their children in often utterly grotesque and spectacular ways to claim brazenly that they provide safety for their children from slavery and lynching. Safety is the one thing missing in their lives and the one thing that mothers secure for their children by definition. Through the act of infanticide and its subsequent interpretations, the signifier safety is quickly thrust into a field of discursivity where competing notions as to what lends meaning to "safety" exist: "safety" is cast as death and violence, as dismembered human body, as grotesque maternal mastery, as mother-child oneness, or as sound that breaks the back of words. Thus, the signifier safety reaches the status of what political theorist Ernesto Laclau calls

in Emancipation(s) the "signifier of empty communitarian fullness" (43). It will arrest meaning only after a particular articulation of safety brings the promise of communitarian wholeness.

Put in the time of their publication, Grimke's "The Closing Door" (1919), Johnson's Safe (c. 1229), Graham's It's Morning (c. 1938-1940) and Morrison's Beloved (1988) serve also as responses to the emerging Harlem Renaissance art theories of the 1920s and 30s and the birth of African American vernacular theories in the late 1970s and 1980s where each, from the perspective of its days and goals, aimed to position African American literature safely, and with the necessary dose of comfort, on the American literary and cultural map.

The novelty of this project lies first in the fact of putting Angelina Weld Grimke's "The Closing Door," Georgia Douglas Johnson's Safe, Shirley Graham's It's Morning, and Toni Morrison's Beloved together for critical examination. To my knowledge, no such study that links infanticidal literature authored by African American women writers exists. Second, it is a critical exploration of the political role of the literary figure of the black mother in shaping community consensus along intracommunal (black) lines and a glimpse of the relation between African American women's texts and theories designed to promote African American literary features. Third, I hope that the study will serve as an illumination of Ernesto Laclau's political theory on hegemony and emancipation, and will contribute to the field of feminism and African American studies.

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