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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Dr. Emily J. Lordi

Second Advisor

Dr. Rachel Mordecai

Third Advisor

Dr. Daniel Sack

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Steven Tracy

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | American Popular Culture | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Performance Studies


This dissertation, Black Men Who Betray Their Race, gathers a literary archive in order to identify and introduce the “race traitor” as a heretofore unrecognized yet important trope within 20th century African-American Literature. In addition to coping with the burden of racism, African Americans have had to put considerable energy toward negotiating the possibility of being perceived as race traitors by others within the African American community. This study tracks the possibilities and perils of black group identity in literary representations of black men, neither privileging opposition to the white world, nor celebrating black unity beyond it. Focusing on literary works by five African-American male authors--Sutton Griggs, Ralph Ellison, Charles Gordone, John Edgar Wideman, and Paul Beatty--my archive provides a diachronic examination of the race traitor to show how his numerous permutations and appearances across periods and genres speak to the ever-shifting politics of black identity. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899) brings into focus the intersections between anti-African emigration sentiment and black identity. Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) calls attention to the double agency of black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and the subversiveness of their black tokenism. Gordone’s No Place to be Somebody (1969) stages the trauma of being called a race traitor, reminding us that the discourse of Black Power identity, while affirming, is also fraught with psychological danger. Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984) introduces the notion of compartmentalization as the internal process which enables the race traitor to mask his feelings of guilt over his flight from the black community, showing us not only how compartmentalization actually feels, but also how it is undone—how it can actually be healed. And lastly, Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (1996) explores, against a backdrop of the rising black public intellectualism at the close of the 20th century, what it looks like for the race traitor to return home and reassume responsibility for and to black community. Ultimately, Black Men Who Betray Their Race invites us to reconsider Du Bois’s notion of double-consciousness from a fresh perspective, enabling us to reflect on the tension between individuality and collectivity as lived, represented, and performed across the 20th century.


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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.