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"The Imagination and Construction of the Black Criminal in American Literature, 1741-1910"

Abstract
My dissertation examines the origins of the perception of black people as criminally predisposed by arguing that during eighteenth and nineteenth-century America, crime committed by black people was used as a major trope in legal, literary, and scientific discourses, deeming them inherently criminal. Furthermore, I contend that enslaved and free black people often used criminal acts, including murder, theft, and literacy, as avenues toward freedom. However, their resistance was used as a justification for slavery in the South and discrimination in the North. By examining a diverse set of materials such as confessional literature, plantation management literature, (social) scientific studies, and literary works, I demonstrate how historical and cultural representations of crime became racialized. I begin by analyzing the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 and reading the legal testimonies produced by the event as literature. These testimonies contributed to the production of late eighteenth-century confessional narratives, in which there was a disproportionate representation of those from African descent. From here, I examine different institutions of confinement and mechanisms of torture used on enslaved and free black people, arguing that what emerges from their brutalization and confinement is the circulation of ideas about black people as subjects having a propensity for transgressive behavior. After investigating literary works by William Wells Brown and Mark Twain, among others, I conclude with an analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois’s unpublished short stories. Written in the genres of crime and detective fiction during the first decade of the twentieth century, I argue that these little-known stories use, yet subvert ideas about criminality as inherent among black people and can be read against his sociological studies on urban crime in the same period. By focusing on literature and culture as ways of understanding perceptions and constructions of racial groups, my dissertation intervenes in legal studies scholarship and scholarship on the history of crime in America. More broadly, it builds upon the larger field of African American Studies by challenging the binary of agency and oppression through examining literary representations of contentious relationships between slaveholders and the enslaved. Through various literatures of the colonial, early national, antebellum, and post-Reconstruction periods, what is at stake in my project is how the criminalization of black people predates Reconstruction and convict leasing. In its attempts to reveal connections between criminality, race, and the judicial system in our contemporary moment, my work is especially timely in light of the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many others.
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