Racial Choice at Century's End in Contemporary African American Literature
Washington, Mary H
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This dissertation introduces the term "racial choice" to describe a contemporary idea that racial identity can be chosen or elected, as can the significance and the influence of race on an individual's identity. Racial choice emerges out of the shifting historical, cultural, and social discussions of race and identity we have witnessed after integration. This dissertation examines the resulting representations of contemporary black identity in African American literature by analyzing texts that were published in the last quarter of the twentieth century and that feature protagonists that come of age during or after integration. Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips (1984), Danzy Senna's Caucasia (1998), and Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle (1996) are representative texts that engage racial choice to register how the racial hierarchy has changed in the late twentieth century and how that change affects the African American literary tradition of race writing. In their attempts to write outside of the existing racial paradigm--using white flight, passing, and satire as narrative strategies--the authors test the racial boundaries of African American literature, finding that writing outside of race is ultimately unachievable. The introductory chapter explains the cultural, literary, and scholarly context of my study, arguing that because race matters differently in the late twentieth century contemporary African American literature handles race uniquely. I argue in my first chapter that Lee uses white flight as a narrative form to move Sarah Phillips beyond the influence of racialization and to suggest class as an alibi for racial difference. Continuing this theme amidst the Black Power Movement of the 1970s and the multiracial project of the 1990s, my second chapter analyzes Senna's Caucasia, which revises the passing narrative form and explores the viability of choosing a biracial identity. In my third chapter, I show how Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle satirizes the African American protest tradition to point up the performativity necessary in maintaining racial binaries and suggests that culture is a more accurate identifier than race. My concluding chapter argues that though the three novels under study challenge racial categories--and by extension race writing--to different degrees, they all use similar methods to point up the shifting significance of race, racial categories, and racial identity. By historicizing attitudes about racial categories, challenging the dichotomous understanding of race, representing the tensions of racial authenticity, and showing the performativity necessary to maintain racial categories, the novels illustrate the traditional boundaries of racial choice and attempt to stretch the limits of the African American literary tradition.