Brave New Narratives: Postrace Identity and the African American Literary Tradition

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Williams, Laura Camille
Washington, Mary Helen
This study examines late twentieth&ndashcentury and millennial black middle&ndashclass fiction, often described as the New Black Aesthetic (NBA), as a vital and expansive aspect of literary studies and racial discourse. I focus on fictional depictions to analyze the narration of race in a so&ndashcalled postrace era. The novels in my study have in common protagonists who are writers that resemble their NBA authors. As imagined writers creating narratives in texts, these protagonists show how narratives make race. Because they exhibit the unique position that the NBA occupies in a post&ndashCivil Rights U.S., the protagonists featured here provide both counter&ndashnarratives and dominant narratives of race. The term &ldquopostrace&rdquo dominates current discourse about race in the U.S., often to imply a class arrival and an advance beyond racial constructs. I argue that NBA fiction characterizes the post&ndashCivil Rights black middle class as not moving past race, but rather inexorably engaging and confronting race in tandem with gender, class, sexual orientation, and/or nationality. Black middle&ndashclass protagonists in NBA fiction occupy a transient social position in which they experience figurative returns to the past. I call these returns &ldquopostrace moments&rdquo&mdashnarrative moments that connect contemporary protagonists to collective memories and political histories of race and other forms of social identity. My introduction historicizes twentieth&ndashcentury constructs of blackness and postraciality in African American literature. In Chapter One I argue that fiction is the ideal form for examining the narration of race. I show how the protagonist of Trey Ellis's <italic>Platitudes</italic> narrates himself both in and out of heteronormative definitions of social identity. Chapter Two illustrates how Percival Everett's <italic>Erasure</italic> allows the author and protagonist to disappear into multiple narratives and counter&ndashnarratives of identity and authorship. In Chapter Three I argue that the protagonist of Danzy Senna's <italic>Symptomatic</italic> narrates herself in relation to a foil to challenge and confirm conventional tropes. And, in Chapter Four, I show how the protagonist of Andrea Lee's <italic>Lost Hearts in Italy</italic> narrates black femininity both on the periphery and at the center of empire. My conclusion shows how the NBA and postrace identity can expand literary studies.