Girlhood in African American Literature 1827-1949
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Title of Dissertation: GIRLHOOD IN AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE,
Nazera Sadiq Wright, Doctor of Philosophy, 2010
Dissertation directed by: Professor Carla L. Peterson
Professor Mary Helen Washington
Department of English
This dissertation examines African American literature through the social construction and the allegorical function of girlhood. By exploring the figure of the black girl between 1827--when the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, was published and slavery was abolished in New York--and 1949--the publication date of Annie Allen, Gwendolyn Brooks's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection poems, I argue that representations of the girl in African American literature are based on behavioral codes that acquired political meaning in print culture before and after Emancipation. In the canonical and rarely-read texts I examine, the varied images of the black girl as orphaned and unruly, educated and mothered, functioned as models for black citizenship.
The Introduction argues that Lucy Terry and Phillis Wheatley become foundational models of intellectual achievement through their growth from slave girl to poet. Chapter One, "Antebellum Girlhood in African American Literature" argues that articles selected by black male editors of Freedom's Journal and Colored American, and works by black women writers, such as Maria Stewart's "The First Stage of Life" (1861), Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) adopted the black girl from the LucyTerry/ Phillis Wheatley paradigm and appropriated her image to represent their own, specific citizenship pursuits. In Chapter Two, "Black Girlhood Post-Emancipation," the racially-indeterminate girl figure in Christian Recorder stories, Mrs. N. F. Mossell's advice columns published in the New York Freeman, and Frances Harper's depiction of Annette in Trial and Triumph (1888-1889) represented the newly emancipated black girl figure and her grooming for racial uplift efforts.
Chapter Three, "Race Girls in Floyd's Flowers," argues that in Silas X. Floyd's conduct book, Floyd's Flowers; or Duty and Beauty for Colored Children (1905), black girl figures return to the domestic sphere and defer to black male leadership due to an increase in violence at the turn of the century. Chapter Four, "Black Girlhood in Gwendolyn Brooks's Annie Allen (1949)," argues that Gwendolyn Brooks's modernist poems offer an alternative to the conduct manual by privileging the black girl's interiority and freeing her from an instructive role.