Disturbing the peace : black vagrancy and the culture of racial demarcation

Wagner, Bryan Eustis, Department of English, University of Virginia
McDowell, Deborah, Department of English, University of Virginia

This dissertation tracks the figure of the black vagrant (or "tramp") as it was constructed in U.S. culture during the decades after the Civil War. Building upon recent work in fields such as criminology and labor history, the project explains how the concept of black vagrancy was used to restructure the logic of racial identity in the absence of slavery. As I understand it, black vagrancy is a reality produced by a specific method of misdemeanor policing; it does not exist apart from the state practices that create the black tramp as an object of suspicion. The concept of vagrancy thus refers both to a shifting pattern of state authority and to the consolidation of a new racial type the black tramp -- which began to appear simultaneously in a range of postbellum cultural venues including legal statutes, newspapers, court reports, novels, short stories, cartoons, popular ballads, advertising, photography, and early blues songs. Interpreting the changing contours of this figure as it was articulated for diverse audiences and political occasions, the project puts white writers and politicians like Joel Chandler Harris and James K. Vardaman into dialogue with a wide range of African American texts produced by anonymous storytellers and balladeers as well as individual writers such as Frances Harper, Charles Chesnutt, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and W. E. B. DuBois. Bringing these diverse sources together for the first time, this dissertation reads the culture of black vagrancy with an eye to understanding the systematic procedures of criminalization that have served as a primary mechanism through which racial identities have been historically reproduced in U.S. society. Ultimately, it argues that black vagrancy was a category of racial identification that played a crucial role in the transition from slavery to segregation, permanently changing how race has been lived in the United States.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
black vagrant, racial type, postbellum culture
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