American Charisma: Race, Leadership, and Collectivity in U.S. Literature, 1960-2018

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Winstein-Hibbs, Sarah, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Brickhouse, Anna, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates the role of charisma in shaping modern U.S. racial thinking, concentrating on the way that formal experimentation in contemporary African-American and Native American literature suggests new possibilities for political feeling, protest, and leadership. In dominant discourses, charisma connoted “strong men” who mesmerized “weak peoples” with an inimitable star quality. The term gradually suffused popular culture, politics, and the literary imagination, yet literary scholarship has largely abandoned its exploration to the social sciences. I argue that post-1960s U.S. literature comprehends charisma as a structure of political, aesthetic, and racial feeling, one which demarcates competing theories of leadership in the post-Civil Rights era. Drawing on African-American and Native American feminist and queer scholarship, the project complicates general understandings of charisma as referring to an ahistorical quality, both raceless and genderless. Specifically, I suggest that African-American and Native American writers have employed strategies of aesthetic multivocality to redefine the very nature of charisma itself, disrupting gendered hierarchies of leadership in the aftermath of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Red Power Movements while also nurturing distinctly collective modes of literary form and political protest. In returning to an overlooked archive of literary-political thought, the project positions selected post-Civil Rights literary works by James Baldwin, Anna Deavere Smith, and Tommy Orange as a critical influence on contemporary liberationist thought, building new connections between literary scholarship, political theory, social movement history, and comparative racialization studies.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Race & ethnicity, American literature, Gender & sexuality, 20th & 21st century American literature, American Studies
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