Choking Down that Rage: Rage, Rape, Riot and the Gender Politics of Black Resistance

Jones, Shermaine, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jones, Shermaine, Arts & Sciences Graduate-jasg, University of Virginia

James Baldwin famously stated, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” Baldwin identifies what Cornel West describes as the “existential dimension of black rage,” which suggests that rage is a key means of mediating blacks’ relationship to the physical and psychic violence of racism (100). I build on Baldwin’s understanding of the significance of rage to black life in my dissertation, “Choking Down that Rage”: Rage, Rape, Riot and the Gender Politics of Black Resistance. My project asserts that rage is an affective register through which black writers negotiate gender, identity, and national belonging. My argument breaks with the more commonly accepted perspective that black rage is a marker of pathology and is the property of the black male underclass. This common perspective is perhaps most evident in what is still the sole book-length examination of black rage, Black Rage (1968) by clinical psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, a book which received much attention upon its release in the aftermath of the racial riots that swept the country following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bell hooks observes that Grier and Cobbs use their Freudian standpoint “to convince readers that rage was merely a sign of powerlessness. They named it pathological, explained it away. They did not urge the larger culture to see black rage as something other than sickness...” (12). My work expounds on hooks and seeks to intervene in this dismissal of rage: I posit that if racial violence serves to discipline the black subject into submission, then black rage—in its fierce insistence on the value of black life—represents a potentially transformative affective response and mode of political resistance.

To pursue my research questions and challenge the ways rage has been pathologized and identified as an affect of the masculine domain, I consider several literary and historical moments and movements in which rage figures as a mode of resistance to racism: The 1940s protest novels of key literary figures Richard Wright and Ann Petry, The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements (1954-1980), and lastly the artistic responses to the Rodney King beating and subsequent LA Riots (1992). I also consider the centrality of gender in constructions and expressions of rage. For example, my dissertation begins with a chapter that juxtaposes Richard Wright’s Native Son and Anne Petry’s The Street. In subsequent chapters, I interrogate the registers of rage in such works as Alice Walker’s novel Meridian, the autobiography of Angela Davis, Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits” sculptures, and selections from Gangsta rap. I argue that there is an “ethics of rage.” In using this terminology, I call attention to the various dimensions of rage as a moral imperative, a philosophical principle, and a political strategy. My objective is to recuperate black rage as a useful and potentially healing affective response to racial terror.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
rage, race, affect, violence, gender, protest, black resistance, grief, fear, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Latasha Harlins, Rodney King, LA Riots
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