Talking Like White Folks: The Rise of the Post World War II African American White-Life Novel

Charles, John Christopher, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia
Balfour, Lawrie, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Rody, Caroline, Department of English, University of Virginia

This study examines the rise of the post WWII African American "white-life" novel, i.e, novels by black authors with white protagonists. The authors understudy here include well known figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ann Petry and Chester Himes, as well as currently lesser known, but formerly best selling, authors Frank Yerby and Willard Motley. I argue that the turn to white protagonists arose out a crisis in the culture of segregation. This momentary shift in emphasis (the novels appeared between 1946 and 1956) had multiple effects, including the freedom to explore a wide range of subjects and themes beyond the cultural expectation and political obligation to protest racial discrimination--which, for these authors, felt like being forced to reproduce the suffering black subject for white consumption. The works do not abandon concerns with race, however. Instead they tap into the ubiquitous discourse of the moment that addressed what was deemed an emergent crisis of white heteropatriarchy-especially following the social transformations of the Depression and World War II. These authors sympathetically depict suffering white protagonists in order to imagine alternatives to these oppressive norms.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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