A Liveable Place: (Anti)Utopianism and the African-American Literary Imagination

Millar, Rosemary Veronica, English, University of Virginia
McDowell, Deborah, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Rody, Caroline, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Hoehler-Fatton, Cynthia, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia

My dissertation examines ideas of utopianism, or more accurately, antiutopianism in the work of selected African-American writers, who have tended to challenge representations of utopia in the works of such canonical writers as Sir Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, Aldous Huxley, B. F. Skinner and-Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In these canonical works, utopian communities are envisioned as racially homogeneous places, built and maintained on myriad forms of social exclusion. In their visions of a "perfect" society, Blacks rarely appear, nor are the complex realities of race explicitly explored. My dissertation seeks to insert questions of race into broader discussions of Utopian literature. In so doing, I challenge the reigning scholarly assumption that African American writers have not contributed to the form and Black Literature never had any significant utopian dimension.
I argue that African-American writers have clearly engaged with utopianism, although explicitly for purposes of critique. The writers I examine tend to critique the idea of a perfect society and to establish a critical relationship to figurations of utopia, which have traditionally served to justify systems of segregation and social exclusion. Sutton E. Griggs, W.E. B. Du Bois, George S. Schuyler and Toni Morrison-on whose novels my study focuses-quarrel with the notion of America as perfectible. They situate their critiques within the broader context and history of racial segregation. They not only reveal the striking parallels between utopian ideals and practices of racial segregation, but also disclose how segregation is harnessed to the formation of utopia in spite of itself. Taken together, the works I address establish that social homogeneity is fundamental to the generic utopian ideal, a quality/nuance that is sometimes maintained and enforced through state-sponsored violence and terrorism. These African-American authors are all keen to re-imagine America as an anti-utopian space, a space that denies its own founding principles. Ironically, when African-American writers imagine their utopias/dystopias, these are also segregated spaces. While seeming to mirror Anglo- American utopias, the communities these authors create simultaneously challenge white hegemonic power and struggle for political citizenship and self-determination. Overall, they demonstrate how utopias are also racialized, gendered, sexualized and nationalized.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
African Americans, intellectual life, utopias
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