Bodies in the Middle: Black Women and Sexual Violence in Law and Literature of Twentieth Century America

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Hislop, Maya, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hislop, Maya, Arts & Sciences Graduate-ASG, University of Virginia

My dissertation, Bodies in the Middle: Black Women and Sexual Violence in Law and Literature of Twentieth Century America, argues that when we move a conversation about rape, race, literature, and the law from the period of enslavement to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we also move the conversation from one about binaries of agency/subjection, triumph/abjection to a spectrum of intelligibility. My work is indebted to the work of Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, Hazel V. Carby, and Karla FC Holloway because they established how literature represents black women as both object and subject of the law, ones who find ways to act despite the total deprivation of legal rights. Hartman’s reading of Harriet Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as an agent of her own desire when she chooses a white lover is just one example of an entire body of scholarship. Bodies in the Middle continues this work while it departs to argue that, when juxtaposed, the twentieth century and contemporary novels and legal cases at the center of the project reveal how black women who have experienced sexual violence rather than existing on a binary of agent/object are on what I call a spectrum of intelligibility. Under slavery, black women could rarely if ever attempt to get justice for sexual crimes committed against them. The first chapter examines two artifacts from the 1940s, The Case of Recy Taylor and Richard Wright’s Native Son, to showcase how Jim Crow extended the legal deprivations of slavery while a burgeoning civil rights movement motivated new modes of intelligibility, legal and otherwise, for black women who have been raped. The second chapter asserts that when read together State of North Carolina v. Joan Little, 1974-5 and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora reveal how black women and their allies caused monumental shifts, both theoretical and actual, to occur regarding their intelligibility as victims of crimes. And finally, chapter three examines two wildly compatible artifacts, the dismissed trial, New York v. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 2011 and contemporary novel, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to engage with the particular struggle and/or avenues of possibility that black immigrant women and their allies have and/or create to make themselves intelligible to the law. Ultimately, the argument that I am setting forth about intelligibility, sexual violence, race, gender, and the law is also an attempt to stand in solidarity with contemporary social justice movements, such as #SayHerName, Black Women’s Blueprint, and Survived and Punished to memorialize all of the black women and black trans women who have been victims of sexual violence, who never report it, who never seek out legal counsel or mental health services. I want to memorialize those who report their assaults and regret it because the exposure to the legal system only resulted in more trauma, more shame, more powerlessness. This project is doing precisely what the women at the center of my dissertation do: attempting to make intelligible those crimes that were previously unintelligible.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
black women, sexual violence, African American literature, Recy Taylor, Joan Little, Nafissatou Diallo
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