Author ORCID Identifier
Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Carol Mason
This dissertation advances studies of Black childhood, particularly Black girlhood, by examining how African American women writers depict the troubled journey to adulthood in stories of segregation, immigration, and incarceration. I argue that authors of four representative literary works emphasize architectural structures as well as ancestral hauntings among which Black children grow up. Without examining the material structures, we cannot understand the strategies these haunted Black youth deploy to reach adulthood. Examining the architectural structures that the protagonists of Maud Martha (1953), Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Zami (1982), and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) grow up in and around, I demonstrate how each protagonist develops an alternative model of adulthood to challenge whiteness as property and to reckon with haunting. Looking at structures from the kitchenette to the prison in these coming-of-age narratives, I endeavor to show how whiteness as property shifts shape to continue to subject young Black people and keep them from the full rights of adulthood. In each chapter, I expound on the history and development of a different architectural structure. I follow that context with close readings that illuminate how each protagonist experiences haunting in a particular built environment on their journey to adulthood and how that spurs them on to develop alternative maturity markers. In chapter one, I grapple with two narratives of segregation. I argue that Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, unable to buy a home because of redlining restrictions, builds a rich interiority to combat the haunting she endures in her oppressive kitchenette. Conversely, Paule Marshall’s Selina refuses to bow to familial and societal pressure to purchase property. Instead, to dispel the haunting she experiences in her Brooklyn brownstone, she returns to the Caribbean to reclaim her ancestral memory. In chapter two, I examine how Audre Lorde’s experience as immigrant and lesbian propels her to embrace rather than reject haunting. I assert that Lorde queers the diaspora as she draws on the erotic as power to create a “house of difference” and reject the monumental whiteness of the United States. In chapter three, I emphasize how whiteness as property changes shape but not substance throughout U.S. history by examining Parchman Prison. I illustrate how Jesmyn Ward’s protagonist, Jojo, and his younger sister Kayla, practice conjure to cope with the ghosts that appear to them and how these inherited conjure abilities offer protection for their futures threatened by incarceration. While each protagonist draws on a different mechanism to reckon with haunting: building interiority, claiming ancestral memory, using the erotic as power, and practicing conjure, in so doing, they construct homes, create spaces for survival, and develop models for adulthood outside of whiteness as property. Thus, they become self-possessed in a world built to dispossess them.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Kelly, Margaret Frymire, "(Dis)Possessed Black Youth: How America's Architecture Challenges Coming of Age in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century African American Women's Literature" (2022). Theses and Dissertations--English. 149.