Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young


This project demonstrates how African American literature from the 1910s through the 1940s uses performance in order to stage debates within African American identity and American culture. Drawing on recent literary scholarship, performance studies, and early critical writing on African American art and performance, the project examines scenes of public performance in order to show how these literary scenes create space to investigate social and cultural constructions. The project investigates the ways performances within the texts also critique performances of race, gender, and class. Within these performance scenes, the literary texts also critique the audiences’ reactions to the artistic product against the audience’s and performer’s racial identity. This layering of spectator and performer can only occur because of the space created by the stage. The texts of this project reveal the problematic nature of being both “American” and “African American” cultural productions.

The literature examined in this dissertation includes “scenes of performance,” where both an explicit audience and an explicit performer are present. In these scenes, the performer and their performance represent an embodiment of black cultural products. These “cultural products” include public speeches and musical displays in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), classical and modern dance as seen in Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924), variety show stages in Walter White’s Flight (1926), and vocal concerts in Ann Petry’s The Street (1946). The project argues that these literary texts engage with historical theater and create scenes with stage performance to show problems with binary racial lines and class distinctions. These texts in turn provide a historical lens for examining black theater, but also demonstrate why this time period would have been receptive to black theater and performance, and the circumstances that permitted its development.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)