MEETING AT THE THRESHOLD: SLAVERY’S INFLUENCE ON HOSPITALITY AND BLACK PERSONHOOD IN LATE-ANTEBELLUM AMERICAN LITERATURE
Author ORCID Identifier
Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Armando Prats
In my dissertation, I argue that both white and black authors of the late-1850s and early-1860s used scenes of race-centered hospitality in their narratives to combat the pervasive stereotypes of black inferiority that flourished under the influence of chattel slavery. The wide-spread scenes of hospitality in antebellum literature—including shared meals, entertaining overnight guests, and business meetings in personal homes—are too inextricably bound to contemporary discussions of blackness and whiteness to be ignored. In arguing for the humanizing effects of playing host or guest as a black person, my project joins the work of literary scholars from William L. Andrews to Keith Michael Green who argue for broader and more complex approaches to writers’ strategies for recognizing the full personhood of African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century.
In the last fifteen to twenty years, hospitality theory has reshaped social science research, particularly around issues of race, immigration, and citizenship. In literary studies, scholars are only now beginning to mine the ways that theorists from diverse backgrounds—including continental philosophers such as Derrida and Levinas, womanist philosopher and theologian N. Lynne Westerfield, and post-colonial writers and scholars such as Tahar Ben Jelloun—can expand the reading of nineteenth century literature by examining the discourse and practice of hospitality. When host and guest meet at the threshold they must acknowledge the full personhood of the other; the relationship of hospitality is dependent on beginning in a state of equilibrium grounded in mutual respect. In this project I argue that because of the acknowledgement of mutual humanness required in acts of hospitality, hospitality functions as a humanizing narrative across the spectrum of antebellum black experience: slave and free, male and female, uneducated and highly educated.
In chapter one, “Unmasking Southern Hospitality: Discursive Passing in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred,” I examine Stowe’s use of a black fugitive slave host who behaves like a southern gentleman to undermine the ethos of southern honor culture and to disrupt the ideology that supports chattel slavery. In chapter two, “Transformative Hospitality and Interracial Education in Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends,” I examine how the race-centered scenes of hospitality in Frank J. Webb’s 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends creates educational opportunities where northern racist ideology can be uncovered and rejected by white men and women living close to, but still outside, the free black community of Philadelphia. In the final chapter, “Slavery’s Subversion of Hospitality in Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” I examine how Linda Brent’s engagement in acts of hospitality (both as guest and host) bring to light the warping influence of chattel slavery on hospitality in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
In conclusion, my project reframes the practices of antebellum hospitality as yet another form of nonviolent everyday resistance to racist ideology rampant in both the North and the South. This project furthers the ways that American literature scholars understand active resistance to racial oppression in the nineteenth century, putting hospitality on an equal footing with other subversive practices, such as learning to read or racial passing.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Wiggins, Rebecca Wiltberger, "MEETING AT THE THRESHOLD: SLAVERY’S INFLUENCE ON HOSPITALITY AND BLACK PERSONHOOD IN LATE-ANTEBELLUM AMERICAN LITERATURE" (2018). Theses and Dissertations--English. 83.
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