Year of Publication

2019

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Pearl James

Abstract

My dissertation, titled “I’ve Known Rivers”: Representations of the Mississippi River in African American Literature and Culture, uncovers the impact of the Mississippi River as a powerful, recurring geographical feature in twentieth-century African American literature that conveys the consequences of capitalist expansion on the individual and communal lives of Black Americans. Recent scholarship on the Mississippi River theorizes the relationship between capitalism, geography, and slavery. Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, and Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism examine how enslaved black labor contributed to the expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century, but little is known about artistic representations of the Mississippi in the twentieth century. While scholars point primarily to the Mississippi River’s impact on slavery in the nineteenth century, I’ve Known Rivers reveals how black writers and artists capture the relationship between slavery, capitalism, and the Mississippi River. I consider a wide variety of texts in this study, from Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children and early 20th century Blues music, to late 20th century novels such as Toni Morrison’s Sula. This broad array of interdisciplinary texts illustrates a literary tradition in which the Mississippi’s representation in twentieth-century African American literature serves as both a reflection of the continuously changing economic landscape and a haunting reminder of slavery’s aftermath through the cotton empire. Furthermore, I’ve Known Rivers demonstrates how traumatic sites of slavery along the river are often reclaimed by black artists as source of empowerment, thereby contributing a long overdue analysis of the Mississippi River in African American literature as a potent symbol of racial progress.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/etd.2019.404

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