AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

Invisible men: space, race, and housing in African American literature

by Rudds Crystal Thomas

Institution: University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
Year: 2016
Keywords: African American Literature; Phenomenology; Housing; Home; Space; Race; Sociology; Black Masculinity; Protest Novel; Photography
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2063653
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/90623


“Invisible Men: Space, Race, and Housing in African American Literature” uses an archive of novels written roughly between 1940 and 2000, American Sociology, the philosophy of phenomenology, and ethnography to argue that representations of housing in African American literature form part of a negative discourse that relegates space to forever being racialized but that this discourse is interestingly contradicted by my chosen texts’ very mediation of housing. Problematizing, as examples, the conflict between discriminatory and liberating spaces in Native Son (1940), the narrator’s underground refuge in Invisible Man (1952), and the class and Levinasian boundaries of responsibility in Linden Hills (1985)—among more—my dissertation posits the question, what does it mean for space to be raced in a body of literature simultaneously concerned with contesting the stigma of race, and with it, delimiting structures of subjecthood? If one attempts to separate the conversation about race from the built environment it censures (i.e., slum housing), what is left? My dissertation emphasizes a focus on African American men because, as my dissertation title alludes, they constitute a present absence in the representational fields within literary and ethnographic texts about housing. Pointedly, a large number of representations of housing inequities in African American Literary Studies and American Sociology demonize black men, and yet, beyond Bigger Thomas in Native Son and the Black Panther Party’s work in public housing in the 1970s, the narratives of black men in relationship to housing justice is startlingly undertheorized. My project contributes to both disciplinary fields by addressing the configuration of urban crises seemingly dependent on the high visibility and yet discursive silence of low-income African American men. I examine black men’s intimate and political uses of space through novels, participant-observation, interviews, and photographs to argue that the ways in which black men construct and negotiate housing as shelter are both universal and uniquely transgressive. My efforts are intended to move the literary discussion of ghetto space away from the binary of this space being perceived as either culturally productive (e.g., via the blues and hip hop) or socially destructive (e.g., as geographies of violence and poverty). Extending my textual readings to qualitative research (which I do in the final chapter) continues the complicated relationship between sociology and black literature in order to widen the picture of African American masculinity that we see in groundbreaking studies such as American Project (2000) and The Dignity of Everyday Resistance (2004). Additionally, my project can be viewed in conversation with feminist and queer studies of domestic fiction. If the domestic is “a site where massive negotiations between often competing ideological pressures are undertaken and then processed into viable, even pleasurable, experiences of [or I would add, resistance to] domestication,” then… Advisors/Committee Members: Koshy, Susan (advisor), Koshy, Susan (Committee Chair), McCarthy, Cameron (committee member), Freeburg, Christopher (committee member), Somerville, Siobhan (committee member).