Theses Doctoral

At the Crossroads: African American and Caribbean Writers in the Interwar Period

Owens, Imani D.

At the Crossroads: African American and Caribbean Writers in the Interwar Period charts discourses of folk culture, empire and modernity in the works of six African American and Caribbean writers. Each of the dissertation's three sections pairs a writer from the U.S. with a writer from the Anglophone, Francophone or Spanish-speaking Caribbean: Jean Toomer and Eric Walrond; Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén; and Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Price-Mars. I argue that these writers engage the concept of modernity precisely by turning to "imperial sites" that are conspicuously absent from dominant narratives of modern progress. With a sustained interest in the masses and vernacular culture, they turn to the remnants of the Southern plantation, the Caribbean "backwoods," the inner city slums and other "elsewheres" presumably left behind by history. I contend that U.S. empire is a crucial frame for reading the various representations of local folk culture in these works. From the construction of the Panama Canal on the eve of WWI, to the U.S. military occupation of Haiti and ongoing intervention in Cuba, the interwar years are marked by aggressive U.S. expansion into the Caribbean basin. Though it is commonplace to observe that interwar literature is preoccupied with newness and change, less acknowledged is the role of U.S. imperialism in constituting this newness. Caribbean experience is profoundly influenced by these events, and as African Americans sought fuller citizenship they could not ignore the workings of U.S. imperialism just south of the South. Far from being symbols of a bygone time, these imperial sites--and the "folk" who inhabit them--help to produce the modern. At the Crossroads considers the entanglements of U.S. empire and Jim Crow as it traces uses of the folk and vernacular culture across this U.S-Caribbean literary space. The "folk" emerge as a concept that varies across space and time, challenging anew the claims to authenticity, shared origins, and monolithic community that have persistently shaped understandings of the folk's place in the black tradition.


  • thumnail for Owens_columbia_0054D_11547.pdf Owens_columbia_0054D_11547.pdf application/pdf 889 KB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Griffin, Farah Jasmine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013