Theses Doctoral

Investing in Stereotypes: Comic Second-Sight in Twentieth-Century African American Literature

Hunt, Irvin

"Investing in Stereotypes" unearths a tradition of humor that may initially sound counter-intuitive: it sees stereotypes as valuable. Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Charles Wright, and Suzan-Lori Parks reveal the way racial and sexual stereotypes paradoxically complicate their subjects in the very attempt to simplify them. The compulsive repetition of stereotypes and the contradictory meanings that stereotypes embody create absurdly comical effects that are, in the hands of these writers, surprisingly humanizing. To unveil the tensions in, say, Sambo, the happy plantation slave who is at once harmless and savage, completely known and enigmatic, is to invest in the stereotype's comic implication that the subjects it hopes to fix are endlessly changing and exhaustingly complex--that those subjects are, in fact, human. Departing from the most common techniques used to resist stereotypes (inversion, exaggeration, and modification), investment, as I theorize it, is a comic form of engagement that enacts Du Bois's concept of second-sight: the ability to perceive the blind-spots of another's cultural perspective from the vantage point of one's own.
I begin the dissertation with Hurston because the sort of second-sight her characters practice is the precondition for Ellison's democratic America, Wright's empathic witnessing, and Parks's sovereign communities. Hurston uses tactics of trickery, even more nuanced than Henry Gates's field-framing concept of "Signifyin(g)," to encourage her readers to account for their cultural blind-spots by forcing them to move between the contradictions within a stereotype. For example, when the speaker of "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" vacillates between being "savage" and "cosmic" as she dons the Sambo stereotype, she creates epistemological uncertainty about the cultural knowledge the reader uses to racialize others. By helping people in conflicting positions of power understand their common humanity and their mutually limiting misrecognitions, comic second-sight can work to bridge social divides. "Investing in Stereotypes" shows why the humor of the oppressed deserves more than the scant scholarly attention it has received and also unearths a mode of oppositional consciousness crucial for the emancipationist project of African American literary studies.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 19, 2014