Theses Doctoral

Ambivalent Ecologies: Representations of the Nonhuman in African American Literature, 1830-1940

Alston, Brian Alexander

Ambivalent Ecologies: Representations of the Nonhuman in African American Literature, 1830-1940, argues that nonhuman animals and ecological phenomena are central to the projects undertaken by African American authors from the antebellum slave narrative through the interwar period. In four chapters that focus on the Anglophone literature of nineteenth century abolition, the late nineteenth-century conjure tales of Charles W. Chesnutt, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I contend that there are as many differences in how these authors marshal the nonhuman as there are similarities.

Following this insight, I tease out the unevenness and tensions in these representations across the tradition. Tracing the influence of literary genre and historical developments on representations of the nonhuman, I contend that these mark a site or perhaps a vector of profound ambivalence. Pushing beyond paradigms that reflexively position the work of black creative intellectuals as always already critical of Western liberal humanism, I offer a more nuanced set of close-readings that stay with the trouble of what I theorize as the ecological ambivalence that animates African American literature’s relationship toward the colonial categories the Human, or Man. Drawing on the work of Sylvia Wynter, Zakiyyah Jackson, Frantz Fanon, and others, I position this ambivalence as a key feature of the ecology of African American life.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent H.
Hartman, Saidiya V.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 6, 2023