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Looking Past Protest by Professor Koritha Mitchell

“Do you really want to argue that Black-authored plays about lynching aren’t protest plays?”

This question took many forms over the five or so years I worked on revisions of my first book Living with Lynching. Both peers and senior colleagues were sincerely concerned that I was setting myself up for an embarrassing situation. Could a study on literature addressing racial violence approach those works as anything other than examples of protest? Did I really want to do that? Was that responsible? Was it logical?

Whether asked in private or in public venues like the Q&A sessions after panel presentations, these questions always arose. Because I appreciated the wisdom of these concerns, I began to see what was otherwise invisible. Namely, most investigations of the history, literature, and art of marginalized groups are shaped by a powerful assumption, that anyone who is not a straight white man is responding to oppression. Everything that those who aren’t straight white men do is seen as secondary, as a reaction to “larger” forces. Only straight white men are assumed capable of creating art,  and doing so in the affirmative, as historical actors and as expressive beings.

Seeing this orientation among scholars in pretty much every field—whenever they encountered marginalized groups, at least—I became convinced that abandoning this approach would yield powerful insights. However, I was most convinced by what was revealed in the lynching plays that everyone wanted me to consider protest plays. The characters in these scripts actually articulate what too few scholars had been acknowledging, that African Americans were targeted by mobs not because they were criminals or had done something wrong but because they were successful in some way and therefore needed to be reminded of their “proper” (subordinate) place in society. Outside of the plays, African Americans were saying the same thing. Ida B. Wells was unequivocal in her 1892 pamphlet about lynching, Southern Horrors: “The mob spirit has grown with the increasing intelligence of the Afro-American” (62).

My question then became: if African Americans know their achievements inspire their white counterparts to attack, what does that reveal about their insistence upon pursuing achievement anyway? Do African-descended people cultivate particular practices in order to aim for a success that they know will make them targets? I suspected that they did and still do.

My new book, From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture, argues for (and models) a new reading practice. Rather than approach art and literature from marginalized groups as examples of protest or as responses to “dominant” culture, it demonstrates the power of reading through the lens of achievement, using case studies from Black expressive culture. Even while bombarded with violence (both physical and discursive), African Americans remain focused on defining, re-defining, and pursuing success. By analyzing canonical examples of Black women’s cultural production, this study reveals how African Americans keep each other oriented toward accomplishment. In offering this new reading practice, I hope scholars will join me in applying it to the literature and art of a range of marginalized groups.

While examining widely taught and discussed works from the 1860s to the present (via Michelle Obama’s public persona), the book traces “homemade citizenship”—the result of practices of making-oneself-at-home, practices of affirming oneself while knowing violence will answer one’s achievements and assertions of belonging. Each chapter re-tells the history of the period that produced the examined texts by emphasizing how white violence answered Black achievement. For instance, in the decades leading up to the 1860s, enslaved Africans and their descendants succeeded in holding on to their belief in their right to the fruit of their labor, so the nation pounced—making the destruction of their families legal and using the Fugitive Slave Act to incentivize hostility toward Black freedom. With this backdrop established, Chapter 1 reads Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868) for how African Americans define and re-define accomplishment in circumstances they seldom choose. After establishing the violent, anti-black historical landscape of the post-Reconstruction era, Chapter 2 examines Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892) and Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces (1900). Chapter 3 foregrounds the migration that shaped the 1910s and 1920s before examining Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

In Chapter 4, federal programs encouraging suburban home ownership prove to be hostile to African Americans, setting the stage for analysis of key dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and Alice Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness (1969). Chapter 5 traces the active pathologizing of black families, including the widespread acceptance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, to prepare readers for a new understanding of two texts that re-visit slavery in the 1970s and 1980s, Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Chapter 6 reads Michelle Obama’s public persona as a performance text that exposes the ugliness that her unprecedented achievement inspired in many white Americans. Then, the Coda acknowledges white aggression’s potency by helping readers understand why 63 million American voters were determined to move the country “From Mom-in-Chief to Predator-in-Chief.”

The study offers literary history and intellectual history. By examining canonical texts and how they interact with their historical periods, the book shows how Black women recorded, affirmed, and challenged the thinking prominent in their communities at various junctures. The study also intervenes in understandings of citizenship in the United States. Assuming that Black people are obviously not citizens during slavery and then obviously are citizens after slavery creates simplistic interpretations that treat the law as if it is static and absolute on the one hand … and in a separate sphere untouched by other discourses and practices on the other hand. From Slave Cabins to the White House argues for a much more dynamic conception of citizenship, one that is beholden to the words and deeds of those whom the Constitution and American jurisprudence so often excludes.

Koritha Mitchell is author of the award-winning book Living with Lynching, editor of the Broadview Edition of Frances E.W. Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, and author of From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture. She is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University and a Society of Senior Ford Fellows (SSFF) board member. Follow her @ProfKori. Professor Kori’s book will be released on 31st August, and is available for pre-order at a 30% discount when you use code F20UIP at the checkout.