Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Since its inception, black feminist criticism has produced a number of sophisticated theoretical works that have challenged traditional approaches to both black literature and U.S. women’s writing, as well as assumptions about canon, the concept of tradition, narrative conventions, and more. Far too often, black feminist criticism has been associated with essentialism and presumed to have an anti-theoretical bias. This project begins at this disjuncture and argues that as a mode of analysis and a strategy of reading, black feminist criticism has lost none of its strengths and potential, and that there are still new paths to take and new trajectories to chart. My dissertation, Unsettling Feminist Traditions: Domesticities and Agency in U.S Black Women’s Life Writing, 1850-1926, examines African American women’s representations of domesticity in non-canonical autobiographical narratives published in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. Using feminist theory and historical methods, I argue that black women relied upon the tenets and language of domesticity to imagine themselves as active agents within the context of public life. These texts deviate from conventional depictions of nineteenth-century black domesticity as tied to the sentimentalized slave-mother, and I argue that the broader conceptualizations of home, family, domestic labor, motherhood, and marriage engaged by Amanda Berry Smith, Nancy Prince, Eliza Potter, Elizabeth Keckly, Susie King Taylor, and Emma Ray serve to craft new ways of thinking about agency, identity, and subjectivity. The lack of textual frameworks other than those of impoverished, undereducated, enslaved, and profoundly victimized Africans in America has engendered a flattening of the ways in which we approach texts authored by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century black women. By paying closer attention to alternative genealogies offered in these autobiographical narratives, we can begin to contextualize and articulate different concerns and priorities for the fields of black women’s literary history.



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Committee Chair

Massé, Michelle



Available for download on Saturday, December 23, 2023