Dissertation Abstract

From What Remains: The Politics of Aesthetic Mourning and the Poetics of Loss in African American Culture

That loss in African American culture is indelibly and intimately connected with the history of slavery is, by now, a familiar assertion. It is one, however, that belies the complexity through which loss operates for a collective body because it reduces it to a singular event and form.  The features of this loss are often static and focus mainly on death and dying as its central features. Instead of viewing loss solely through this lens, my dissertation conducts a revised and interdisciplinary reading of mourning and loss as they appear in textual and visual based art produced from 1960 to the present.  These writers and artists consider loss as productive and as an impetus for remembrance and artistic production.  I include the assemblage art of Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, and Tyree Guyton, two novels by John Edgar Wideman, nonfiction narratives by Wideman and Hilton Als on lynching, a multimedia production by Ralph Lemon, and travel narratives by Saidiya Hartman and Edwidge Danticat. All of this art represents and reenacts culturally traumatic moments, such as the MOVE bombing in 1985 and the Watts Riot in 1965, or responds to foundational themes and sites of loss connected with racialized violence and the legacies of slavery. I argue that by seizing and reconfiguring what “remains” after the trauma, these artists and writers participate in the politics of mourning. I study a wide range of genres to trace the manifestation of what I am calling a poetics of loss in African American visual and textual art that performs aesthetic mourning. I show how the experimental formal qualities of visual and literary montage, assemblage and collage, and mapping through the travel narrative show these artists’ efforts to find a form through which to signify loss.

In the first two chapters I turn my attention to three events, the Watts Riot of 1965, the Detroit Riots of 1967, and the bombing of MOVE in 1985, which take place within an urban setting and whose focus combines a visual and textual poetics of loss. The first chapter examines assemblage art that appeared after the Detroit and Watts riots that are actually composed of the actual material remains. The second chapter focuses on two novels by John Edgar Wideman, Philadelphia Fire and Two Cities: A Love Story, as literary and visual montages of ideal, bodily, and spatial remains that draw our attention deeper into the larger implications of the MOVE bombing. The final two chapters examine loss in its ideal and metaphorical representations. In the third chapter, I move beyond the scope of the event to look at the lasting effects of the ideological remains of racialized violence on generations removed from the actual event.  Therefore, in the third chapter I examine art and nonfictional narratives that respond to lynched black male body as it appears in photographs and spatial mediums.  In the last chapter, I look at the African diasporic condition through the larger context of mourning as a response to the loss of a sense of relation and connectedness to a homeland.  I analyze contemporary travel narratives written by members of the African Diaspora as they search for a renewed sense of relation and mourn its absence by conducting their own mourning rituals and visiting sites of mourning.  In the conclusion, I develop the parameters of the politics and poetics of loss and propose ways that it is useful in understanding how the African American community has dealt with issues of memorialization and commemoration. I use this politics and poetics of loss to gauge its usefulness in understanding the history of African Americans through a brief look at the development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture slated to open in 2015 on the Washington Mall.


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