Mark Twain once noted that “a fiction of law and custom” made some people “Negros” and other people “whites.” Twain’s observation suggests that race is a “fiction” created when the juridical force of law comes together with the cultural force of custom. Our class will explore this crucial intersection between law and literature. We will examine the relationship between legal texts (juridical decisions, legislative acts, international treaties) and cultural production (novels, short stories, film) in order to investigate how race and racial difference are produced, managed, and naturalized in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. history and culture. Throughout the semester, we will pay special attention to processes of “naturalization”—the constitution of particular individuals as abstract U.S. citizen-subjects with the marking of others as “alien” or incapable of assimilation into the legal, economic, or cultural structures of U.S. society. In this manner, we will consider the aesthetic and political limits of racial fictions attached to myths of U.S. exceptionalism and key concepts such as the color-line, property, passing, sovereignty, Manifest Destiny, borderlands, exclusion, segregation, and miscegenation.
This course satisfies the College's Interdisciplinary Humanities and Social Sciences (Sector IV) requirement.