Penn Arts & Sciences Logo
"Violent Convictions: Punishment, Literature, and the Reconstruction of Race"
  • Monday, July 20, 2015 - 10:30am to 12:30pm

FBH, Faculty Lounge

This dissertation examines the relationship between race and punishment in US culture from the post-Reconstruction era through the 1950s. After slavery's abolition, racial domination became embedded in popular understandings of state violence, while ideas of legitimate violence, in turn, became an important part of racial identity. “Violent Convictions” traces this development as reflected and enacted by a range of texts from this period, including fiction, prisoner autobiography, sociological studies, political writings, jurisprudence, and journalism. In this period, the claims on citizenship made by African Americans in the wake of Emancipation were fiercely countered by emerging discourses that tied whiteness to the public interest and bound blackness to criminality, turning people of color into commonsense objects of legitimate violence. Amid debates over lynching, African American migration, prison reform, and bias in the criminal justice system, authors as different as Thomas Dixon, Jr., Ida B. Wells, Alexander Berkman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gunnar Myrdal, and Chester Himes all participated variously in this remaking of the meaning of race and punishment. Starting in the late nineteenth century, racial identity and state violence were reimagined in intimate relation to one another, with lasting consequences for US racial ideology. These cultural developments paved the way for a carceral state that could conceive of itself as a colorblind force for justice and safety while simultaneously serving as an engine of racist violence.