Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation


Abstract Aesthetics and Liberation Theology : Figurations and Invocations of Black Jesus in Early Twentieth Century American Literature Public Deposited

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  • This thesis invokes Black Jesus as an abstract figure in two seemingly disparate early twentieth century American novels and, in doing so, intervenes in ongoing debates about the ethical capacities of literature as means of grappling with difference. The Christ figure is a literary trope of waning importance in contemporary literature as well as literary criticism, while the figure’s regular invocation in film produces tired and ineffectual interpretations. However, I contend that recasting the Christ figure as a Black Christ may recuperate its value. Black Jesus may serve as what David Palumbo-Liu calls a discursive delivery system, connecting disparate perspectives and experiences in a way that conventional (white) configurations of the Christ figure cannot. As a supremely significant symbol in America, Jesus acts as a basis of similarity between vastly different experiences and perspectives, but the dominant version of Jesus has been co-opted by white supremacy and capitalist systems, and is therefore unable to connect across difference. Conversely, Black Jesus, as an intensely empathetic reframing of Jesus, is able to make these connections. However, if the Christ figure is represented as a suffering Black body, it may be limited in its potential to provoke meaningful responses, as Saidiya Hartman warns that these representations of Black bodies reinforce notions of Black inferiority. Accordingly, I show Black Jesus may be freed from this bind of realist representation through abstraction, an aesthetic choice in artistic production and interpretation which Phillip Brian Harper hails as a response to the onus of correct representations of African Americans. This thesis identifies abstract spaces in Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring as an avenue for Black Jesus to enter the text and counter the existential threats levelled against the novel’s characters, and then invokes a configuration of Black Jesus in the abstract spaces of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, where the figure addresses the spiritual crises facing those cast off by social structures. In each chapter, Black Jesus elucidates the individual novel’s transcendental and material concerns, and, by invoking Black Jesus in seemingly disparate texts, the figure makes a significant connection across vast difference which suggests its revelatory capacity in literary criticism, contemporary theology, and cultural debate.
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