Panel at MLA 2022: Representing Race in Law and Literature
23 December 2021 at 1:19 pm #1029116
Please join us at MLA 2022 for the following session sponsored by the Law and the Humanities Forum:
284AV Representing Race in Law and Literature
Christine Holbo, Arizona State U, Tempe
Simon Stern, U of Toronto (Zoom Host)
Judge Lynch Writes Political Theology: Race and the Law in The Quadroon and The Octoroon
Patrick McDonald, Bilkent U
Elegiac Constitutionalism and the Reconstruction Postmortem Novel
Almas Khan, U of Arkansas, Little Rock
Contradictions of Immediacy: Interrogating Objectivism in ‘My Country, Tis of Thee’
Thomas Nez, Longwood U2 January 2022 at 2:28 pm #1029150
Attached are the abstracts for the Representing Race in Law and Literature panel…
284AV Representing Race in Law and Literature
Virtual Session at MLA 2022, 12 pm on January 7
Representing Race in Law and Literature
In recent decades, scholarship across diverse fields has converged on the question of how legal and literary forms conspire to produce distinctive means of understanding the articulation of racial difference. Literary scholars including Brook Thomas, Gregg Crane, Imani Perry, Jeannine DeLombard, and Deak Nabers have examined questions of racial subordination by reference to legal conceptions of personhood, status, and competence as well as to particular legal domains such as criminal law, constitutional law, property, and contract. Recent scholarship has also opened up new avenues of thought about relations between legal and literary form, as scholars including Ayelet Ben-Yishai, Lisa Siraganian, Carrie Hyde, and Anat Rosenberg have sought to clarify formal similarities and differences in the ways that contingencies and counterfactuals are imagined and emplotted in both domains.
This panel brings those lines of inquiry together, questioning how race structured the intersections between legal and literary form at a generative moment in the history of modern jurisprudence. Exploring the thesis that the imaginative surpluses of the American slave system flood the channels of representation across modern law and literature, the papers on this panel interrogate the possibility that “the construction of black humanity in slave law,” in Saidiya Hartman’s words, resonated far beyond the antebellum South to shape the way contemporary and later writers, in America and transnationally, framed questions of equity and justice, legitimacy and objectivity.
Judge Lynch writes Political Theology: Race, Revelation, and the Law in The Quadroon and The Octoroon
Patrick McDonald, Bilkent University It is a scholarly commonplace that lynch law enforced white supremacy during the nadir of race relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Recent studies of vigilante justice and lynching suggest, however, that extralegal violence needs to be understood in a transnational context that stretches back from the so-called “lynching era.” Captain Mayne Reid’s novel The Quadroon (1856) and Dion Boucicault’s dramatic adaptation The Octoroon (1859), Irish-authored texts about American slavery, do just this. Each text concludes with not one, but two quasi-legal trials in order to examine the connections between race, the law, and legal authority. The potential lynching victims range from The Octoroon’s innocent Indian Wahnotee to The Quadroon’s educated, white protagonist; the crimes range from the murder of an enslaved boy to the illegitimate purchase of a “fancy girl” at a plantation estate auction. What preoccupies both authors in their conclusions is how to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate judicial procedures. For both, the first—illegitimate—trial is one that wishes to firmly police racial hierarchies. The succeeding and legitimate one, however, cuts across the former’s purely racial calculus. They each do so through exculpatory evidence which is figured as divine revelation and the proceeding’s capacity to represent something more than a court’s mere performances. In each case, I argue, the texts suggest that justice, while purportedly race-blind, is always tinged with the white supremacist reality of antebellum Louisiana. Mayne Reid and Boucicault insist that ensuring justice in the face of white supremacy requires political theology: one grounded in revealed truth and the court’s capacity to represent transcendence.
Elegiac Constitutionalism and the Reconstruction Post-Mortem Novel
Almas Khan, University of Arkansas, Little Rock
Conceptualizing the U.S. Civil War’s interrelated legal and literary dimensions, Allen Grossman asserted that “[a]uthentic American art, as well as true American constitutionality, awaited a solution to the crisis of the establishment of the person.” For Grossman, Walt Whitman’s poetry and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings reflected the hope for a “poetics of union” that could lay the groundwork for political unity. Moreover, by referencing artistic authenticity and legal veracity, Grossman suggested that realism – in both literature and law – was the mode through which aesthetic and national transformation was to occur.
The postbellum era evidenced the rise of both realisms, with many literary realists seeking to advance “[d]emocracy in literature” (per William Dean Howells) and many legal realists envisioning law as a tool for social flourishing. The Fourteenth Amendment, with its espousal of “equal protection of the laws,” notably inspired equitist legal and literary thinkers. Moreover, the Amendment itself had literary influences, as documented in Carrie Hyde’s Civic Longing: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship (2018) and Deak Nabers’s Victory of Law: The Fourteenth Amendment, the Civil War, and American Literature, 1852–1867 (2006). Reconstruction’s demise in 1877, less than a decade after the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification, could in turn be interpreted as a failure of legal and literary forms to generate equitable realities. In response to a wave of Jim Crow laws, African American authors and their allies published Reconstruction post-mortem novels that elegized the recent loss of racial progress while seeking to revitalize constitutional and literary forms for a more benignant future.
Drawing on scholarship in citizenship studies and critical race theory, my presentation will analyze this complex interconnection between constitutional and literary forms in the first generation of Reconstruction post-mortem novels. I will assess novels by lawyer-authors with dual disciplinary fluency, including Albion Tourgée (e.g., Bricks without Straw(1880)) and Charles Chesnutt (e.g., The Marrow of Tradition (1901)). Additionally, imaginaries of elegiac constitutionalism preoccupied African American authors like Frances E. W. Harper (e.g., Iola Leroy (1892)) and Sutton Griggs (e.g., Imperium in Imperio (1899)). In illuminating how these texts functioned counter-jurisprudentially, I will also consider how the authors’ theorization of racial retrenchment has resonances today. Black Lives Matter literature, including by lawyer-authors like Evie Shockley, attests to the continued salience of the Reconstruction post-mortem novel and the problems with inequitable legal and literary forms that the genre exposes.
My presentation will moreover broach larger theoretical questions about the relationships between literary genres and legal forms. As Anat Rosenberg posits in “The History of Genres: Reaching for Reality in Law and Literature” (2014), “genres shape our common sense of reality—and the ways we can differ about it—hence genres’ political significance.” If, per a legal encyclopedia, a constitution provides for a “form of government” and “articulates the citizens’ common aspirations for constitutional governance and the rule of law,” how can constitutional literary genres uphold or challenge these objectives and ambitions? And to reverse the inquiry, in what ways can the Constitution itself be conceived as a literary genre?
Contradictions of Immediacy: Interrogating Objectivism in “My Country, Tis of Thee”
Thomas Nez, Longwood University
In the forward to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (1932), modernist poet Charles Reznikoff writes: “I glanced through several hundred volumes of old cases—not a great many as law reports go—and found almost all that follows. I am indebted to the reporters and judges not only for the facts but for phrases and sentences.” Ranging anywhere from 3 to 83 lines, the 40 prose poems in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” draw their language from reports of court proceedings held between 1830 and 1863 across the American South. The text’s subheading, “Southerners and Slaves,” gestures toward a symmetrical division of the collection’s two-part structure. Part I includes only cases with white defendants; Part II solely contains cases concerning the crimes of slaves. This division—whose formal segmentation cleaves to the legal separation of a slave from a southerner—draws from a history of racialized difference upheld by law. My paper argues that by employing principles of poetic objectivism to coordinate the discrete records of testimony transcribed in local courts throughout the antebellum period, Reznikoff stages what Saidiya Hartman describes as “the construction of black humanity in slave law.” As Hartman explains, this construction includes “calculations of socially tolerable violence and the myriad and wanton uses of slave property.” Rather than being irreducible to their local instantiations, the scenes of subjection framed by “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” are indicative of a larger pattern of black subjugation in the United States. In Reznikoff’s work, the concrete particularities of recorded history merge with the ideological justifications of American slavery. Instead of isolating local particularities of anti-black racism, the text dissolves into the larger history of White Power.
- Only members can participate in this group's discussions.