All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

Melissa Rauterkus

Advisory Committee Members

Jessie Dunbar

Margaret J Jessee

Document Type

Thesis

Date of Award

2016

Degree Name by School

Master of Arts (MA) College of Arts and Sciences

Abstract

This project analyzes Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars in an attempt to accredit Chesnutt as a forerunner of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Secondly, this project argues that Rena gains agency solely through her black ancestry in her ability to read and write both cultural and written texts. I will also argue in that creating a metanarrative form for his novel, Chesnutt is able to provide a radically feminist text through his representation of the power of Rena’s literacy, and furthermore, that Chesnutt is able to critique the laws and customs of normative white society. Lastly, this project concludes that Rena Walden becomes a representative for the notion of empowered black womanhood, and that although her story ends tragically, she becomes the antithesis of the tragic mulatta character. Chesnutt’s blending of genres promotes this notion of empowerment by using realist tropes such as self-development, social constraints such as miscegenation laws and the one-drop rule, objective narration, the sentimental tropes of letter writing, and the reproduction of the tournament scene from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in order to nuance the distinctions between real-world environmental constraints and the ideologies and actions of Rena. After analyzing the effects of the social mechanisms (i.e. law, economics, politics) which usually oppress the black, female characters in postbellum fiction, this study makes the claim that Rena Walden both understands, exists within, and acts against the social constructions of her oppression. In portraying Rena’s autonomy through literacy, Chesnutt presents a character who defies the arbitrary category of race in her movement across the color line from perceived whiteness to accepted black ancestry.

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