The shapeshifter figure : a new cartography of sex and gender formation within radical Black antebellum culture
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This dissertation focuses on the “shapeshifter figure.” This concept describes a prominent individual in African-American folk beliefs and social practices. Shapeshifters could transform themselves from humans into animals, trees, riverbeds and even the opposite sex. In Western and Central African cultures that preceded the transatlantic slave trade, the shapeshifter figure was usually feared and demonized. However, in the context of black slave culture (the site of shapeshifting that the dissertation foregrounds), an individual’s ability to shapeshift took on new definition and insurgent significance. Although the folklore, historiography and literature that document the phenomenon of shapeshifting have existed since slavery, scholars have not fully investigated it. The framework of the dissertation names the shapeshifter figure, traces it back to its origins in precolonial (circa 1650-1800) African lore and suggests alternative ways of looking at same-sexual identity formation, gender transgression and black liberatory practices generated during slavery. The second part of the dissertation examines more contemporary representations of the shapeshifter figure in novels and public culture produced by black lesbian and gay persons during the 1980s and early 1990s.