MultipliCities : the infrastructure of African American literature, 1899-1996
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MultipliCities: The Infrastructure of African American Literature, 1899-1996 explores intersections between black fiction and canonical sociology through two extended case studies focusing on the authors Richard Wright and Paul Beatty. The formation of disciplinary sociology in the early twentieth century had a profound influence on the production and reception of African American literature. Sociologists at the University of Chicago were among the first to teach black fiction and poetry in the academy, and institutionalized a social scientific framework for comprehending black culture. This framework, which assumes that black writing produces racial knowledge about black experience, continues to pressure contemporary African American authors through the demands of the publishing industry today. At the same time, though, African American authors throughout the twentieth century have resisted sociological expectations for their work and responded critically to the social scientific study of the black community more broadly. MultipliCities studies black writers whose fiction is specifically critical of sociological conceptions of black personhood and place. While Richard Wright's best-selling Native Son (1940) has been canonized as a type of sociological fiction, I read against this critical tradition for the ways in which his juvenile delinquent protagonist, Bigger Thomas, evades his production as a social scientific object. I locate further evidence for Wright's revision of sociological knowledge production in his final, posthumously published novel, A Father's Law (1960; 2008), in which the main character is a sociologist and a serial killer who violently deforms the mastery of the social scientific expert. In my second case study, I turn to contemporary novelist Paul Beatty's post-civil rights era novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996), which I read as a mock ethnography in its description of a postindustrial ghetto that exceeds the sociological imagination of the so-called "culture of poverty." Though rap music is often interpreted as evidence of the alleged impoverishment of inner-city black community, in my final chapter I read Beatty's "hip hop novel" as challenging the social scientific expectations for black popular culture that are part of the ongoing legacy of the canonical sociology of race.