Constrained Bodies: Representing Slavery and Disability in American Literature and Culture Open Access

Gordon-Smith, George (2015)

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"Constrained Bodies: Representing Slavery and Disability in American Literature and Culture" argues that the recurrence of both physical and mental disability as racial characteristics in colonial through nineteenth-century American and African American literature speaks to a mutually constitutive relationship between race and disability. I claim that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and African American authors demonstrate the role of slavery in the entanglement of the concepts of race and disability. This dissertation establishes how associations of race and disability were created under the system of slavery, how slavery depended upon the construction of people of African descent as a dependent and disabled population, and the role that literature played in forging and contesting these links. Drawing on archival work from the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, slave ship letters, and National Archives of the United Kingdom, I claim that the slave ship produced the very associations of race and disability that paternal ideology and the plantations system used to justify slavery. Reclaiming the literary and cultural history of disability in the literary and documentary record of African American slave experience I also read Phillis Wheatley's poetry against claims of black mental incapacity in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) and examine her poetry in light of philosophical constructions of black mental disability in eighteenth-century America. My dissertation analyzes how people of African descent pushed back against stereotypes of dependence, incapacity, and mental inability-and thereby challenged the institutions built to reinforce them. I claim that specific disabilities were read as manifestations of racial difference, which, in turn, became naturalized in the body of the mixed-race subject. Race scientists argued, for example, that black blood mixed with white created an inherently infertile, mentally ill, and sickly population. I also interrogate the relationship between race and disability during the Reconstruction era in Albion Tourgée's Bricks Without Straw (1880) and argue that Tourgée's characterization of Reconstruction-era black characters systematically challenges the deeply associated and mutually reinforced constructions of race and disability in literary plots of the antebellum era, which questioned the capacity of black Americans to participate fully in American government.

Table of Contents


Figuring Disability and Race in American Literature and Culture 1


Disability and the Middle Passage: Ambiguous Impairment and the Production of Dependence on the Slave Ship 37


Phillis Wheatley and the Construction of Black Intellectual Disability in Eighteenth-Century America 94


Disability and Literary Representations of the "Tragic Mulatta" 138


Albion Tourgée and the Politics of Race and Disability in Reconstruction-Era Literature 186


Tracing Disability in American Constructions of Racial Difference 225


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