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Dividing Lines

Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction

Andreá N. Williams

Publication Year: 2013

In Dividing Lines , Andreá N. Williams explores how African American literature in the late 19th century represents class divisions among black Americans. By portraying complex, highly stratified communities with a growing black middle class, authors dispelled popular notions that black Americans were uniformly poor or uncivilized. But even as the writers highlighted middle-class achievement, they worried over whether class distinctions would help or sabotage collective black protest against racial prejudice. Williams argues that the signs of class anxiety are embedded in postbellum fiction: from the verbal stammer or prim speech of class-conscious characters to fissures in the fiction's form. In these telling moments, authors innovatively dared to address the sensitive topic of class differences---a topic inextricably related to American civil rights and social opportunity. Williams delves into the familiar and lesser-known works of Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, showing how these texts mediate class through discussions of labor, moral respectability, ancestry, spatial boundaries, and skin complexion. Dividing Lines also draws on reader responses---from book reviews, editorials, and letters---to show how the class anxiety expressed in African American fiction directly sparked reader concerns over the status of black Americans in the U.S. social order.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Class : Culture


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p. 1-1

Front Matter

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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Introduction: Contending Classes, Dividing Lines

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pp. 1-24

In a private letter written to a friend in January 1900, Boston clubwoman Addie Hamilton Jewell criticized what she considered a controversial subject in Pauline Hopkins’s historical romance Contending Forces (1900).1 Having heard Hopkins read from the forthcoming novel, Jewell did not object to its themes...

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1. The Language of Class: Taxonomy and Respectability in Frances E. W. Harper’s Trial and Triumph and Iola Leroy

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pp. 25-52

In Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), a former bondswoman’s speech draws attention to the criteria African Americans use to judge intraracial differences and the problematized vocabulary through which they express them. The affectionately known “Aunt” Linda Salters describes the social relations...

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2. Working through Class: The Black Body, Labor, and Leisure in Sutton Griggs’s Overshadowed

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pp. 53-77

Most memorably and soulfully rendered by twentieth-century singer Mahalia Jackson, the song “May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me” asserts that work constitutes one’s legacy after the body ceases its labor and nothing more can be said.2 While this spiritual’s sentiments may refer to deeds performed in pursuit...

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3. Mapping Class Difference: Space and Social Mobility in Paul L. Dunbar’s Short Fiction

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pp. 78-104

In the article “Negro Society in Washington,” published December 14, 1901, Paul Laurence Dunbar introduces readers of the Saturday Evening Post to urbane African Americans, a sector of the American population seldom featured in the periodical’s pages. Assuming that his white readers would be unfamiliar...

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4. Blood and the Mark of Class: Pauline Hopkins’s Genealogies of Status

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pp. 105-131

Writing in the African Methodist Episcopal Christian Recorder on January 31, 1889, a contributor argues that African American literature needed to increase the public visibility of the “high-type Negro” as distinguished from the black “lowest class.” Taking the pseudonym “Common Sense” to recommend his or her...

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5. Classing the Color Line: Class-Passing, Antiracism, and Charles W. Chesnutt

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pp. 132-174

In a key passage of the address “Social Discrimination,” Charles W. Chesnutt makes a minute syntactical change that registers a critical shift in how Americans could conceptualize discrimination. Exchanging the preposition “against” for “among,” he recommends that rather than treating “colored people” as a...

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Epilogue: Beyond the Talented Tenth

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pp. 175-182

W. E. B. Du Bois’s essay “The Talented Tenth” (1903) offers what has become one of the most (in)famous paradigms for black intraracial class relations. As Du Bois envisioned it, the Talented Tenth comprises an educated cadre of African Americans responsible for mobilizing less privileged blacks toward social...


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pp. 183-196


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pp. 197-212

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Index and Acknowledgments

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pp. 213-224

My interest in the topic of Dividing Lines grew from my introduction to class studies at Spelman College. I remember Barbara Carter’s “Race, Class, and Gender” course, which awakened my attention to class disparities among African Americans. For motivating me to expand my ideas and my career...

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028900
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118618

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Class : Culture