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In the Shadow of the Black Beast

African American Masculinity in the Harlem and Southern Renaissances

Andrew B. Leiter

Publication Year: 2010

Andrew B. Leiter presents the first book-length study of the sexually violent African American man, or “black beast,” as a composite literary phenomenon. According to Leiter, the black beast theme served as a fundamental link between the Harlem and Southern Renaissances, with writers from both movements exploring its psychological, cultural, and social ramifications. Indeed, Leiter asserts that the two groups consciously engaged one another’s work as they struggled to define roles for black masculinity in a society that viewed the black beast as the raison d’être for segregation. Leiter begins by tracing the nineteenth-century origins of the black beast image, and then provides close readings of eight writers who demonstrate the crucial impact anxieties about black masculinity and interracial sexuality had on the formation of American literary modernism. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Walter White’s The Fire in the Flint, George Schuyler’s Black No More, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Allen Tate’s The Fathers, Erskine Caldwell’s Trouble in July, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as other works, provide strong evidence that perceptions of black male sexual violence shaped segregation, protest traditions, and the literature that arose from them. Leiter maintains that the environment of southern race relations—which allowed such atrocities as the Atlanta riot of 1906, numerous lynchings, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and the Scottsboro trials—influenced in part the development of both the Harlem and Southern Renaissances. While the black beast image had the most pernicious impact on African American individual and communal identities, he says the “threat” of black masculinity also shaped concepts of white national and communal identities, as well as white femininity and masculinity. In the Shadow of the Black Beast signals a fresh interpretation of a literary stereotype within its social and historical context.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

As I have worked on this project over the last few years, I have heard numerous colleagues talk about the isolation involved with the writing process. While I found this to be the case at times with long hours in the library and in front of the computer as the project developed from dissertation to manuscript, ...

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Introduction: Literary Renaissance and the Interracial "Sex Factor"

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pp. 1-16

In his autobiography Along This Way (1933), James Weldon Johnson recounts a harrowing experience that nearly cost him his life in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, in 1901. While strolling in the park with a light-skinned African American woman, Johnson was accosted by a group of white state militia. ...

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One: Sexual Victims and Black Beasts in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 17-50

In “The Quadroon’s Story” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe excoriates the sexual abuses of the slave system. She presents the life of the aging slave Cassy, who has been passed from master to master and repeatedly subjected to their sexual desires. Cursed by her racial identity, her beauty, and the customs of the slave South, ...

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Two: One-drop Men in the Shadow of the Beast: Walter White and James Weldon Johnson

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pp. 51-87

Reflecting on the years following World War One, James Weldon Johnson noted in his autobiography that “the number of lynchings was not so high as it had been in former years, but the barbarous manner in which victims were being put to death could not have been surpassed by the fiends in hell.”1 ...

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Three: Sexual Transgressions and the Battle at the Racial Border: Schuyler’s Black No More and Faulkner’s Light in August

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pp. 88-133

Lillian Smith’s autobiography expresses her adult outrage at the warped moral instruction she and her fellow white southern children were subjected to as they grew up in the early twentieth century. This “moral junk pile” that she decries as the foundation of their gothic orientation featured debilitating lessons about religion, sex, and race ...

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Four: Black Beasts and the Historical Imaginations of Margaret Mitchell and Allen Tate

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pp. 134-163

Ida B. Wells proved prescient in her “concern” for the reputation of southern white women should white men continue to justify lynching with accusations of rape. The shifting image of the white female as it related to mob violence was slow in coming, with years of lynching still to follow Wells’s assertion in 1892, but the antilynching protest ...

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Five: The End of the Chaste Icon and the Embrace of the Beast: Caldwell’s Trouble in July and Wright’s Native Son

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pp. 164-203

While the fiction of Margaret Mitchell and Allen Tate gazed toward southern history through the distorting lens of Scottsboro-era sexual fears and was indicative of a reactionary urge to look away from the racial realities of their contemporary South, the Scottsboro incident had the opposite effect on the American Left. ...

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Conclusion: Bigger and the Black Beast Revenge Narrative

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pp. 204-210

Rather than an individualized accounting of transgressions against law, Bigger’s trial highlights his crimes (and supposed crimes) as a debate between the voices of radical racism and social justice expressed by Buckley and Max respectively. Max’s claim that “every Negro in America’s on trial out there today” (368) has a degree of validity ...


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pp. 211-246

Works Cited

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pp. 247-270


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pp. 271-283

E-ISBN-13: 9780807137536
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807135877

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies